Thomas Tegg’s depiction of the blast
It had been a busy few days for Captain Israel Pellow and the 219 officers and men that made up the crew of HMS Amphion, an Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate sporting an armament of no less than 32 guns. In the early afternoon of the 22nd September 1796, the ship was alive with the kind of activity associated with the eve of departure from port. In 1796, HMS Amphion was a 16-year old warship and had seen action against American revolutionary forces having participated in a successful raid on New London in Connecticut on September 10th 1781. The warship had also seen action against the French having recaptured the British sloop Bonetta, which had been captured at Yorktown.
Laying in Plymouth harbour alongside a sheer-hulk, a type of floating crane, that was assisting in repairs and refitting the sailing vessel, the number of persons onboard had swelled to well over 300 as family members visited their husbands, fathers and brothers before they sailed the following morning. Captain Pellow on the other hand was waiting for another type of visitor to come aboard his vessel. A 64-gun Dutch warship, the Overyssel, was also in Plymouth and expected to sail the next day as well. Pellow had invited her captain, William Swaffield, to dine aboard the British warship that afternoon with him and his first Lieutenant. The Dutch ship’s captain accepted and the three men had sat down together in the captain’s cabin aboard Amphion before 1600hrs to dine together.
Suddenly and without prior warning, Pellow and his guests were hurled out of their seats as the ship shook violently and roared with the deep, booming sound of an explosion. The three men were badly dazed and confused by the violence of the blast and as the floor beneath them began to change angle it was clear that some terrible calamity had befell the ship. Pellow and the First Lieutenant, both barely able to stand from their own injuries, made a desperate bid for survival by throwing themselves out of the galley window unsure if they were fit enough to swim or not but certain they would die if they remained. Pellow managed to clamber on to a chain from the sheer-hulk and as luck would have it a boat that had rushed to the scene spotted and then rescued the two men but their dinner guest, Captain Swaffield, failed to materialise. A Royal Marine who was guarding the door to the cabin also survived but had no recollection of events from the initial blast up to when he too was rescued by a boat in the water making his own escape a complete mystery.
The blast originated on the aft gun deck and was so powerful that it threw mangled bodies and splintered timber high in to the air and even sent four of the ship’s 32 guns over the side and on to the sheer-hulk. The majority of those who perished were killed in the initial blast which caused scenes of appalling horror aboard the warship with sailors and their family members overcrowded on her decks being cut down by flying debris. In one horrifying scene, a wife of one of the sailors had the lower half of her body blown clean off. Her upper half was found still clutching her infant that was, amazingly, still alive and rescued by one of the other survivors who managed to get them both off before the vessel went down.
Exact figures are difficult to ascertain given the fact that families were allowed onboard to say goodbye to their loved ones but most sources agree that at least 300 perished in the blast including women and children. The remains of the warship sank alongside the sheer-hulk in over 60ft of water with pieces of the warship and some of her crew still washing up on the shore months later. Captain Swaffield’s body was found a whole month later sporting a massive skull fracture which was presumed to have occurred during his escape attempt.
Lacking the modern forensic technology of today, the precise cause of the blast will never truly be known. However, an investigation in to the ship’s company following the blast revealed that at least one gunner was known to be pilfering supplies of gunpowder for sale on shore. When questioned about the sailor, one survivor remembered seeing him drunk shortly before the blast occurred leading many to believe that he had gone down to the gunpowder stores possibly to steal more of the powder to sell or trade for liquor. Either through smoking or dropping a lamp in his drunken state, he detonated the gunpowder.
The horrific scene of the mother and child was later remembered in a poem by English poet Felicia Hemans;
Till then we had not wept—
But well our gushing hearts might say,
That there a Mother slept!
For her pale arms a babe had prest
With such a wreathing grasp,
The fire had pass’d o’er that fond breast,
Yet not undone the clasp.
Deep in her bosom lay his head,
With half-shut violet eye—
He had known little of her dread,
Nought of her agony.
Oh! human love, whose yearning heart,
Through all things vainly true,
So stamps upon thy mortal part
Its passionate adieu:
Surely thou hast another lot,
There is some home for thee,
Where thou shalt rest, rememb’ring not
The moaning of the sea.