Portrait as a Rear Admiral
Westminster, London, England
29 August 1782|
|Occupation||Royal Navy Admiral|
Richard Kempenfelt (1718 – 29 August 1782) was a British rear-admiral who gained a reputation as a naval innovator. He is best known for his victory against the French at the Second Battle of Ushant and for his death when the HMS Royal George accidentally sank at Portsmouth the following year. He was born at Westminster. His father, a Swede, is said to have been in the service of James II, and subsequently to have entered the British army.
Richard Kempenfelt joined the navy, was commissioned a lieutenant in January 1741. He saw service in the West Indies, taking part in the capture of Portobelo during the War of Jenkins' Ear. In 1746 he returned to Britain, and from then to 1780, when he was made rear-admiral, he saw active service in the East Indies with Sir George Pocock and in various quarters of the world. In 1781 he won the Battle of Ushant, with a vastly inferior force, defeating the French fleet under De Guichen and capturing 20 ships.
In 1782 he hoisted his flag on HMS Royal George, which formed part of the fleet under Lord Howe. In August this fleet was ordered to proceed to the relief of Gibraltar, and underwent a refit at top speed at Portsmouth.
On 29 August 1782, the Royal George was being heeled off Portsmouth to allow repairs to be made to the water intake for the deck wash pump which was three feet below water level. The larboard guns had been run out and the starboard guns moved into the centre of the deck to heel over the ship until her lowest gun ports were close to the surface of the water. A supply vessel, the Lark approached the Royal George on her low side to transfer a cargo of rum. According to an Admiralty report - not made public until early the next century - the larboard cannons' weight on the ship's central frame caused excessively decayed timbers to break. This caused the ship to heel to such a degree that the sea washed in at her gunports and she soon began to ship water in her hold. A sudden breeze on the raised side of the ship forced her further over and the water rushed in. The crew were ordered to right the ship but the fallen cannon could not be moved. Within a couple of minutes she rolled on to her side and sank before any distress signal could be given.
900 people were estimated to have lost their lives, for besides the crew there were a large number of tradesmen and women and children on board. About 230 people were saved, some by running up the rigging while others were picked up by boats from other vessels. Kempenfelt was writing in his cabin when the ship sank; the cabin doors had jammed due to the ship heeling and he perished with the rest. William Cowper's poem, the "Loss of the Royal George," commemorates this disaster. Kempenfelt had effected radical alterations and improvements in the signalling system then existing in the British navy. A painting of the loss of the Royal George is in the Royal United Service Institution, London.
He took a great interest in evangelism. His hymns were published in "Original Hymns and Poems" By Philotheorus (Exeter, England: B. Thorn, 1777). Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe in Ontario is named for him.
See Charnock's Biog. Nav., vi, 246, and Ralfe's Naval Biographies, i, 215.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press
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