Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester (book review)

Book Review: Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester, Nigel Pickford (The History Press)

In the 17th century England was deeply, and occasionally violently, divided by religion. Indeed, earlier in the century religious differences, in part, led to the Civil War and the beheading of King Charles I, the exile of his sons Charles and James, and the country’s only period as a republic. Eventually Charles II was invited back to take the throne. Yet, despite the Restoration, the religious differences remained between those of the Anglican doctrine and those of the more puritan strains of Christianity that had developed. However, there was one thing both sides could agree on: their hatred of Catholics.

By the early 1680s Charles II had no heir to the throne and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, was already past child-bearing age. The king was not in the best of health and, should he die, the crown would pass to his brother, James, Duke of York. However, there was a problem: James was a Catholic. To make matters worse, he had married the Italian Mary of Modena. She had reluctantly accepted his proposal but only after the Pope had intervened, instructing her to do her duty to help return England to the Catholic faith.

This was extremely worrying for most people. The last thing they wanted was a Catholic king and queen. For his own safety, and to attempt to cool things down, Charles sent James abroad for a while; and then later to Edinburgh, still a safe distance from the hotbed of religious agitation that was London. By March 1682 the king perceived it safe enough for his brother to return to England. Mary was at that time pregnant and stayed in Edinburgh a little longer while James travelled to England.

A month later James returned to Edinburgh to bring Mary down to London. He wanted their return to be a triumphant event, a piece of political showmanship to impress the public “and a celebration of his place at the very heart of the kingdom” writes Nigel Pickford. An impressive fleet of ships would be a reminder of his earlier naval victories over the Dutch and just perhaps help him to regain his coveted position of Lord High Admiral. A suitable fleet was assembled for the homecoming. Four ships sailed up from the naval dockyard at Portsmouth, including the frigate HMS Gloucester, which had been constructed at Limehouse and launched in 1654. They rendezvoused at the mouth of the Thames Estuary with four royal yachts that sailed out from London and there James and his accompanying entourage of notable and wealthy gentlemen transferred to the Gloucester.

The captain of the frigate for this voyage was Sir John Berry, a resident of Stepney (who is buried there at St. Dunstan’s church), and the majority of the crew came from around the Wapping, Stepney, Limehouse, Shadwell and Ratcliffe areas north of the Thames, with some from Deptford, Greenwich and Southwark.

In this book Pickford highlights the difficulties of navigation before accurate equipment and nautical charts. A ship’s pilot relied on the sun and time to know their position, which was not easy before time was standardised in the 19th century. Sea charts available at the time gave inaccurate positions of sandbanks. Even on a voyage along the English coast a ship’s pilot relied on sight of the coast, which was not possible in fog or at night. During the voyage from the Thames Estuary towards Edinburgh the Gloucester and its accompanying fleet each recorded their positions as different from each other and they became separated during inclement weather.

If the title of the book isn’t enough of a clue, we are told of the ensuing disaster in the first chapter, 30 miles off the Norfolk coast in May 1682. But who was responsible for the sinking of the Gloucester, and why did Samuel Pepys decide to sail on an accompanying vessel instead of accepting the Duke’s invitation to travel with him? Pickford clearly enjoys speculating on 17th century questions, with this book following on from his previous historical mystery ‘Lady Betty and the Murder of Mr. Thynn’.

A range of people were on board ship at the time of the sinking, from nobility to ordinary seamen, but also including scientists, businessmen, lawyers, musicians, servants and priests. All lost their possessions, including those who escaped alive. From available records Pickford estimates that at least 100 crew and 40 gentlemen and servants were lost. One fascinating aspect that is covered in the second half of the book is the aftermath of the disaster and how it affected the lives of those left behind, including some of the bereaved.

For his part in the disaster, the pilot of the Gloucester was sent to Marshalsea Prison. Pickford uncovers numerous interesting links and coincidences in his research. We learn, for example, that when the pilot arrives at Marshalsea a woman had been incarcerated there for debt. By sad irony, she is able to buy her way out of the gaol from the compensation she receives when her seaman son drowns in the Gloucester sinking.

Nigel Pickford is an expert on shipwrecks, who works as a consultant to salvage companies, and has written several books on the subject. His extensive knowledge of nautical matters clearly shows, and we get descriptions of different classes and size of vessels, their equipment, the fitting out of a ship to go to sea, of coastal sandbanks, and the lives of 17th century seamen.

We are also provided with many asides about contemporary events, as well as background information that sets the scene. I would have liked more detail of the royal naval dockyards at Deptford, which are only briefly included. I’m also slightly confused by a couple of minor mentions of the London docks, which were only constructed well over a century after the period in question. But these are minor quibbles.

‘Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wrecking of the Gloucester’ is a thoroughly-researched and detailed history book yet has the structure and pace of a novel. “James was bored”, we read, “He was a man who was easily bored… He paced the terrace overlooking the deer park with restless energy.” It makes for an informative, engaging, entertaining and enjoyable read. I look forward to Nigel Pickford’s next mystery.