Iconic Ships 19: HMS Agamemnon – Nelson’s Favourite Ship

January 2023

Our series on Iconic Ships continues with one of the most battle-honoured ships of Nelson’s Navy: HMS Agamemnon. Today we got back to those days of the wooden walls to hear about this 64-gun Third Rate that saw service in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. She fought in many of the major naval battles of those conflicts and had a reputation as being Nelson’s favourite ship. After a remarkably eventful career her working life ended in 1809 when she was wrecked off the River Plate on the coast of Uruguay. The location of the wreck has been known since the early 1990s but in recent months has become the focus of efforts to preserve it, as the wreck is threatened by erosion, treasure hunters and ship worm decay.

To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Mary Montagu-Scott, director of the museum in the historic shipbuilding village of Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River in Hampshire, where HMS Agamemnon was built. Mary has always had a passion for maritime heritage, the sea, and sailing. She is currently active in maritime archaeology, keeping boatbuilding skills alive and as a trustee to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, HMS Victory, HMS Medusa and is commodore of her local yacht club. Mary’s dream is to dive on the wreck of HMS Agamemnon, built in Bucklers Hard in 1781, and to see this great ship’s story brought to life again on the original slipways.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast and today’s episode which continues our iconic ships series. Today we hear about HMS Agamemnon. If you’ve not heard any of our previous iconic ships’ episodes, please do find them in our back catalogue. You can search through everything@snr.org.uk and you’ll find all of the other iconic ships we’ve covered, including the enormous German five masted clipper ship Preussen and the exquisite 17th century Swedish warship Vasa, the Andrea Doria, one of the most famous passenger liners of the 1950s, that mighty Tudor warship Mary Rose, the Anglo Saxon masterpiece, the Sutton Hoo ship, the monster Tudor ship Henry the Fifth’s Grace Dieu, the tragic Lusitania,  the phenomenally enormous, Great Eastern, Shackleton’s ship Endurance, only discovered so recently below the surface in Antarctica.  These are only  only some of the jewels of maritime history we have presented for you in our iconic ships series. So be sure to listen to everything we’ve done before. Today, we head back to the 18th century, the time of the wooden walls, and we hear all about HMS Agamemnon, a 64 gun third rate that saw service in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars, and she fought in many of the major naval battles of those conflicts. She even had a reputation as being Nelson’s favourite ship. After a seriously eventful career her working life ended in 1809 when she was wrecked off the River Plate on the coast of Uruguay. The location of her wreck has been known since the early 1990s, but in recent months has become the focus of efforts to preserve her as she is threatened by erosion, treasure hunters and shipworm decay. To find out more I spoke with Mary Montague Scott, who is director of the Maritime Museum in the 18th century shipbuilding village at Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu  River in Hampshire. Mary has always had a passion for maritime heritage, the sea and sailing, and is currently active in maritime archaeology, keeping boat building skills alive, and as a trustee for the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, HMS Victory, HMS Medusa, and she is the Commodore of her local Yacht Club. Her dream is to dive on the wreck of HMS Agamemnon built in Bucklers Hard in 1781, and see her story brought to life again in the original slipways.  As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her. Here is the fabulous Mary. Mary, thank you very much for joining me today.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Fantastic. Well, lovely to meet you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s start by talking a bit about Bucklers Hard, and why  Bucklers Hard was  important.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Bucklers Hard was important because at the time the Navy were really pressed to find private yards to fulfil the contract for the many, many ships that it needed. Bucklers Hard was surveyed as being one possible place which was suitable for shipbuilding. There had been shipbuilding there from 1660 to 1698 at the time, but by 1750 they really were needing a lot more ships to be built on contract by private yards. And at that time Henry Adams, the Shipwright, came across as a surveyor from Deptford, and was asked to build there. It  became very probably the biggest shipbuilding yard, private yard, on the South coast for the Navy. Under Henry Adams 27 ships were built for the Navy and a total of 50 ships built between about 1750 and 1820. So it really was a very large industrial yard in a very remote place on the South coast with proximity to Portsmouth, and importantly had a good supply of timber with the Beaulieu land around it where they had good access to wood. One thing of course, that’s often a misnomer, is that actually the New Forest of which it sits in the centre of it, all the timber from the New Forest was for the Royal Navy yards. So actually, whilst the Beaulieu estate was within the New Forest, that timber went to Bucklers Hard, but the actual Crown land estate timber would have gone to Portsmouth and Chatham and so on.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, let’s move on to the Agamemnon; why was the Agamemnon built?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    My goodness, well a  64 Gunship, it was the third in the class that was built. They were the Ardent class, designed by Thomas Slade, the senior surveyor of the Navy. The first one of the Ardent class was built actually sometime before in 1762. By the time the Agamemnon was laid down in 1777, at that time Thomas Slade died, but the class was very successful. And they continued to build actually seven in that Ardent class, and at the time the yard  at Bucklers Hard was very busy. There was a lot of shipbuilding going on, it was at its absolute peak really from then till around 1805.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, let’s talk about third rates.  I mean she’s a relatively small ship, she’s not a big first rate, a big sort of cumbersome three Decker like HMS Victory; a bit smaller and a bit nippier and so had a variety of uses. Is that right?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    That is absolutely correct. She’s actually in terms of speed and performance a bit more like a frigate. That’s why they were very popular with their captains. They were fast, they were nimble relatively to the bigger ships, but they were very solid. The keel was 132 foot long, the gundeck 160 foot, so yes, smaller, but more nimble, certainly fast, and when they were coppered, faster still. And particularly with Agamemnon she was famous for her speed and manoeuvrability.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What are the written records like for her design and construction? Do we know a great deal about that process?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Well, the Ardent class plans survive, not just  plans for Agamemnon specifically, but we do have at Greenwich a full set of the Ardent class plans, which are very, very useful. And we learn from those, there are builders notes on those’ we have some records, and of course, the logs for the ship itself. So there is quite a lot of evidence certainly about her qualities as a ship in terms of sailing.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Was there much correspondence between Bucklers Hard and the Navy board that has survived?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Yes, there’s a lot of correspondence because the Navy surveyors were constantly backwards and forwards, of course, renegotiating the rates when the contract is put out. For the Master Shipwrights and the Master Builders  there’s always toing and froing problems with supply of timber, supplies from the Royal dockyard. There’s a lot of correspondence that survives which is very fortunate. So we’ve got some in our archives, but of course, over in the National Archives, there’s a lot too.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Beaulieu as you said, it was pretty remote. It still is pretty remote in some respects. Do you think there was  a bit of a fanfare when she was actually launched,

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Every ship that was launched was a fanfare. She was launched in 1781. And yes, all the Commissioners would have come across from Portsmouth, they would have sent a gang, about a month before with the bilge brace, it’s what they put around the hull to prepare her for launch, the yard would have been cleared at that time. And then about a week before about 100 men would come across in rowing gigs, and they would then have the huge launch ceremony, it was a big thing in the local community. It’s thought that up to 3000, people sometimes came to the launch of a ship at Bucklers Hard, which is an incredible number, given how remote it is in  the New Forest. And in fact, even the King tried to come  for one of the launches later on for the Spencer, but unfortunately didn’t make it down, got stuck in Lyndhurst having too many parties. But it was a big event locally, and I think would have brought the community together from across a very wide area.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So she’s launched and then internationally the situation  falls apart a bit doesn’t it because of the American colonies declaring their Independence. So tell me about her first tour of duty during the War of American Independence.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    So she goes across of course; firstly she’s in her first action as such as she’s in the Channel fleet. And then she gets taken across to America with Captain Caldwell, and she is in the American Revolutionary War in the conflict there. And I have to say I’m not that knowledgeable, you will be probably more knowledgeable than I am on this one. The thing that I’m weakest on is all her actions, knowing every detail of her 30 years of history, because it is an incredibly long and rich history.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It is. It’s actually worth saying here that the Agamemnon is unusual because of the number of actions and number of battles that she was in and how much we think about sailors of the Royal Navy spending their entire time fighting. They didn’t do that they spend the majority of their time painting and being on blockade duty. But certainly she she enjoyed a bit of action early on in the American Revolution,  I think it was the Battle of the Saintes.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Battle of the Saintes, yes, she absolutely had quite a key role in that battle, came back in and was quite severely damaged in that battle.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And it’s interesting the way that the Navy’s role changes also between the war of American Independence and the French Revolutionary War, and then the Napoleonic Wars, because she really goes on to enjoy her fame subsequently I think  in the 1790s, which is where we have this very clear link with Nelson. So tell us about Nelson’s association with the Agamemnon.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Well, Nelson is her Captain. He comes in in January 1793, he is chosen by Lord Hood to command the first ship of the line, Agamemnon, so it’s a very exciting time for him. And he’s very excited about it, because it’s known that the Agamemnon is a very fast and nimble ship. And Nelson specifically, recruits the men from his home County of Norfolk and Suffolk, and he sends a Lieutenant across there to recruit his crew from the Counties that he loves. And he goes on board in February 9th  1793, he’s got his band of brothers, he’s got this ship set up as his, and he’s on that ship for three and a half years. And it’s a very significant part of his life, where he hones himself as a  captain. And obviously this is where he develops his character and his skills through the  Agamemnon, and that’s why he absolutely loves the Agamemnon, and it’s constantly quoted as being his favourite ship. He is definitely someone who through his life refers back to Agamemnon time and time again, and he writes to family and he says how much he loves spending time on the ship, that she is nimble, and she has great qualities. That in the main she’s very fast for her size and without exception is one of the finest 64s in the service, with the character of sailing remarkably well. And so he says again, Agamemnon sails admirably we think, better than any other ship in the fleet, and is very swift and manoeuvrable.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I’ve always wanted to be able to unpack that  because  I think it’s very difficult to do, I don’t quite know how to do it, because some of the ships really sailed appallingly. But there was a kind of a middle ground, and there were competitions. And there was a great deal of pride with sailors and the captains of the ships. So so many of them say that actually their ship was the best ship. But I think with Agamemnon this seems to have really truly been the case.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    I don’t know, it’s interesting. Some people have been doing research about the actual speeds recorded from the logs to try and actually evidence this in some way,  but it is quite vague. It may be that she just was sailed better by the crew, or by the  individual captains. But clearly she did sail faster than some of the other of her class. But who knows? It may have been down to the sailor, I mean you know, I sell myself and I know it isn’t always the ship, it is actually the sailor as well, it’s a combination of the two.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, occasionally they have races. And if you can actually get an actual race recorded in the log  to say the Agamemnon raced another ship of the similar class you get a good idea. But most of the time, it’s just a kind of a sense of pride I think, which is really endearing. But that really does come across with Nelson’s relationship with the Agamemnon, and it’s during his service on her that he gets injured very badly doesn’t he?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    That is absolutely right, at the siege of Calvi. And, you know it’s terrible, he loses the sight of his right eye in that battle. And six crew were killed, this is an incredible thing after a long siege of Calvi,a 51 day seige. It ends with this tragic loss of his eye, but of course it probably stirs him on, gives him the respect of his crew and his men. And that is very seminal in his life and then in how he develops as a captain. And that happens, of course, on the Agamemnon.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Mary, it’s fascinating how she does so well I think in these first years of the French Revolutionary Wars. It’s very common actually with other ships in the Navy, who really enjoy a good few years of the French Revolutionary Wars. And it all goes a bit wrong in 1797 when you have these mutinies, you have mutinies at Spithead,  you have a mutiny at the Nore and the Agamemnon is very much caught up in that I mean, her  crew do mutiny. And there’s certainly a bit of a stain on  the crew. They managed to kick off the hardline mutineers, and it’s not long before she’s back in action again, and then war breaks out again, and we’ve got the Napoleonic Wars and I think this is where the Agamemnon is also very well known for her role at the Battle of Trafalgar. So tell us about that.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    So she’s then at that time under Captain Berry, and at this point she’s getting to be quite an old ship, she’s getting quite rickety.   But she absolutely is there under Nelson’s watchful eye, and he puts her very strategically into the fleet.  And  of course she plays an important part in the Battle of Trafalgar. In fact, there were three ships built at Bucklers Hard at the Battle of Trafalgar. And yes, that’s interesting to me; there was a fourth, the Spencer, that was at Cadiz at resupply at the time of the battle. But the Agamemnon did have a very important role in the battle, and was quite badly damaged as well. She was unfortunately damaged many times in her life through all these battles, and had been significantly refitted throughout this time.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Time and again you read her history, it talks about how much of a state the Agamemnon is in; I think that’s because she was used so much, she was so well liked. And certainly just before the Battle of Trafalgar she really is in a state and they were thinking of breaking her up. And it’s an example of one of several ships which they repaired just so that they could put a decent fleet to sea to counter Napoleon’s plans. It’s often forgotten that there was a huge move to actually get as many ships, old and rickety as well as new ones, repaired and out to sea just to fight at the Battle of Trafalgar. And she does well. Also, Edward Berry’s an interesting character as well, who is a very good friend of Nelson, has a slightly curious reputation. And some say that he just sailed around blazing merrily at the Battle of Trafalgar and didn’t really do anything. I’m not sure that’s quite been decided yet. Now the end of her career, let’s talk about her wreck, because that’s something that you’ve become involved in a great deal in recent years.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Yes, so at the time in 1809 she was with the South American Squadron based out of Brazil  and out of Rio, and she really was incredibly rickety by that point, they were constantly running the pumps, and she really was towards the end of her life. She was under Captain Jonas Rose and she was sailing down the coast of South America in a small South American squadron with four other ships, and they sail into Maldonado Bay, which is just on the corner of the River Plate where the Atlantic turns into the River Plate. It’s the first sort of point where if you’ve come down through the Atlantic you get a rest, you can get water. And it was a point throughout history where the ships made their first point of going on to land when they’ve come down and into the River Plate where it’s a bit safer. The River Plate though is the most terrifying River. It’s actually enormous at the point  when you come into Punta del Este, it’s 200 miles across this river. It’s insane. It’s  not a river at all. She comes in, it’s just mad that when you see it it’s amazing. But she sails in and unfortunately, she comes in and they hit a shoal and a bank. They’ve read the charts but in fact, there’s a lot of movement there in the Bay as there is in the whole of the River Plate,. and she sadly founders on this shoal This is in June 1809. And she goes aground in actually quite shallow waters. But unfortunately the fluke of the anchor hits in on the starboard side and it catches on to the keel and breaks through her bottom and she lists on the starboard side and the the ship starts to fill with water. She was already leaking very badly, they were having to run the pumps all the time. And very quickly, within three or four hours, the lower decks were flooded. And at that point they started to remove the stores and that was the tragedy, that she then sank there slowly over a number of days.  Fortunately, the weather was calm for the first few days when she was wrecked; they were able to take off a lot of stores. But unfortunately for the captain that was a disaster to lose a ship under any circumstances and one of navigational error in effect. But he was acquitted in the Court Martial later on, and it was blamed on the quality of the charts and the moving of the ground.  In fact he was acquitted of  the act of losing his ship, and they managed to salvage an enormous amount off the ship over a four month period, despite a number of winter storms that came through June and July. So the carronades, all the masts, spars and so on, were taken off and the ship was down there managing the salvage operation for four months.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Then it’s 180 years passes or something like that before the wreck is  found again by Mensun Bound, a very  famous wreck hunter.  Do we know much about what Mensun found, when was it, in 1997?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Indeed he found the ships but then it was a bit contentious. The thing is in Meldonado Bay  there are an awful lot of shipwrecks, and they overlay each other. So trying to identify ships can be quite challenging because there are multiple shipwrecks of multiple types and there’s a lot of very fast flowing water. There’s been a lot of storms there and so the wrecks   slightly over cover each other. So when Mensun found what he believed to be the Agamemnon, yes they brought up one cannon which is now in the museum in Montivideo, and a ring that had a Nelson seal on it, and a lot of  wooden artefacts were bought up at the time. But at the time Munsen brought that up, most of those of artefacts are still in Uruguay and slightly contentiously held under ownership. But since then there’s never been a proper archaeological survey done of the wreck, and that is something we’ve aspired to do because the wreck is under threat. Currently, sadly, what’s happened is that there’s  an evasive whelk that has come from the Pacific tankers into the area into the sea around which has eaten all the mussels that have covered the wreck for nearly 200 years. And the mussels have covered the wreck causing like a hard shell across the timbers. This whelk has arrived, literally eaten all the mussels, and I’ve seen it for myself,  and the mussels are all dead along the beaches, washed up on the shore and the coast. And this has then exposed all the timber on the wreck, which then means that the shipworm can get in and eat the wood. So all  the timbers that are remaining, and there are still a lot of timbers remaining, are now under significant threat.  And there’s never been a proper archaeological survey of her. So this is where we’ve been putting together a team to try and go down and actually establish what is left of her. Is it worth recording that wreck jointly with the Uruguayan authorities?

     

    Sam Willis 

    And that project, that process of planning is underway at present is it?  At what stage are we at?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    So we’ve been talking with the Uruguayan government and put together a team here led by Jonathan Adams of Southampton University, Central Maritime Archaeology, and others, to go out and do this work, hopefully in March next year in 2023, to do this survey jointly with the Uruguayan authorities there. We’re not looking at this stage do anything to touch the wreck, we’re just going to survey it using all the latest technology to establish what is there, and then take it forward from that point on to see if there’s anything that’s of value, that we should then recover anything and look at it as a joint cultural heritage project with Uruguay.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And as a part of that you’ve got this exhibition and film, which is being shown at Bucklers  Hard, tell us about the exhibition and the film.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    So we’ve been working on the project for a number of years with people in Uruguay. So we put together a film sponsored by the British Embassy in Montevideo, which we launched earlier this year, and that is now showing at Bucklers Hard. We’ve got an exhibition about the project, about the aspirations to survey the ship, about the story of the ship and her history of course, and about her building at Bucklers Hard, So that little exhibition is on now at Bucklers Hard from this autumn onwards.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Good stuff. Mary, what are you hoping that this will lead to?

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Well, obviously I’m very passionate about this wreck. Since I was a child I have dreamt about seeing this wreck. It’s the only known wreck of a Bucklers Hard ship anywhere in the world that’s survived. It’s an incredibly important wreck, one of the surviving ships of the  Battle of Trafalgar under Nelson. So it is one of the most important wrecks of the British Navy, around the Royal Navy, around the world. And I as a child dreamt about diving on this wreck, which is one of my Bucket list things and I’m determined to do it. I very much hope I’m going to do it next year. But the other thing that I’ve really love to do apart from actually seeing the wreck for myself is to try and bring the scale of shipbuilding back to Bucklers Hard. And my great dream is to strip back one of the slipways and to lay the keel again of a 64, such as the Agamemnon. So, one of the reasons for doing this survey of the wreck is to actually use the evidence from the wreck to inform a project, perhaps in the future, about laying a keel. There is no doubt I will never build the Agamemnon again, I don’t want to and one could never afford to. But the aspiration is that you could put something there that could give an indication of size. So even just to lay the keel, perhaps with a stem and a stern, and even one frame, would be enough to give everyone visiting Bucklers Hard an understanding of the scale of the shipbuilding task that the people did in Bucklers Hard, as a piece of sculpture almost, and as a sort of memorial to those days of shipbuilding; it is so hard to understand the scale and size of the industry that there was around Britain at that time, the Napoleonic wars, and that is my aspiration. So this project down in Uruguay to survey  the wreck is just the start of a much larger ambition to do something, which I’m very excited about.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful stuff. I’m very excited about it myself.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    I mean, who knows if I ever do it, it’s a  very big challenge.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It is a big challenge.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    And you know, we need a lot of work but we don’t need fantastic work because it’s just a piece of sculpture in effect.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, and I think it would look wonderful. Just very briefly, so you’ve got the the exhibition and the film about the Agamemnon, what else can people see in Bucklers Hard if people have not been there before, give people a taste of what’s there.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    So Bucklers Hard is the most exquisite jewel in Hampshire in the New Forest in the south of England, where there is this totally preserved 18th century shipbuilding village, the whole village nestles into the Beaulieu River, it’s completely unspoiled. And it has a fantastic Maritime Museum, telling the history of shipbuilding and Bucklers Hard, telling the history of the people who lived there, from the times of 18th century shipbuilding, right through to the Second World War, which also had a significant role for Bucklers Hard. You can visit the cottages in the village, there’s a chapel, there’s a lovely pub, of course. And there is the beautiful Beaulieu River where you can go on a river cruise and you can see the river banks with the unspoilt Beaulieu River and how they then towed those ships, launched them and towed them over to Portsmouth over a series of days. And it’s absolutely beautiful, nestling in the heart of the New Forest.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, it is a magnificent place. I’d urge you all to go, and Mary, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    Mary Montague Scott 

    Not at all.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening to the podcast. And please make sure that this isn’t the last thing you do to interact with us or with maritime history as a whole. Your first stop has to be the Mariners Mirror podcast YouTube page, it’s fantastic. My current favourite video is an animation of the mighty five masted German ship Preussen which sailed the world carrying cargo before ending her life on the bottom of the sea off Dover. It’s a great story and the animation which explains the complexities of square rig really is quite extraordinary. Please also remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. So do please check out those fantastic institutions. The History and Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation you can find at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. I’d urge you to check out their new Maritime Innovation In Miniature series, and the Society for Nautical Research. You can find that at snr.org.uk where you can join up and get all of the benefits of joining, including the brilliant Winter Lecture Series, an annual meal  on the gun decks of HMS Victory, online access to almost 4000 articles on maritime history that we have been publishing for over a century. It is worth every penny.

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