Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nelson, polar bears and the career of the bomb vessel HMS Carcass (1759)

HMS Carcass was built by Thomas Stanton at the site now occupied by the Surrey Docks Farm, her keel was laid down in September 1958 and she was launched in 1759.  She was sold, presumably to be broken up, in 1784 and had a busy career in the intervening 25 years.

Several warships were named Carcass, which today sounds a bit grizzly, but the word carcass referred not not a corpse but to a form of armament container.  Admiral Smyth's Sailor's Wordbook (published in 1867, reprinted by Conway in 1991) describes it as "an iron shell for incendiary purposes, filled with a very fiercely flaming composition of saltpetre, sulpher, resin, turpentine, antimony, and tallow."  Most of the few images of Carcass date to her expedition to the Arctic in 1773.

Racehorse and Carcass in the Arctic in 1773.
By John Cleveley. National Maritime Museum
The 1759 HMS Carcass is probably best known because of her association with Admiral Nelson, but in many ways she is most interesting because of the records of the number of times she was refitted and repaired, which represents a typical experience for a naval vessel of the 18th Century.  She saw active combat and travelled extensively.

Not much is known about her builder Thomas Stanton, although Stuart Rankin's research suggests that he was the manager or foreman at a Captain Bronsden's shipyard at Deptford Grove Street.  Rankin suggests that he achieved the means to establish himself at Rotherhithe by joining forces with business partners in joint shipbuilding enterprises.  He is listed, for example, as a partner for HMS Chester which was ordered from "Bronden, Wells and Stanton."  He was at the Rotherhithe yard by 1754.  The name by which the yard was known at the time is unknown, being marked simply as "shipwrights" on early maps of the area.  It is now usually known as Barnard's Wharf, due to its association with a later ship building family.  Rif Winfield lists the builders of Carcass as Stanton and Wells, which differs from other sources, but it is entirely possible that the Wells shipbuilding company (probably the Wells involved in the above-mentioned construction of HMS Chester), which took over the yard after Thomas Stanton, was involved in her construction.  More on the Wells family in a later post.

Carcass was an Infernal-class ships, a class of bomb vessels designed by Naval surveyor Thomas Slade.  Six Infernal-class ships were built following the design of HMS Infernal, but whilst three were ketch-rigged (like Infernal) three, including Carcass were rigged as ships.

Bomb vessels were equipped with vast mortars mounted forward, which expelled bombs or carcasses, solid casings filled with explosives, as described above.  They were used mainly to shell land-based targets over substantial distances and you can form a good impression of their role in the painting below of the bombardment of Le Havre, in which Carcass participated. These mortar guns had tremendous recall.  To bear their weight and withstand the recall, bomb vessels were built with a particularly strong hull.  Although they were also equipped with a few carronades, these were for self defence and did not form part of the ship's overall objective.  

Carcass had a gundeck length of 91ft 8ins, a breadth of 28ft, a depth of 12ft 1 1/2ins and weighted 309 tons.  She ws armed with fifty broadside guns and two mortars.  Rif Winfield (2007) says that she was built at a cost of £3,757.14.6d, and required a further £2,144.8.1d to fit her out. Rif Winfield's "British Warships in the Age of Sail" records all her known repairs and refits, which are listed below to emphasize just how much work could be carried out on an mid 19th Century warship.

The bombardment of Le Havre in 1759
Bibliothèque nationale de France
(click the picture to see the bigger image)
Her first commander was the 28-year old Charles Inglis.  In July 1759 she was one of six bomb vessels that formed a squadron under Rear Admiral George Rodney, and also included the fourth rate 60-gun flagship Achilles, four 50-gun ships, five frigates, a sloop, and the six bomb vessels.  Their mission was to destroy flat-bottomed boats and supplies that were being assembled at Le Havre to prepare for an invasion of England during the Seven Years War. The mission was a considerable success, destroying the invasion attempt before it had really begun. In 1760 Carcass captured the 10-gun Mercury off La Rochelle.

She was refitted in March 1760 in Portsmouth for £531.15.1d, as a sloop, and was again reiftted in Portsmouth in 1761 at a cost of £1346.7.9d.  She was recommissioned in January 1762 and placed under the under the command of Lord William Campbell. Campbell had recently returned from service in India and later in 1762 went to America, and he seems to have spent only two months between these two postings with Carcass.   However, between February and March 1762 she refitted again, this time as a bomb vessel at a cost of £727.10.1d.  She was under the command of Robert Fanshawe in August 1762, before being paid off in 1763.  Following a small repair Deptford in 1763, costing 1211.14.10d, she was fitted out in 1765 in Deptford, for £2281.17.6d.  I have been unable to find out what she did or where she was stationed between her refit of March 1960 and being recommissioned in 1765, although the various refits and repairs indicate that she was busy somewhere.

She was recommissioned in August 1765 under Captain Mark Pattison. Pattison sailed her to Jamaica in October 1765.  Jamaica in 1765 was a British colony, and the mid eighteenth century seems to have been one of its more peaceful periods, so it is unclear exactly why a bomb vessel was required. By September 1766 she was under Commander Thomas Jordan. A small repair and refit at Deptford  cost £2870.14.6.  She was recommissioned in June 1771 under Commander Skeffington Lutwidge, for service in the Irish Sea. 

Carcass off Nova Zembla.
Arents Cigarette Card
Carcass was again paid off in April 1773 and was immediately refitted (at a cost of £2,895.8.8d) in Sheerness in preparation for an expedition to the North Pole with another bomb vessel, HMS Racehorse.  Bomb vessels were often chosen for work in the ice because they had been built with particularly strong hulls, thanks to the armaments they carried and the bombardment they received.  These were now strengthened by reinforcing timbers, particularly in the bow section where the ship would have to push through ice.  The ships were equipped with boats that, in the event that the ships had to be abandoned, could carry all the crew, as well as equipment to build emergency shelters.

Carrying 90 and  80 sailors respectively, the task of Racehorse and Carcass was to break through the ice to see if there open sea beyond Spitsbergen that might provide a route to the Bering Strait and the Pacific, the so-called northwest passage.  The expedition was under the overall command of Racehorse's captain Constantine Phipps, who took with him a ship's doctor, an astronomer and a naturalist.  Carcass was still under the command of Skeffinton Lutwidge. Both Lutwidge and Lieutenant John Baird were popular officers, Constantine Phipps being unusual amongst the aristocracy in pulling his weight in all aspects of the ship's operation.

Nelson and the Bear. By Richard Westall, 1806
Horatio Nelson was assigned to the Carcass as a midshipman (a paid volunteer), through the influence of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling.  Nelson's career was helped along considerably by Suckling, and Nelson had already served under him on the Raisonnable for a year.  Captain Lutwidge told  story in later years that in 1773 Nelson, at that age of 14 or 16 wanted to take a polar bear skin home to his father.  When he saw one approaching he ventured out on to the ice with his musket to shoot one (several polar bears had already been shot when venturing near to the ships). The story says that the musket misfired, so Nelson attempted to bludgeon it with the butt end.  In some versions of the story he was with a companion, in others he was alone. Fact or fiction, or a mixture of both, the story was immortalized by Richard Westall's splendid 1806 painting of how he imagined the episode. Having been becalmed one night, the following morning the ships found themselves iced in, and the decision was taken to unload the emergency boats.  On August 7th  the weather was warm and the crews started to haul the boats across the ice, filled with provisions.  Nelson was placed in charge of one of Carcass's emergency boats.  The boats were pulled for four miles, but fortunately the ice loosened and Racehorse and Carcass were able to overtake the party and bring the crew and the boats back on board, reaching open sea on the 10th August.  An account of the voyage was later published by Phipps in A voyage towards the North Pole: undertaken by His Majesty's command, 1773, which was published in 1774.  Nelson never wrote an account of the expedition, and two weeks after leaving Carcass, he was assigned to the 24-gun Seahorse under Captain George Farmer.

A Jersey stamp showing Racehorse and Carcass
stranded in the Arctic in 1773.
After the conclusion of the Arctic expedition, Carcass was again paid off, being recommissioned again in January 1775 under Commander James Reid for service on the African coast.  She was again paid off in September 1775 after which she was refitted in Deptford as bomb vessel at a cost of £1003.3.11d.  She was again refitted, this time at Woolwich, at a cost of £2813.18.4d and sailed to North America in May 1776 under Commander Robert Dring, who was succeeded by John Howorth in February 1777 before coming under the command of Thomas Barker.

Carcass came under the command of Lieutenant Edward Edwards at Sandy Hook in 1778. In 1780 she sailed for Barbados as part of escort, under Commodore William Hotham, for a convey 5,000 troops to West Indies. They departed on 4th November and arrived on 10 December. She was under John Young, off the Leeward Islands (a British colony) by the end of 1780.  Paid off in December 1781. She was surveyed in 1782 at Woolwich and was finally sold in Woolwich for £320 on 5 August 1784, presumably for breaking although there is no record of her final fate.

A good strong ship, with a busy career, HMS Carcass had an interesting life and it is fascinating to see how many times she was refitted and repaired for the different roles she was required to play.

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