Alnwick and District Local History Society, April meeting

At the April meeting of the Alnwick and District Local History Society, Peter Rowett gave a history of HMS Berwick, entitled Two Ships, Three Flags and a Touch of Nelson, an interesting and thoroughly researched talk.

HMS Berwick was built in 1775 at Portsmouth, and had 74 guns and a crew of over 600, a state-of-the- art ship at the time. Later, the hull was covered in copper, to protect against shipworm and weed.

However, she seemed to have had a particularly unlucky history: All other ships built to a similar design fared much better.

The day after her launch, the American War of Independence began, and France, Spain and Holland all seized the opportunity to oppose the British.

In June, 1778, she sailed with Admiral Keppel to fight the French and Dutch in the Battle of Ushant.

The battle was inconclusive, and its main interest is in the aftermath.

Keppel and his second-in-command Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, who loathed each other, were both court-martialled for their actions in the battle. Both were acquitted, but the incident destroyed both careers.

In 1780, HMS Berwick went to Jamaica, but limped back into Portsmouth, badly damaged, a few months later.

The fleet had been involved in a series of gales, losing all its masts. Replacements were rigged up, but the ship was hit again. At the third attempt, they set off home for repairs.

Their next task related to the privateer (pirate ship) of Captain Luke Ryan. He was an Irishman, who had French citizenship, and held an American commission, allowing him to raid British ships.

He raided round the Scottish coast, creating mayhem. He captured the Nancy off St Abb’s Head.

This ship was freed after a 300 guinea ransom had been agreed.

Shortly after, the Berwick and Belle Poule approached, there was a strong fight and Ryan surrendered. He was taken to London to be tried for high treason and found guilty. Later, however, he was pardoned.

Under the command of Sir John Collins, she again lost all her sails in a gale. Out of control, she was hurled at 12 knots an hour towards the Barbary Coast, and was lucky to reach Gibraltar with the loss of two lives.

She was put on blockade duty at Toulon, but another gale caused further damage. While being once again repaired, she was rolling badly and newly-fitted masts again ended up in the water.

William Smith, the captain, and the master of the ship were court-martialled for this, and dismissed.

Captain Littlejohn was appointed, and put up rudimentary masts and sails. He tried to catch up with the rest of the fleet, but was pursued by the French.

In the battle, Littlejohn was decapitated and the officers agreed to surrender.

The Berwick was repaired and put into service in the French navy under its own name.

She fought in the Battle of Trafalgar on the French/Spanish side, but was captured by the Achille. Her cables were destroyed, probably cut by the French prisoners, and she split in half and sank.

A captured Spanish ship, the San Juan Nepomiceno, a very fine vessel, was then renamed HMS Berwick, and preserved as a trophy at Gibraltar.

There will be no more meetings of the Society until September, when Andrew Griffin will be talking about WT Stead.