The Amethyst was a Penelope class 5th rate 36 gun frigate commissioned in 1799 that fought in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars against the French. Frigates were square rigged on three masts, strongly built, but smaller and faster than the larger warships used in fleet battles, they were designed to carry a large amount of stores that allowed them to operate independently for long periods and far from home. They were a valued commission as frigates often saw action, giving a greater opportunity for glory, promotion and prize money for the officers and crew.
HMS Penelope, sister to Amethyst
HMS Amethyst was a large frigate, 150ft long and 1042 tons, carrying twenty six 18 pdr. long guns and ten 32 pdr. Carronades; mounted on a single deck well above the waterline she could still use her guns in rough weather. The Amethyst was a particularly successful ship taking more than 46 prizes between 1800 and 1809. One newspaper account describes her as ‘beautiful’ and when under Capt. Seymour she was considered to be ‘the best managed ship in the service’. The ship’s company thought highly of her capabilities, saying ‘she was such a fine frigate, that she would do anything but speak’. Under Captain Seymour she captured the French frigate Thetis in the Bay of Biscay in November 1808, and a year later Amethyst captured the French 40 gun Frigate Niemen. The actions were highly regarded with the Admiralty authorising the issue of the Naval General Service Medal for both engagements.
In September 1809, command of the Amethyst was given to Capt. Jacob Walton, grandson of a successful New York merchant. Walton was assigned duties on the Channel station which occasionally brought him to Plymouth, the end of January 1811 saw the Amethyst back in Plymouth for repairs and to take on stores. Two weeks later, with the ship repaired and at anchor in Plymouth Sound, Walton received orders to join the blockading squadron off Brest. The captain went ashore to speed up loading of stores leaving orders for the ship to prepare for sea and to recover one of her two anchors from the seabed, to be quicker leaving port.
Now lying at a single anchor, the wind freshened and the first lieutenant signalled the shore for permission to lay out a second anchor. No reply was received but the captain returned shortly after, he was briefed about the situation but did not order the ship to leave or order a second anchor deployed. That night, the wind increased and veered to the west, pushing the ship colder to the shore. Around midnight, the small bower anchor holding the ship started to drag, they immediately let go the best bower anchor but it had little effect. In under five minutes the ship struck the rocky shore on her starboard quarter, on a pitch black night in a howling gale.
Capture of Thetis by HMS Amethyst in 1808
Almost immediately her guns were fired and blue lights lit to signal that the ship was in distress. The masts were cut away and fell towards land, some of the crew escaped that way along a makeshift bridge to the safety of the shore. Attempts were made to use the ship’s boats to get to safety but they were swamped, overturned and smashed on the rocks. After hearing the guns, some local inhabitants arrived on the beach, the crew managed to get a rope to the shore and they secured it to a rock. Attaching the other end to Amethyst’s bowsprit the crew rigged a grating slung from the rope as a means for the crew to get off the ship.
Messrs Richard Crosby, John Davis, and Michael Bruce, masters of the Lavinia, Diana, and Jane transports, and Thomas Pope, foreman to Mr Blackburn of Turnchapel, were the first four who volunteered to go in a boat; they succeeded in getting alongside the wreck, and brought on shore 15 or 16 men. Mr Thomas Pope then left the boat and William Robson, a seaman belonging to the Lavinia, went in his place, they reached the wreck a second time and returned with 17 or 18 men. They went off the third time but the people from the frigate anxious to get on shore overloaded the boat, and when about midway between the wreck and the shore it unfortunately overset and it is supposed about thirty perished. Mr Crosby and his lad were miraculously saved on part of the wreck and finally succeeded in getting on board the ship, Mr Davis got on a rock near the shore and was washed off two or three times as the surf so high, he was providentially driven on shore at last by the waves though nearly exhausted. Capt. Bruce and six of crew were swamped by a wave and were lost.
The morning after the wrecking was a different day, fine with light winds, the once beautiful ship Amethyst was on the shore with holes in her bottom and flooded up to her orlop deck. Officers from Plymouth Dockyard took charge, guns and stores were removed and lighters were attached to the hull with chains in an attempt to refloat the ship. Salvage operations went on for some weeks until early March when storms damaged the hull and her decks collapsed. The Amethyst became a total loss and Dockyard carpenters broke her up where she lay. A fine frigate had been wrecked and about 30 souls perished in the storm.
It being found impossible to float the Amethyst, on Monday
eight companies of shipwrights (160 men) began to rip her up
Sherborne Mercury, March 25th 1811
On Tuesday 19th March a Court Martial was held on board HMS Salvador del Mundo to try Captain Walton, the Officers and Ship’s Company for the loss of the Amethyst. Both the Captain and the Master were severely reprimanded and the Master was reduced to serving in nothing higher than a sixth rate ship for 12 months. Walton at the time tried to assign the blame to his officer, Lt. Edward Stewart. However, Stewart’s commanding testimony at the court martial succeeding in clearing all the Junior Officers and himself of any blame. The Senior Captain at the Court Marshall, Lord Beauclare must have been impressed with the officer as he appointed to his own ship, HMS Royal Oak, shortly after. Captain Walton was never again employed by the Navy and he moved back to his family in New York around 1820.
The SHIPS Project team researched the loss of the Amethyst, but the description of the loss and subsequent salvage in the court martial accounts suggested that there was little left to be found on the seabed in Plymouth Sound. In 2012, the area where the ship was thought to be lost was surveyed by the SHIPS Project team and a target was detected using the towed magnetometer. The target was not investigated until the summer of 2013 when the SHIPS dive team were working in the area. On the first visit a diver with an Aquascan DX200 hand held magnetometer located a cannonball partly buried in the seabed. Not far away were iron ballast blocks, copper sheathing from the hull and fittings from the ship all hidden by thick weed and mud. The site was re-surveyed using a Geometrics caesium magnetometer and an echo sounder to create detailed bathymetric and magnetometer charts which were used to define the extents of the wreck site. SHIPS divers undertook metal detector and magnetometer searches using a tape measure baseline to position all of the objects and concretions on the seabed and using the Site Recorder program to process the results. Timbers were found partly buried in the seabed, they were uncovered by hand, drawn to scale using a planning frame then added to the site plan. At the end of the diving season the wreck site was tidied up with timbers and concretions reburied so nothing was left to indicate the location of the wreck.
The finds recovered from the site were cleaned, photographed, drawn and recorded, put into conservation and declared to the Receiver of Wreck. A recovered 32 pdr cannonball or round shot would have been fired from a carronade or ‘smasher’, a short barrelled but powerful cannon that was of a size and type used by the Royal Navy. A copper alloy rag bolt bore the broad arrow mark confirming that this was a Royal Navy vessel. Copper sheathing suggested a date for the wreck after 1770 and a piece bearing the broad arrow was also found. The location and finds found so far suggest that the SHIPS Project team have found the remains of the frigate Amethyst; she was broken up where she lay but not all of her was salvaged.
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