All but forgotten - the tragedy that claimed ‘Portsmouth’s Titanic’

SUDDEN The Loss of the Royal George, by John Christian Schetky, c 1840
SUDDEN The Loss of the Royal George, by John Christian Schetky, c 1840
HMS Illustrious leaves Portsmouth for the last time
Picture: Shaun Roster

RETRO: Watch the last voyage of HMS Illustrious from Portsmouth

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THOUSANDS of people come to Portsmouth to see Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory each year, yet few of those visitors will be aware that the last remains of her sister ship lie just outside the harbour.

The sinking of HMS Royal George in the Solent on August 29, 1782, was one of the worst maritime disasters of all time.

Overloaded and carrying hundreds of visiting families and tradesmen, the 100-gun warship dramatically capsized at Spithead, killing more than 1,000 people.

Author and historian Stuart Haven, 36, of Waterlooville, has dubbed the tragedy ‘Portsmouth’s Titanic’.

He said: ‘Bodies washed ashore for days after the sinking, many in Portsmouth and Gosport, others reaching the beaches of Ryde where they were buried in mass graves along the seafront.

‘Many more of the victims were never recovered.’

The sinking 230 years ago today sparked huge controversy, but a court-martial failed to attribute blame and acquitted the officers and crew – many of whom had died.

The ship had found fame under command of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke at the Battle of Quiberon in 1759, where she sank the French ship Superbe.

She was mothballed in 1762, but brought back into service in 1778 amid renewed tensions with France and Spain.

On the morning she sank, Royal George was anchored at Spithead being loaded with supplies to take provisions and troops to Gibraltar.

Most of her 870 crew were aboard, as were a large number of workmen.

There were also around 300 women and children saying goodbye to the officers and men, 200 ‘ladies from the Point’, and a number of merchants who had come to sell their wares.

Mr Haven said: ‘The officer of the watch, First Lieutenant Hollingbury, ordered the ship’s heavy guns to be moved, unaware that the gun-ports on the lower decks of the ship had been opened to allow extra stores to be taken aboard.

‘The cannons were moved and the ship began to list.

‘Water began flooding in through the lower gun-ports, filling her hold and making the ship dangerously unstable until, without warning, the Royal George capsized.’

Within minutes, the masts of the Royal George were all that could be seen.

She lay untouched on the bed of the Solent until 1840, when she was deemed to be a danger to ships entering Portsmouth Harbour and was destroyed by the Royal Engineers in a huge blast that shattered windows in Portsmouth and Gosport.

Bronze cannon recovered from the wreck were melted down and formed the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

Today, little remains of the Royal George. But she did have one last historic role to play.

Mr Haven said: ‘While attempting to salvage the Royal George in the 1830s, divers found the timbers of

another lost warship – Henry VIII’s Mary Rose.

‘She too had been heading into battle while dangerously overloaded and with her lower gun-ports open.’