The Anson was one of a class of small, two decked ships of the line with 64 guns that were rushed into service during the War of American Independence. The Royal Navy had gone into that war poorly prepared for the challenges ahead, and by the late 1770s found herself fighting all the maritime powers of Europe at the same time, and very short of ships. Small 64s were cheaper and quicker to build than larger ships of the line, so they were ordered in substantial numbers during this crisis. The Anson was launched in September 1781, just in time to take part in Admiral Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes, the following year.
The war ended in 1783 with US independence, and left the Royal Navy with a large number of almost new 64s like the Anson. By the time the next war with France arrived, these ships were considered too small and poorly armed to take their place in fleet actions, yet were too heavy and slow for patrol work. In 1794 the decision was made to convert some of them into 44 gun frigates. The Anson’s upper gun deck was cut away in a process called razée, and a new quarterdeck and forecastle was built. The work produced a useful single-decked warship that was reasonably fast, but still had the 24 pounder cannon and thick sides of a small ship of the line.
In her new layout, the Anson served her country well for the next decade, having a busy and active career. She was responsible for the capture or destruction of numerous enemy ships, including the French frigates Flore and Loire and the Spanish frigate Pomona. She also took part in the capture of the Dutch island of Curaçao in the West Indies, where her captain, Charles Lydiard, personally led the assault on one of the Dutch forts. In the winter of 1807 his ship was back in European waters as part of the Channel Fleet blockading the French in Brest. She was assigned to the Inshore Squadron, expected to operate close into that dangerous lee shore.
On the 28th of December a severe storm swept in from the Atlantic, making it impossible for the Anson to maintain her position. In accordance with her orders, Lydiard withdrew to the Cornish coast to find shelter. He arrived off the Lizard peninsula in dreadful weather and poor visibility which resulted in his making a fatal navigational error. Instead of passing to the east of the Lizard Peninsula for the safety of Falmouth, he found himself trapped in Mount's Bay near Penzance. With breakers ahead of him, and no room to sail back out to open sea while the storm raged, the Anson dropped anchor and hoped to ride out the weather.
The first anchor cable snapped at 4 am on the morning of the 29th of December, the last three hours later, leaving them at the mercy of the storm. Lydiard decided to sail his ship towards the coast, hoping to find somewhere to beach her. He saw a glimpse of sand through the gale, but unfortunately what he had sighted was the notorious Loe Bar. By the time he realised his mistake, it was too late. Wind and surf turned the ship side-on to the storm, and drove her onto the sand bank. With waves breaking over the stricken Anson, the crew tried to struggle ashore. They were fortunate that her main mast had fallen on the landward side of the wreck which acted as a bridge for many of her sailors to reach safety, but Captain Lydiard was not amongst them. He stayed onboard to help get all his men off, and was last seen struggling to save a ship’s boy in the water. He drowned along with at least a hundred of his crew.
One of the features of this tragedy was how public it was. The last few hours of the Anson was witnessed by crowds of local residents who had assembled on the beach to try and help. Amongst them was Henry Trengrouse, who was appalled at witnessing men drowning so close to land. He resolved to do something about it, and developed a rocket that could fire a rope out to a stricken ship from the shore. In the period before proper lifeboats, his invention would go on to save thousands of sailors’ lives.