Hilary L. Rubinstein, The Sinking of the Royal George (Seaforth, 2020)
An Admiral is supposed to go down with his ship, they say, but in wartime, not in a normal peacetime activity on relatively calm seas close to shore. That is exactly what happened, however, to Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt on board the HMS Royal George on 28 August 1782. Hilary Rubinstein takes a fresh look at this disaster and discovers a somewhat different story from that we thought we knew.
The 100-gun Royal George sat majestically in the anchorage at Spithead that day, a splendid sight by all accounts. Then it was gone. Rubinstein discusses the shock of her loss and its immediate aftermath. She then describes the life and career of ‘Kempy’ as he was affectionately known, charting his rise through the ranks of a Royal Navy riven with factionalism and politics. Kempenfelt joined the Royal George in April 1782 – though he was not the ship’s Captain for day to day running – and sailed into Spithead on 14 August. The decision was made to heel the ship to fix a water pipe, which meant moving weight over to the other side to raise the maintenance site out of the water. But the ship was full of people and supplies, making her too heavy, and consequently enough water poured in to capsize her in just a few minutes. Hundreds died, including many visiting women and children. As the Royal George sank, the mysteries began.
Who was responsible for this calamity? Here Rubinstein rows against the tide. She digs into the court martial of Captain Waghorn, the Captain of the Royal George, and his crew, presenting the evidence clearly and succinctly. They were acquitted, though not without controversy. Rubinstein delivers her own verdict, lining up the suspects from the Admiralty on down to the copper-bottomed keel of the ship. Her verdict? That would be telling. Rubinstein concludes with three chapters on the aftermath of the disaster: the charitable fund established for the bereaved; salvaged items and the disposal of the wreck; and the fates of the survivors.
Rubinstein has written what is surely the definitive account of the sinking of the Royal George. She leaves some mysteries open to other interpretations because they cannot now be solved, but her research and analysis of the evidence puts her conclusions in the high probability category. Rubinstein’s character sketches of the main players and her discussion of the many disparate factors surrounding the disaster are confidently handled, as is her potted biography of Kempenfelt. She is supported by an interesting array of colour plates, including John Schetky’s dramatic painting of the disaster, and adds copious endnotes and a first-rate bibliography. That all combines to make The Sinking of the Royal George an entertaining and thought-provoking read.