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A guest post by Margarette Lincoln.

Review: Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wreck of the Gloucester: A True Restoration Tragedy by Nigel Pickford. 

pepys and gloucester‘You can’t imagine in what consternation all your friends in general were upon the report of your being cast away’, wrote Will Hewer to Pepys in May 1682. Hewer was greatly relieved that his long-standing associate and friend was safe. He had just received Pepys’s letter explaining that when the ill-fated Gloucester sank off the mouth of the Humber, he had not been on board.

The naval frigate Gloucester had been carrying James, Duke of York, to Scotland, accompanied by a retinue that included many noblemen. James’s recent meeting with his brother, King Charles II, had gone well, and Charles had at last decided to allow James to return from temporary exile. Charles was feeling his age; James, although Catholic, was the heir to the throne, and Charles judged that popular anti-Catholic feeling had diminished while his brother had been in Scotland. Now the duke was making the voyage to fetch his wife, Mary of Modena, back to court. After the Gloucester foundered on a sandbank, James was saved. The majority of those onboard perished, although the disaster took place in daylight, in calm waters, and the Gloucester sailed with a flotilla of smaller ships whose crews might have been expected to save more lives. Pepys was an onlooker in one of these vessels.

Nigel Pickford does a number of very clever things in this book. He uses the shipwreck as a lens to focus on different levels of English society in the 1680s, helping us to understand the complex forces at work during James’s upcoming short reign and giving insights into the personalities of some key players. He tells a mystery story – why was it that Pepys, who had an invitation to sail with James on the Gloucester, and who was eager to amend his languishing career by re-connecting with the duke after his exile, chose instead to sail to Scotland in a smaller yacht? Pickford also combs the archive material connected to the wreck to throw fresh light on the nature of naval crews in the late seventeenth century. Finally, he makes a plea for the recovery and preservation of the artefacts at the Gloucester wreck site, discovered in early 2007, arguing that they represent a unique cross-section of late Stuart society and have national importance.

Pickford, a historian who also has experience as a consultant for salvage companies, offers an expert study of the actual circumstances of this shipwreck. At the same time, his narrative is extremely readable and well structured. He weaves in some lesser-known aspects of Stuart life, including horse-racing, yachting, and map-making. His extensive archival research enables him to provide poignant details about members of the doomed crew and to give insights into their private lives. He provides fresh information about the quality of life in London’s eastern maritime parishes, and touches on the pervasive impact of Deptford’s naval dockyard on local residents. At a more general level, he shows how the media was manipulated even in the seventeenth century, as the Crown tried to control popular opinion and turn all circumstances to advantage. The shipwreck, far from damaging the duke’s reputation, helped to enhance it: his providential escape was celebrated in art and verse, and his generosity to survivors and dependents of those who lost their lives was well publicised. When James was ousted by William and Mary, the Gloucester shipwreck was reinterpreted to suit the ascendent Whig faction. Pickford weighs his evidence carefully to produce a balanced account of what really happened, correcting, for example, much-repeated false reports of James saving his dogs and priests from the wreck at the expense of seamen. Wisely, he does not speculate on the course of history had James died in 1682.

Some aspects of this tragic episode are bleakly comic. It says little for the quality of seamanship available to James on this occasion that his navigators argued and failed to agree on the best route to Leith; as one of Pepys’s friends pointed out, who would have thought that a voyage to Scotland would prove more perilous than sailing to the Indies? And on the return journey, James’s crew put a cannonball through the hull of an English merchant ship when attempting merely to fire a friendly shot across its bows, reminding the captain to lower topsails in deference to a flagship flying the royal standard.

Pickford’s close examination of bounty payments to dependents of the Gloucester dead enables him to argue in an appendix that naval crews of the time were older on average than previously thought, and that a higher proportion were married, although the total number of children in each sailor family was modest. Despite his mastery of detail, much of it technical, he makes occasional slips: he mistakes Pepy’s kidney stones for gallstones and asserts that the Van der Veldes, marine artists, had their studio on the north-facing side of the Queen’s House in Greenwich, when they had rooms on the south side, overlooking the park.

In the closing chapters, Pickford gives a convincing account of why Pepys mysteriously decided not to embark in the Gloucester, an explanation that says much about Pepys’s prodigious memory as well as his understanding of contemporary dockyard practice. But I won’t spoil the story here. Readers will need to consult this fascinating book, where they will find many back stories that show just how complex and intriguing this period was.


Samuel Pepys and the Strange Wreck of the Gloucester: A True Restoration Tragedy by Nigel Pickford. The History Press (30 Sept. 2021) 304pp. Published Price: £20.00.

Margarette Lincoln is Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and Visiting Researcher at the University of Portsmouth. Her latest book is London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City.

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