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William O. S. Gilly published his collection of shipwreck accounts, relating to the period between 1793 and 1857,  in 1864. In his forward he acknowledges the assistance given to him by the Lord's Commissioners of the Admiralty who allowed him to use their official records of each incident as the basis for his book. 


The majority of wreck incidents in the account were spread out all over the globe but there were several nasty incidents at Plymouth (or  rather, at the town of Dock) at this time. Not surprising when you think of wooden ships and gun powder stored loose in kegs. In some incidents, loss of life was small but in this disaster at least 300 people lost their lives. In part this can be put down to the tradition of entire families coming on board as the vessel prepared to leave port. The families of officers joined them below decks in a final meal together while other ranks remained on deck in gatherings in which alcohol played a major part. Most of those killed would have been too badly mutilated for identification but the people of the town of Dock would have noted the loss of many of their neighbours. 


"The appalling catastrophe which befell this ship was one which long threw a gloom over the inhabitants of Plymouth and the neighbourhood.


The Amphion frigate had been obliged to put into Plymouth for repairs, and on the 22nd September 1796, was lying alongside of a sheer hulk taking in her bowsprit, within a few yards of the dockyard jetty. The ship, being on the eve of sailing, was crowded with more than a hundred men, women and children, above her usual complement. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon that a violent shock, like an earthquake, was felt at Stonehouse and Plymouth. The sky towards the dock appeared red as if from fire, and in a moment the streets were crowded with the inhabitants, each asking his neighbour what had occurred. When the confusion had somewhat abated, it was announced that the Amphion had blown up, and then everyone hastened to the dock, where a most heart-rending scene presented itself.


Strewed in all directions were pieces of broken timber, spars and rigging, whilst the deck of the hulk, to which the frigate had been lashed was red with blood. and covered with mangled limbs and lifeless trunks, all blackened with powder. The frigate had been originally manned from Plymouth, and as the mutilate forms were collected together and carried to the hospital, father, mothers, brothers and sisters flocked to the gates, in their anxiety to discover if their relatives were numbered amongst the dying or the dead.


From the suddenness of the catastrophe, no accurate account can of course be given, but the following particulars were collected from the survivors and formed the basis of the Admiralty report on the incident.


The captain, Israel Pellew, was at dinner in his cabin, with Captain Swaffield of the Overyssel, a Dutch 64*and the first lieutenant of the Amphion when, in an instant they were all violently thrown against toe carlings of the upper deck. Captain Pellew had sufficient presence of mind to rush to the cabin window before a second explosion followed, by which he was blown into the water; he was soon, however, picked up by a boat and was found to have sustained but little injury.


The first lieutenant, who followed his example, escaped in a similar manner. Unfortunately, Captain Swaffield perished, in all probability having been stunned either by the first blow he received against the carlings, or by coming in contact with some part of the hulk, His body was found a month afterwards, with the skull fractured, apparently crushed between the side of the two vessels.


In the moment of the explosion, the sentinal at the cabin door was looking at his watch, when it was dashed from his hands and he was stunned; he knew nothing more until he found himself safe on shore, and comparatively unhurt. The escape of the boatswain was also very remarkable; he was standing on the cathead **, directing the men in rigging out the jib-boom, when he felt himself suddenly carried off his feet into the air; he then fell into the sea senseless, and on recovering his consciousness, he found that he had become entangled amongst the rigging, and that his arm was broken. With incredible presence of mind, he found his pocket knife and cut his arms free. He contrived to extricate himself, though with some difficulty, and he was soon picked up by a boat, without further injury.


The preservation of a child was no less singular. In the terror of the moment, the mother had grasped it in her arms, but, horrible to relate, the lower part of her body was blown to pieces, whilst the upper part remained unhurt, and it was discovered with the arms still clasping the living child to her lifeless bosom. One of the survivors took care of the child who had been  found alive  and he was entered into the Navy as soon as he was old enough. He is said to have had a long and successful career in the Royal Navy. 


The exact complement of the Amphion was 215, but from the crowded state of her decks at the time of the accident, it is supposed that 300, out of 310 or 312 persons, perished with the ship.

The captain, two lieutenants, a boatswain, three or four seamen, a marine, one woman and the child were all that were saved. 


The cause of the  unfortunate event was never clearly known but it was conjectured that the gunner might have let fall some powder near the fore-magazine, which accidentally igniting, had communicated with the magazine itself. The gunner had been suspected of stealing powder, and on that day, he is said to have been intoxicated, and was probably less careful than usual. He was among the numbers who perished.


The sinking of the Amphion at Plymouth from an engraving

An artist's impression of the incident which was hastily engraved for sale by local booksellers in September 1796.

From our own collection


*  A vessel with 64 guns

** The cathead was a large wooden beam located on either bow of a sailing ship, angled outward at 45 degrees. It was used to support the ship's anchor when raising or lowering it. It also kept the heavy anchor away from the sides of the ship which otherwise could have  been damaged.  It was common practice to carve the projecting end to resemble the face of a lion or a cat hence its name.


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