This picture shows a boat being “careened” (hauled onto her side) for repairs. At our February meeting Commodore Frances Miller told how she’d come across and been intrigued by this watercolour, which was unsigned, undated, with no hint of the ship’s name. She was sufficiently interested to start searching for the boat’s identity and why it was the subject of this laborious procedure…..
By chance she came across the same picture in a booklet about Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua, which carried the legend “HMS Formidable hove down at Malta”, and this was enough to start. Very soon she had an artist (Schranz) and date (1843). She was now off! Frances worked her keyboard and went on to build a history, in amazing detail, of this 19c ship-of-the-line – a “second rater” of 3,500 tons with 84 guns: a history spanning nearly a century from 1819 when her keel was laid, to her being broken up in 1906.
And the circumstances of the picture? During a full and varied service life HMS Formidable had run aground, off the Spanish coast, 14 miles west of Barcelona. She’d suffered substantial damage and lost her rudder. Guns, shot and water were jettisoned and she was eventually hauled off through the combined efforts of a British warship and two French steamers. She was however leaking badly. From Barcelona she was towed to Port Mahon, a long thin inlet on the south-easterly tip of Menorca, where a new rudder was made for the trip to the dock at Malta for repairs.
In Malta a diver inspection (and this was very early use of a diver’s helmet with air pumped from the surface) determined the extent of the damage, and, as no dry dock yet existed there, the vastly complex process of hauling the ship over and repairing her was planned and executed. 800 or so men were engaged in all, with 360 needed to work the capstans for the hauling-over itself.
After repairs in Malta HMS Formidable saw another 20 years of naval service before being retired for use as a training ship for destitute and neglected boys, and as an Industrial School Ship, for children “committed by the courts”. Frances showed us evocative photographs (looking very staged!) of these youngsters on board. In 1906 Formidable was sold to Castles’ Shipbreaking Company at Baltic Wharf.
So was that the end of the story? Not quite. Formidable’s figurehead was kept by Castles’ until 1939 when it was sold, ahead of the Blitz which destroyed many others, to The Mariners’ Museum, Virginia, USA, where it can still be seen.
This was both a fascinating account of a ship’s history, from her commissioning to ultimate breaking-up; and an equally fascinating and intriguing example of how, with determination and imagination, the power of the Internet can be harnessed nowadays to re-discover and picture the past. One finding leads to others, and the problem, as Frances told us, was not so much following the trail as resisting the temptations to go off on tangents and explore other things entirely.
Frances had stepped in at the last minute on this “Beast from the East” evening with this talk to replace the scheduled speaker who had dog and travel problems. We who’d made it through the snow were lucky that she already had this talk essentially to hand, to give to another gathering a bit later. Resourceful, we Chipping Norton sailors!