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Friday, 24 February 2012

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd - a review

Front cover of Kindle version of  Murder at Mansfield Park   by Lynn Shepherd (2011)

Murder at Mansfield Park is a whodunit inspired by Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which was published in the middle of the Regency, in 1814. Shepherd takes the setting and characters from Austen’s novel and shakes them up to create a new story.

Fanny Price becomes the falsely modest heiress who lauds it over the other inhabitants of Mansfield Park, whilst Edmund Bertram, still somewhat lacking in backbone, becomes the son of Mrs Norris, who is as spiteful and managing as ever. In this reversal of fortunes, Mrs Norris’ favour is now all for Fanny, whom she so despises in the original, leaving the much younger Julia Bertram to receive the sharp edge of her acerbic tongue. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is recast as the heroine, with a compassionate character and a set of principles that she does not possess in Austen’s novel.

The other Bertrams are less changed. Sir Thomas Bertram is still upright and honest and wanting the best for everyone and Lady Bertram is as weak and wishy-washy as ever. Tom is still a typical young gentleman of fortune, and Maria is still desperate for attention, but it is Fanny that she vies with, rather than her sister. Henry Crawford has not been reformed like his sister and remains a scoundrel, though you are left in some doubt as to how wicked he really is. However, he now has an occupation as a professional redeveloper and his designs for Mansfield Park are an integral part of the story.

The introduction of the thief-catcher, Charles Maddox, is a fascinating new addition to the story. Austen herself would, I think, have liked this intriguing character who ruthlessly conducts his investigations in order to solve the crime and yet displays a softer side to his character that makes you warm to him, despite his rough exterior.

I confess that I am a purist and like Jane Austen’s novels so much in their original form that I tend to find sequels and spin-offs something of a disappointment. That said, Mansfield Park is my least favourite of her novels, and Edmund is certainly the weakest of her heroes and perhaps that made me more open to a new interpretation.

The inspiration is certainly Austen’s novel, but the story is very much Shepherd’s own. Although certain elements have been replicated, the whole story moves in a completely different direction. Having accepted the new characters assigned to the leading players, I really enjoyed Shepherd’s tale of murder and mystery. There was, however, a little too much detail about the murder for my liking; I am rather squeamish and prefer not to know!

I was impressed by Shepherd’s style. It was refreshing to read an Austen-inspired novel that successfully reproduced the kind of narrative that Austen herself might have written rather than adopting a more modern style. Shepherd has clearly researched the period well and this was reflected in the historical accuracy of her work. Murder at Mansfield Park is a very creditable representation of what a Jane Austen murder mystery may have looked like.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician by Charlotte Frost – a review

Cover page of Sir Wiliam Knighton by Charlotte Frost
Sir William Knighton was a man of surprisingly humble beginnings and yet he rose to become one of the most influential people in the country, as confidential advisor to King George IV. He was a figure shrouded in mystery – the secret influence behind the throne – and has been subject to suspicion and conjecture concerning the hold he had over the King.

In this biography, Frost dismisses these rumours and presents us with a hard-working and dutiful man who abandoned a lucrative medical career in order to devote himself to serving George IV.

Drawing on a wealth of new research, she presents many interesting details of Knighton’s youth and rise to fame. She shows the gradual change from the shy young doctor who would study rather accept a flattering dinner invitation, to the London physician who looked after the nobility, finally becoming the trusted advisor of the King.

Her description of Knighton’s journey to becoming a London physician shows a fascinating insight into the training then thought acceptable for a medical practitioner. Even more illuminating was the need for a London doctor to conduct himself like a fashionable gentleman.

It is intriguing to follow the path of influence, from the courtesan, Sally Douglas, to Marquess Wellesley, and so to George IV. Advancement was very much a case of who you knew, and Knighton took advantage of the opportunities offered him to gain a position of royal patronage.

Frost cleverly overcomes the possible confusion arising from multiple people of the same name within Knighton’s family by assigning them a constant designation at the start of her book. She applies the same policy to other key characters, referring to them by surname. I did not find this worked quite as well as these people are more usually referred to by their titles and I found myself constantly flitting back to the page of names to remind myself that, for example, Robert Banks Jenkinson was Lord Liverpool.

This is a comprehensive biography, crammed with details about Sir William Knighton’s life and work, which uses many original sources to present a well-rounded picture of this important Regency courtier.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Sir William Knighton (1777-1836): Part 2 Royal advisor

Sir William Knighton
from Memoirs of Sir William Knighton
 by Lady Knighton (1838)
Confidential advisor to the Regent

In 1812, Knighton was appointed physician-in-ordinary to the future George IV. It was soon evident that Knighton was George’s new favourite. In January 1813, Knighton was created a baronet. To receive this honour after being physician-in-ordinary to the Regent for only a year was exceptional. But Knighton’s services to the Regent were by no means limited to the medical sphere. George increasingly relied upon Knighton to conduct his confidential business as well as to provide him with emotional support following the deaths of Princess Charlotte in 1817, his mother in 1818 and his brother, the Duke of Kent, and his father in 1820.

Sir William Knighton's coat of arms
from Debrett's Baronetage of England (1835)
The entry for Sir William Knighton, Baronet,
in Debrett's Baronetage of England (1835)
The McMahon affair

In 1817, the Regent was faced with a potentially explosive situation. His private secretary, Colonel McMahon, was dying, losing his mind due to alcohol abuse after the death of his wife. George feared that McMahon might have damaging papers in his possession, in particular, papers regarding his secret marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert. It was to Knighton that George entrusted the task of retrieving them. Knighton duly visited McMahon and extracted various papers and letters from his possession and waded through them on George’s behalf, organising those that should be kept and destroying any that might incriminate George.

‘Private secretary’ to the King

Despite Knighton’s growing influence, McMahon was replaced by Benjamin Bloomfield as private secretary. This was not a happy appointment. The relationship between Bloomfield and George deteriorated and eventually, George agreed to abolish the role of private secretary in order to be rid of him.

Despite the abolition of the role, Knighton effectively became George’s secretary, unofficially and therefore unpaid. Officially, he became the Auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1818 and was made Keeper of the Privy Purse in September 1822, having by then given up his medical practice in order to devote himself to the King’s service.

Knighton exerted great influence over George and controlled his expenditure by requiring tradesmen to only accept orders signed by himself. The Memoirs confirm that Knighton made the Privy Purse debt-free though they do not describe quite how he achieved it!

George IV
from Memoirs of George IV
by Robert Huish (1830)
On His Majesty’s Secret Service

Knighton travelled with George to Hanover in September 1821, and again to Scotland in August 1822. But as well as these public trips, George relied upon Knighton to liaise with his government and transact his personal business. He made several trips to the German states to deal with George’s family affairs and secret trips to France to attend Lady Conyngham’s dying son.

He was also commissioned to buy up unfavourable newspaper reports concerning George’s relationship with Lady Conyngham and help silence the controversy over an unpaid loan from an entrepreneur called De Beaune which had been stirred up by a pamphlet called The Royal Criterion.

Another secret mission was to deal with the famous courtesan, Harriette Wilson, who was publishing her memoirs, and offering to omit the names of her previous lovers for a price. It appears that she had obtained incriminating correspondence between Lady Conyngham and John Ponsonby, to whom she had been engaged and had later become one of Harriette Wilson’s lovers.


Despite Knighton’s position of influence, he was refused a seat on the Privy Council by Lord Liverpool, who cited his earlier profession as the main objection. The secrecy concerning many of Knighton’s actions increased the suspicion concerning his role and laid his conduct open to speculation and rumour. On 18 February 1828, he was openly criticized by Thomas Duncombe in the House of Commons as the “secret influence behind the throne”. He was also subject to attacks from the press, who caricatured his invisible influence on the King.

The devoted servant

Knighton worked unceasingly in George’s service. Often he would be summoned to urgently attend George’s side. George addressed him frequently as “my dear friend”, signing himself as “ever your most affectionate friend.” The strain took a toll on Knighton’s health and he suffered from bouts of ill health and depression from as early as 1825.

Knighton had truly become part of George’s family. But as such, he felt unable to resign; it was possible to resign from a position, not from a family.

Royal influence

Knighton often acted as intermediary between the King and his subjects. He promoted the interests of Robert Southey, David Wilkie, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Walter Scott. Lawrence and Scott in particular became good friends.

Sir Walter Scott (1808)
from Waverley 
Death of George IV

On 26 June 1830, George IV died.

Knighton wrote to his wife: “Thus ended the life of George the Fourth, one of the cleverest and most accomplished men in Europe – full of benevolence! There will be many to deplore his loss. It is impossible for me to quit this place at present; I have a weight of care before me not be described...My health has suffered much, and I am at this moment more dead than alive.”

Life after George

As George’s executor, Knighton was involved in dealing with the King’s affairs for many months. Together with the Duke of Wellington, he went through all George’s letters and papers, destroying anything that might be damaging to the late King. Eventually, he was able to retire to family life at Blendworth Cottage in Blendworth, Hampshire. But the exertions of his life at court had taken their toll and his health remained poor. He died on 11 October 1836.

Read more about Sir William Knighton, Regency physician

Sources used include:
Courthope, William (ed), Debrett's Baronetage of England (Rivington, 1835)
Frost, Charlotte, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician (Authors OnLine, 2010)
Hamilton, J A, Knighton, Sir William, first baronet (1776-1836), revd Judith Schneid Lewis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2009)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (©1972, 1973; Penguin, 1976)
Knighton, Lady, Memoirs of Sir William Knighton, Volumes I and II (London, Richard Bentley, 1838)
Parissien, Steven, George IV, The Grand Entertainment (John Murray, 2001)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Sir William Knighton (1777-1836): Part 1 Regency physician

Sir William Knighton
From Memoirs of Sir William Knighton
 by Lady Knighton (1838)

Obituary in the Medical Gazette

“Sir William was unquestionably a man of excellent talents; but he was still more conspicuous for his fine sagacity and knowledge of the world. His success in life was remarkable; such was at one time his interest at court, that it is quite certain he might have commanded almost anything which the highest influence in the empire could bestow; yet he never showed himself either avaricious or greedy of honours.”

Family life

There were no indications from William Knighton’s early life that he was destined for greatness. He was baptised in January 1777, in Bere Ferrers in Devon, the only son of William Knighton, a farmer, and his wife, Dorothy Hill. After his father’s premature death, Knighton, his mother and his sister, Thamzin, were left in impoverished circumstances.

Medical training

In 1793, Knighton was apprenticed to his uncle, William Bredall, a surgeon-apothecary in Tavistock, Devon. To complete his training, he went to London and on 29 September 1796, he enrolled at St Thomas’ hospital to “walk the wards” under the tutelage of Henry Cline, an eminent surgeon.

In February 1797, Knighton received a diploma from the Company of Surgeons and was approved as assistant surgeon at the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth, where he worked for two and a half years. He inherited the private practice of Dr Francis Geach, senior surgeon at the Royal, on Geach’s death in 1798.

A happy marriage

In 1800, Knighton married Dorothea Hawker, the daughter of Captain James Hawker, head of one of Plymouth’s most respected families. The couple were devoted to each other. The Knightons had four children, Dorothea (1807), William Wellesley (1811), Mary Frances (1816) and a son who died in 1802.

The Royal College of Physicians

After the death of his son, the grief-stricken Knighton decided to move to London. Although he had received an MD, Doctor of Medicine, degree from St Andrews in 1800, he soon discovered that this was insufficient qualification to allow him to practice; to be examined by the Royal College of Physicians of London, he had to have studied at a university for two years.

To gain this experience, in 1804 Knighton moved to Edinburgh where he studied at the university. Having completed two years of study, Knighton applied for a degree, not from Edinburgh, but from King’s College, Aberdeen, which he was awarded in April 1806. He was duly examined and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians on 25 June 1806. He set up practice in Hanover Square, primarily as an accoucheur – that is, a man-midwife.

Nineteenth century networking

Knighton’s rise to a position of influence in the court of George IV was largely due to what we would now term networking. He was fortunate to gain Sally Douglas, a courtesan who was also known as Moll Raffles or Mrs Lashley, as his patient. At the time, she was mistress to the Marquess Wellesley and she persuaded Wellesley to take Knighton with them on a trip to Spain in 1809. Knighton was to be given the sum of £5000 as compensation for loss of fees while he was abroad.

On their return, Wellesley was not in a position to pay the full sum and, in recompense, he introduced Knighton to the future George IV when he was taken ill at Oatlands in 1811. George thought Knighton “proud and overbearing” but “the best-mannered medical man” he had ever met. In January 1812, Knighton was appointed a physician-in-ordinary to George, giving him access to the royal household.

Famous patients

Knighton earned as much as £10,000 a year from his profitable London practice. As a gentleman, he did not charge for his services; he received what his patients chose to give in gratitude. His role gave him a position of influence in many leading households where the strength of his personality enabled him to gain ascendancy over the minds of his patients for their health and welfare. These included Lord Byron and the Duchess of Clarence, when her baby was born prematurely in December 1820, as well as George IV.

Queen Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence
From The History of the Life and Reign of William IV
by Robert Huish (1837)
Physician to courtier

George increasingly relied upon Knighton as his trusted advisor giving him less and less time to devote to his patients. Consequently, in September 1822, he gave up his medical practice and in 1823, he even resigned as physician-in-ordinary to the King so that he could devote himself to his other duties.

Read more about Sir William Knighton, royal advisor

Sources used include:
Frost, Charlotte, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician (Authors OnLine, 2010)
Hamilton, J A, Knighton, Sir William, first baronet (1776-1836), revd Judith Schneid Lewis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2009)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (©1972, 1973; Penguin, 1976)
Knighton, Lady, Memoirs of Sir William Knighton, Volumes I and II (London, Richard Bentley, 1838)
Parissien, Steven, George IV, The Grand Entertainment (John Murray, 2001)

Friday, 10 February 2012

George IV by Christopher Hibbert – a review

Front cover of George IV by C Hibbert

This is a classic biography of George IV and deserves a place on the bookshelf of any Regency historian; it is frequently quoted as a source in later books covering George’s life, Regency and reign. Hibbert draws on many contemporary journals and letters to produce a comprehensive account of the life and reign of George IV.

Published as a single volume in 1976, it was originally produced in two, the first about George IV as Prince of Wales (1972) and the second about his Regency and reign (1973). The paperback seems to be out of print, but there are plenty of second-hand copies around and it was recently released as an ebook. It is generally easy to read and covers all the major events and people of George’s life.

George IV is a king with a reputation. He is remembered for his reckless living, his numerous mistresses and his exotic pavilion at Brighton. George’s early biographer, Robert Huish, was harsh in his criticism of the profligate monarch; Hibbert seeks to present a more balanced view of this king who failed to gain the widespread popularity that he craved.

George IV as Prince of Wales, by John Hoppner (1792)  in the Wallace Collection
George IV as Prince of Wales, by John Hoppner (1792)
in the Wallace Collection
Hibbert’s biography presents a chronological view of George’s life, from the rebellious young prince who struggled against the restrictions of his harsh royal upbringing to the overweight recluse who slowly expired, away from the public eye, in the depths of Windsor Great Park.

Whilst not ignoring the fickleness of his character which made him a faithless lover and an unreliable friend, Hibbert reminds us of the factors that contributed to George’s behaviour: his lack of companionship as a boy, his lack of occupation as a young man and the lack of his father’s approval in virtually everything that he did.

Hibbert does not seek to excuse his harsh behaviour towards his wife, but he does suggest that Princess Caroline was a most unfortunate choice of bride for so fastidious a man. He condemns George’s reckless extravagance, but at the same time reminds us of his patronage of both science and the arts.

Undoubtedly the greatest strength of this well-written biography is the source material that it uses. In the author’s note, Hibbert states that “this biography of George IV is based largely upon his papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor”, as well as numerous other contemporary manuscripts. These papers provide an invaluable view of George IV.

I did find one fact that did not match my other sources: Hibbert states that the wedding of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, and Princess Mary took place on 23 July 1816, whilst others, including La Belle Assemblée, record it has having occurred on the 22nd. But even George’s own correspondence cannot be relied upon as fact; it is known that he fantasized about his involvement in various events, such as the Napoleonic Wars, to the extent that he really believed that he had been there.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The wreck of the Abergavenny

On 5 February 1805, the Earl of Abergavenny sank off the coast of Portland with the tragic loss of 260 lives. The wreck is remembered not only for the horrific death toll, but also for the loss of its captain, John Wordsworth, the brother of the poet, William Wordsworth.

Memorial to the Earl of Abergavenny  on the stone pier, Weymouth
Memorial to the Earl of Abergavenny
on the stone pier, Weymouth

The last voyage of the Abergavenny

The Earl of Abergavenny by T Lury
The Earl of Abergavenny was part of a convoy of East Indiamen ships heading for China, on the lucrative route via Bengal. The convoy had already suffered two collisions when it became separated from its escort vessel, HMS Weymouth. Abandoning its attempts to sail westwards against the wind, the convoy decided to return to Portland Roads to wait for fairer weather.

As was the custom, as she neared Portland, the Abergavenny took on board a pilot to help navigate around Portland Bill and the shoal of coarse sand and shingle beyond it, known as the Shambles. The pilot proved to be disastrously inept. In the failing light and strong waves, he failed to sail far enough out to sea and the ship was grounded on the Shambles.

Portland Bill
Portland Bill
The Shambles

The shock of the impact threw the Abergavenny on her side and water poured in down the hatchways and companionways. She righted herself but she could not break free of the Shambles. Men immediately manned the pumps to eject the water whilst the waves continued to pound at her until the hull planking gave way immediately below the pumps.

Thomas Gilpin, fourth mate, later recorded what happened. “During the time she was on the Shambles, had from three to four feet water; kept the water at this height about 15 minutes, during the whole time the pumps constantly going. Finding she gained on us, it was determined to run her on the nearest shore.”

Recent research has suggested that the iron knees that held the deck to the hull and kept the ship secure were attached to the deck and hull by copper nails. This dangerous combination, which may have arisen from a cheap refit, would have caused severe rusting which may have led to the hull disintegrating more readily.

A water-logged ship

At last, after about two and a half hours, the ship floated off the Shambles, but by this time it was so full of water that the sails were unable to carry the ship onto Weymouth Sands.

Gilpin records:
“The ship would not bear up – kept the helm hard a starboard, she being water-logged; but still had a hope she could be kept up till we got her on Weymouth Sands.”

Portland Roads - now known as Portland Harbour
 Portland Roads - now known as Portland Harbour
The cutter goes for help

Desperate to rally some assistance, the ship’s cutter was launched with the purser, CH Stewart, Joseph Wordsworth and six seamen on board. The other boats were cut free so that they would float freely when the ship went down, but why no attempt was made to launch them is not clear.

Perhaps they thought that the dangers of trying to navigate the ferocious waves in an open boat far outweighed those of staying on board and trying to sail the ship onto land. Perhaps the manpower required to launch the boats would have prevented the pumps from working and the whole ship would have sunk much sooner.

According to Gilpin: “Cut the lashings of the boats – could not get the long boat out, without laying the main-top-sail aback, by which our progress would have been so delayed, that no hope would have been left us of running her aground.”

“She will sink in a moment”

“We have done all we can, Sir – she will sink in a moment,” declared the first mate, Samuel Baggot, to his captain.
“It cannot be helped. God’s will be done,” John Wordsworth replied.

When the passengers realised that the ship was sinking, some seized planks and bits of hen coop and threw themselves into the sea. Others were swept overboard by giant waves. Some piled into a boat that had been cut loose before the ship sank but there were so many that the boat overturned. Those that were able climbed up the rigging, trying to stay above water.

Around 11pm on the 5 February, the ship went down. When she first settled, part of the main and mizzen masts remained above water and about 200 people desperately clung onto their only hope of staying out of the icy water.

Frontispiece of one of several pamphlets issued about the sinking  of the Earl of Abergavenny
Frontispiece of one of several pamphlets issued about the sinking
of the Earl of Abergavenny 
This one contains some of Thomas Gilpin'stestimony
Help at last

According to Gilpin, the ship fired her guns “from the time she struck till she went down” but very little assistance was rendered by nearby ships. Five passengers were rescued by a boat from a sloop, but the waves were too dangerous for them to attempt to rescue anyone else. Why no one else responded to the cries of distress or the gun fire is not known. Ships later claimed that they did not hear the cries in the noise of the storm. Maybe this was true, or maybe they were motivated by self-preservation in the hazardous conditions or even a desire to plunder the wreck.

It was not until the early hours of the following morning that rescue came. A sloop called the Three Brothers came alongside and rescued the survivors, who climbed down the rigging in an orderly fashion. Many had lost their grip in the dark hours of the night and were drowned; others died afterwards due to hypothermia and exhaustion.

An appalling loss of life

Part of the return of the ship's company from the Earl of Abergavenny
Part of the return of the ship's company
from An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805)
The total number of dead was around 260 including the captain, John Wordsworth, Samuel Baggot, who drowned trying to rescue a woman passenger, and Ensign Whitlow, who had made such efforts along with Baggot and Joseph Wordsworth to re-join the ship. The fourth mate, Thomas Gilpin, was applauded for his bravery in trying to save as many as possible.

The death of John Wordsworth

William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, were devastated at the loss of their brother John. Their grief, in turn, affected their literary circle, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Initially it was rumoured that John had been negligent and had not tried to save either the ship or himself after realising his own financial ruin, but the Court of Enquiry at East India House fully acquitted him of any negligence or misconduct.

John Wordsworth was buried in All Saints Churchyard in the Parish of Wyke Regis on 21 March 1805. No gravestone now exists to indicate where the remains of the last captain of the Earl of Abergavenny are buried.

All Saints Churchyard  Wyke Regis, Weymouth
All Saints Churchyard
Wyke Regis, Weymouth

More detail about the events leading up to the wreck in The last voyage of the Earl of Abergavenny 

Sources used include:
A gentleman in the East-India House, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805)
Boddy, Maureen and West, Jack, Weymouth – an illustrated history (1983)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign (2003)
Hayter, Alicia, The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002)

Photographs by Andrew Knowles -

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The last voyage of the Earl of Abergavenny

  Loss of the Abergavenny, East Indiaman, off the Isle of Portland  by R Cobbold and J Tomlinson (Dorset County Council)
Loss of the Abergavenny, East Indiaman, off the Isle of Portland
by R Cobbold and J Tomlinson (Dorset County Council)

The Earl of Abergavenny was an East Indiaman ship, under the captaincy of John Wordsworth, brother of the poet, William. On 2 February 1805, she sailed in a convoy of ships heading first for India and then on to China. John Wordsworth hoped that it would be the voyage to make his fortune and that of his brother, who would then be able to devote himself to his poetry. The Abergavenny never made it out of British waters.

The Earl of Abergavenny

The Earl of Abergavenny was an East Indiaman ship, a 1200 ton vessel, 176 feet long and 43 feet wide and carrying 30 guns, and manned by a crew of 160 to 200 men. In January 1801, John Wordsworth succeeded his cousin, another John Wordsworth, as captain of the ship.

Captains could make their fortunes by carrying passengers and private cargo whilst publicly acting for the East India Company. Larger vessels, like the Abergavenny, were normally given the direct route to China, but for this voyage, influential friends, in particular William Wilberforce, secured Wordsworth the more profitable route via Bengal.

A valuable opportunity

This route offered threefold trading – selling goods to the British community living in India, buying opium in Bengal to sell in China and purchasing tea in China for the English market. There was little knowledge of the ill effects of opium addiction in Britain at the time and although the very profitable opium trade was banned, smuggling was very common and Wordsworth, like many others, took a lax view on it.

By investing family money in this profitable trade, Wordsworth hoped to make his fortune. According to the ship’s manifest, the cargo of the Abergavenny on its final voyage was estimated to be worth around £90,000, including chests of silver dollars worth £70,000 to buy goods in both Bengal and China.

Tea set, Kew Palace
Tea set, Kew Palace
Gravesend to Portsmouth

The Abergavenny travelled in a convoy of East Indiamen from Gravesend to Portsmouth, arriving on 23 January 1805. When the convoy was in the Downs, a heavy gale caused it to collide with another East Indiaman, the Warren Hastings, which had dragged her anchor in the gale. The Abergavenny got off lightly, but the Warren Hastings suffered £2000 damage and the repairs caused her to miss the convoy.

The convoy

In Portsmouth, the Abergavenny took on board 108 of the Company’s troops and a number of the King’s troops, and, after uncertain weather, the convoy moved out to Spithead on the 30 January. The convoy included four other East Indiamen, the Royal George, the Henry Addington, the Wexford and the Bombay Castle, and two whalers, and was escorted by HMS Weymouth, a 44 gun frigate commanded by Captain Draper, commodore of the convoy.

They set sail on 1 February, but a further collision between the Henry Addington and HMS Weymouth caused yet more delay, and it was not until the 2 February that the convoy finally sailed through the Needles Channel. Despite the collisions already endured, the ships were under strict instructions to keep together in convoy.

What happened to HMS Weymouth?

HMS Weymouth led the convoy on a south-westerly course from the Needles Rocks, but at some point lost sight of the convoy. She burnt a blue light all night but failed to find them. Mistakenly believing the convoy to be ahead of her, the Weymouth sailed on west, eventually deciding to sail out into the Atlantic, presumably in the belief that the convoy was still ahead of her.

In reality, the convoy had spent 24 hours tacking off the Needles whilst the Weymouth sailed past them. Eventually the convoy gave up waiting for her and headed westwards, rounding Portland Bill and heading for Lyme Bay against the wind.


Here, Samuel Baggot, the first mate, Joseph Wordsworth, the third mate and a son of the older John Wordsworth, a Company cadet and Ensign Whitlow of the 22nd Foot, who had missed the boat in Portsmouth, succeeded in catching up with them, by means of an open boat that they had hired at an extortionate rate.

Back to Portland Roads

The coast off Portland
The coast off Portland
When the convoy was about 12 leagues to the west of Portland, Captain Clarke of the Wexford, who had taken charge of the convoy after losing contact with HMS Weymouth, decided that it was best to return to Portland Roads and wait for better weather. Accordingly, the convoy set off eastward, and about two leagues west of Portland, the ships picked up pilots to navigate them round Portland Bill.

The Abergavenny was the sternmost ship of the convoy and did not pick up its pilot until about 3pm in the afternoon. Despite, supposedly, being a local man, the pilot “did not seem well acquainted with the coast”. In fading light, the ship sailed south past Chesil Beach and the barren cliffs of Portland Island and carried on southwards out to sea.

The Shambles

Two miles out to sea to the south east of Portland Bill lies a shoal of coarse sand, shingle and crushed shells called the Shambles. It measures nearly 3 miles long and in the centre, is only 11 feet below the surface at low water. The pilot sought to avoid the Shambles, but failed to give the shoal a wide enough berth. When the fierce wind suddenly died away, the strong tide set the ship against the breakers and she was driven head on onto the Shambles about 5pm on 5 February.

Rocks on the coast of Portland
Rocks on the coast of Portland

When the ship became grounded, Captain Wordsworth was appalled. He realised that the damage to his ship would prevent her from joining the convoy and therefore he would lose out on the profitable trading he had depended upon to make his fortune. He cried out in despair: “Oh pilot! Pilot! You have ruined me!”

But it was more than financial ruin that Wordsworth was to face; it was the loss of his ship and the lives of 260 of its passengers, including his own.

Read more about the ship's fate in The wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny

Sources used include:
A gentleman in the East-India House, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805)
Boddy, Maureen and West, Jack, Weymouth – an illustrated history (1983)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign (2003)
Hayter, Alicia, The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002)

Photographs by Andrew Knowles -