On the morning of 29 August 1782 Britain’s Channel Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Howe in HMS Victory, of 100 guns, lay at Spithead, the famous sea lane between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.
The ship was awaiting imminent orders to sail to Gibraltar which was, yet again, under a crippling Franco-Spanish siege. Anchored near the Victory was HMS Royal George, carrying 108 guns.
The flagship of the fleet’s rear-admiral, Richard Kempenfelt, it was much admired by onlookers for her old-fashioned beauty. Almost fully loaded with provisions, she was taking on last-minute supplies.
She was also undergoing a repair to her water pipe on the starboard side, so that she was on a slight heel. The cannon on her starboard side had been run over to her larboard (port) side to tilt and lift her out of the water sufficiently for the repair to proceed.
This work, involving several artificers from Portsmouth Dockyard, began about 7 in the morning. Meanwhile, the captain, with the rear-admiral’s approval, allowed provisions to be unloaded in succession from each of two victualling vessels that stood alongside.
Women aboard the Royal George
Unofficially, a small number of women, typically wives of warrant and petty officers, were tolerated aboard ships at sea. They proved useful in laundering and mending, in comforting the sick and injured, and even in fetching powder for gun crews.
While Howe’s Gibraltar-bound fleet awaited sailing orders, its men were allowed female company. Below decks, the Royal George teemed with visiting wives (many with children) and prostitutes. There were also traders hawking wares.
One of the wives was Elizabeth (“Betty”) Horn, née Badcock, daughter of a Plymouth shipwright.
Baptised in 1758, she had since 1778 been married to John Horn, an experienced seaman who was now a petty officer, serving as one of the ship’s quartermasters.
It is not known whether he was with Betty below decks that morning, or whether he was one of the 240 or so officers and men on watch duty.
The sinking of the ship
No one on watch seemed to notice that two of the lower gun ports were not fully closed, and that spray from the sea was entering them.
Becoming alarmed by the amount of water accumulating on the lower deck, and fearing she was beginning to sink, the carpenter reported his concerns to the captain on the quarterdeck but was rebuffed.
At around half past 9, the master – who had been in Portsmouth overnight – tardily joined the ship. Seeing how perilously low she lay in the sea, he scarcely had time to warn the captain when she made a sharp sudden lurch.
This prompted an attempt to right ship by moving the displaced guns from the larboard side back into their normal positions. But the rush of people to larboard made her tilt still more.
Those on deck jumped overboard, or scrambled up into the rigging. Those trapped below, including Betty, made for the portholes in droves.
To the sound of haunting screams
A chivalrous seaman dragged the surrounded, struggling Betty out of one of them and threw her clear of the ship.
No sooner had he done so than the ship lurched further, so that the portholes were almost horizontally above the heads of people who had not yet managed to escape, and who consequently dropped back into the ship.
To the sound of haunting screams, the ship then sank, trapping most of her terrified occupants, and launching those who had sought refuge on her upturned keel into the sea.
The seaman who had thrown Betty clear was a good swimmer, and shortly after he surfaced having being sucked down in the vortex he saw Betty, barely conscious, float past.
At his urging a shipmate reluctantly took hold of her, draping her by the chin over one of the ratlin chains of the mizen shrouds. But she was immediately knocked backwards by strong waves and carried away, rolling repeatedly.
Her original saviour kept his eye on her and was able to point her out to rescuers. She was taken by boat to HMS Victory, where after a few days of rest and warmth she regained her vigour and was reunited with her husband.
Number of casualties
On the day of the disaster Lord Howe informed the Admiralty that 331 personnel were known to be safe (only those of warrant rank and above were listed by name): the captain, 6 lieutenants, three warrant officers (the boatswain, gunner, and purser, none of whom had been aboard), 13 midshipmen, two marine lieutenants, two marine sergeants, one of the surgeon’s mates, and the captain’s clerk.
The total number of casualties will never be known for sure; perhaps as many as 1200 were dead, but 800 seems a more reasonable estimate.
Betty was one of very few women rescued, and the only one who subsequently recovered.
Most of the women, unable to swim, hampered from trying by their long skirts, had drowned outright. One casualty, a report claimed, was a female sailor disguised as a male.
About 60 children also perished, including babies swept from their mothers’ arms. The eventual discovery by divers of two entwined silk cloaks, one an adult’s and the other a child’s, testified to a mother and daughter’s tragic final embrace.
Surviving a tragedy
Betty and her husband eventually retired to Essex, of which he was perhaps a native.
Following his death in 1827 Betty sunk into poverty and when, some months before her death on 1 February 1837, her situation — “indigent … poor but honest, rather infirm” — was made known to the “Sailor King”, William IV, he authorised payment to her of £50.
She was illiterate when she married, unable to sign her name. One wonders whether, over the succeeding decades, John taught her the alphabet, and whether she was able to read a list of everyone who had been saved from the Royal George that was said in 1834 to be in her possession.
Hilary L. Rubinstein has a PhD in history from the Australian National University. She has written books and articles on a variety of historical topics, and has a lifelong interest in naval history in the age of sail. Catastrophe at Spithead: the Sinking of the Royal George, by Seaforth Publishing, is her latest book.