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Catastrophe at Spithead (Hardback)

The Sinking of the Royal George

Seaforth Naval Colour Books

By Hilary L Rubinstein
Seaforth Publishing
Pages: 288
Illustrations: 25
ISBN: 9781526764997
Published: 15th January 2020

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£25.00


History Hit

An article written by the author for Dan Snow's History Hit: 'The Only Female Survivor of the Royal George.'

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In one of the most sensational and perplexing incidents in naval history, Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, a much-voyaged veteran and outstanding officer, drowned along with more than 800 crew and many civilian visitors, male and female, on a calm summer’s morning and in a familiar anchorage. This new work examines that tragedy – the sudden capsizing at Spithead on 29 August 1782 of the mighty flagship HMS Royal George.

This is the first comprehensive account of the calamity and is based on a wide variety of contemporary sources, including reports by survivors and eyewitnesses. It discusses such issues as how and why she sank; on whom, if anyone, the blame should fall; the number and nature of the casualties; and the disaster's impact on the nation's psyche, including its treatment in literature. In its pages are encountered, by name and fate, some of the hitherto anonymous seamen who were on the ship and who lived to become the last remaining survivors; these included the only woman to be picked up alive, out of perhaps 300 who were on board.

As well as describing the sinking, the book provides information never before uncovered on the life and career of Kempenfelt, whose flagship Royal George was, ranging from his hitherto unknown maternal ancestry (through which it is shown that he was related to his great contemporary, Admiral Rodney) to accounts of his whereabouts when the ship sank. These call into question the now-set-in-stone scenario in William Cowper's famous poem, which depicts Kempenfelt writing in his cabin when she foundered.

Although the Royal George has receded from national memory in recent years, the tragedy was for a long time front and centre in representations of British naval culture, and this absorbing account – part detective story, part historical narrative – will bring to a new audience an extraordinary tale from the heyday of Britain’s naval power.

Hilary Rubinstein's in-depth research has successfully collated all the relevant information to explain why the 100-gun Royal George should have foundered on 29 August 1782 while at anchor between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight... All the many information sources are highly referenced; Hilary can be commended for going to great lengths to cover all known possible sources. Her love of poetry is apparent as poems appear regularly throughout the book to enhance her prose.

This is an excellent book.

Commander John Bingeman RN, Mariner's Mirror, August 2020

The whole book is an informative and abosrbing read and is highly recommended.

Professor Eric Grove, Navy News, May 2020

With meticulous scholarship aided by diagrams and pictures (including a fine section of color illustrations) this is and will long remain the authoritative text on both Admiral Kempenfelt and the Royal George.

C. Herbert Gilliland, Naval Historical Foundation, August 2020

Rubinstein has written what is surely the definitive account of the sinking of the Royal George. She leaves some mysteries open to other interpretations because they cannot now be solved, but her research and analysis of the evidence puts her conclusions in the high probability category. Rubinstein’s character sketches of the main players and her discussion of the many disparate factors surrounding the disaster are confidently handled, as is her potted biography of Kempenfelt. She is supported by an interesting array of colour plates, including John Schetky’s dramatic painting of the disaster, and adds copious endnotes and a first-rate bibliography. That all combines to make The Sinking of the Royal George an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Read the full review here

Beating Tsundoku

Here is a book with a lot of appeal for those interested in the Royal Navy, the Age of Sail, and shipwrecks. I would have preferred to learn more about the ship’s history and less about the admiral’s career. Events are described clearly and without technical jargon. Anyone fortunate enough to read this book will gain a complete understanding of this historical event and the tragedy that ensued.

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Pirates and Privateers

The capsizing of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose was not the only major warship to disappear in some mystery within sight of home port. The sinking of the Royal George was once a popular subject of debate but has faded from memory until this detailed account. – Very Highly Recommended.

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Firetrench

Well-written and approachable, “Catastrophe At Spithead” offers readers otherwise uninterested in naval or 18th-century history a fascinating peek at this now-obscure accident. It’s a surprising reminder that the type of technical mishaps that plague today’s society have been common throughout history.

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Galveston County - The Daily News

This is an episode in the history of the Royal Navy of which I had no prior knowledge. Hilary Rubenstein's excellent book is both comprehensive and thorough - absorbing indeed. An brilliant piece of detective work on Hilary's part.

Books Monthly

Author article on J-Wire

J-Wire

Author article on History Hit

History Hit

This is a well-written and informative volume which is begs fair to become a Standard Work of Reference on its subject. It is likely to have wide appeal to Historians of several persuasions (Naval, Military, Social), and to members of the public with an interest in ‘England’s Wooden Walls’ and the Royal Navy of the ‘Nelson Era’. Modellers with an interest in the Men o’ War of Britain’s ‘Sailing Navy’ may also find the volume’s plans of interest.

Keith Rimmer, NZ Crown Mines

In one of the most sensational and perplexing incidents in naval history, Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, a veteran naval officer, drowned along with more than 800 crew and many civilian visitors, male and female, on a calm summer’s morning and in a familiar anchorage. This riveting new work examines that tragedy – the sudden capsizing at Spithead on 29 August 1782 of the mighty flagship HMS Royal George. An extraordinary tale from the heyday of Britain’s naval power.

Read the full review here

Julian Stockwin Blog

The author has an excellent control of many varied resources and uses them efficiently and, as far as I can tell, in an unbiased fashion... I would therefore highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the British Navy of around the Revolutionary wars. It will also interest those who want to know more about the day to day running of the navy (even to how they careened ships out of dock!) and the interrelations between ships officers/ warrant officers and crew.

Read the full review here

Model Ship World

Regrettably my knowledge of naval history precluded me from knowing about the sinking of the Royal George at Spithead but I am mighty pleased to have reviewed this book and to have made some progress to advancing my education. It is much more than a narrative of what happened. It is part detective story, part reputation rehabilitation, part naval engineering and part chemistry in its search for what really happened. As with all such investigations it benefits from hindsight and modern knowledge which is brought to bear on the mystery. A very readable book written in a relaxed style and it actually becomes a real page turner.

Michael McCarthy. Battlefield Guide

Michael McCarthy

About Hilary L Rubinstein

HILARY L RUBINSTEIN has spent a lifetime writing on British naval history during the age of sail. She has a PhD in History from the Australian National University and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society; she was a former Council member of the Navy Records Society and edited the Society’s newsletter. She also contributed to Nelson's Band of Brothers: Their Lives and Memorials, edited by Peter Hore and published by Seaforth in 2015.

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