Shipwrecks And Disasters On The River Dart
By Don Collinson, ISBN: 978-0956-320018, Published by Kingswear Historians and obtainable from:- Dr. Neil Baxter, The old Rectory, Church Hill, Kingswear, TQ6 08X at a cost of £5.00
This booklet running to 54 pages in A5 format and with 47 black and white illustrations has been carefully prepared by a founder member of our Society, still hale and hearty in his 90th year who members will recall previously published the Dartmouth Chronicles.
Authors when starting a book, often endeavour to capture the reader's early attention, by commencing with a subject that has a romantic theme from our long and colourful history. This booklet follows that criterion, by starting with two sixteenth century incidents, the capture of two Spanish Galleons, one in 1588, an Armada Flagship, the other in 1592, a Treasure Ship. In Dartmouth, over the long centuries, local affairs and events (including wreck and distress) were mainly un-recorded, until the 1854 founding by Robert Cranford of the "Dartmouth Chronicle". The paper was meticulous in detail and recorded everything, including events of misfortune and those of a more tragic nature.
The Dartmouth Armada Wrecks were recorded in J.A.Froude's monumental work, "`The Spanish Story of the Armada" which he formulated from Spanish records in Madrid and Cadiz. On the 31st July 1588, the Spanish Squadrons having passed the Sound, resumed their positions De Leyva leading and Recalde covering the rear, the English being two miles behind. The Recalde had been severely damaged, so to prevent its capture, Pedro de Valdes, third in command of the Armada, in his ship, the Capitana turned to help, but collided with the Santa Catalina, breaking his bowsprit and losing the fore top-mast, so the ship became un-manageable. Then, the Duke of Palma, leader of the expedition, on advice from Diego Florez, King Philip of Spain's adviser, refused to risk the expedition by stopping the fleet to help. So the Capitana was left to her fate, and after a brave fight, surrendered on the best terms they could get, namely, their lives would be spared, but no mention was made that they would be fed. Sir Francis Drake then commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh, in the Roebuck, to tow the Capitana to Torbay, where the officers received special treatment, while the crew were imprisoned in the Great Barn at Torre Abbey. Soon 200 men were moved to Exeter Goal for eventual ransom, and the Capitana and the remaining prisoners were moved to Dartmouth. Their fate was recorded by William Henley. Normally at that time in warfare, it was not customary to take prisoners, all the vanquished, wounded and well being thrown into the sea, a practice called converting to "Water Spaniels". But the prisoners at Dartmouth died of disease brought on by starvation, as their provisions had gone bad, and the bread was full of worms. Sir George Carey, Devon's Lord Lieutenant, said they should have been made Water Spaniels when captured. Here, Dartmouth had a valuable prize, containing Armada Funds, Powder, Cannon, Spices, Swords, etc, but the inhabitants showed no humanity. The bigotry of Philip, and his Inquisition, was met by a bigotry as merciless as his own.
In 1592, the Roebuck, was again to play a major part in the wars with Spain, with the capture of the treasure ship, the great carrack, the 1,600 ton "Madre de Dios". This was an exceptional tonnage, as the average was 400 tons, including warships. The Madre de Dios was returning from the East Indies with spices, silks, drugs, calicos, quilts, carpets, and with ivory, ebony, and porcelain from China. She was intercepted close to Spain by a fleet of four English privateers, the Dainty, Roebuck, Golden Dragon, and the queen's ship, Foresight. The battle was fierce, as the great carrack was 165 ft long by 47 ft beam, with seven orlop decks, three closed decks, forecastle and spar decks, and 32 Brass cannon. She was an easy target for the four smaller 400 ton-encircling privateers, pounding her huge towering stern, which created carnage among the 12/14 men needed to handle her huge tiller steering. Finally, boarding parties brought her downfall, and the English commander, Sir John Burroughs, showed compassion and sent all his surgeons aboard, and as they had drifted near land, contrary to the usual procedure, allowed the Spanish captain, Don Fernando de Mendosa, (three times captured and ransomed from the Turks) and most of his crew to make for the nearby coast. The carrack was then brought to the Dart, and the sight of this huge ship had the area in ferment, and Sir Ferdinand Gorges and some local gentry were appointed overseers. But, some looting started, so from London, Lord Burleigh, for the crown sent his own son Robert Cecil, and Sir Walter Raleigh, (then imprisoned in the tower, for marrying the queen's handmaiden, without her permission) who, because of his local popularity was released (with minder) to accompany him, to recover stolen property. They had some success and during Raleigh's brief period of liberty, there was a meeting between Sir Walter Raleigh and his half brother, from Greenway, Sir John Gilbert. Ten ships were then loaded with treasure and sailed for London and the contents being valued at the then astonishing figure of f140,000. The great ship remained on the Dart, but its sheer size, maintenance, and huge crew requirements meant, for private enterprise, it had no commercial value for trading. So she was stripped of her timbers, and he ribbed skeleton slowly rotted away and disintegrated into the mud of the quiet waters of the Dart.
Uncertainty abounds as to the eventual fate of both these vessels. In the case of the Armada Galleon, Froude suggests she rotted away at Warfleet, but makes no reference to the Treasure Ship, but Percy Russell says the Armada Galleon was towed to Chatham and broken up, and that the Treasure Ship rotted away in Old Mill Creek.
The Spanish Armada, and Treasure Galleon are of interest, as we do not know of any British Ports that hosted captured Spanish Warships. The information concerning Archdeacon Froude's two year research in Madrid and Cadiz of Spanish records, to produce a 102-page resumé of the Spanish account of the failed invasion, is not generally known, nor that the English treated the prisoners so badly. The fact that Sir Francis Drakes, "Golden Hind Replica," (Page 49) some four hundred years later, sunk on the "River Dart" would have been some consolation to the Spaniards!!
The voyages of the Kingswear based explorers, Davies, Gilbert, Raleigh, are well recorded, but not information on the every- day life in the harbour, Dartmouth, and Kingswear. There are a few documents on the Holdsworth's, Seale's, and the Corporation, while Kingswear has the extensive Luttrell Documents, and a few Cole-Hody deeds, (stored at Taunton). There is nothing on local shipbuilding, until the 1786 Merchant Shipping Act, namely, the date, builder, and owner. The long Napoleonic Wars, diminished the Newfoundland/Labrador trade, which caused the port fall into decay, until the mid nineteenth century.
In 1843, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, aboard the first Royal Steam-Yacht, Victoria and Albert I, escorted by two small warships, due to heavy storms in the channel were forced to make an un-planned visit to the harbour. She was received ashore by the Mayor, Sir J Seale, then, in the Royal Barge made a trip up river, and was so delighted, that later, before leaving for Plymouth, she named the river, "Her English Rhine". This visit seemed to herald a change in the port fortunes, for small steamships had began to call to replenish coal supplies, initiating the port's one hundred years as a major bunkering station. (1854-1954).
As a Plymouth founding S.W.M.H.S. member, Don Collinson has done an excellent job in producing this local history, which the local History group had printed in time for his ninetieth birthday. This excellent booklet is one in a series:- Dart Estuary Lights Marks & Lighthouses by Don Collinson; and Kingswear & Neighbourhood by Michael Stevens and Don Collinson, all of which are available from Dr Neil Baxter, The Old Rectory, Church Hill, Kingswear, Devon, TQ6 08X at a cost of just £5.00 each.
Don comments that Ernest Tyler, to whom he dedicated the booklet, was Plymouth, born and bred, and, on occasional leave, they would meet up, and get boozed up, in the "Chief & Petty Officers Club" in Alexandria. Sadly Ernest Tyler was lost in the sinking of HMS Barham in November 1941.
Reviewed by David B. Clement
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