Friday, October 23, 2015

John Randall's 1797 HMS Acasta built at Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe

Model of HMS Acasta 1795. Photograph taken
in the Museum of London Docklands.
HMS Acasta was built in 1797 by John Randall at Nelson Dock in Rotherhithe (265 Rotherhithe St, London SE16 5HW).  Nelson Dock (at the time known as Cuckold's Point) is unique in being the sole surviving ship-builders' dry dock in Rotherhithe, preserved in the grounds of the Hilton Hotel. Randall was by no means the first tenant of the dock, which had been occupied since at least 1687.

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th Century Rotherhithe's river front was dotted with these small ship-shaped docks and their yards.  Some were used exclusively for private contracts, but the main form of income came from the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  Although first and second rate ships of the line were built in the Royal docks, third rate ships and below were farmed out to private ship builders to Royal Navy designs, sometimes under they eye of a Royal Navy surveyor.  The hull and its interior fittings were the job of the sub-contractor and ships were usually taken elsewhere to be fitted with masts and rigging and, at another location, with armaments.  Rotherhithe had a busy ship building industry and produced vessels of all sizes from the 17th Century onwards.  The first ship that I know of to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe was the fourth rate 1654 HMS Taunton.  The last ships to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe were the steam-powered gunboats HMS and HMS Jackdaw, both launched just over two centuries after Taunton in 1855.

John Randall was a big name in Thames ship-building, building almost exclusively for the Royal Navy.   Randall was based at Nelson Dock in different sections and in different partnerships between 1755 and 1803.  This long period of time is accounted for by the fact that there were two John Randalls, father and son, with the father retiring sometime around 1775.  John Randall Senior was trusted with many high profile ship builds, including a number of prototype designs.  John Randall, father and/or son, had yards at both Nelson Dock and Greenland Dock.  Although most ship building, like later dock work, was supplied by casual labour, the bigger ship builders would sometimes provide tied housing for their more important employees, and at some point the Randalls provided housing of this sort along the passageway now known as Randalls Rents. 

A view of Cuckold's Point, where Nelson Dock was
located.  By Samuel Scott, c. 1750-60
Business partnerships into which the Randalls entered included Randall, Grey and Brent and later Randall and Brent,  but at the time of Acasta's build the lease of Nelson Dock is listed simply under John Randall Esq, probably John Randall Senior's son.  Given that John Randall Senior is thought to have retired in around 1775, the Acasta contract must have been made with John Randall Junior.

In 1802, only five years after Acasta's launch, the Peace of Amiens provided a pause in the wars with France, and new ships were no longer required, causing shipyards to drop wages and shed employees.  This resulted in strikes and escalating violence.  Writing in 1907, Canon Edward Josselyn Beck tells a really tragic story of the younger John Randall, writing in his excellent book Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe (1907):
In his time, the shipwrights mutinied, and not only refused to work themselves, but laid violent hands on those who were sent to work in their place.  This worthy man entreated them to desist and return to their duties, but in vain.  And being himself struck by one of his workmen he retired from the scene and was so greatly distressed at the events he had witnessed that he throw himself out of his window and was killed by the fall." 
Randall had already had a thoroughly bad year by this time (the summer of 1802), his business being the centre of a scandal surrounding the build of HMS Ajax, which found Randall and Brent being taken to court (and which I'll cover on a future post).  It is certainly clear from the records provided by Stuart Rankin, taken from the Rotherhithe Poor and Parish Rate records, that Randall and Brent Esq and Company was ended in 1803, and Messrs Brent were now listed at Nelson Dock instead.

HMS Acasta was built for service in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and later saw action in the Napoleonic Wars that followed immediately afterwards (1803-1815).  According to Rif Winfield, she was a 5th rate frigate fitted with 40 guns on two decks, built to the design of Sir William Rule.  She was the first frigate to have 30 main guns (18 pounders) on her upper deck.  She was launched on the 14th March 1797, having been fitted out in Deptford.  Her first captain was Richard Lane and her first long distance voyage was to Jamaica in 1798, where she immediately took several privateers.

Frigates had been in use in the Royal Navy since the mid 1600s.  The term was applied to a variety of designs but the role of the frigate was always the same - to move at speed, with sufficient fire-power to defend herself and cause problems for others, but not as well armed as much slower but larger warships.  They were classed as fifth or sixth rate ships, depending on the number of guns they carried.  Frigates were used as scouts for the main fleet, and in battle they would assist disabled ships and take command of captured ships.  She could also take on ships of comparative size and fire-power.  Independently, they were sent to foreign seas to capture pirates and foreign privateers in order to protect British commerce.  The 28-gun ships were phased out during the early 19th century - in 1794 there were 22 of them but by 1814 there were none remaining in service. 

HMS Acasta is in the foreground in this painting of the 1806
Battle of San Domingo. By Thomas Whitcombe, 1817,
National Maritime Museum.
Rather than going through the fine details of Acasta's past, I thought I would pull out some of the more interesting features of her career.  There is very little point providing a blow by blow history of the ship here here because she has been so thoroughly covered on the HMS Acasta page on Wikipedia, with plenty of references to The London Gazette, so readers are referred to that article for the details.  Details of Acasta's ship's crew are also available, together with her vital statistics and a year by year chronology of her activities and naval engagements on the HMS Acasta website:  However, there are some features of her career that merit further inspection.    

First, it is worth noting a recurring success story in her career that says a lot about maritime preoccupations during 18th Century naval wars.  Anyone who has read any of the Jack Aubrey books by Patrick O'Brian will be familiar with the concept of prize money.  It's a bit like banking bonuses today - ships' captains were encouraged to capture opposition ships so that the could be reprocessed, either used for parts (particularly their guns) or renamed and re-employed in the Royal Navy.  Privateers were a favourite target of Royal Navy ships. Privateers were ships authorized by governments to target naval vessels whilst not being naval ships themselves.  They were never employed in naval engagements but were highly effective as adjuncts to naval activities because their main role was to cause disruption.   Many naval and privateer ships carried valuable cargo, and this too featured in the reward system of prizes.  Prizes were split unequally between the crew members, and it was a significant motivation to sailors, many of whom had been pressed into service, to safely secure opposition ships rather than destroy them. Rewards could make crew members very wealthy.  Acasta is remarkable for the number of prizes that she won, described on the above Wiki page.  Well worth a read.

It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that she underwent surprisingly few refits.  All ships of the line that were engaged in active service went through a hard live.  Made of wood, powered by sail, and held together by rope rigging, they were highly vulnerable not only to fire-power but also to the weather and natural decay, as well as the effects of wood-consuming organisms in the sea itself.   However, in her 24 year career Acasta was apparently brought in for one major refit in Portsmouth, in 1802, which probably had more to do with the temporary peace afforded by the Peace of Amiens, which provided a brief pause in hostilities.  War broke out again in 1803.  HMS Acasta was then paid off in both 1811 and then 1815, and at both times her crew would have been paid, free to find other ships on which to work, and the ship would have been repaired and refitted for whatever future service awaited her. 

Acasta was broken up at Woolwich in 1821 after 24 years of service, which is not a bad life span for a wooden war ship of the period.

Plan of HMS Acasta on the HMS Acasta website.

1 comment:

John said...

Interesting article on HMS Acasta. I have and ancestor who served on her, and a Bible inscribed "HMS Acasts, Plymouth". So a small fragment of her still exists in the form of bible.