Voyage & Disaster

The Loss of the Kent

Burning of the Kent
Burning of the Kent
(Click to enlarge)

The age of steam had arrived. Steam packets using paddle wheels had been plying for coastal trade since 1816. In 1819 a steam-assisted vessel crossed the Atlantic for the first time using a combination of sails and paddle wheels. In 1825 the East India Company experimented for commercial purposes with a similar ship, but it took one hundred and thirteen days to reach Calcutta from England having had to divert too often from its direct route in order to replenish boiler fuel. The Company decided instead to build coastal and river steamers at its Calcutta shipyard to be equipped with paddle wheels and with engines shipped out from England. For long voyages sail remained the most economical form of propulsion until the advent of propeller driven ships.

Our two regiments sailed in merchant ships on charter to the Company which had been adapted for troop carrying. Additional cabins for officers and their families were erected on the gun decks. They were improvised from canvas and planking and were easily collapsible. Meals were served in the great cabin in the stern, and fresh food and wine were provided. The cargo decks were adapted for soldiers and their families.They had to endure overcrowding, poor ventilation and the stench from the stables and cattle pens. The risk of contagious illness was ever present for all ranks and strict hygiene rules were imposed by the ship’s master.

The Queen’s embarked at Gravesend on the 5th and 8th February 1825 and the 31st Regiment on the 7th. They were in the highest spirits, especially the soldiers of the Queen’s who had paraded during the previous week to receive the regiment’s Third Colour. On the evening of the parade they were entertained with an excellent dinner at the expense of the Colonel of the Regiment, Major-General Sir Henry Torrens, who was Adjutant-General of the Army. An enthusiastic article in the local Sun newspaper on 3rd February proclaimed that “It is not, perhaps, too much to say that the Queen’s Royals are at the moment a military spectacle in discipline, conduct and efficiency. They can hardly be excelled”. And significantly it went on to say that “During the last 12 months a corporal punishment has not been inflicted in the Regiment”.

The Queen’s landed at Bombay on the morning of 7th June after one hundred and twenty one days at sea. Six men died during the voyage, which was otherwise uneventful. The Scaleby Castle carrying half the 31st Regiment arrived on the same day on the other side of India. They disembarked at Saugor Island into boats for the short journey up the River Hoogly through the Ganges delta to Calcutta. The voyage was regarded as a remarkably healthy one. There were only eight soldiers on the sick list when it ended, two had died during it and one further death occurred during the journey up river. But there was no sign of the other ship, the Kent. Both ships had left Gravesend together and had waited at the Downs off Dover for a fair wind, which they picked up on 19th February. They parted company shortly afterwards.

During the morning of 1st March a fire broke out in the Kent. She had just entered the Bay of Biscay, a gale was blowing. With the ship pitching and rolling in the heavy seas a ship’s officer engaged in checking the spirits in the hold dropped his lantern as the ship lurched suddenly. It fell onto a loose cask which at that moment had burst open and the contents were set ablaze. The fire spread rapidly and it soon became necessary to abandon the ship before it blew up.

The Kent had been bound for China after disembarking the troops at Calcutta. She was a well-equipped ship of 1350 tons. But she was crowded and weighed down with 100 tons of shot and shell. There were 640 people on board of whom 145 were ship’s company, and the rest mostly officers and men of the 31st Regiment and their families, 47 women and 73 children.

By great good fortune another ship was in the vicinity and came to the rescue. She was the Cambria, a small 200 ton brig commanded by Captain Cook, with a crew of 11 and 26 passengers who were mainly Cornish tin miners and Yorkshire smelters on their way to Mexico. Despite the conditions Captain Cook managed to station his ship close by for several hours while the three ships’ boats plied to and fro, and with the additional hazard in mind that, as was customary, the guns on the Kent were loaded and could fire at random if the flames reached them Eventually it became too dangerous to go near the ship. She was abandoned and at two o’clock the next morning she blew up and sank. The loss of life was severe - 68 men, one woman and 20 children of the 31st - but it could have been much greater had it not been for Captain Cook’s fine seamanship and the discipline of the troops. Among the survivors were 14 fortunate soldiers who had clung to wreckage and had been swept away. They were picked up the next morning by the Caroline, a ship bound from the Mediterranean to Liverpool, whose captain had seen the explosion and changed course towards it.

The survivors were landed at Falmouth where the large Quaker population immediately set about collecting and distributing money and clothing for them. The Falmouth Harmonic Society performed a concert which added twenty two pounds to the relief fund. It was helped by some of the 31st’s band who had recovered sufficiently from their ordeal to play on borrowed instruments. The directors of the East India Company authorised their agent to spend up to one hundred guineas on relief. The survivors embarked to return to Chatham by sea a fortnight later, seemingly under sail and not by one of the new steam packets since the passage took ten days. On arrival they were well looked after by the Royal Marines and left for Calcutta on the 10th April. They arrived on 16th August and at last, a month later, rejoined the rest of the regiment.

The loss of the Kent attracted widespread publicity. A silver medal was struck in honour of the rescuers. The 31st’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Fearon, was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath. His second-in-command, Major McGregor, was promoted to the command of the 93rd Highlanders. Both were passengers in the Kent and had contributed greatly to the rescue. The scene was depicted by a well-known contemporary artist, William Daniel of the Royal Academy, who died in 1837. His memorable oil painting is on display in the regimental museum at Clandon Park. It shows the Kent burning furiously, the passengers and crew are crowding at the stern to escape the flames, some are clambering out along the spanker boom projecting at the stern to slide down ropes suspended below into overcrowded ship’s’ boats tossing wildly on the waves. Down to leeward is the tiny Cambria, miraculously keeping station throughout the long hours of rescue.

There were a number of accounts by survivors - among them by young Dr Townsend who was on his way to take up a post with the East India Company - and by Major McGregor who had found a group of children whom he encouraged to pray “in the manner in which they had been taught in the regimental school” while they waited to be helped to the boats, and who came upon soldiers crouching directly over the magazine. They could not swim and hoped to be despatched promptly when the ship blew up. There was Captain Cook who ended his report by saying “It may not be amiss to state that two hours after the Kent blew up a soldier’s wife was delivered of a fine boy aboard the Cambria and both mother and child are doing well”. There were other recollections. One of the most poignant of them was of the soldier’s wife who, not having been taken on the strength, travelled with the detachment to Gravesend where she ingeniously managed to get on board and conceal herself for several days until the morning of the disaster. She was placed in one of the boats and taken to safety in the Cambria. But her man was drowned while trying to swim to join her.

John Greenwood was fortunate that he had not joined the 31st Regiment in time to sail to India with it, otherwise he might have found himself aboard the Kent. He travelled later with three other young officers who had been allowed to make their own arrangements, and drew ninety-four pounds government allowance for travelling privately. Their voyage was less dramatic. He wrote that after some bargaining with the master of a ship lying at the West India docks they each obtained a separate cabin and embarked at Gravesend “nothing doubting but that we were going to the finest country in the world, and that we should find the master the same liberal, off-handed and good-natured fellow he appeared on shore”. But the voyage began inauspiciously. The sailors were still recovering from the drunkenness in which their last few days ashore had been spent. All was bustle and disorder, ropes in indescribable confusion, trusses of hay, hencoops, pigs, sheep and passengers’ luggage littered the decks. The rest of the passengers embarked at Portsmouth, but a westerly gale forced the ship to lie off Ramsgate until it abated. Most of them were ill and the dinner and breakfast tables were deserted.

A few days of fine weather enabled order to be restored. Passengers settled down and appetites returned. However “the master turned out to be not quite the liberal friend he had represented himself. The table was kept in the most stingy and niggardly manner and the wines were execrable”. To enliven the tedium of the voyage the passengers got up a weekly paper and acted plays, the ladies assisting by making the costumes and wigs. Sometimes they caught a shark or harpooned a dolphin as it played under the bows - “the foremost fish” as the sailors called the species - and a good deal of fun took place in exploring the contents of their stomachs often finding all manner of things that had dropped from the ship days before.

Off the Cape of Good Hope albatrosses followed in the wake of the ship for many days. Some were taken with a baited hook and hauled on board. They provided a variety of dishes for the sailors who were willing to eat anything in the way of fresh meat at sea. In the Bay of Bengal the ship was becalmed for a fortnight. Numerous turtles were seen basking on the surface of the sea and were hunted by the young officers in the ship’s boats either harpooning them or approaching stealthily and flipping them over on their backs.

'Burning of the Kent' Painting

The artist William Daniel RA. William Daniell RA was born at Kingston-Upon-Thames in 1769 and at the age of ten was taken to London by his artist uncle Thomas Daniell and became his pupil. Thomas Daniell RA was a pioneer of aquatinting and his nephew studied hard to achieve the perfection that his uncle had in this medium.

For many years, visitors to the museum would have seen a rather dark, battered painting in an indifferent wooden frame hanging on a wall.

Closer examination would have revealed that it was an oil painting of the burning of the East Indiaman Kent in the Bay of Biscay 1st March 1825. Other than appreciate the importance of the tragedy in the history of the 31st Regiment, few would have given the painting a second look, but now the story really begins. In September 1992 the Trustees decided to try and find out a little more about the painting by taking it to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. No difinitive opinions were offered other than to suggest that it required restoration and cleaning and that the painting was after the style of William Daniell.

Colonel Peter Durrant, then chairman of the Trustees; undertook to endeavour to find out where the original of the of the painting in the museum might be. having psoken to Sotherbys, they suggested that he write to Doctor Shellim, an art historian and the acknowledged expert on the Daniells. A letter drew an excited telephone call from Maurice Shellim who said that we might have a long lost picture but he would have to see it in order to be sure. Arrangements were made to take the painting to him in London. A lady from the Peabody Museum in Salem USA who are great collectors of Daniell's paintings was also present.

Within minutes of placing the picture on a chair and turning it to obtain maximum light, Maurice Shellin said that it was an authentic William Daniell oil painting missing for over one hundred and sixty years. Its last recorded mention was when it was when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828. Maurice Shellim was a fund of knowledge on the Daniells and said that William was a prolific painter. He produced four hundred and twenty paintings of which one hundred and fifty were aquatints. The latter group are reproduced in a book, "India and The Daniells" by Maurice Shellim. A full list of William Daniells paintings is not available but our painting is the ninety sixth now knoen by Maurice Shellim to exist. We have also learnt that an aquatint of the burning of the Kent by William Daniell was published on the 20 May 1825 but the precise date of our painting is as yet unknown. William Daniell died in 1837, predeceasing his uncle by three years. The Sergeants of 1st Battalion The East Surrey Regiment presented it to the Museum in 1937 but where it had been in the preceding years remains a mystery - does anyone know?

The painting has been restored and returned to the museum.

The picture had been glued to a sheet of plywood at some time in the distant past so the restorer and his team had to painstakingly remove the wood, piece by piece. Having been cleaned, filled with wax and then stretched and framed, the comparison with its former state is unbelievable.


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