Admiral Boscawen

There used to be a pub in Truro called the Admiral Boscawen. But who was Admiral Boscawen? Born this week in 1711, Edward Boscawen was the third son of the first Viscount Falmouth of nearby Tregothnan. He went on to become one of the leading naval officers of the day and a British war hero. In the 1600s the Cornish had been known for their martial prowess on land during the civil wars of mid-century. By the 1700s their exploits were more likely to happen at sea. Because of Cornwall’s maritime location and the activities of press gangs in its ports, the Cornish-born component of the Royal Navy – at three per cent of its complement – was around three times what its population might suggest. With quantity also came quality.

Edward Boscawen entered the Navy at the age of 15. It wasn’t too long before he displayed the appropriate aggressive instincts. In 1741 he led a near-suicidal night attack on Spanish shore batteries at Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and as a result was appointed captain. He followed this up by taking a leading role in attacking a French fleet off Cape Finisterre in 1746. Leading his ship in full sail towards the French and trusting the rest of the fleet would follow him, Boscawen was shot in the shoulder. He became a rear-admiral soon afterwards.

Sometimes bravery shaded into a willingness to go to the limits of orders and beyond. In 1755, on a mission in the north Atlantic to prevent the French reinforcing their colony at Quebec, Boscawen attacked three French ships, sinking two. Although relations with the French were at a low ebb, Britain was not actually at war with them. It soon was.

Admiral Boscawen

On that expedition Boscawen reported that half of his ship’s crew was on the sick list and overall his fleet lost 2,000 men to fever on that mission. However, he seems to have taken more than the usual effort to look after the health of his men, installing ventilators for example to circulate air below decks and ensuring supplies of fresh vegetables and fish if at all possible. Sometimes, this could backfire, as when several of his men died after eating a poisonous fish caught in the Indian Ocean. Although a strict disciplinarian typical of his times, he seems to have been popular and was given the nickname ‘Old Dreadnought’ by the men, after a ship he had commanded early in his career.

An MP for Truro from 1742, Boscawen managed to survive the changing government ministries of the time and retain his position at the Admiralty. He became best known for his exploits in 1758 when his capture of Louisburg and Cape Breton in Canada helped to turn the tide of the Seven Years’ War against France. A year later, he also destroyed some French ships of the line at the battle of Lagos off southern Portugal. Showing little respect for Portuguese neutrality, he scuppered the French plans to link up with their fleet at Brest.

Two years later however, Boscawen died of fever, probably typhus, at his newly built house at Hatchlands in Surrey, an estate bought in 1749.

His biographer calls him ‘determined and confident’, someone who combined ‘resolution with compassion, single mindedness with understanding’ and who was ‘thoroughly professional’. He was also the first among several Cornish naval heroes of the 1700s and early 1800s.

The Penlee lifeboat disaster

The 19th of December will be remembered by any Cornish person in their 50s or above as the day when, 38 years ago, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat at Mousehole lost their lives. They had put to sea to go to the aid of the bulk carrier, the Union Star, which was in difficulties and drifting in the teeth of a furious gale.

The Union Star was actually on its maiden voyage. Launched in Denmark a few weeks earlier, it had picked up a cargo of fertiliser in the Netherlands and was heading for Dublin, where it was registered. En route the boat had also collected the captain’s family, who added three to its crew complement of five, as it sailed westwards into an oncoming storm.

Eight miles east of Wolf Rock its engines failed, contaminated by sea water. In winds gusting up to 100 mph and waves reputedly 60 feet high, it was blown back towards the cliffs of West Penwith.

The coastguard called up a helicopter, but the wind was too violent for the helicopter to winch anyone off. So they then requested the lifeboat at Penlee to launch. The Penlee boat, the Solomon Browne, then set off at 8.12 in the evening. In raging seas it located the Union Star and managed to manoeuvre alongside, successfully taking four people off the stricken ship. It then radioed that it was trying to rescue the remainder. And then there was radio silence.

wreckage from the Union Star

The 46-foot wooden lifeboat had presumably been smashed against the side of the carrier, pummelled by the horrific waves. Other lifeboats were launched: the Sennen boat was unable to make it around Land’s End while a search by the Lizard boat found nothing.

Sixteen people, the eight-man crew of the Solomon Browne and the eight on board the Union Star, lost their lives in this tragedy. A public appeal afterwards raised £3 million in recognition of the incredible bravery of those who volunteer to risk their lives in such conditions to save the lives of others. Following the disaster, the old lifeboat house was closed, a memorial garden planted nearby and a new lifeboat station established at nearby Newlyn.