Tragedy occurred on this day in 1782 when the HMS Royal George, a 100 gun first rate ship of the line capsized at Spithead while undergoing repair. Built in 1756 and originally named Royal Anne she was renamed Royal George in honor of King George II before her launch. She fought in the Battle of Quiberon in 1759 under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke when the French fleet was routed. In 1778 she was under the command of Sir Charles Hardy when he withdrew up the English Channel before the Franco-Spanish fleet. In the popular lore of the Royal Navy it is said the figurehead, said to be in the likeness of King George II, was blindfolded by the sailors on Royal George because "George II should never see an English Fleet chased up their ownchannel."
In 1779 Royal George sailed with the fleet to relieve Gibraltar and was involved in the capture of two Spanish
convoys. On Aug. 29, 1782 Royal George and other ships of the fleet were anchored at Spithead preparing
to return to Gibraltar. Supplies were being loaded including generous casks of rum, a dietetic requirement for
seamen of the RN at the time. Many hundreds of family members were at the same time touring the ship to
have a look at what it was like for their loved one at sea. The ship was also being repaired below the waterline. This was accomplished by tilting the ship to reach the area in need of repair, while it was quicker than drydocking it was a dangerous exercise, especially with hundreds of extra people milling about.
At about 09:20 disaster struck when the Royal George capsized and quickly sank taking more than 800 people with her including almost 300 women and 60 children. It is thought that the gunports had not been properly secured which allowed water to enter the ship. It is also likely that the extra people onboard shifted the center of gravity (already compromised by tilting) enough to roll over. What really happened is probably a combination of both.
Salvage attempts in 1783 failed and the Royal George was allowed to remain undisturbed until 1834 when
another attempt was made to salvage some of her relics. Some thirty cannons were raised before efforts
were stopped to investigate a nearby wreck which turned out to be the HMS Mary Rose which sank on
July 19, 1545. Parts of the Mary Rose were finally recovered and are now on display but Royal George met a
different fate. The wreck was determined to be a navigational hazard and was blown up by Royal Engineers
in the early 1840's.
© 2007 Michael W. Pocock
HMS Royal George in the Thames River attending the launch of the Cambridge at the Deptford Dockyard.