One of the worst maritime disasters in British history happened off the Isles of Scilly on this day in history, 22 October 1707. (O.S.) In the summer or 1707, Commander-in-Chief of the British Fleets, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, had led a fleet of 21 British ships in their Mediterranean campaign against the French as part of the War of the Spanish Succession.
At summers end, the fleet, led by Shovell’s flagship HMS Association, departed Gibraltar on 29 September, bound for England. The entire return voyage was plagued by bad weather and strong gales. The portion of their journey that traversed the Atlantic saw increasingly worse weather that pushed them off course. As the fleet entered the English Channel on the night of 22 October, the sailing masters thought they were safe in the waters west of Ushant.
As it turns out, the sailing masters had miscalculated their longitude, and by the added effect of the bad weather, the fleet was actually on a collision course with the rocks off the Isles of Scilly. Before they realized their mistake, four ships had struck the rocks and sank: HMS Association (the flagship), HMS Eagle, HMS Romney, and HMS Firebrand (a fireship). The sole survivor from the sinking of the three largest ships was George Lawrence, who had worked as a butcher before joining the crew of Romney as quartermaster. The unfortunate wreck resulted in an unknown number of deaths, though estimates place the number of victims at between 1,400 and 2,000, including Sir Cloudesley Shovell, making the Scilly naval disaster one of the worst maritime disasters in Britain’s history.
The part that incorrect longitudinal measurement played in the Scilly naval disaster eventually led to the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the Board of Longitude and offered a large money prize for anyone who could find a method of determining longitude accurately at sea.
If you’re interested in Britain’s maritime and naval history, be sure to check out my podcast which covers the maritime history of the world. Even though we haven’t made it over to Britain yet, I’m sure we’ll get there eventually! And anyway, the maritime history of the rest of the world is pretty fascinating too.