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Author Topic: HMS Exeter (1763 - 1784)  (Read 6222 times)

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Re: HMS Exeter (1763 - 1784)
« Reply #4 on: August 07, 2017, 15:10:06 »
Hi Bilgerat

I'm new to the group and my main interests are in military and naval history. I was wondering what the source of your information for pre-Napoleonic naval history, including HMS Exeter, is as I've often had difficulty in gaining such detailed information for the period.



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Re: HMS Exeter (1763 - 1784)
« Reply #3 on: February 23, 2014, 10:10:59 »
Thank you once again Bilgerat but what a sad end........ :)

Offline peterchall

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Re: HMS Exeter (1763 - 1784)
« Reply #2 on: February 23, 2014, 08:25:36 »
Yet another brilliant read. Many thanks, Bilgerat :) :)
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Offline Bilgerat

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HMS Exeter (1763 - 1784)
« Reply #1 on: February 22, 2014, 20:52:54 »
HMS Exeter was a 64 gun, third rate, ship of the line, built under contract by John Henniker at his shipyard in Chatham. John Henniker's shipyard stood approximately on the site of Ship Pier, in the Chatham Intra area. She was the lead ship of a class of four. The other ships were HMS Europa, built by Adams at Lepe in Hampshire, HMS Trident, built by the Royal Dockyard at Plymouth and HMS Prudent, built by the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich. The class was designed by William Bately, Co-Surveyor of the Navy and was based on an enlargement of his previous Richmond Class of 12pdr-armed 32 gun frigates.

The 64 gun ship was the smaller of two main types of Third Rate Ship of the Line in the Royal Navy at the time. Smaller, faster and more manoeuvrable than the more powerful and more numerous 74 gun ship; by the end of the French Wars in 1815, they were regarded as being too small and weak to stand in the line of battle against larger and more powerful French and Spanish vessels and most of them had been withdrawn from front-line service with three having been converted into Razee Heavy Frigates.

The contract for the construction of HMS Exeter was signed on Thursday 1st January 1761, as the Seven Years War was approaching its climax. The Seven Years War had started as a territorial dispute between Britain and France over possessions in North America and had escalated into what is now regarded as the first real world war in the true sense of the phrase. By the time John Henniker's men laid the ships keel on 28th January that year, the Royal Navy had fought the French and their allies in waters from the English Channel to the Caribbean Sea, the American East Coast, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, mostly successfully. Her construction at Henniker's shipyard was overseen by Master Shipwright William Martin.

HMS Exeter was launched into the River Medway on Tuesday 26th July 1763, her hull complete. After her launch, she was towed the half-mile downsream to the Royal Dockyard at Chatham, where she was to be placed in the Chatham Ordinary. The reason for this was that the war for which the ship had been built was over, having been ended by the Treaty of Paris the previous February and the ship was now surplus to requirements. In the Chatham Ordinary, the ship was the responsibility of the Master Attendant at the Royal Dockyard and was manned by a skeleton crew comprising of Senior Warrant Officers; a Boatswain, a Carpenter, a Gunner, a Purser, a Cook, their respective servants and 20 Able Seamen. Any work beyond the capabilities of these men would be carried out by gangs of labourers sent from the Royal Dockyard, who would move from ship to ship carrying out tasks as required. Up to the day of her launch, the ship had cost 20,576, 13s. 10d.

Exeter Class sheer plan and lines:

HMS Exeter's time in the Chatham Ordinary was not without incident, She broke from her mooring on Saturday 8th October 1763 and ran aground. The following month, she was taken into the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and was inspected. The inspection revealed the true extent of the damage and the ship required repairs which took four months and cost a further 4,740, 10s, 2d.

In the years following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when King James II had been deposed and replaced on the Throne by his sister Mary and her husband Prince William of Orange, the strategic situation had changed dramatically. The accession of a Dutch prince had brought about the end of the Dutch Wars. The start of over a century of on-off wars with France had led to the rise of the Portsmouth and Plymouth Royal Dockyards and they had replaced Chatham as the Royal Navy's primary bases. As a result, the Royal Dockyard at Chatham had been starved of funds and by the time of the Falklands Crisis of 1770, the facilities at Chatham were in a state of serious disrepair. When the call to mobilise the fleet for the crisis came, it had taken fully two months for the Dockyard at Chatham to be brought to a state where they could even begin to prepare ships for sea, by which time the crisis had passed. The same applied to the ships in the Ordinary at Chatham. Funds for repairs and maintenance had simply not been available, so the list of repairs to HMS Exeter grew and grew. By 1773, when the Navy Board finally made funds available, HMS Exeter had been sat on her mooring in the River Medway for almost ten years, in all weathers, slowly decaying and required major work before she could be prepared for sea. In July 1773, the ship was taken into the Royal Dockyard and was given a 'middling repair'. This work wasn't completed until October of 1774 and by the time it was finished, it had cost 11,648, 14s, 10d.

The Seven Years War had left the British Government with a mountain of debt. They attempted to pay this debt by raising taxes on the colonies in America. This had led to a storm of protest which had escalated to the point where in early 1775, the colonies in America were on the brink of an armed rebellion. In January 1775, HMS Exeter was again taken into the Royal Dockyard at Chatham, this time to be commissioned and fitted for sea. Fitting for sea involved fitting the ship with her guns, masts and rigging and putting aboard a full crew and loading her with her stores.

In April 1775, the work was complete and had cost a further 3,469, 18s, 4d. On commissioning, HMS Exeter was a ship of 1,340 tons. She was 158ft 9in long on her upper gundeck, 129ft 9in long at her keel and was 44ft wide across her beam. Her hold below the orlop was 19ft deep. She was armed with 26 24pdr long guns on her lower gundeck, 26 18pdr long guns on her upper gundeck, 10 9pdr long guns on her quarterdeck and 2 9pdr long guns on her forecastle. She was also fitted with about a dozen half-pounder swivel guns around her upper decks and in her fighting tops. She was manned by a crew of 500 men. Her first commander was Captain Matthew Moore. Captain Moore's previous appointment had been in command of the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Lennox and HMS Exeter was to be his last command before promotion to Rear-Admiral.

Captain Moore remained in command of HMS Exeter until 1777, when he was replaced in command by Captain John Neale Pleydall Nott. Captain Nott was an experienced commander who had distinguished himself in the previous war during the Havana Campaign whilst in command of the 28 gun sixth rate frigate HMS Rose. HMS Exeter was the first ship of the line he had commanded.

By 1778, the situation had gone from bad to worse. Open war had broken out in the American Colonies and was going badly for the British. In 1778, HMS Exeter was part of the Channel Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Augustus Keppel, who was flying his command flag in the Chatham-built 100 gun first rate ship of the line HMS Victory. Like HMS Exeter, HMS Victory had been ordered during the Seven Years War, but had been completed too late to see any service. Also like HMS Exeter, after completion, HMS Victory had been kept laid up in the River Medway. HMS Exeter had been assigned to the Vanguard Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, 1st Baronet Sproughton, who flew his command flag in HMS Queen (90).

On 23rd July 1778, the Channel Fleet was at sea when they sighted the French Atlantic Fleet, at sea in it's entirety. The French Commander-in-Chief, Louis Guillomet, the Compte D'Orvilliers, was under orders to avoid a fleet action. The two forces sighted each other about 100 miles west of the island of Ushant, with the French being downwind of the British. The next four days were spent with both fleet manoeuvring for advantage. D'Orvilliers' was cut off from Brest, but had manoeuvred upwind of Keppel's force. The British were attempting to close the range, whereas the French were frustrating this. Eventually, Keppel decided that D'Orvilliers was going to continue avoiding being brought to action and that if the French were to be brought to action, he would have to force them to do so. Rather than order is fleet to form an orderly line of battle, Keppel merely signalled his force to close the range and engage the enemy. What followed was a rough and ready battle. In poor weather, HMS Victory was the first to engage the enemy, opening fire on the French flagship Bretagne, 110 guns at about noon. The action which followed became known as the First Battle of Ushant and ended indecisively, with the British driving off the French but suffering heavier casualties. The indecisive result of the battle caused a violent political quarrel in the UK which led to Keppel being court-martialled for dereliction of duty but found not guilty and resigning from the Navy temporarily.

The First Battle of Ushant 27th July 1778 by Theodore Gudin:

The tracks of the fleets at the First Battle of Ushant:

What was important about the First Battle of Ushant was that it was the first major open conflict between British and French naval forces in the American War of Independence. It had actually taken place before a formal delaration of war between Britain and France had been made. The reason why the Compte D'Orvilliers had been ordered to try to avoid a fleet action with the British was that the French King, Louis XVI wanted the British to attack, meaning that the French would avoid being seen to be the ones to start the war, a necessary condition of the 'Pacte de Familie' with the Spanish, in order to draw Spain into the war alongside the French. All the governments involved knew that this was just political smoke and mirrors. The French had already made a treaty of support with the Americans in the previous February and were already supplying them with warships and crews fighting under American colours as privateers, as well as arms, ammunition, financial support and what would today be known as 'military advisors'.

In November 1778, HMS Exeter paid off for a refit at Plymouth Royal Dockyard. The main feature of this refit was that her hull was coppered for the first time. Sheathing a ships hull in copper was something the British had been doing since 1761, but was only extended to the whole fleet once war broke out. The refit was completed in December 1778 having cost 3,359,18s,4d and the ship recommissioned under Captain Richard King. On 7th March 1779, the ship sailed for the East Indies as  part of a squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, who was to take up a position as Commander-in-Chief, East Indies. He was flying his command flag in the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Superb. In addition to HMS Exeter and HMS Superb, Hughes' squadron also comrised the third rate ships of the line HMS Hero (74), HMS Burford (68), HMS Monarca (68), HMS Eagle (64), HMS Monmouth (64), HMS worcester (64), the sixth rate frigate HMS Seahorse (24) and the storeship HMS Manilla (10). Hughes' mission was to establish a permanent naval presence in the East Indies, based at the British trading stronghold at Madras.

The story of HMS Eagle is told here:

The story of HMS Burford is told here:

At this time, India was not a country as such. It was, rather, a loose empire controlled by the Mughal Emperors based in Delhi. Britain, France and Holland had all established trading posts in India, with alliances made with local rulers as required. Britain declared war on France in late 1778 as a result of the French treaties recognising the United States of America as an independent, sovereign nation. Following the Fielding-Bylandt Affair (see here: and the refusal of the Dutch to sever trading links with the Americans and the French, Britain declared war on Holland, starting the Fourth Dutch War. When news of this reached India, the Second Mysore War started, with the British quickly taking control of Dutch and French trading posts. In March 1781, the French sent a naval force under Pierre-Andre, Baillie de Suffren Saint-Tropez to reinforce their possessions in India and to assist in driving the British out. Suffren's force inflicted a defeat on the British in the Battle of Porta Praya in April 1781, before proceeding to Cape Town and reinforcing the Dutch forces defending that colony, pre-empting and preventing a British attack there. The 50 gun fourth rate ship HMS Isis was one of the ships damaged at Porto Praya and following the cancellation of the attack on the Dutch Cape Colony, was sent to reinforce Hughes' force in Madras. See here for the full story of HMS Isis:

By now, Captain King had been promoted to Commodore and commanded a small squadron of Hughes' force. His place in command of the ship had been taken by Captain Henry Reynolds. In January 1780, his son, also called Richard, aged 8, had arrived aboard HMS Exeter and had taken up a position as Captains Clerk with the nominal rank of Able Seaman. This was in order to attain the required sea-going experience to entitle him to become a Midshipman and begin training to be an Officer and potential commander in the Royal Navy. In addition, Hughes himself had been promoted to Vice-Admiral.

Suffren's first target was Madras itself, but on arrival off the city, he found that Hughes' fleet was anchored in the bay, making an attack impossible. Instead, Suffren sailed south, intending to land troops, who would march north, recapturing French and Dutch possessions lost to the British and their Indian allies. On sighting the French, Hughes immediately ordered his squadron to weigh anchor and set off in pursuit. Daylight on 16th February 1782 saw the nine British ships in sight of the French. Suffren's 12 ships of the line were 12 miles to the east of the British and his transport ships were nine miles to the south-west. Hughes decided that he was going to attack the transport ships and before Suffren's force could protect them, the British had taken six of the French transports. Nighfall prevented the forces from engaging. The next day saw the two forces six miles apart. Hughes ordered his ships to form a line of battle, with HMS Exeter being the rear-most ship. By 4pm, the French had caught up with Hughes' force, with the French passing to windward of the British line. Suffren stopped his advance when his flagship, L'Heros (74) had reached that of Hughes (HMS Superb - 74), thus preventing the British vanguard from turning around and reinforcing the rest of the squadron, giving the French and advantage in numbers.  Two of Suffren's ships had passed down the other side of the British line, meaning that HMS Exeter received the broadsides of no less than five enemy ships. HMS Exeter then found herself fighting an enemy ship on both broadsides, Le Petit Hanibal (50) and La Flamand (56) . On seeing the approach of a third enemy ship, a sixty-four gun-armed ship, HMS Exeter's Sailing Master turned to Commodore King and asked "What is to be done? Commodore King replied "There is nothing to be done but to fight her until she sinks." At 6pm, the wind changed, allowing the British vanguard to come to the assistance the rest of the squadron. Suffren used the opportunity to break off the action and head to the French trading post at Pondicherry. Hughes headed off towards Trincomalee in modern day Sri Lanka in order to repair and refit his ships. As the most heavily engaged ship in the British force, having to fight off three enemy ships, HMS Exeter was the most severely damaged. Her losses had been 10 dead with 45 men wounded. Among the dead was her captain, Henry Reynolds.

The Action off Sadras by Dominic Serres:

The tracks of the fleets at the Battle of Sadras

Suffren had made up his mind to destroy Hughes' force and after quickly making running repairs at Pondicherry, set off in pursuit of the British on 23rd February 1782. After all, he had outmanoeuvred the British at Sadras and his ships had come very close to sinking HMS Exeter and had battered the British flagship, HMS Superb.

Hughes in the meantime, had been reinforced by the arrival of another ship of the line, HMS Magnanime (64) and the late Captain Reynolds had been replaced in command of HMS Exeter by Captain Charles Hughes from 1st March 1782. On 8th April, Suffren caught up with Hughes' force, but was prevented from bringing them to action because of adverse winds. By 12th April, the wind had changed and Hughes, realising that the enemy was able to catch up with his rear-most ships, ordered his ships to change tack, form a line of battle and head towards the coast of Ceylon. Suffren used the opportunity this gave him and attacked. The wind had forced both lines into a crescent formation, with the centres of the lines closest. This meant that the centre ships in the lines, HMS Superb and HMS Monmouth on the British side and L'Heros (74), Le Sphinx (64) and L'Orient (74) on the French were engaged, while the ships on the ends of the line were out of range of each other. In the battle, HMS Monmouth suffered terrible, losing her main and mizzen masts while HMS Superb received another battering with heavy casualties. HMS Superb suffered 59 dead with 90 wounded, while HMS Monmouth had 45 men killed and 102 wounded. Towards the end of the battle, HMS Monmouth was in severe danger of being taken by the French and it was only the quick thinking of Captain Hawker in HMS Hero (74) in managing to pass a towline to the crippled British ship and tow her out of danger which prevented this from happening. With the coming of darkness, both sides broke off the action and anchored out of range of each other. This action is now known as the Battle of Providien and HMS Exeter, being the rear-most ship in the British line of battle, was not engaged.

HMS Monmouth (centre) at The Battle of Providien by Dominic Serres

The Action off Providien by Dominic Serres:

After the battle, HMS Exeter and the other ships sailed on to Trincomalee, while Suffren and his force made for Batticaloa. Whilst there, Suffren received orders to go to Ile de France (modern day Mauritius) and escort a troop convoy back to India. He refused to do so, considering that it was too dangerous to leave Hughes and his force loose in the area. In the meantime, Hughes had been reinforced by the arrival of another ship of the line, this time HMS Sultan (74) and Captain Hughes had been replaced in command by Captain Robert Montagu.

Suffren had by now decided to capture the important port of Negatapam, held by the British and sailed to Cuddalore, arriving on 20th June to pick up the troops required for this. Whilst there, he learned that Hughes and his force had sailed past the port, apparently also on their way to Negatapam, so left to give chase. Suffrens force arrived off Negatampam on 3rd July, but found the British force already in the harbour, so he ordered his ships to anchor outside the port.

On 5th July, as expected, Hughes' force left Negatapam and anchored for the night in full view of the French. The following day, the British force was unable to line up directly against the French, so the rear part of the lines could only engage each other at long range, with HMS Hero and HMS Exeter engaging the French La Flamand, while the ships at the front engaged in fierce combat until about 1pm, when the wind changed, throwing both forces into confusion. Unable to move back into combat positions, both fleets drew away from each other. Suffren sailed away back to Cuddalore while the British spent the next two weeks a sea before making for Madras for repairs. The Second Battle of Negatapam had ended as indecisively as the previous battles between the two forces.

Second Battle of Negatapam by Dominic Serres

While in Cuddalore, Suffren was reinforced by a French force comprised of two more ships of the line, a frigate and a transport ship carrying 800 troops and their supplies. The anchorage at Cuddalore was too exposed to the weather for Suffren's liking, so he resolved to take Trincomalee from the British and the force arrived off there on 21st August. The French landed 2,400 troops near Trincomalee on 25th August and following a fiercely fought seige, the British garrison surrendered five days later and on September 1st, the French took possession of the town and the harbour.

While in Madras, Hughes was reinforced by the arrival of yet another British ship of the line, this time, HMS Sceptre (64). In addition to HMS Sceptre, the fleet was joined by the frigates HMS Active (32), HMS Coventry (28), HMS Medea (28) and the storeship HMS San Carlos (22). Also in August 1782, Commodore King transferred his command pennant to HMS Hero and took his son with him. Vice-Admiral Hughes also received news that Suffren's fleet was anchored off Trincomalee and he immediately ordered his force to set sail, but arrived the day after the French took the port.

On seeing that the British fleet had arrived, Suffren was aware that he outnumbered Hughes' force and that if the French plans for India were to come to fruition, the British fleet would have to be destroyed. For that reason, the French left Trincomalee to face the British once again. The two fleets met again at about 2:30pm on 3rd September 1782. The heaviest action was in the centre of the lines, where the British flagship HMS Superb, HMS Burford, HMS Sultan, HMS Hero, and HMS Monarca engaged the French ships L'Heros, L'Ajax (64) and L'Illustre (74). Surrounded by the British, Suffren signalled for assistance and the French ship Le Brilliant (64) came to his aid. His flagship, L'Heros lost her mainmast and had run out of ammunition. Things were going better for the French on the ends of the line, where HMS Isis, HMS Worcester and HMS Monmouth were badly damaged and HMS Exeter had been dismasted. At about 5:30pm, the wind changed, favouring the French. The main part of the action now shifted to the ends of the battle lines. HMS Hero lost her mizzen and main masts and HMS Worcester lost her main topmast. The battle ended with nightfall.

The Battle of Trincomalee by Dominic Serres

Once the action had been broken off, Hughes, who did not want to be in the exposed anchorage at Madras during the monsoon season which was imminent, made for Bombay, while Suffren withdrew back into Trincomalee to make repairs. The British force had been so badly damaged that the army commanders at Madras recalled their troops from the field in case the French decided to attack.

By this time, Rodney's victory at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782 had ended French ambitions in the Caribbean and the Royal Navy was able to spare ships to assist in the defence of British possessions in India. Hughes' force was reinforced by the arrival of yet more ships of the line, HMS Gibraltar (80), HMS Defence (74), HMS Cumberland (74), HMS Inflexible (64), in addition to the 50 gun fourth rate ship HMS Bristol, bringing his total strength to 18 ships of the line plus frigates. HMS Exeter spent the time at Bombay having her hull re-coppered.

By June 1783, the British were laying seige to Cuddalore and Suffren was ordered to support the city with his 15 ships-of-the-line. Hughes' fleet was there when Suffren arrived on 13th June 1783. Hughes was not keen on facing the French again, so moved his force away. After five days of adverse winds, Suffren anchored his force off the city. After a conference with the commander of the defending force, it became apparent that the outcome of the seige was going to be dependant on a naval action. The two fleets then began manoeuvring for advantage from 18th June, but were both frustrated in their attempts by fickle winds. Finally, the winds settled down from a westerly direction and the two fleets engaged each other again on 20th June. The action was fought with long-range gunnery and neither fleet was able to significantly damage the other and both forces withdrew at nightfall.

The Battle of Cuddalore

On 22nd June, Hughes headed back to Madras. Many of his ships required repair, his force was short of water and a lack of fresh fruit had led to an outbreak of scurvy aboard his ships. The seige continued until 29th June when a British ship under a flag of truce brought news of the war's end.

The American War of Independence had been a disaster for the British. Despite the successful defence of Canada and the Caribbean, it had been a close-run thing in India and the American colonies had been lost altogether.

In July 1783, Captain Montagu was appointed to command  the 18pdr-armed 36 gun frigate HMS Flora and was replaced in command by Captain John Samuel Smith, whose previous command had been the storeship HMS San Carlos. He had been promoted to Captain that month; his appointment in HMS San Carlos being that of Master and Commander.

At the end of 1783, Captain Smith received orders to return to the UK with HMS Exeter. The voyage was beset with problems. The severe batterings she had received during the running battles against Suffren's force had taken their toll on the ship's structure. After arriving at Cape Town, HMS Exeter was surveyed and was found to be structurally weak and unseaworthy. Unfortunately, the nearest dockyards which could repair the ship were either the Royal Dockyard at Plymouth or the Honourable East India Company's dockyard at Bombay, both of which were thousands of miles away. It was very unlikely that the ship would survive a voyage to either, so it was decided to strip the ship of all her useful stores and equipment. After this, HMS Exeter was burned off Cape Town on 12th February 1784.
"I did not say that the French will not come, I said they will not come by sea" - Lord St Vincent


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