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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: 352
Illustrations: 25
ISBN: 9781526764997
Published: 30th January 2020

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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.

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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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