Wednesday, 14th February, 2024
Wrecked off Bolt Tail 15th February 1760
In late 2023, the History Group was able to buy this wonderful model of HMS Ramillies which was built by Alan Quester from Oswestry, who dived on the wreck in 1973. During lockdown, Alan researched and then built his model, and gave us information about his dive, and some of the history of the Ramillies.
This account of the history of HMS Ramillies is posted on the anniversary of the wrecking of HMS Ramillies off Bolt Tail on 15th February 1760. Not the only ship to bear the name, Ramillies*, she was built in Woolwich, London and launched in October 1664. At that time she had 82 guns and was named the Katherine, for Catherine of Braganza, The Queen wife of Charles ll. She was rebuilt in 1702 and renamed the Royal Katherine. Her third rebuild in was 1749, when guns and a short deck were added, and she was re named Ramillies (after the battle of Ramillies in 1706.) During her career she was involved in several major sea battles in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and in the Raid on the Medway 1667 she was deliberately sunk to avoid capture, and later re-floated. She was in action against the French in the Seven Years War, but at over 90 years old this big ship of 1,700 tons was leaking, so sailed for Plymouth for repairs thus missing the battle of Quiberon Bay. The Battle of Quiberon Bay gave Admiral Hawke and the Navy a decisive victory over France by thwarting an attempted invasion. However it was deemed essential that French ports be blockaded to prevent any further attempts, as not all the French ships had been sunk. Admiral Boscawen was charged with taking a squadron to Quiberon bay as part of the blockade. Ramillies,had been repaired in Plymouth, and captained by Wittewronge* Taylor, and was ready to join Admiral Boscawen by the end of December 1759. In January 1760 two attempts were made to set sail but atrocious weather delayed each attempt. On both attempts the squadron encountered heavy weather in the Western Channel they were forced to shelter at Spithead.
On February 6th with a brief break in the weather, Admiral Boscawen decided to set sail again. His flotilla consisted of 6 ships his Flag ship the Royal William, Venus, Princess Amelia, St George, the cutter Hawke, and Ramillies who had damaged her larboard on entering the port.
On 14th February a terrific storm hit the country, causing enormous damage in towns and the countryside. On the south coast, the flotilla had sailed into a hurricane in the Western Channel. Visibility was extremely poor, and the ships scattered. The Flagship had torn sails and was forced to seek shelter in Plymouth, Ramillies was leaking badly after the damage entering port, and hove to, but did not put up a distress signal so that she wouldn’t be confused with the Flag ship. With the winds against them Venus, St George and Hawke were blown back towards Spithead. Hawke was never seen again and no trace, of her ever found. Even with a crew of 734, Ramillies was a big ship to manoeuvre with only wind power and leaking badly. By the 15th,the weather was dreadful with little visibility; at 10.00am, a midshipman caught sight of land, the sailing master, who did not see land,nontheless took a course to the north east. At 11.00am he had a brief glimpse of an island and mistakenly thought to be Looe Island which would have given a chance, aided by the wind, for her to round Rame Head and reach shelter. Sadly what had been sighted was Burgh Island, 26 miles east of Plymouth. Then with a south westerly gale on a spring tide, the sailing master steered further north east towards what he thought would be Rame Head, a decision based on the wrong assumption, and one which sealed the fate of the Ramillies. Worse, they were caught within the sweep of Bigbury Bay on a windward shore with a south westerly blowing them north east towards Bolt Tail. Seeing the mistake too late Captain Taylor took over from the sailing master; around 2.00pm, the mainsail split the main mast came down followed by the mizzen, two anchors were dropped in an attempt to hold her but, the cables were caught and chaffing together. When one cable broke at dusk, the second could not hold her, and the wind and tide drove Ramillies stern first onto a rock and into the mouth of a cave.
Only twenty six crew, and one, midshipman Harold,(the only commissioned officer,) survived: many including the boatswain and his young son were dashed into the rocks. The few survivors managed to leap to the rocks and in unimaginably dreadful conditions, clawed their way up the cliffs. The last man off was William Wise, who, with the ship going from beneath his feet lowered a ladder and despite one leg being crushed by the wreck as it smashed against the rocks, pulled himself up the cliff; when he looked back all he could see was matchwood; exhausted he pulled himself into a grassy crack, where he was found the next day. It became known as Wise’s Pit. With several hours of ebb, and adverse tide left, waves pounded the wreck, and debris and the bodies of over 700 men would be washed into the beaches from Mouthwell to Thurlestone and beyond. Later when the Master Attendant of Plymouth Dockyard reported to the Admiralty, he could not see any of the Ramillies hull, masts, sails or yards, and the wreckage so scattered that the Revenue Men were hard pressed to stop locals plundering. Some initial salvage was done and some guns recovered.
Whilst the terrible events were unravelling, two customs men Frank Shepherd and Thomas Barriball battled the weather up to Bolt Tail. Also watching were many of the residents of the village. They made their living from fishing, but at that time a useful addition to subsistence came from a bit of scavenging, and smuggling. A merchant ship would have been of more interest but it is said that timber from The Ramillies was used in many of the cottages in Inner Hope.
The survivors of the wreck were cared for in the village. When Admiral Boscawen, who was waiting in Plymouth, heard the dreadful news, men were dispatched to find the survivors. They went to Salcombe, only to find that the wreck was further along the coast. When the survivors were located they promised to go to Dartmouth the following day. The lame survivors who could not yet move, asked who would pay their Landlords, the reply is not known. Newspapers of the time reported crying in the streets in Gosport and Plymouth and many other towns.
"Gosport Feb 22nd. Words cannot defcribe the Confternation of the People of the Town thrown into melancholy at the Lofs of his Majefty's Ship Ramillies Nothing but wailing and weeping is heard in every Street;Wives for their Husbands, Parentd for their Children and Children lamenting the Lofs of their Fathers."
"PLYMOUTH Doce Feb 22.Various are the Accounts of the Ramillies: It is given out that the Mafter took the Bolt for the Mewftone and affured the Captain they would be in Plymouth Sound in lefs than an hour, and was fo fanguine as to knock down a poor Fellow who faid it was the Bolt, it is added, that on feeing their imminent Danger the whole Crew were difpirited, wrung their Hands, and lamented their Fate. The Boatfwain animated them all he could, but in vain;they had loft all Hopes, and funk into Defpair. The Land hereabouts appears so much like that which forms Plymouth Sound, that many Ships have been loft by their miflaking it."
A song to commemorate the disaster was composed, and is sung to this day.
It was standard practice at the time for all survivors to be subject to Courts Martial to discover the truth of what had occurred; It became clear at the hearings, that they were a well-disciplined crew, but, the visibility, severity of the weather, the age, condition of the ship and an error in navigation lead to the catastrophe.
In 1906 Stephen Chapman a resident of Hope Cove agreed to helmet dive on the site. The salvage report can be seen in the Naval and Military Record of May 1906. He found amongst other things, cannon, a sword and brass weights. He dived all season and recovered, some of articles which are now in local private ownership. Many artefacts can be seen in Charlestown Museum.
*Dates and details vary a little in the contemporaneous and subsequent accounts.
*After the disaster, Admiral Boscawen promised a reverent interment for all the dead. In 1963 after a storm, the skeletal remains of nine men, dated to come from that time were uncovered behind the beach in Thurlestone; the rest of the site was left undisturbed.
*Ramillies was thought to be an unlucky ship, as she had been Flag ship for Admirals Byng and Hawke in 1756 and 1757 when they had not been successful in battle.
*5 Ships have been named HMS Ramillies after the Battle of Ramillies in May 1706
HMS Ramillies wrecked Bolt Tail 1760
1763 HMS Ramillies damaged in in a storm 1782, and subsequently burnt.
HMS Ramillies 1785 broken up 1850
HMS Ramillies 1892 scrapped 1913
HMS Ramillies 1916 scrapped 1948
* Captain Taylor’s unusual first name: Wittewrong is an old name of Flemish origin, Sir John Wittewrong 1st Baronet, was an English Parliamentarian , colonel and squire of Rothampsted Manor Hertfordshire, and may have been Captain Taylor’s Maternal Grandfather.
National Newspaper Archive
Thurlestone Village Voice article 1986 written by Kelland MacDonald
Books by Kelland MC Donald, a journalist and renowned diver, and who retired to Thurlestone. The Wreck Hunters, (co authored with Roger Jeffris) Dive South Devon, The Wreck Walker’s Guide, The Shipwrecks of the South Hams
A number of Diver’s websites,
Heritage websites including Gateway Heritage.
Thanks for pointers and advice to;
Cdr M Barton RNR Hon.sec SNR
Adm BNB Williams RN Ret CBE.
Anna Stone BA MA ARM
Members of the History Group, especially Edwina and the 3 J’s who spent time researching and advising.
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This post is intended to share local history information, to promote discussion and inform research. The information included is to the best of my knowledge and belief accurate, and obtained from reliable sources. If you find inaccuracies or omissions it would be really helpful to know, so that we can update our information. Maz.
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