The Wreck of the Minotaur
HMS Minotaur was a Leviathan class 74 launched at Woolwich in November 1793. She had a busy career and took part in numerous actions, including Nelson’s victories at the Nile and Trafalgar. In December 1810 she was returning from several years of service in the Baltic, her crew doubtless looking forward to returning home at last. But the veteran ship was to find herself in an altogether tougher fight.
As she crossed the North Sea, heading for the Downs anchorage off the Kent coast, the weather began to deteriorate. A strong wind was blowing from the south-east for some days which meant that her sailing master had been unable to check the ship’s position from the sun or stars. But her commander, Captain John Barrett, was not overly concerned, as he had two experienced pilots on board to help with navigation.
On the evening of the 22nd of December 1810 Lieutenant Robert Snell was officer of the watch. It was a black night, with the wind getting ever stronger. The Minotaur was under close-reefed topsails, sailing at about four knots and taking soundings every hour to help check her position. At about midnight she had just gone about on the recommendation of one of her pilots, when she struck hard aground, fatally damaging her rudder. Huge waves came swooping out of the dark to crash against her inert hull as her crew began a battle to save their ship.
At first, they tried to back her off the sandbank, but she had struck so hard that it proved impossible to move her. Worse still, the carpenter, Mr Bones, reported that there was already fifteen feet of water in the hold, and that the level was rising fast. While the crew manned the pumps, Captain Barrett asked his pilots where they thought the ship might be. One pilot said that they were just off the English coast, and had only to await first light to be rescued; the other was sure that the Minotaur was sixty miles further east, on the notorious North Haacks bank off the Dutch Island of Texel – an enemy occupied coast.
Despite the best efforts of the men at the pumps, the water level now rose up over the orlop deck. The biggest risk to the ship was not sinking, however, but that she would be rolled over by the enormous force of the wind against her huge masts, so these had to be cut away. The darkness was so intense that it was impossible to see beyond a few yards, and the crew only knew that land was near to them from the roar of breakers crashing onto a beach somewhere close. Throughout the night the Minotaur regularly fired her guns in the hope that someone ashore, whether friend or foe, might hear the sound or see the flash. Meanwhile the ship’s mascot, a pet wolf who had been adopted by the crew as a cub during their time in the Baltic, added his mournful howling to the general sense of impending disaster.
The grey light of a winter dawn finally revealed where the ship had come to rest. The low, sandy shore off to one side could only be that of Holland, and she was indeed on the North Haacks bank, as one of her pilots had predicted. It also showed that the ship was in a perilous state. She was firmly imbedded in the mud, and had sunk to a point that her forecastle was now under water. The sea had pounded her all night, battering her hull and destroying all but three of her ship’s boats - not that it seemed possible for any boat to be launched in the raging waters. Waves were now breaking freely over the ship’s side.
At eight o'clock, the tough oak hull that had successfully resisted gunfire from Danish, Spanish and French naval cannon, finally gave up its unequal struggle with the power of the ocean. With a groan of splitting timbers, the Minotaur parted amidships, and the hungry sea flooded in. Bones, the carpenter, now approached his captain, and volunteered to try and reach shore in a boat to get help. Unsure how much longer his command would survive, Barrett reluctantly agreed. With thirty of the crew on board, he succeeded in launching one of the surviving boats and set off.
His first challenge was to get clear of the ship, which was slowly disintegrating. The stormy waters around the wreck were full of broken timbers, spars and huge casks washed out of the hold, all surging around and more than capable of upsetting or damaging the boat. The remaining crew watched their progress anxiously, crowded together on the poop and quarterdeck, the only parts of the Minotaur still above the waves. After two hours the boat finally made it to the shore, where they were met by a detachment of French soldiers. They immediately took them prisoner, refusing to listen to their pleas for boats to be sent out to rescue more of the crew.
Seeing that the first boat had made it to safety, another larger boat set out, this time packed with seventy-five survivors under the command of Lieutenant Snell. They too made it to shore, after a long struggle, and were also promptly detained. In vain, they implored their captors to rescue the rest of the crew.
Around noon with still no sign of any rescue being attempted, Captain Barrett set out in the last boat with about a hundred men, but this attempt to reach the shore failed. The over-crowded boat was swamped and lost with all hands. It was only after this disaster that a Dutch pilot boat arrived, but was unable to get close to the wreck. At two o'clock in the afternoon, the after-part of the ship finally rolled over, tipping all the men still onboard into the sea. Twenty survivors were picked up by the pilot boat, and another four were washed ashore having clung to various pieces of wreckage.
Only one hundred and ten men survived the wreck of the Minotaur. The rest of the crew, of about three hundred and seventy men, were all drowned, including most of the officers and the wolf. The rest were now prisoners and were marched away to captivity in Valenciennes in France, from where they were repatriated at the end of hostilities in 1814. The exception to this was Mr Bones, the carpenter, who managed to escape after only a few months. He was on the run for five weeks, concealing himself in barns and stables by day, and travelling by night until he managed to reach Ostend. There he found a smuggler’s lugger willing to land him in England on the promise of a £50 payment, and the following day he arrived in Kent.