Four naval ships and over 1300 men were lost on the dangerous rocks and reefs around the Isles of Scilly on 22 October, 1707. This disaster is possibly one of the British Navy’s greatest tragedies, with the greatest loss in a non-combat event.
Sir Cloudesley Shovell was Admiral of the Fleet in command of operations in the Mediterranean and had an illustrious naval career. He often made the autumn passage back to England, and was heading home on his flagship ‘Association’ with 20 other vessels on this ill-fated voyage.
The illustration with this article is an 18th century engraving of the disaster by an unknown illustrator. HMS Association is in the centre: “Sir Cloudisly Shovel in the Association with the Eagle, Rumney and the Firebrand, Lost on the Rocks of Scilly, October 22, 1707”.
This was a routine voyage in well-known waters. On 22 October, the Admiral believed the fleet was heading into the English Channel and could run eastwards before a favourable gale. Several crew members spotted rocks and the St Agnes lighthouse off the south western Scilly Islands. Firing their guns in warning as they realised their position, the ‘Association’ struck the Outer Gilstone Rock and sank, ‘Romney’ and ‘Firebrand’ also sank on these rocks while the ‘Eagle’ went down off Tearing Ledge.
This disaster has been researched and discussed over the centuries, with many theories being proposed. How did it happen? What caused this serious error in navigational judgement.
There is an interesting discussion about the disaster on the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich blog.