Scilly naval disaster of 1707: Wikis


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Occurrence summary
Date 22 October 1707
Type navigation accident
Site Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom
49°56′10″N 6°19′22″W / 49.93611°N 6.32278°W / 49.93611; -6.32278Coordinates: 49°56′10″N 6°19′22″W / 49.93611°N 6.32278°W / 49.93611; -6.32278
Injuries N/A
Fatalities 1,400 - 2,000
Survivors 1
Operator Royal Navy
Destination Portsmouth, England

Scilly naval disaster of 1707 is an umbrella term for the events of the 22 October 1707 which led to the sinking of a British naval fleet off the Isles of Scilly. With four large ships and about 1,400 sailors lost it was one of the greatest maritime disasters the British Isles had seen until then. It was later determined that the main cause of the disaster was the navigators' inability to accurately calculate their longitude.



Sir Cloudesley Shovell, (1650–1707). Oil by Michael Dahl.

In summer of 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession, a combined British, Austrian and Dutch force under the command of Prince Eugene besieged and attempted to take the French port of Toulon. During this campaign, which was fought from 29 July to 21 August, Great Britain dispatched a fleet to provide naval support. Led by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Fleets, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the ships sailed to the Mediterranean and also managed to inflict damage on the French fleet caught in the siege. The campaign was unsuccessful and the alliance was ultimately defeated by Franco-Spanish units. The British fleet was subsequently ordered to return home, and set sail from Gibraltar to Portsmouth in late October.

Loss of the ships

The Isles of Scilly

Shovell's fleet of twenty-two ships left Gibraltar on 29 September, with HMS Association serving as the admiral's flagship. The passage was marked by extremely bad weather and constant squalls and gales. Finally, on the night of 22 October 1707 (Old Style, 2 November 1707 by the modern calendar), the squadron entered the mouth of the English Channel and Shovell believed that they were on the last leg of their journey. However, due to a combination of the bad weather and the mariners' inability to accurately calculate their east/west position, the fleet was unaware that it was off course and closing in on the Isles of Scilly instead.[1] Before their mistake could be corrected, the fleet struck rocks and four ships were lost:

  • HMS Association, a 90-gun second rate ship of the line commanded by Captain Edmund Loades, smashed into Scilly’s Outer Gilstone Rock at 8 p.m. and sank, drowning her entire crew of about 800 men and Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell himself.[2][3] Association was seen by those on board HMS St George to go down in three or four minutes' time. St George also struck rocks, but managed to get off.
  • HMS Romney, a 50-gun fourth rate ship of the line, hit Bishop Rock and went down with all but one of her crew. The sole survivor from the three largest ships was George Lawrence, who had worked as a butcher before joining the crew of Romney as quartermaster.[4]
  • HMS Firebrand, a fireship commanded by Captain Francis Piercy, smashed into the Gilstone Rock like Association, but unlike the flagship she was lifted off by a huge wave. Piercy managed to steer his badly damaged ship between St Agnes and Annet, but she foundered in Smith Sound, sinking close to Menglow Rock and losing 28 of her crew of 40.[5]
Shovell's memorial at Porthellick Cove
Shovell's memorial in Westminster Abbey

The exact number of sailors who were killed in the sinking of the four ships is unknown. Statements vary between 1,400[6] and over 2,000[7], making it one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history. The admiral's body, along with those of his two stepsons and his flag-captain, Loades, washed up on Porthellick Cove on St Mary's the following day, almost seven miles from where the Association was wrecked. A memorial was later erected at this site. Shovell was temporarily buried on the beach on St Mary's. By order of Queen Anne the body was later exhumed, embalmed and interred in Westminster Abbey.[8]

Legends of the disaster

It is said that a common sailor on Admiral Shovell's ship tried to warn the crew that they were off course, either because he was a native of the Scilly Isles and knew a distinct smell of the land or he had been keeping his own log (which is a variant appearing in the late 19th century), but Shovell had him hanged at the yardarm for inciting mutiny. While it is not at all unlikely that a sailor might have debated the vessel's location and feared for its fate (such debates were common upon entering the English Channel as noted by Samuel Pepys in 1684), there is no evidence that the man was hanged in contemporary documents. Regardless, assuming this sailor did exist and was not hanged, he was equally dead by drowning with the rest of the crew of the Association a few hours later. Another story that is often told is that Admiral Shovell was alive, at least barely, when he reached the shore at Porthellick Cove, but was murdered by a Scilly woman for the sake of his priceless emerald ring. The murder came to light many years later when the woman, on her deathbed, confessed his murder to a clergyman and produced the stolen ring which was returned to Shovell's heirs.


The disastrous wrecking of the fleet in home waters brought great consternation to the nation. Clearly, something better than dead reckoning was needed to navigate in dangerous waters. This led to the Longitude Act in 1714 which offered a large prize for anyone who could find a method of determining longitude accurately at sea. After many years the consequence of the prize was that accurate marine chronometers were produced and the lunar distance method was developed, both of which became used throughout the world for navigation at sea.

It is not certain that the navigational error leading to the shipwrecks was purely one of longitude as reported in the newspapers at the time. Some have argued that the wreck was caused more by an error in latitude than longitude. William May[9] points out that the position of the Scillies themselves was not known accurately in either longitude or latitude. In addition, his analysis of the 40 extant logbooks from the 21 ships in the fleet do not show the error in longitude to be a significant factor compared to latitude.

Discovery of the wrecks

The ships of Sir Cloudesley Shovell's fleet lay undisturbed on the seabed for almost 260 years.[10] In June 1967, the minesweeper, HMS Puttenham, equipped with twelve divers under the command of Engineer-Lieutenant Roy Graham, sailed to the Scillies and dropped anchor off Gilstone Ledge, just to the south-east of Bishop Rock.[11] Graham recalled some years later: "The weather was so bad, all we achieved was the sight of a blur of seaweed, seals and white water as we were swept through the Gilstone Reef and fortunately out the other side."[12] The wreck of Association was finally located on the Ledge. Divers first discovered a cannon, and on the third dive, silver and gold coins were spotted. The Ministry of Defence initially suppressed news of the discovery for fear of attracting treasure hunters, but word was soon out and excited huge national interest.[13]

More than 2,000 coins and other artefacts were finally recovered from the wreck site and auctioned by Sotheby's in July 1969.[14] The wreck of Firebrand was discovered in 1982, and several items were recovered, including guns and anchors, a wooden "nocturne" (for the time at night), a bell and carved cherubs.[15]

Today photos of the original diving expedition are on display at the Old Wesleyan Chapel in St. Mary's, of the team leader Lt Graham and a naval doctor examining human bones from the wreck, alongside the ship's bell of the Firebrand with "1692" engraved on it, and many more artefacts.[16] The Council of the Scilly Isles commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of the disaster in 2007.[17]


  1. ^ Tercentenary Commemorations of the 1707 Association Disaster
  2. ^ For more detail on the wreck and its salvage in the 20th century, see McBride, Peter and Larn, Richard (1999) Admiral Shovell's treasure; ISBN 0-9523971-3-7 (hardback) ISBN 0-9523971-2-9 (paperback). This includes much detailed information, such as a Shovell family tree.
  3. ^ Westminster Abbey website-page showing Shovell's tomb
  4. ^ HMS Association (+1707) on
  5. ^ HMS Association (+1707) on
  6. ^ biography of Cloudesley Shovell, retrieved 2010-01-08.
  7. ^ Sir Clowdisley Shovell and The Association, by Peter Mitchell, on July 4, 2007
  8. ^ Sir Clowdisley Shovell and The Association, by Peter Mitchell, on July 4, 2007
  9. ^ May, William Edward, A History of Marine Navigation, G. T. Foulis & Co. Ltd., Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, 1973, ISBN 0 85429 143 1
  10. ^ HMS Association (+1707) on
  11. ^ Farrell, Nigel, An Island Parish. A Summer on Scilly, Headline Publishing Group, London 2008, p. 205-206, ISBN 978-0-7553-1764-6
  12. ^ HMS Association (+1707) on
  13. ^ Farrell, Nigel, An Island Parish. A Summer on Scilly, Headline Publishing Group, London 2008, p. 205-206, ISBN 978-0-7553-1764-6
  14. ^ The HMS Association Treasure Wreck, Scilly Isles
  15. ^ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 11, Issue 3 (p 254-257)
  16. ^ Farrell, Nigel, An Island Parish. A Summer on Scilly, Headline Publishing Group, London 2008, p. 207, ISBN 978-0-7553-1764-6
  17. ^ Council of the Scilly Isles website.

See also



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