Friendly fire from blazing ship off Portsmouth

An engraving of HMS Boyne ablaze off Southsea in 1795.
An engraving of HMS Boyne ablaze off Southsea in 1795.
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A little-known incident happened at Spithead on May 1, 1795, which killed 13 seamen.

Imagine HMS Victory in the open sea off Southsea and ablaze from stem to stern and you might get the picture in your mind.

HMS Boyne, a 98-gun second rate ship of the line was anchored at Spithead when a fire broke out in Vice-Admiral Jervis’s cabin.

A flue ran through the admiral’s quarters to the upper gun deck and it’s thought a spark set light to papers on the admiral’s desk and before it was discovered had spread through his cabin.

The flames reached the stern windows and spread through the poop deck but any attempt to douse it was doomed to failure because of dry timbers in the five-year-old ship. Within 30 minutes the ship was engulfed in flames.

Ships anchored nearby sent boats to rescue the ship’s company and other ships near the Boyne raised anchor or cut their anchor cables to be towed to a safer anchorage.

Some of the guns on the Boyne were loaded and ready to fire in case of sudden attack as was the practise at the time.

As soon as the flames reached them they went off and several shots hit the first rate ship HMS Charlotte causing the deaths of two of her sailors. An early case of (un)friendly fires.

Thanks to a speedy response from the rescue boats only 11 men out of 800 on board Boyne died. But worse was to come.

The fire burned through the Boyne’s anchor cable turning her into a fire-ship floating free in the Solent between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

She eventually ran aground off Southsea Castle where, some hours later, the fire reached the magazine and the tons of gunpowder stored there.

With an almighty explosion the remains of the burning Boyne were blown to pieces.

Her remains were a hazard to shipping for many years until she was blown up in 1840.

Jervis later took command of HMS Victory.