The diary entry of my ancestor Richard Hall, for March 1800, reads: “The Queen Charlotte Man of War took fire and blew up – it is feared not less than 700 lives are lost.” It was typical of many such diary entries of my ancestor, who seemed to get more and more agitated in his old age about accidents and calamities around the world.
The destruction by fire of the British warship HMS Queen Charlotte on 17 March 1800 was one of the most disastrous naval accidents of the era. The flagship of Admiral Lord Keith was anchored off the Italian port of Livorno (otherwise known as Leghorn) in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It had been intended that the ship would sail to capture the island of Cabrona from the French; but the Admiral and a number of the ship’s officers had gone ashore for the night. At about six in the morning a match, which had been kept alight to fire a signal gun, accidentally set ablaze some hay left on the half-deck. There were some 900 men on board and for five hours they struggled to get the blaze under control. In vain they flooded water into the lower decks to stop the fire spreading. Equally in vain, they tried to hurl buckets of water up into the blazing sails and rigging.
At about 11 in the morning the fire reached the massive gunpowder store and blew the ship to smithereens. 673 of the officers and crew on board perished, with only 165 survivors being picked up. The British Register ‘State of Public Affairs’ for April 1800 recounts the story:
We have the painful duty to state the loss of his majesty’s ship Queen Charlotte, of 100 guns, captain Todd, which was burnt off Leghorn on the 17th of March, when the commander and nearly 800 of the crew perished by the explosion. Vice admiral Lord Keith, whose flag was flying on board of her, was, at the time, with some of the officers, providentially on shore. Twenty commissioned and warrant officers, two servants, and 141 seamen, were the whole of the persons who escaped destruction. The particulars are detailed by Mr John Braid, carpenter of the Queen Charlotte: as he was dressing himself about six o’clock, he heard throughout the ship a general cry of ” Fire.” He then states the particulars until half past ten o’clock, when, finding all efforts to extinguish the flames impossible, lie jumped from the jib boom, and swam to an American boat approaching the ship, by which he was picked up and put into a Tartan, then in the charge of lieutenant Stewart, who had come off to the assistance of the ship.
On the morning of the accident. Lord Keith being, as above stated, on shore at Leghorn, had the mortification of discovering the Queen Charlotte on fire four or five leagues at sea. This sight rendered Lord Keith almost frantic – he immediately gave orders for all the vessels and boats to put off, and every assistance to be given; and in this service he was zealously seconded by the Austrian General, and all ranks in Leghorn. They came to an anchor, as the wind blew strongly off the land, but the flames were so rapid that very little hopes could be entertained of saving her. Between eight and nine o’clock the masts and rigging caught fire, and made a most awful blaze; the crew, however, cut the masts by the board ; and, going over the ship, they no longer threatened mischief; but the fire had taken strong hold of the body of the vessel, and continued to rage. The guns began to go off, and the people in the boats and other vessels, who had gone from Leghorn, were much alarmed for fear of the shot, that they would not approach the ship.
It was an ignominious end to a ship named after the wife of George III, and built in 1790 only ten years earlier. In 1796 she had been Admiral Howe’s victorious flagship at the Battle of the Glorious Ist of June, and it is shown here guns blazing away at two French ships of the line. Six were captured and one was sunk.
The Glorious First of June was the first major fleet battle of the French Revolutionary War, 1793-1801. Fast forward to 1800 and it must have been a most appalling experience for Admiral Keith to have to watch as his pride and joy went to its watery grave in a ball of flame.
On the left: a carving of Queen Charlotte in full regalia, in miniature. It was probably made before the full-size carving for the figurehead was commissioned, and would have been used to obtain Royal approval to the design.