History at Sea
Man of War Colossus was built by way of plans taken from a captured French prize of a then well known fast and effective French 74 gun battleship called the Courageux. This was a deliberate act by the Admiralty as the Courageux was a ship with an impressive and formidable reputation. British shipbuilders, however, improved on the French design. They also replaced the 24lb upper deck guns she carried with smaller lighter 18lb weapons; a similar act occurred with the quarter deck guns; this all went to make the Colossus the much faster and more impressive sailor we see described in the references presented below. Her keel was laid in 1781 by a Quaker shipbuilder named William Cleverly in Gravesend.

Launched in 1787, HMS Colossus soon earned a fine reputation as one of the best and fleetest warships in the British Navy. During her short life of just 11 years service, apart from taking part in major naval engagements, Colossus covered numerous duties; occasionally serving as a convoy escort; as indeed she did during two ill fated West Indies expedition fleets of 1795. However, her main job was on station with what was known at the time as:- “the Blockading inshore squadron”; a duty Colossus performed well off Toulon; Malta and Cadiz. The Naval chronicle states that- “Only the fastest ships in the fleet are chosen for such duty”.

In 1793, due to her speedy reputation, Colossus was rushed, by Admiral Lord Hood, to Cagliari for reinforcements to aid in the then ensuing siege of Toulon. Hood wrote of her return:- “His Majesty’s ship Colossus returned to me today bringing with her 350 good troops” After numerous successes like these, the Times newspaper later wrote in 1797:- “Colossus was one of the finest 74’s in the service, and a prime sailor”

During her time Colossus had no less than seven Captains, three of which entertained Admirals- Admiral Pole; Admiral Christian; and if only briefly, the now famous- Admiral Cornwallis. It is interesting to note that Admirals chose the ships in which they served; often opting for the biggest, grandest, or more often as not, the fastest ships in the service.

Even in battle Colossus was often chosen to take the lead. After the Battle off the French Island of Groix, in 1795, Admiral Lord Bridport stated:- “I made the signal for four of the best sailing ships to chase down the French; Sans Parell; Orion; Russell; and Colossus”. When they caught up with the fleeing enemy fleet the ensuing battle, which lasted for over three hours, took place within easy range of many enemy shore batteries. During the lengthy engagement, high up on Colossus’ mainmast, a Scottish piper played heartily on his bagpipes until the French struck their colours in defeat.

Two years later, in 1797, while back on blockade duty off Cadiz, the then Captain of Colossus, George Murray, was singled out for praise by a Spanish Admiral who stated that:-“Colossus had kept up so unremitting a watch” that under a flag of truce he invited Murray to a bull fight. Even though the Spaniard offered up his own nephew as insurance, Murray “thought it proper to decline the invitation.” In the squadron at this time Murray in Colossus was serving directly alongside Nelson in Theseus who wrote in candour:- “We are looking at the ladies walking the walls and Mall of Cadiz and know of the ridicule they make of their sea officers”Colossus in the Inshore Squardron off Cadix by Thomas Buttersworth 1797

A little later Colossus and three other warships were sent by the Admiralty to bolster the main fleet at sea; which was about to see action in a major Battle off Cape St Vincent. The Mediterranean Fleets overall Commander, Sir John Jervis, wrote to his superiors of his gratitude:- “Thank you for sending so good a batch, they are a valuable addition to my already excellent stock” Again, when battle commenced, Colossus was one of the first ships sent into the fray; and bearing the brunt of the first broadsides in front of the Spanish guns; some of her rigging was immediately shot away; and severely damaged, she took no further part in the engagement.

After repairing at Lisbon Colossus was sent back on station off Cadiz; until in 1798 Nelson requested all assistance to defeat the French fleet which was believed to have entered the Mediterranean. The Battle of the Nile was about to commence. Overall Commander, Sir John Jervis, replied to Nelsons request:- “The Colossus is now most powerfully manned and Murray is to good a fellow to be left when so much is needed to be done.” Although the ship did not actually take part in the action at Aboukir Bay, as the British conquering battle damaged fleet limped back to the Great Bay of Naples to repair, Colossus chased down and successfully captured one of 3 French warships that had escaped from the engagement. At this time it was later written that Colossus was cannibalised to help repair the other warships. Although she did indeed give up a few of her spare weapons and one spare Bower anchor to Nelson and the Vanguard, cannibalism to the detriment of one warship, to serve the purposes of another, was highly unlikely; especially when the fleet was in a friendly port where supplies of wood etc was readily available. In fact, whilst the fleet was repairing at Naples, we actually find that Colossus had already been sent back to the Inshore Squadron and was again on blockade duty; this "on a cruise off Malta" until reinforcements came to retake the Island into British control. Colossus did not return to Naples until months later and then the fleet had all but been repaired.

At the end of September 1798, with Malta no longer a threat, Colossus put into Gibraltar after mistakenly capturing a friendly transport vessel. After complaints from the owners the vessel and its cargo were returned. Colossus was then ordered back to Naples where the other warships there were almost fit again for duty:- “Every assistance has been given to the Vanguard, the Culloden; and Alexander so that these ships will be fit again to sea in a few days. Yesterday His Majesty’s ship Colossus, Captain Murray, with four victuallers from Gibraltar, came to anchor in this port”( Naples) This is when Colossus gave up her spare Bower anchor etc to the Vanguard sealing her own fate later at Scilly.

With the advancing armies of Napoleon causing concern in northern Italy, Colossus was ordered to return to the Kingdom of the two Sicily’s to aid in the evacuation of Naples. Here the ship was chosen, by Nelson himself, to take a precious and extremely valuable collection of Greek antiquities back to England. This was as a personal favour to British ambassador, and friend of Nelson, Sir William Hamilton. His choice of ship, probably due to her favourable reputation, was deliberate.

On her way home to England Colossus stopped of at Algiers where the Dey, in light of recent British victories at sea, and in "showing simple admiration towards one of His Majesty’s ships of War", presented Captain Murray with a golden Sabre. Colossus then set sail for Lisbon where she was to take on board the embalmed body of Lord Admiral Shuldham. Also in the River Tagus at this time, a convoy of transports were waiting to sail home under the protection of Colossus and other ships of war. The convoy, most of which was:- “bound for Ireland and other northern ports” then set off for England. News of ships at Lisbon was brought to England on a packet ship called the Adolphus, stating that "twelve of His Majesty’s ships of war, including Colossus, and some transport vessels were in the Tagus". Shortly after the Convoy set sail. Colossus along with eight other smaller vessels then parted company with the main convoy somewhere in the entrance of the English channel.

On the 7th December Colossus entered the archipeligo of the Isles of Scilly to seek refuge from a north westerly gale. She came to anchor in St Mary’s Roads with a view to ride out the storm before setting off on the last leg of her journey. Unfortunately, three days later on the 10th of December, the wind veered around to the south east. As it grew ever stronger one of the ships main Bower anchors broke and, in the teeth of the gale, Colossus dragged on the one remaining anchor. Without her spare Bower anchor to throw in, having given it to Nelson at Naples, nothing Murray did arrested the ships progress towards the rocks. Eventually the remaining cable broke and Colossus was eventually wrecked on the Southard Wells reef off the foot of Samson Island.

Due to the cargo she carried, which holds direct ties to Sir William and Lady Hamilton and of course Lord Nelson, the wreck site of HMS Colossus is now one of our nations most significant shipwrecks. However, the Government protection order the wreck site received in July 2001 was solely due to the ships wooden structure itself. When these wooden structural remains were first discovered in May 1999 by the author, they were mostly in pristine condition. However, these once impressive remains now lie deteriorating on the sea floor and this wonderful piece of British, and naval history, is being lost forever. The current Government protection order system in force today, generally means- to do nothing!

Todd Stevens

Last Updated: 17-Jan-2009