Daily Event for September 22, 2013

The first British naval ship named Amphion was a fifth rate 32 gun frigate launched at the Royal Dockyard Chatham on Dec. 21, 1780. She participated in the destruction of New London, Connecticut during the U.S. War for Independence in 1781 and continued in that conflict until sometime in 1782. The capture of the sloop Bonetta on Jan. 3, 1782, a former British ship captured by the French at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781 was apparently her only combat victory of that conflict.

On September 22, 1796 she was moored in the Hamoaze off Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth undergoing repairs for her next voyage. Captain Israel Pellew (later Admiral Sir Israel Pellew, K.C.B.) was entertaining several officers in his quarters when at 1600 hours there was a rumble below decks. Pellew got up from his table and went to the quarter galley when suddenly the ship exploded. He was blown off the ship and on to a hulk which was alongside, his injuries were not severe, but behind him was a disaster.

The disaster would have been bad enough had only the crew been aboard, but on this day families and towns folk were visiting the ship since they were soon due to sail. Women and children wandered about the ship, nobody aware of what was about to occur. There is no accurate account of how many people were on the ship, but it is estimated that as many as one hundred or more civilians had joined the two hundred or so crew for the day.

There is little to say about what happened, it is known that the forward magazine exploded and that the force of the blast was so great that it sank the remains of the ship immediately taking untold numbers of people with her. The explosion "had such an effect as to rip the upper works in the fore part of the ship to atoms", bodies and limbs were seen to be thrown as high as the maintop gallant mast head in a scene that "the human mind cannot dwell upon but with indescribable horror".

Dozens if not hundreds of bodies had been torn apart, many had been blown off the ship and landed on the same hulk Captain Pellew had been thrown onto, they were "mangled in a manner too dreadful to describe". The whole event took only seconds. The aftermath was horrible for anyone who was near the ship. Residents who heard the blast rushed to the dock to find carnage that they would never forget. Many searched in vain for relatives who were known to have been on the ship, civilians and sailors alike (since most of the ratings were from the area).

For the overwhelming majority their loved one was never found, only about 40 people, including only one woman and one child had survived, the child was found in the arms of a woman, presumed to be his mother, in one of the most gruesome scenes that could be imagined. She was grasping the child with both arms, holding him tight against her chest to protect him from the blast, this is exactly how he was found, still in his mothers arms, but that was all that was left of his mother as the whole of the bottom of her body had been blown off.

The remains of the dead that could be located were gathered up and taken to the local hospital and were later interned in a mass grave. In all between 250 and 257 people perished on that terrible day, most of their names now lost to history and known only to God.

The exact cause of the explosion was never determined, but it was later blamed on a gunner who was accused of stealing gunpowder and of being intoxicated. It was said that his carelessness in handling the powder caused the blast, however Pellew was never completely convinced that this man was in fact to blame. The gunner, whose name I have not been able to learn, died in the ship and therefore could not defend himself against any claims made against him.

Captain Pellew recovered from his injuries and went on to the rank of Admiral, even fighting with Nelson at Trafalgar. Later in life he returned to Plymouth and died there on July 19, 1832. He was buried at a local church, but a German air raid on Mar. 21, 1941 destroyed the church and graveyard, his final resting place can no longer be located.
© 2013 Michael W. Pocock

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