Sunday, August 18, 2013

HMS York, built in 1807 at Nelson Dock in Rotherhithe

HMS York as a prison hulk, by Edward William Cook
HMS York was built by S. and D. Brent at their Nelson Dock yard, prior to their removal to Greenland Dock, at the end of a long tradition of building naval warships, East Indiamen and other merchant ships that was started by the John Randall Snr.  The company passed to his son, also John Randall, who was at Nelson Dock from the mid 1700s, and later joined with John Brent to form Randall and Brent.  John Brent retired in c.1797 and John Randall Jr. committed suicide in 1802, after which two of Brent's eleven children, Samuel and Daniel, both of whom were nearing retirement age themselves, bought out Randall's share and continued to build ships for the navy.  Thanks to naval cut-backs they downsized by moving from Nelson Dock to smaller premises at Greenland Dock, where they continued to build East Indiamen and also branched out into paddle steamers.

The keel of HMS York was laid down in Nelson Dock in 1805 and she was launched in 1807, the year that the British abolished the slave trade. She was one of eight 74-gun ships ordered in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars. Up until this point the policy of the Navy was to repair existing ships rather than commission new ones. I have been researching the repairs and refits undergone by the mid 18th Century HMS Carcass, which eventually retired in 1784, and the sheer amount of work carried out was quite staggering.  However, both ongoing and new threats meant that new ships were required.  Because York was not present or conspicuous in any famous skirmishes, nor associated with a celebrated commander, there are few interesting details available about her career or crew, and I have been unable to find an image of her before she was converted to a prison hulk. 

She was a 74-gun Modified-Fame Class full-rigged third rate ship of the line.  Her weight was estimated at 1743 tons, she was 175ft long by 47ft 6ins wide and was 20ft 6ins deep. In Britain warships were divided into six divisions based on the number of guns that they could carry.  HMS York was a Modified-Fame class ship, also known as the Hero-Fame Class (ship types were named for the first ships that first took a particular for), a type designed by Sir John Henslow, based on the design for HMS Fame but influenced by his Hero-class ships.  As an early 19th Century third rate she was a medium sized ship that could carry between 70 and 84 guns and between 500 and 700 men. The 74-gun third rates (usually known simply as "74s") were popular with the Navy because they were easier to handle than the bulkier first and second rates, they were faster, and they were less expensive to build, arm and crew.  They formed the backbone of the British Navy during the Napoleonic War.

Nineteenth century 12 pound carronade on
gun carriage
She was equipped with carriage-mounted armaments typical of many ships of 74 gun ships of the period 1808-16, dominated by carronades, but with long guns retained as well. Long guns had a good range and were traditionally mounted along the broadsides to fire into enemy ships from a distance. Carronades (named after their inventor, the Carron Iron Founding and Shipping Company) were added to ships in 1779.  They were short light guns that fired heavy shot over a limited distance, could inflict a lot of well targeted damage, but required close combat to be effective. 

HMS York saw limited action but traveled widely.  Her first commander was Captain Robert Barton.  She was first posted to Madeira (off the Moroccan coast in the North Atlantic) in the squadron of Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, together with two other 74s, HMS Centaur and HMS Captain, the 64-gun Intrepid and four frigates.  They were stationed at Madeira, during the second British occupation of the island in 1807.  The Portuguese colony island of Madeira was both strategically and commercially important due to important shipping lanes. When British hostilities with the French and Spanish were resumed during the Napoleonic wars, neutral Portugal was dragged into the conflict, with France insisting that she close her ports to British ships.  A secret compromise was worked out between Britain and Portugal, in which if Portuguese ports were closed to British shipping, Britain would occupy Madeira.  The Prince Regent of Portugal, Dom Joao, abandoned Portugal for Brazil in November 1807, and in the December Admiral Samuel Hood took eight warships to Madeira, including York, and fifteen transport ships. Britain annexed Madeira until April 1808, when it was returned to Portugal.  It was a peaceful occupation, as had been agreed with Portugal.

Routes of the British Columns in 1809
York was then part of a squadron that sailed to the West Indies where she was one of the ships that secured Martinique from France in 1809.  Martinique had been a bone of contention throughout the Napoleonic wars and had in fact provided Napoleon with his wife Josephine de Beauharnais, better known as the Empress Josephine. Strategically, it provided France with a naval base from which it could disrupt Britain's trade interests, and it was also a safe haven for privateers for whom British merchant vessels were a legitimate target.  It was also the centre of French military power in the region. Martinique was therefore a significant threat to British interests in the West Indies.  In 1809 Britain decided to take direct action York was one of 29 ships that was sent to the island, between them carrying 10,000 men, arriving on January 30th 1809.  Once the troops landed the French were vastly outnumbered, holding out until the 24th February. A fleet sent by France by Commmodore Troude to defend the island would have arrived too late to assist, but was intercepted before it arrived. The invasion was considered to be a considerable success, severely undermining French power in the area.  York was still at Martinique when Commodore Troude and his small fleet arrived in the area in March of that year, but does not appear to have been involved in the ensuing naval battle on April 15th and 15th, being one of the ships following at the rear.  She was sent with HMS Captain to pursue the remains of Troude's fleet, but in this they failed.

Later in 1809 York was back in the English Channel, where she was involved in the disastrous Walcheren Campaign.  Her role here was again largely transportation.  As with the invasion of Martinique, this campaign was all about undermining the French.  The plan was to land a huge force of troops and forces in Holland, landing at the Dutch island of Walcheren, to assist the Austrian resistance against France by causing a distraction whilst they destroyed the French fleet at Flushing (Vlissingen) in Holland. 39,000 troops were landed in the July of 1809, but the Austrians had already been defeated and the French fleet had moved to Antwerp.  As well as being a strategic disaster a huge number of troops succumbed to illness.  In the region of 100 men were lost in combat but over 4000 died of something that became known as Walcheren fever, and a staggering 11,000 were recorded as ill. 

Blockade of Toulon, by Thomas Luny
Tracking her activities between 1809 and 1819 has proved to be difficult.  She seems to have been involved in the blockade of the important French port of Toulon in the Mediterranean in 1811, still under Captain Robert Barton and under the direction of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, but after that although she is recorded at various ports and seems to have been policing the English Channel before heading off to America and the West Indies for unspecified duties. 

On her return to Portsmouth in 1819 HMS York was stripped of her masts, her guns were removed and she was converted into a prison ship, as shown in the illustration at top of this post.  She had only served for 12 years and one wonders why she was relegated to non-sailing duties so soon.  Prison hulks were the standard approach to  housing convicts, who were used for labour and ferried to and from the ships on which they were imprisoned.  During the Napoleonic wars there were more than 60 hulks moored on British rivers and in harbours.  By the 1840s more than 3000 prisoners were housed in hulks at Woolwich, Portsmouth and Deptford.  In this guise York continued to serve for another 35 years.  Records indicate that she and other ships of her size could house up to 500 convicts, in often dire conditions.  A well known image of her by Edward William Cook (shown above), reproduced in the 1970 facsimile of his 1828 book Shipping and Craft, shows her as as a prison hulk with prisoners being landed and laundry blowing in the wind.  Concerns that the practice was inhumane gained impetus in the early 1800s. Hundreds of men were kept on these ships in often cramped and disease-ridden and completely unregulated conditions. Charles Dickens famously described them in Great Expectations:  "We saw the black hulk lying a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah's Ark.  Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison ship seemed to my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners."   By the mid 1800s convict hulks were phased out.

Prison hulks at Portsmouth by Louis Garneray (for a good
set of similar photographs see the BBC website at:
She was broken up in Portsmouth in 1854.  HMS York may not have had as notable a career as those warships that have passed into legend because of the action they saw or the famous names they carried, but she provides a very good example of the working life of a third rate 74 of her day.

It has been speculated that The Ship York public house in Rotherhithe, (formerly just called The York), might have been named for her.

My sincere thanks to friend Jack Edwards for the loan of the 1970 edition of the 1828 Shipping and Craft by Edward William Cook, which as well as providing the image of the HMS York as a hulk, was also a useful source of information about prison hulks in general.

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