On a cold, blustery February day in 1756, large crowds gathered on both sides of the River Thames at Woolwich to witness the launch of the Royal Navy’s latest ship. With a displacement of over two thousand tons and carrying a hundred guns on three decks, the Royal George was the largest ship afloat in the world. She was soon hastened into service, as the fighting that had started between French and British colonists in North America, spread to Europe. The Seven Years War would be fought across the globe, which meant that the side that was victorious at sea, would ultimately triumph.
Once commissioned, the Royal George joined the Channel Fleet, and was the flagship of several admirals, including Boscawen and Anson, before being given to Sir Edward Hawke. He came on board just in time for the big first rate to take part in his greatest victory. The Battle of Quiberon Bay, in November 1757, was a spectacular battle. It was fought in a gale amongst the reefs of a dangerous lee shore. With little knowledge of the coast, Hawke ordered his ships to stay as close as possible to the enemy. As he told his navigator, “Where there is passage for the enemy, there is passage for me.” The Royal George played a full role in the victory, leading from the front, and sinking the French ship Superbe, which foundered when she tried to open her lower gun ports, and was swamped by the rough seas.
With the outbreak of the American War of Independence the following decade, the Royal George was put back into commission. Again, she served as a flagship for several admirals, fighting in a number of actions, including Rodney’s relief of Gibraltar, a successful attack on a Spanish convoy, and the 1780 Battle of Cape St. Vincent. In August 1782 she was the flagship of Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt and was anchored in the sheltered waters of Spithead, off Portsmouth.
The 29th of August 1782 was a warm, calm day, and the Royal George’s gun ports were open to allow fresh air and sunlight into the ship. On board was her compliment of eight hundred, together with approximately four hundred visitors. These were mainly the wives and children of the crew, although this number also included at least a hundred "ladies from the Point…seeking neither husbands or fathers” ie prostitutes from Portsmouth. In his stern cabin, Kempenfelt worked away at his desk. The ship was due to depart for Gibraltar later that day, once work was completed on her hull. To allow access to the planking in need of attention, she had been heeled over to port by moving all her starboard guns to the centre line of the ship. This practice, called a ‘Parliamentary Heel’ was a common way of repairing ships in the age of sail.
While the first rate was heeled over, a delivery of stores was made to her. The boat carrying them went to the now conveniently low port side of the ship. The combination of both a large number of extra people on her, and the heavy barrels being hauled on board, tipped the ship past the safe point. The sea started to wash in through her open lower gun ports, in a cruel parallel of the fate of the French ship Superbe a quarter century earlier.
All was not lost at this stage. The ship’s carpenter ran to inform Lieutenant Hollingberry that the Royal George was settling in the water, and asked that the crew be ordered to right the ship. When this was unaccountably refused, he went to see the captain, who agreed to his request, but the delay proved fatal. By this time, water was pouring into the ship, pulling her past the point where the situation could be recovered. The Royal George now quickly filled with water and sank, taking around 900 people with her. This included Admiral Kempenfelt, trapped in his cabin when the pronounced angle of the ship jammed the door shut. The incompetent Hillingberry survived, along with 254 others picked up by boats from warships nearby.
Many of the victims were later washed ashore at Ryde, on the nearby Isle of Wight, where they were buried in a mass grave that stretched along the beach. As for the ship, she sank in just over sixty feet of water, righting herself as she reached the seabed. Her masts stood proud of the water for weeks afterwards, marking the scene of the tragedy.
Over the years, repeated attempts were made to raise the vessel, partly to salvage her, but mainly because she was a major hazard to navigation, lying as she was in the heart of a busy anchorage. Some of these attempts were important in the development of modern diving, using diving bells and air pumped down to men in suits beneath the surface, but none succeeded in raising the huge ship. In 1839 the decision was taken to bring in Colonel Charles Pasley of the Royal Engineers, who had experience clearing wrecks in the Thames. Over the next few years his divers placed a number of large cylinders of gunpowder against the hull, blowing the ship into manageable pieces that could be hauled to the surface and taken away. By 1843 the site was declared clear, and the Royal George was no more.