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HMS Surprise Research

Page 4 of 4

Researching HMS Surprise


Research Note 8, mast sizes.

As with the ordnance and rating of Surprise, as discussed in Research Note 3, separating fact from fiction and determining the correct mast sizes turned up some interesting information.

From the outset Captain Hamilton put forward his opinion that the masts and yard on Surprise, as captured, were too small. However, Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, requested information from Plymouth dockyard regarding the dimensions and condition of the masts and yards aready carried. After receiving this report the Admiralty decided that the sizes of the masts and yards, with the exception of the bowsprit, were acceptible.

March 03, 1798: Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, writes to the 'Respective Officers' at Plymouth Yard:

...
We have received your account of the dimensions & state of the Masts & Yards of his Majesty's ship Surprise, and direct & require you to cause them to be put into good condition agreeable to their present dimensions, except the Bowsprit which you are to cause to be replaced
.
...


March 04, 1798: Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, again writes to the 'Respective Officers' at Plymouth Yard to clarify his previous letter:

...
These are to direct and require you, not withstanding former orders, to soppy his Majesty's ship Surprise with the yards and topmasts of a 28 gun ship, keeping her present lower masts, except the bowsprit which you are to provide in proportion, agreeable to Captain Hamilton's requests.

...

Unhappy that his request for increasing the masts of Surprise has been declined, Captain Hamilton again wrote to the Admiralty requesting that the current main mast be used as his fore mast and the main mast be replaced accordingly:

March 22, 1798: Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, again writes to the 'Respective Officers' at Plymouth Yard approving Captain Hamilton's request providing that the Plymouth Officers also approved:

...
In addition to former orders. These are to direct and require you to furnish the Surprise with a new main mast and supply the present main mast for a fore mast if it will answer the purpose and can be done without detaining the ship and that you are of opinion she is equal to such alterations.

...

Consequently, Surprise was re-masted, using the main mast as a fore mast and a new main mast was fitted in proportion. The dimensions of the original main mast (now to be used as the fore mast) was approximately equal to the dimensions of a 36 gun ship fore mast, it would be safe to assume therfore that the proportional main mast fitted was that of a 36 gun ship.
Followers of the Patrick O'Brian novels will doubtless recognise this information, the fact that Surprise carried a 36 gun main mast is a recurring theme throughout the novels and is mentioned countless times as a 'distinguishing feature.
There is also another reference to Surprise carrying a 36 gun main mast from the series of books 'Tha Naval History of Great Britain' by W.M. James. William James, born in 1780 and died in 1827, was a naval historian whose series of books 'The Naval History of Great Britain' were originally published between 1822 and 1824. In Volume 2 of this work, on page 360, wiliam james states:

...
Although a ship of only 579 tons, the Surprise was fitted with a 36 gun frigate's main mast, but with the fore mas and mizzen mast of a 28. This was a plan of Captain Hamilton's; and, thus rigged, the Surprise appears not to have been complained of as a sailer.

...

It would be forgivable, therefore, to believe that this was the true mast and yard arrangement of the Surprise however ... our continued research has shown this not to be the case!
After being re-fitted and masted at Plymouth, Surprise set sail in April for sea trials, arriving at Sheerness in May. Captain Hamilton immediately writes to Sheerness dockyard and the Admiralty to inform them that the new arrangement was unsuitable. Not receiving an immediate reply, Captain Hamilton again writes to the Admiralty requesting that the masts be reduced back to the original configuration:

May 27, 1798: Captain Hamilton repeats his request to reduce the masts and yards of Surprise:

...
Having wrote to you on the 23rd instant, for their Lordship's information, of my arrival here with His Majesty's Ship Surprise under my command, and not receiving an answer.
I am to request you will be pleased to inform their Lordship's, that the Surprise waits their orders to proceed into Harbour and that the only alterations requisite are the undermentioned list.

Fore mast to be got out and placed aft for a main mast, new fore mast & fore yard, sails etc. in proportion, and an additional quantity of ballast, which I think will make the ship sufficiently stiff to carry any sail necessary. The present rigging will do again, and if their Lordship's give orders for the ship to be taken in hand, she may be ready for sea in ten days time.
...

Although written in a calm manner, Hamilton has clearly omitted the fact that the ship had just had her masts and yards increased. Unknown to Hamilton, Evan Napean, Secretary to the Admiralty, had already penned a scathing response to Hamilton's original letter to which Hamilton was referred:

May 25, 1798: Evan Napean, Secretary to the Admiralty, orders the masts and yards of Surprise to be reduced...:

...
In answer to your letter of 22 inst
. enclosing a letter from Captain Hamilton of H.M.S. Surprise, stating that the masts & yards are considerably too large and heavy for the ship and signifying to us the directions of the Rt Hon Admty that we consider and report to you what may be proper to be done on the occasion, we desire you will please to acquaint their Lordship's that the increase of Masts to the Surprise by moving the main mast forward and giving her a new main mast in proportion ... was done at the express request of Captain Hamilton and as he has now experienced that the ship is not equal to carry the increased masts, we are of opinion that the fore mast should be removed back to the place from whence it came and become the main mast of the ship and a new fore mast should be made to pole with that & that she should be supplied with the topmasts and yards of a 24 gunship.
...

In this letter, Evan Napean has made it clear exactly who was responsible for this delay in Surprise being able to put to sea for service and has seen fit not only to reduce the masts and yards of Surprise but to reduce them down to those of a 24 gun ship (as opposed to the original recommendation of a 28 gun ship), presumeable by way of punishment.
Consequently, Surprise was re-masted to this new configuration in which she stayed and as depicted by our kit.

The continuation of the idea that Surprise carried an overly large main mast may be because the main mast, as finally fitted, was still out of proportion to the fore and mizzen masts - the main mast having the topmasts and yards of a 28 gun ship while the fore and mizzen were of a 24 gun ship.

Hamilton's request, in his letter dated May 27, 1798, for extra ballast had still gone unanswered and on June 12 he again wrote to the Admiralty with his reques. Unfortunately, by this time the Admiralty appears to have had enough of Captain Hamilton's 'ideas' as borne out by Evan Napean's response:

June 14, 1798: Evan Napean, Secretary to the Admiralty, orders the masts and yards of Surprise to be reduced...:

...
We have received your letter of the 12th instant, requesting that his Majs Ship under your command may be supplied with ten tons
of additional ballast in consequence of her masts and yards having been reduced; and acquaint you we cannot order any more ballast to be supplied until the vessel has been tried with her present masts and yards.
...

Further details will be added to this section as photos of the prototype model are released.




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To order, call:
+44 (0)1905 776 073
Or buy online at
www.shipwrightshop.com