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Author Topic: HMS Pluto (1782 - 1817)  (Read 1175 times)

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Offline Bilgerat

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HMS Pluto (1782 - 1817)
« Reply #1 on: December 18, 2017, 18:00:08 »
HMS Pluto was an unrated, 16 gun Fireship of the Tisiphone Class, built under contract for the Royal Navy at the shipyard of Joshua Stewart in Sandgate, between Folkestone and Hythe in Kent.

The Tisiphone Class was a group of nine Fireships, of which four were built in Kent shipyards, three of them in Dover. HMS Pluto was the only Kent-built ship of the class not to have been built in Dover.

The other Kent-built ships of the class were:

HMS Tisiphone, built by Henry Ladd, see here for her story:

HMS Alecto, also built by Henry Ladd, see here:

and HMS Incendiary, built by Thomas King, see here:

The Tisiphone Class were notable for two reasons. Firstly, their fine lines and narrow hulls gave them a superb turn of speed. Secondly, they were the first ships built for the Royal Navy designed from the start to have a main armament comprised of carronades. Their design was based on that of a large French corvette, L'Amazon of 20 guns. As purpose-built Fireships, the Tisiphone Class had a firedeck instead of enclosed gundeck and their guns were kept above the fire deck on the main deck, out in the open. The crew lived on the berth deck, below the firedeck. The firedeck was divided into small compartments, each of which would be filled with barrels of gunpowder, paint, tar and other highly flammable substances. The Tisiphone Class ships were in effect, giant floating incendiary bombs. When the vessel was about to be used as a Fireship, the firedeck would be prepared and a fuse would be laid and lit at the last minute before the remaining crew abandoned ship. Until a Fireship was expended, they were used day-to-day in the role of a sloop-of-war, that is, patrolling, scouting for the fleet and running errands. Purpose-built Fireships like the Tisiphone Class were very few and far between and normally, when Fireships were needed, a commander would instead use small seized or specially purchased merchant vessels. Ultimately, the Tisiphone Class ships ended up proving too valuable in their secondary roles as sloops-of-war and of the nine ships of the class, only two were expended in their intended role.

A Fireship was, as it's name suggests, intended to be set on fire, then left to drift in amongst moored vessels in an enemy held harbour or anchorage. The fireship was the ultimate terror weapon in the age of wooden sailing ships. Not only was a wooden sailing ship built from combustible materials, but her hull was stuffed with all kinds of highly flammable substances. Aside from tons of gunpowder, the hull would also be stuffed with barrels of pitch (for waterproofing the hull), Stockholm tar (for protecting standing rigging from the elements), linseed oil based paint, tallow (animal fat based grease, used to lubricate pumps, capstans, gun carriages and carronade slides). This is in addition to the miles of flammable hemp rope and thousands of square feet of canvas. In short, a wooden sailing ship was ever only minutes away from becoming an uncontrollable inferno at any time and sailors had plenty of reason to be terrified of fires aboard ships.

The most famous use of fireships had occurred on 28th July 1588, when the English sent 8 fireships into the anchored Spanish Armada off Calais, panicking them into cutting their anchor cables and breaking their previously impenetrable crescent formation and were then able to bring them to action. In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines, the Spanish were defeated and forced to call off their planned invasion with the Armada being scattered to the winds in the North Sea.

At the time the ship was ordered, the American War of Independence was at it's height. What had started as a colonial brushfire, with the British trying to put down an armed rebellion in her American colonies, had escalated into a full scale war between the superpowers of the day. The rebellion itself had started as a result of the British government levying taxes on their American colonists in order to pay off the huge debts arising from the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). The colonists had felt this to be illegal and what had started as protests had grown into an armed rebellion. Things escalated from 1776, after two rebel victories in battles at Saratoga. In these battles, the part-time soldiers of the various Colonial militias had defeated regular troops of the British Army. This had pursuaded the French to begin to supply the rebels with arms and money and in 1778 and later in 1779, first France and then Spain had openly joined the war on the American side.

Like all ocean-going unrated vessels, a Fireship would have a 'Master and Commander', abbreviated to 'Commander', appointed in command rather than an officer with the rank of captain. At the time, the rank of 'Commander' did not exist as it does today. It was a position rather than a formal rank and an officer commanding an unrated vessel had a substantive rank of Lieutenant and was appointed as her Master and Commander. An officer in the post of Master and Commander would nevertheless be paid substantially more than a Lieutenant's salary and would also receive the lions share of any prize or head money earned by the ship and her crew. The appointment combined the positions of Commanding Officer and Sailing Master. If a war ended and an unrated vessel's commanding officer was laid off, unless he was lucky or well-connected enough to receive another command appointment, he would receive half-pay based on his substantive rank of Lieutenant. If he was successful or at least proved himself to be competent, he would usually be promoted to Captain or 'Posted' either while still in command of the vessel, or would be promoted and appointed as a Captain on another, rated ship. Unrated vessels therefore generally tended to be commanded by ambitious, well-connected young men anxious to prove themselves.

The contract for the construction of HMS Pluto was signed on 4th December 1780. An advance payment of about a third of the agreed cost would have been paid on the day the contract was signed, allowing the builder to purchase the materials and hire the craftsmen such as shipwrights, blacksmiths and so on needed to build the ship. Joshua Stewart had previously built the 16 gun brig-sloop HMS Fortune at Sandgate and would not have received another contract if the Navy Board had not been satisfied with that vessel. The first keel section was laid at Sandgate in January of 1781 and the ship was launched with her hull fully completed and with all due ceremony into the English Channel on Friday 1st February 1782. Navy Board overseers would have been sent to the shipyard to monitor the construction project and ensured that the materials used were of sufficient quality. A further installment of the agreed cost would have been paid about mid-way through the build, allowing the builder to purchase materials and hire more craftsmen such as caulkers, house carpenters, joiners, painters and the like. Up to the time the ship was launched, the project had cost 9,365.1s.7d. Following the launch, the ship was taken to the Royal Dockyard at Deptford where the Dockyards shipwrights thoroughly inspected the quality of the craftsmanship and only then would the builder be paid the remainder of the agreed price. On 24th February 1782, the ship began the process of having her lower hull sheathed in the best welsh copper and being fitted with her guns, masts, rigging, sails and the many tons of stores she would need. During fitting out, the ship commissioned into the Channel Fleet with Mr George Teer appointed as Master and Commander.

On completion, HMS pluto was a ship of 421 tons. She was 108ft 9in long on her spar deck and 90ft 7in long at her keel. She was 21ft 9in wide across her beams and her hold was 9ft deep. She was armed with 14 18pdr carronades on her broadsides with 2 6pdr long guns in her bow. She was also armed with a dozen half-pounder swivel guns attached to her upper deck handrails and in her fighting tops. When being used in the role of a sloop-of-war, the ship was manned by a crew of 121 officers, men and boys, but this reduced to 55 when the ship was about to be expended as a fireship.

Tisiphone Class Plans:

Orlop Plan:

Lower or Berth deck Plan:

Firedeck Plan:

Main or Upper Deck Plan:

Sheer Plan and Lines:

The pictures below are of a model of HMS Pluto's sister-ship HMS Comet, built by David Antscherl, one of the worlds leading model-makers. If you look carefully at the model, you will see that what appear to be gunports have downward opening lids. This is because they were actually vents for the firedeck and were hinged at the bottom, in order to prevent them from closing once the ship had been fired.

Bow view:

Stern View:

Mr Teer wasn't in command of HMS Pluto for long, a month after he commissioned the ship, he was replaced in command by Mr Thomas Lewis. Commander Lewis himself was only in command for three months before he handed the vessel over to Mr James Robert Mosse on 15th June 1782.

HMS Pluto spent the remainder of the American War of Independence after commissioning operating with the Channel Fleet, being used in the normal role of a sloop-of-war, carrying out patrols and running errands for the fleet. By the time the ship commissioned, the American War of Independence was approaching it's end. In September 1781 while the ship was still under construction, the British suffered a military disaster when General Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender along with the bulk of the British Army in North America at Yorktown, effectively ending the war ashore. French attempts to regain Caribbean possessions lost in the previous Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) were thwarted by their defeat at the Battle of the Saintes in April of 1782 and their attempts to drive the British from valuable colonies in India had proved unsuccessful. The negotiations which began shortly after the Battle of the Saintes resulted in the Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783 and effective from the following March. In April of 1783, with the war all but over and by now surplus to requirements, HMS Pluto was paid off and entered the Chatham Ordinary.

HMS Pluto was fitted for the Ordinary during April 1783 and this entailed stripping the ship of her guns, sails, yards, running rigging and stores and sealing her hatches, gunports and firedeck vents shut. The ship was secured to a mooring buoy in the River Medway and became the responsibility of the Master Attendant at Chatham. In common with all ships in the Ordinary, she was manned by a small skeleton crew comprised of senior Warrant Officers and their servants; the Boatswain with two servants, the Gunner with two, the Carpenter with two and the Cook with one. The ship's Purser was allowed to live ashore within a reasonable distance of the Dockyard, but if he did choose to live ashore, any servants he did have had to be paid out of his own pocket. In addition to the senior Warrant Officers and their servants, an unrated ship like HMS Pluto had a crew of six Able Seamen.

Between November 1787 and January 1788, HMS Pluto had her copper replaced at Chatham and the process was repeated between July and September 1790. In July 1789, the French Revolution occurred as a result of the French Government's inability to deal effectively with a famine which was devastating the country and which saw people starving to death in the streets of Paris.

This had seen the Absolute Monarchy replaced by a Constitutional Monarchy like our own, where the power of the king was limited by an elected assembly, the National Convention. A power struggle between the National Convention and King Louis XVI followed which became increasingly bitter and violent and brought France to the brink of civil war, with fighting actually breaking out in some regions, most notably the Vendee region on France's Biscay coast. The British, alarmed at the growing anarchy in the rival superpower on their doorstep, began to quietly intervene on the side of French Royalist forces by supplying arms and money. While all this was going on, a territorial dispute arose between old enemies Britain and Spain over the British establishing a settlement at Nootka Sound on what is now Vancouver Island off the west coast of modern Canada. This was in defiance of a Spanish territorial claim over the entire western coastline of both American continents. The King of Spain approached the new Revolutionary Government in France seeking assurances of assistance should the seemingly inevitable war with the British actually break out. The National Convention decided that it had enough on it's plate without getting involved in what would most likely be a long and expensive war with the British and declined to get involved. In addition to civil war in the Vendee region, France was also involved in wars against pretty much all their neighbours except, for once, the British. The Spanish were forced to negotiate and what is now called the Spanish Armaments Crisis was settled peacefully.

No sooner had the Spanish Armaments Crisis been settled, a new crisis erupted when British ally Prussia asked for British assistance in their intervention in the on-going Russo-Turkish war which had threatened to spill over into their territory. In March 1791, HMS Pluto recommissioned into the Channel Fleet with Mr Robert Faulknor appointed as her Master and Commander as part of the build-up of the fleet during what is now known as the Russian Armaments Crisis of 1791. Robert Faulknor was a member of the famous Faulknor naval dynasty, his father had commanded the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Bellona when that ship famously captured the French 74 gun ship Le Courageux in 1761 during the Seven Years War. His previous appointment had been as First Lieutenant in the 98 gun second rate ship of the line HMS Impregnable and HMS Pluto was his first command appointment. Commander Faulknor remained in command of HMS Pluto until she paid off into the Portsmouth Ordinary in September of 1791, when the British Goverment decided not to intervene in the ongoing Russo-Turkish war.

Meanwhile, in France, the King and his family attempted to flee Paris and join the Royalist forces, was caught and imprisoned in December of 1792. In response, the National Convention abolished the French Monarchy. With tensions rapidly escalating, HMS Pluto recommissioned and was fitted for sea again, this time for the North America Station, under Mr James Nicholl Morris, whose previous appointment had been in command of the small, 4pdr-armed 14 gun brig-sloop HMS Flirt. In January of 1793, the King and Queen of France were tried and executed. The British expelled the French ambassador in protest and on 1st February, France declared war on Great Britain starting the French Revolutionary War. Commander Morris and his ship set sail for Newfoundland on 16th May 1793 and on 25th July, HMS Pluto captured the French brig La Lutin of 16 guns and 70 men without loss to herself.

HMS Pluto was to remain on the North America Station, based at Newfoundland until the French Revolutionary War was ended by the Treaty of Amiens, signed on 25th March 1802 and effective immediately. This doesn't mean that the ship was inactive. Her role off Newfoundland involved enforcing the trade embargo against Britains enemies, boarding merchant vessels and seizing any ships and cargoes bound to France or Spain or any territories or colonies controlled by them. In addition, HMS Pluto was also tasked with protecting British trade from enemy warships or privateers, particularly in the lucrative whaling trade. On 24th May 1800, the Swedish ship Nordiska Wanskapen was taken by HMS Pluto and on 14th October 1800, the American ship Pearl was taken. On 20th May 1801, the American ship Aurora was taken by HMS Pluto.

On 14th December 1802, under Commander Robert Forbes, HMS Pluto arrived off Spithead and on 27th December, was ordered to proceed to the Deptford Royal Dockyard to pay off and enter the Ordinary there.

What is now known as the Peace of Amiens, despite the politicians promises, was fragile to say the least and it finally collapsed on 18th May 1803 when, tired of constant French threats, Britain declared war, starting what is now known as the Napoleonic War.

With the resumption of war, HMS Pluto fitted for sea at Deptford and commissioned into the Downs Squadron under Mr Edward Kittoe on the 15th August 1803. There, the ship was tasked with shutting down French costal shipping, hunting French privateers operating in the English Channel and North Sea and keeping an eye on the French invasion force encamped around Boulogne. On 19th October 1803, HMS Pluto arrived at Dover with intelligence that the French were building huts to provide more permanent accomodation for their 83,000 strong army for the forthcoming winter to replace the tents they had been living in since the war started.

On 19th May 1804, Commander Kittoe was replaced in command of HMS Pluto by Mr Richard Janverin, whose previous appointment had been in command of the Sea Fencibles at Brading on the Isle of Wight. Commander Kittoe had been appointed to command the 18pdr carronade-armed 18 gun ship-sloop HMS Argus.

By the summer of 1804, HMS Pluto had been reassigned to a squadron commanded by Captain Robert Dudley Oliver in the ex-French 18pdr-armed 38 gun frigate HMS Melpomene, tasked with mounting an attack on the French port of Le Havre, where a considerable number of French privateers were based. In addition to HMS Melpomene and HMS Pluto, the squadron also comprised the 50 gun, fourth rate ship of the line HMS Trusty, the 9pdr-armed 20 gunpost-ship HMS Ariadne, the 24-pdr-armed razee Heavy Frigate HMS Magnanime, the 6pdr-armed 16 gun ship-sloops HMS Merlin amd HMS Favourite, the bomb vessels HMS Meteor, HMS Explosion, HMS Zebra and HMS Hecla, the 18pdr carronade-armed gun-brig HMS Locust of 12 guns and the hired armed cutters King George, Countess of Elgin, Hope and Nancy.

On 28th July, Captain Oliver wrote to his immediate superior, Admiral George Elphinstone, the First Viscount Keith, Commander-in-Chief in the North Sea, as follows:

Off Havre,
July 28, 1804

My Lord,

Since my letter to your lordship of 17th instant, we had very light and variable winds fo three days, which were succeeded by a gale from the northward, when the bombs had some difficulty to keep clear of the shore. Yesterday, the wind having got to the SW, I stood in with the squadron and at eleven, made the signal for the bombs to try their range; they placed themselves with the utmost precision immediatly off the Pier Heads and at a quarter past Eleven, began a most tremendous fire of shells and carcasses which was continued without intermission for an hour and a half; in a very few minutes, the town was observed to be on fire and as the pier was very full of vessels, it is impossible, but they must have suffered considerably. The vessels which had been outside the pier during the bombardment of the 16th were so much annoyed as to retire, some into the pier, some up the river, one of them was towed on shore under the batteries and has since been taken to pieces. The enemy's mortar batteries have been very considerably increased since the attack on the 16th, although the fire from them on the bombs was as great as I will venture to say, was ever experienced, they being considerably within the range, yet it is with the most inexpressible pleasure I acquaint your lordship that not a man has been hurt. A shell passed through the mizzen staysail of the Zebra, another carried away the spare topsail yard of the Merlin and two chain-plates and grazed her side; and a forty-two pound shot cut the spare topmast and some other spars and lodged in the booms of the Hecla; that is all the damage done. It is impossible for me to find words to express my admiration of the conduct of the captains Sykes, James, Paul and Beauchamp and the other officers and crews of the bombs for the able manner in which they placed and managed their vessels; and also to the officers and men of the Royal Artillery embarked on board of them for the judicious manner in which they fired the shells.

Some luggers came out of the pier during the bombardment, but were made to keep a respectful distance by the vicinity of the Merlin, Pluto, Locust and the cutters, which were always ready to give assistance where wanted, as were the other ships in the squadron in the situations assigned to them.

I have the honour to be, &c,


On 31st July, in company with the squadron, HMS Pluto captured the French ship Postillon.

Captain Oliver wrote again to describe further attacks on the 1st and 2nd August,as follows:

Off Havre
Aug 2. 1804

My Lord,

The wind having changed yesterday to the NE, I determined to make another attack on the numerous vessels in Havre Pier, as well as those which were moored outside, amounting to twenty-eight brigs and as many luggers and stood in with the squadron. At Half-past Seven PM, the bombs were well placed off the pier heads when they began a well-directed fire, which was kept up with great spirit for an hour and a half. The town was very soon observed to be on fire in two places and seven brigs which were on the outside of the pier found it very necessary to move: one lost her mainmast. As the wind came more off the land and a strong ebb tide setting out, I ordered the bombs to discontinue firing. At half past nine, we anchored with the squadron about five miles from the light houses. As the Explosion had fired away all her shells and the Zebra most of her powder, I had them supplied from the Meteor and at half past five this morning, got under weigh and stood in with the squadron again. Before eight, the bombs took up their position near the pier heads and kept up a constant fire for near three hours with shells and carcasses. So many shells burst on and about the piers that the enemy's fire was observed to slacken considerably and it was evident that they were in the greatest confusion. Some brigs and luggers got under weigh and came out to endeavour to annoy the bombs, but all the other vessels and ships of the squadron were so well placed as to give chace to them immediately and with was only by cutting away their boats, which were astern and retreating very speedily into shoal water that they escaped, but not before they had run the gauntlet of all the ships and cutters and were very closely engaged for a considerable time by the Merlin, Favourite, Locust gun-brig and Hope cutter and on this occasion, I feel particularly indebted to the exertions of Captains Brenton and Foot and Lieutenants Lake and Dobbin, whose vessels were very often during the Action in very shoal water with a falling tide, indeed nothing but the bad sailing of the Merlin prevented Captain Brenton from cutting off the sternmost brig.

The Locust lost her main topmast but I have not heard of any other loss. The conduct of captains Sykes, James, Paul and Beauchamp, commanding the bombs on both these occasions was highly meritorious and although their ships were frequently struck, it gives me great pleasure to add that no lives have been lost. What damage may have been done to the enemy by near five hundred shells and carcasses thrown into the town and bason last evening it is impossible to calculate, but I may without vanity say that if the exertions of the enemy's flotilla be not much greater on our shore than on their own, we have little to dread from them.

I cannot conclude without expressing my obligations to every officer and man employed in this squadron.

I am &c.


HMS Pluto remained in the English Channel until the ship was laid up at Portsmouth in February 1809. The Napoleonic War was ended by the Treaty of Fontainebleu on 11th April 1814.

On 30th April, HMS Pluto was sold at an auction held at the Admiralty Office in Somerset Place, London. The ship had been sold into merchant service, to new owners based on London. During her time laid up, the ship had been stripped of her masts, so she was fitted with a jury rig for her voyage to London. She didn't make it. On 31st August 1817, the now ex-HMS Pluto ran aground on the reef below Foreness Point near Margate and was wrecked.
"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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