His name was strange and unspellable in its many forms; he was MP for Rochester; a benefactor to the city; a naval hero; and, shipwrecked, he struggled ashore to be murdered by an islander.
His death was mourned deeply by the Queen and led to calls for a better system of navigation.
This is the story of the life and death of Sir Cloudesley Shovell. You can see his portrait in Rochester Guildhall, underneath the ornate ceiling that he paid for. Some historians believe he is in the same league of naval heroes as Horatio Nelson.
Shovell was born in Cockthorpe, Norfolk, in 1650. His unusual Christian name — as if his surname wasn’t odd enough — came from his maternal grandmother, Lucy Cloudisley.
Cloudesley joined the navy in 1664 as a cabin boy. He studied navigation and, through able seamanship and a brave heart, quickly obtained promotion.
In 1674 he served as lieutenant under Sir John Narborough in the Mediterranean, where he burned four men-o’-war under the castles and walls held by pirates in Tripoli. He became captain of the Saphire and later captained HMS Edgar at Bantry Bay in 1689 — beating off the French, who had arrived to support the United Irishmenís rebellion. Shortly afterwards was knighted.
Meanwhile, he had become MP for the City of Rochester, serving in 1695, 1698, 1701 and 1705. MPs in those days didn’t hold surgeries, or even visit their constituency often. Shovell was no exception — although he had an excuse: he was away being a naval hero.
Nevertheless, he made his presence felt. He paid for the magnificent decorated ceiling in the court hall at the new Guildhall and for building the Corn Exchange, an act of generosity recorded on a tablet outside.
I spent many hours at dull council meetings, enlivened by gazing at the ceiling’s beautiful designs. Peter Boreham, curator of the guildhall museum, says it is probably the finest civic interior of its period in Kent — and I believe him.
Mr Boreham adds: “Sir Cloudesley was a great benefactor to the City of Rochester, also providing the market bell, clock and decorated brick facade for the Butchers’ Market (Corn Exchange).
“All these gifts survive to the present day, apart from the clock which, by 1771, had deteriorated to such a degree that a replacement of different design was installed by the Corporation. Charles Dickens was rather disparaging about the replacement clock!”
And so he was, the old moaner. I love that clock and gaze upon it in awe every time I pass. In The Uncommercial Traveller, the bearded sage writes: “There was a public clock – which I had supposed to be the finest clock in the world: whereas it now turned out to be as inexpressive, moon-faced, and weak a clock as ever I saw.”
A maritime tragedy of catastrophic proportions
Bah! But I digress. The museum collections contain two portraits of Sir Cloudesley. A large portrait mounted on the wall of the Guildhall chamber is unsigned but attributed to Michael Dahl. The second portrait is a fine miniature on copper presented by John Newington Hughes in 1828.
In January, 1704, Shovell became Rear Admiral of England and commander-in-chief of the British fleets and commanded the naval part of the attempt on Toulon. He met his end while returning from that in HMS Association on October 22, 1707. One historian describes it as “a tragedy of such catastrophic proportions that the reverberations are still felt today”.
I shall let contemporary accounts tell the tragic tale. The following extracts (from “original and contemporary documents hitherto unpublished”) were read by James Herbert Cooke, FSA, to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, in London, on February 1, 1883:
“On Sunday morning, an express came from Admiral Byng with news that the great fleet returning from the Straits and being near the Isles of Scilly, Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s ship (the Association) struck on a rock. Admiral [Sir George] Byng passed by him within two cables’ length of him, and heard one of his guns go off as a signal of distress, but the sea ran so very high that it was impossible to send him any succour.
“Sir George Byng adds that, looking after him about a minute after the firing of the gun, he saw no lights appear and therefore fears he sunk …”
Another witness wrote: “Yesterday we had news that the body of Sir Cloudesley Shovell was found on the coast of Cornwall. The fishermen took a tin box out of the pocket of one of the carcasses that was floating and found in it the commission of an admiral; upon which, examining the body more closely, they found it was poor Sir Cloudesley.”
Lady Shovell’s two sons — by her first husband, Sir John Narborough — also perished. All 800 of the crew were lost.
But perhaps the great admiral survived. The antiquarian Mr Cooke told his society: “The unfortunate admiral’s body was one of the first cast up by the waves early the next morning. It was found in a little sandy cove called Porthellick Bay, in St Mary’s island.
“Those who first found Sir Cloudesley’s body stripped it of his shirt and took two rings from the dead fingers, on which, however, they had left their mark. One of these rings was a fine emerald set with diamonds. Strict inquiries were immediately set on foot for the ring by the Governor of Scilly, at the instance of Lady Shovell who offered a large reward, and made the most strenuous exertions to trace and recover it, but to no purpose.
“Many years afterward a terrible confession was made by a dying woman to a clergyman on St Mary’s: She said the admiral had been cast ashore exhausted and faint but still living, and that she had murdered him for the sake of the valuables about him. She produced the emerald ring, and gave it to the minister, saying that she had been afraid to sell it lest it should lead to a discovery of her guilt, adding that she could not die in peace until she had made a full confession.”
The disaster was blamed on navigational errors in thick fog. At the time, the navy used “dead reckoning”, calculating their whereabouts from the ship’s last-known position and based on estimated speed and course. Shovell was convinced he was at the entrance to the English Channel and continued his north-easterly heading, leading the fleet.
Queen Anne was heartbroken at the loss of her gallant Admiral. Her successor, George I, offered an enormous reward to anyone who could accurately compute longitude, so that such a needless loss never reoccurred. But that’s another story.