Wreck of the HMS Colossus Scilly, 1798 - Todd Stevens

The Ship

When HMS Colossus was built by way of plans taken from a captured French prize of a then well known fast and effective French 74 gun battleship called the Courageux. This was a deliberate act by the Admiralty as the Courageux was a ship with an impressive and formidable reputation. British shipbuilders, however, improved on the French design. They also replaced the 24lb upper deck guns she carried with smaller lighter 18lb weapons on the Colossus; a similar act occurred with the quarter deck guns; this all went to make the Colossus the much faster and more impressive sailor described in the references presented below. Her keel was laid in 1781 by a Quaker shipbuilder named William Cleverly and Launched in 1787, the design of the Colossus set a new precedent for the British shipbuilder of 3rd rate ships of the line from then on.

Left: Illustration by Austin Johnson.

HMS Colossus soon earned a fine reputation as one of the best and fleetest warships in the British Navy. During her short life of just 11 years service, apart from taking part in major naval engagements, Colossus covered other duties. Occasionally she served as a convoy escort; as indeed she did during two huge but ill fated West Indies expedition fleets of 1795. However, her main job was on station with what was known at the time as: “the Blockading inshore squadron”; a duty Colossus performed well off Toulon, Malta and Cadiz. The Naval chronicle states that; “Only the fastest ships in the fleet are chosen for such duty.”  

In 1793, due to her reputation for being swift, Colossus was rushed by Admiral Lord Hood to Cagliari for reinforcements to aid in the then ensuing siege of Toulon. Hood wrote of her quick return: “His Majesty’s ship Colossus returned to me today bringing with her 350 good troops”  After numerous successes like these, the Times newspaper later wrote: Colossus was one of the finest 74’s in the service, and a prime sailor”   

During her time Colossus had no less than seven Captains, three of which entertained Admirals on board- Admiral Pole; Admiral Christian; and if only briefly-the now famous Admiral Cornwallis. It is interesting to note that Admirals chose the ships in which they served; often opting for the biggest, grandest, or more often as not, the fastest ships in the service. 

Even in battle Colossus was often chosen to take the lead. After the Battle off the French Island of Groix, in 1795, Admiral Lord Bridport stated: “I made the signal for four of the best sailing ships to chase down the French; Sans Parell; Orion; Russell; and Colossus. When they caught up with the fleeing enemy fleet the ensuing battle, which lasted for over three hours, took place within easy range of many enemy shore batteries. During the lengthy engagement, high up on Colossus’ mainmast, a Scottish piper played heartily on his bagpipes until the French struck their colours in defeat.

Two years later in 1797, while back on blockade duty off Cadiz, the then Captain of Colossus, George Murray, was singled out for praise by a Spanish Admiral who stated that:Colossus had kept up so unremitting a watch” that under a flag of truce he invited Murray to a bull fight. Even though the Spaniard offered up his own nephew as insurance, Murray thought it proper to decline the invitation.”  In the squadron at this time Murray in Colossus was serving directly alongside Nelson in Theseus who wrote in candour: “We are looking at the ladies walking the walls and Mall of Cadiz and know of the ridicule they make of their sea officers” 

A little later Colossus and three other warships were sent by the Admiralty to bolster the main fleet at sea; which was about to see action in a major Battle off Cape St Vincent. The Mediterranean Fleets overall Commander, Sir John Jervis, wrote to his superiors of his gratitude:- “Thank you for sending so good a batch, they are a valuable addition to my already excellent stock”  Again, when battle commenced, Colossus was one of the first ships sent into the fray; and bearing the brunt of the first broadsides in front of the Spanish guns; some of her rigging was immediately shot away and severely damaged. Consequently she took no further part in the engagement. 

After repairing her rigging at Lisbon Colossus was sent back on station off Cadiz; until in 1798 Nelson requested all assistance to defeat the French fleet which was believed to have entered the Mediterranean. The Battle of the Nile was about to commence. Overall Commander, Sir John Jervis, replied to Nelsons request: “The Colossus is now most powerfully manned and Murray is to good a fellow to be left when so much is needed to be done.” Although the ship did not actually take part in the action at Aboukir Bay, as the British conquering battle damaged fleet limped back to the Great Bay of Naples to repair, Colossus chased down and successfully captured one of 3 French warships that had escaped from the engagement.  

Whilst the rest of the fleet was repairing at Naples, Colossus went straight back to the Inshore Squadron; this time off Malta until reinforcements came to retake the Island into British control. Colossus did not return to the repairing fleet at Naples until months later. 

By the end of September 1798, with the other ships almost ready again for sea Colossus, via Gibraltar, rejoined the fleet at Naples. “Every assistance has been given to the Vanguard, the Culloden; and Alexander so that these ships will be fit again to sea in a few days. Yesterday His Majesty’s ship Colossus, Captain Murray, with four victuallers from Gibraltar, came to anchor in this port”- (Naples)

It was at this moment Captain Murray gave up his spare Bower anchor (and three of his ships guns) to Nelson in the Vanguard; this simple gift of an anchor between friends helped to seal the fate of Colossus later at Scilly.

Within weeks the city of Naples needed to be evacuated and Colossus was chosen, by Nelson himself, to take a precious and extremely valuable collection of Greek antiquities back to England. This was a personal favour to British ambassador, and friend of Nelson, Sir William Hamilton. His choice of ship, probably due to her swift reputation, was deliberate. The choice was also not taken lightly, as any ship given this task was about to brave the storms of a fast approaching winter; not an ideal time to be out in the Atlantic Ocean. 

On her way home to England Colossus stopped of at Algiers where the Dey [1], in light of recent British victories at sea, and in showing simple admiration towards one of His Majesty’s ships of War, presented Captain Murray with a golden Sabre. Colossus then set sail for Lisbon where she was to take on board the body of Lord Shuldham. Also in the River Tagus at this time, a convoy of transports were waiting to sail home under the protection of Colossus and other ships of war. The convoy, most of which was:- “bound for Ireland and other northern ports” (see Times report below) then set off for England. Colossus along with eight other smaller vessels then parted company with the main convoy somewhere out in the entrance of the English Channel as planned.  

On the 7th December 1798 Colossus entered the Isles of Scilly to seek refuge from a north westerly gale. She came to anchor in St Mary’s Roads with a view to ride out the storm before setting off on the last leg of her journey. Unfortunately, three days later on the 10th of December, the wind veered around to the south east. As it grew ever stronger one of the ships main Bower anchors broke and, in the teeth of the gale, Colossus dragged on the one remaining anchor. Without a spare Bower anchor to throw in, having given it to Nelson at Naples, nothing Murray did would arrest the ships progress towards the rocks. Eventually Colossus was wrecked on the Southard Wells reef off the foot of Samson Island.  

The Loss of a Precious Cargo

Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to the court of the two Sicily’s 1764-1800, was a noted amateur scholar and collector of antiquities. In 1772 Hamilton completed his first collection of classical and archaic Greek vases and these were acquired by the then recently formed British Museum in London. This collection formed the nucleus of what is still the most significant collection of its kind in the world.

In 1791 Sir William married his second wife Emma and by 1796 he had assembled his second collection of vases: “finer than the first” in his own opinion. His wife, Lady Emma Hamilton, using many of this second collection of vases as props, regularly danced around them in what became known as Emma’s attitudes; this is where the game of charades we know and love today originated.  

In 1798, with Naples under threat from the advancing armies of Napoleon, Sir William and Lady Hamilton fled the city. Each individual vase in the collection was wrapped in putty and carefully packed into large wooden crates. Eight of these crates, containing in the region of 1200 vases in total, were loaded aboard the warship Colossus for transportation to England; the rest travelled in a convoy in a smaller transport vessel. Unfortunately, as described in the ships brief history above, Colossus was wrecked at Scilly taking half of the collection to the bottom of the sea.

Diving and Salvage

In 1975 a team of divers located part of the wreck and excavated countless artefacts from site. 30,000 thousand shards of the Greek pottery dating from the 4th and 7th century BC were also raised. These fragments went to the British Museum for study and reconstruction- with the ultimate aim of re-assembling entire vases; all other artefacts raised were, however, sold off to private collectors. Successive salvage teams worked the wreck into the late 1980’s until very little was left to find on the seabed; again this all went into the hands of private collectors. 

Left:  Picture by Todd Stevens.

In May 1999 local diver Todd Stevens, while diving half a mile away from the original excavation and known wreck site, located the largest part of this wreck yet found on the seabed. This site proved to be half the wreck from main mast to stern post; it even had its original guns still sticking through their original wooden gun ports. Although buried in deep sand the site, a mere 14 meters below the surface, was also found to be rich in artefacts. The collection we hold here in the Isles of Scilly Museum, which provides many insights into the workings of an 18th century warship, was raised by, and is the property of, the aforementioned diver. This, however, was not the end of the story.  

In May 2001 Scillonian diver Carmen Stevens (Todd’s wife) made an astonishing discovery on this new site; and uncovering it from beneath the sandy seabed, together the pair revealed an ornate wooden carving of a neo classical warrior. [2] As a result the wreck site received an emergency Government protection order by July that year. Eventually archaeologists and a local salvage company fully excavated out the find. In 2002 the full size of the statue, at over 4 meters high, was realised. Although incomplete this carving, which once adorned the stern port quarter gallery of the ship and surrounded a curving window of Captain Murray’s great cabin, was found to be in an excellent state of preservation. Even traces of its original colouring of dark blue and gold gilt were also still present. Prior to public display, an artefact of this nature must receive extensive conservation treatment and this is performed by the Mary Rose Trust in the Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Times, 'Ship News', 19th December, 1798, Issue 4361.

"It is with much concern I acquaint you with the loss of the Colossus man of war, of 74 guns, Capt. G. Murray, on the night of Monday, the 10th ult. in St Mary's Road, Scilly.

On Friday the 7th ult., the above ship came in with a direct contrary wind, having under her convoy eight vessels from Lisbon, that arrived at the same time, the rest of the fleet having parted two days before for Ireland and the Northern ports.  In the evening, the wind having increased to gale, her cable parted, and all attempts to secure the ship with others failing, she grounded on a ledge of rocks, called Southern Wells near the island of Sampson, from 18 to 24 feet underwater, all the convoy riding in safety then, and since, not withstanding the wind had arisen to a perfect tempest.  Most fortunately not a life was lost save the Quarter-master Richard King, who dropped overboard in the act of sounding. The islanders, at very great risque, exerted themselves to the utmost, in cutters and open boats, and by Tuesday evening every person was taken out, and safely landed, the sick and wounded first, where many were from the battle of the Nile, the worthy Captain, most to be commiserated, remaining to the very last.  The following night the ship fell on to her starboard beam ends, and so violent was the persevering gale, that no craft could attempt to approach the ship, and at present little prospect offers of any of the stores, property, or even the officers baggage being saved, or hereafter recovered, to any extent. The ship is said to have been distressed, in order to to supply other vessels of his Majesty's fleet, and also to have been in a bad state before, and worst since she left Lisbon. The main mast and bowsprit are already gone over the side. Passengers, Capt. Peyton of the Defence at the battle of the Nile, with Capt. Draper; and two officers from other ships; also a Mr Harcourt and servants, with the  remains, of the late Admiral Lord Shuldham, intended to have been deposited under British turf."

For more information on this shipwreck visit - www.hmscolossus.co.uk

[1] - Dey (Deyi), title given to the rulers of the Regency of Algiers under the Ottoman Empire from 1671 onwards.

[2] - It is quite appalling that most early documentation fails to credit both Carmen and Todd for this historic discovery.  A group of local divers/salvors initially decided to take credit for the find.  For professional and political reasons many other failed to take sides.  Ed.