Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cutter Cameleon

180 years ago today, on 27th August 1834, a tragedy occurred off the South Foreland.

HMS Castor, a 5th rate frigate, was on passage from the Downs to Plymouth. The smaller, more manoeuvrable revenue cutter, Cameleon, was on patrol off Dover. In an unfortunate and ultimately fatal sequence of events, uncovered in the subsequent Courts Martial, the Cameleon was 'run down' by HMS Castor and sank with the loss of her commanding officer and 12 crew.

A paragraph in the Political Register in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine for 1834 (Volume 1, p710) records the event thus...

I can't find a picture of Cameleon or Castor that I can reproduce here but here's a painting by the Belgian artist Petrus Nefors H.M.S. Castor Running Down the Cameleon Cutter off Dover...and if I am not mistaken, the South Foreland lighthouses are visible on the White Cliffs at the far right!

HMS Castor, was a Royal Navy ship, a 5th rate frigate with 36 guns. She was built at Chatham in 1832 and had had a varied career before the terrible accident off Dover. Her Captain Lord John Hay was the 3rd son of the Marquess of Tweeddale. Born in 1793, he entered the Royal Navy in 1804 (aged 11). He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a Commander in 1814. His naval career stalled briefly when he was returned as an MP in 1826. He didn't get another command until 1832, when he took the helm of the brand new frigate, HMS Castor. He finally achieved the rank of Rear Admiral in 1851 but died within 2 days of his appointment.

The Revenue Cutter Cameleon (or Camelion) was built by William Hedgcock of Dover in 1822.
(King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855, by E. Keble Chatterton, 1912) Revenue cutters patrolled the coast for smugglers; a dangerous & risky operation.

Captain Hay was in command of HMS Castor on 27th August.  His letter to The Admiralty reporting the fatal incident is reproduced here in The Nautical Magazine: A Journal of Papers on Subjects Connected with Maritime Affairs, 1834, Volume 3.

Captain Hay provided, as he says above, a list of the officers and crew of Cameleon. The following men were drowned when Cutter Cameleon sank: Lieutenant John Pratten, Mate Mr Carthew, Boatswain William Godfrey, Able seamen James Arnold, John Holbrook, Charles Kingsford, Henry Coleman & Edward Boddin, Ordinary seaman William Dicks, Boys Daniel Ovenden, George Tarrill, Daniel Ford & George Ward. Four crew were saved: Gunner William Gibson, Able seaman Thomas Newman, Boys Charles Yate & George Drew.

The details of the Courts Martial, which took place on board the 1st rate Ship-of-the-Line HMS San Josef in Plymouth, are given in The Nautical Magazine, Volume III for 1834. (You may be wondering about the name HMS San Josef? She was captured from the Spanish during the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797)

The conclusion of the Courts Martial was that HMS Castor had not kept a proper look-out. It appears that Cameleon was under sail and going across the path of the frigate. Both vessels should have had look outs and why neither got out of the other's way, isn't clear. The cutter expected the frigate to give way. Perhaps the cutter misjudged their relative speeds? Lost the wind in her sails momentarily? As the frigate allegedly had no-one on lookout, by the time Cameleon was too close to manoeuvre, the collision was inevitable. The larger frigate simply ran down the cutter and sunk her.

Amazingly Captain Hay, his officers & crew were completely exonerated. That is, except one man, the fall-guy, one Lieutenant James Johnstone McClaverty. McClaverty was, according to the official version, the duty officer who should have been on watch. The court found that he had neglected his duty and he was dismissed from the Navy. The official account is brief but the more detailed, cynical, unofficial account from a local Plymouth newspaper 'feels bold in stating' the following 'the fine fellow on whom the sentence of the court-martial has fallen so heavily, and who is spoken of by all who know him in the highest possible manner, both as a smart, active officer, and a gentleman; nay, bets were even offered freely by many naval gentlemen, that the watch in which the accident occurred, was not Lieut. McClaverty's."

After this tragic incident HMS Castor & her crew went on to serve in the Mediterranean, but she was decommissioned not long after, in 1842. After this she was used in the East Indies & the Cape of Good Hope where she was involved in anti-slavery captures. Her guns were reduced in number, and she was used as a training ship, then later part of the Royal Naval Reserve. She was finally broken up in 1902 in Woolwich. The details of her career are here.

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