Good people of high and low degree,
I pray ye all to list to me,
And I’ll relate a harrowing tale of the sea
Concerning the burning of the ship “Kent” in the Bay of Biscay,
Which is the most appalling tale of the present century.
She carried a crew, including officers, of 148 men,
And twenty lady passengers along with them;
Besides 344 men of the 31st Regiment,
And twenty officers with them, all seemingly content.
Also the soldiers’ wives, which numbered forty-three,
And sixty-six children, a most beautiful sight to see;
And in the year of 1825, and on the 19th of February,
The ship “Kent” sailed from the Downs right speedily,
While the passengers’ hearts felt light with glee.
And the beautiful ship proceeded on her way to Bengal,
While the passengers were cheerful one and all;
And the sun shone out in brilliant array,
And on the evening of the 28th they entered the Bay of Biscay.
But a gale from the south-west sprang up that night,
Which filled the passengers’ hearts with fright;
And it continued to increase in violence as the night wore on,
Whilst the lady passengers looked very woe-begone.
Part of the cargo in the hold consisted of shot and shell,
And the vessel rolled heavily as the big billows rose and fell;
Then two sailors descended the forehold carrying a light,
To see if all below was safe and right.
And they discovered a spirit cask and the contents oozing rapidly,
And the man with the light stooped to examine it immediately;
And in doing so he dropped the lamp while in a state of amaze,
And, oh horror! in a minute the forehold was in a blaze.
It was two o’clock in the morning when the accident took place,
And, alas! horror and fear was depicted in each face;
And the sailors tried hard to extinguish the flame,
But, oh Heaven! all their exertions proved in vain.
The inflammable matter rendered their efforts of no avail,
And the brave sailors with over-exertion looked very pale;
And for hours in the darkness they tried to check the fire,
But the flames still mounted higher and higher.
But Captain Cobb resolved on a last desperate experiment,
Because he saw the ship was doomed, and he felt discontent;
Then he raised the alarm that the ship was on fire,
Then the passengers quickly from their beds did retire.
And women and children rushed to the deck in wild despair,
And, paralysed with terror, many women tore their hair;
And some prayed to God for help, and wildly did screech,
But, alas! poor souls, help was not within their reach.
Still the gale blew hard, and the waves ran mountains high,
While men, women, and children bitterly did cry
To God to save them from the merciless fire;
But the flames rose higher and higher.
And when the passengers had lost all hope, and in great dismay,
The look-out man shouted, “Ho! a sail coming this way”;
Then every heart felt light and gay,
And signals of distress were hoisted without delay.
Then the vessel came to their rescue, commanded by Captain Cook,
And he gazed upon the burning ship with a pitiful look;
She proved to be the brig “Cambria,” bound for Vera Cruz,
Then the captain cried, “Men, save all ye can, there’s no time to lose.”
Then the sailors of the “Cambria” wrought with might and main,
While the sea spray fell on them like heavy rain;
First the women and children were transferred from the “Kent”
By boats, ropes, and tackle without a single accident.
But, alas! the fire had reached the powder magazine,
Then followed an explosion, oh! what a fearful scene;
But the explosion was witnessed by Captain Babby of the ship “Carline,”
Who most fortunately arrived in the nick of time.
And fourteen additional human beings were saved from the “Kent,”
And they thanked Captain Babby and God, who to them succour sent,
And had saved them from being burnt, and drowned in the briny deep;
And they felt so overjoyed that some of them did weep;
And in the first port in England they landed without delay,
And when their feet touched English soil their hearts felt gay.
Loss of the Kent East Indiaman
At a late hour on Sunday intelligence was received at the India House of the total destruction, by fire, of the Honourable Company’s ship the Kent in the Bay of Biscay, on the 1st of March, in lat. 47. 30., long. 11. 40. This disaster was announced by the arrival of the brig Cambria, Captain Cook, at Falmouth, with the Commander, Captain Cobb, his officers, the passengers, military officers, soldiers, and crew on board the Kent, all of whom were saved, with the exception of one woman, 21 children, 4 sailors, and 64 soldiers, who were on board when she blew up. The Kent was bound to Bengal and China, sailed from the Downs about a fortnight ago, and was beating through a heavy swell in the Bay of Biscay, on the morning of the 1st instant. The heavy roll of the ship had displaced a cask of spirits, which an officer went below to see properly secured. At the moment when the cask was about to be replaced in its proper situation, a violent roll of the vessel caused a candle, which one of the men held in his hand, to drop on the spirits that had leaked. They instantly took fire, which communicating to that in the casks, the hold was involved in flame and smoke, defying every effort to arrest the progress of the flames.
In this perilous situation, the Cambria, Captain Cook, bound from London to Mexico, having on board 35 miners and superintendents of the Anglo-Mexican Company, hove in sight. Seeing a signal of distress, Captain Cook instantly bore down, and on approaching the Kent, discovered her to be on fire. Not a moment was lost in rendering every possible assistance.
The following letter, received yesterday morning from Falmouth, contains minute details of the disaster, from the accident which occasioned the fire, to the final catastrophe :-
Falmouth, March 6, 1825.
Sir,– I enclose you a copy of the letter addressed to the Agents to Lloyd’s at this place, by Captain Cook, of the Cambria, respecting the loss of the Kent East Indiaman by fire.
I also annex a list of the passengers, troops, women, and children which were on board at the time of the accident. The whole of the officers and passengers were saved, and the safety of the women is mainly to be attributed to the noble and exemplary conduct of’ the soldiers, who were as completely under the command of their officers, and as respectful, as on a parade, during the trying occasion. It is a pity so much cannot be said of’ the sailors, as Captain Cook’s letter will explain, and had the Cambria not had the miners on board, it is a query if one-half of the people would have been rescued, as the sailors were not disposed to go back to the Kent a second time, and the crew of the Cambria and the miners lined the side, and by force prevented their coming into the vessel, until they had gone back and made further exertions to save their fellow creatures.
lt was a truly melancholy sight to witness the condition of the men, women, and children, officers and their wives included, on landing, some not having scarce a rag to cover them; they are all, however by humane and benevolent exertions of the inhabitants of Falmouth, who immediately came forward with abundance of clothes of every description, temporarily and comfortably provided for, and a subscription, amounting already to 200l., has been entered into for the relief of the most necessitous.
The providential circumstance of the Cambria falling in with the Kent (on St. David’s day) was very remarkable, and occurred by reason of’ Captain Cook having lain-to to repair some damage to his bulwarks, and it was also again as fortunate that he arrived here just at the time he did, for the wind immediately shifted, and blew strong from the northward, which would have kept them out a day or two longer, or obliged their bearing up for France; and in the crowded state of the vessel; (a brig of only. 200 tons, with a cargo of near 600 souls on board), many lives must have been lost’ from suffocation, and want of room to get at the necessaries stored away below. Captain Cook’s conduct is most praiseworthy; and at the mess-dinner last evening of the Colonel and officers of the 31st Regiment, his health was drank with nine times nine.
The greatest part of the troops and their families are billetted in the town, owing to there being but a limited accommodation at the garrison by reason of the ridiculous and ill-discriminating system of economy and reduction practised some time since, which levelled the beautiful and commodious barracks to the ground, and which from 5l. to 10l. a year would have kept in good repair.
Brig Cambria, Falmouth, March 4, 1825.
Messrs. Wm. Broad and Sons, Agents to Lloyd’s.
Gentlemen,- You are aware of my leaving this port on the 24th ult., with passengers and goods for Mexico, and I, beg to acquaint you of my return here this morning at 1 a. m. under the following circumstances :-
On Tuesday last, the 1st instant., being then in latitude 47. 30. and longitude 9. 45., laying-to with a strong gale from the westward, under a close-reefed main topsail, we discovered a large sail to the westward, and on approaching found her to have a signal flying of distress, which induced me immediately to render every assistance in my power, and on nearing found her to be on fire. About three p. m., being then on her bow, we succeeded in getting the first boat from the vessel, which proved to be the Honourable Company’s ship Kent, Captain’ Cobb, of 1,400 tons, for Bengal and China, with troops and passengers, amounting, with the crew, to 637 souls. From 3 to about 8 p. m. the boats were constantly employed in bringing the people to the Cambria, and succeeded in saving 301 officers, non-commissioned ditto, and privates of the 31st regiment, 45 women, and 48 children, appertaining to ditto, 19 male and female private passengers, and Captain Cobb, and 139 of the crew, amounting in all to 554. The flames now becoming exceedingly fierce, I could not urge the sailors again returning to the ship, nor deem it at all prudent, for the preservation of the lives already on board my vessel, to remain longer near the Kent, expecting her instantly to blow up. By accounts since made up, it is supposed that 64 soldiers, 1 woman, 21 children, and 4 of the crew, were left when Captain Cobb quitted the vessel, whose conduct during the trying occasion is beyond my humble praise, displaying the greatest coolness and intrepidity, and by his exertions, and those of Colonel Fearon, the commander of the troops, who were the last to quit, the women, children, and passengers were got into the boats, and they did not leave themselves until their influence to induce any more to go into them was useless. At 2 a. m. the Kent blew up, after being completely enveloped in the flames for four hours previous. The fire originated in the after-hold, where spirits were stored for the use of the troops, a cask of which breaking adrift and bursting, the contents were unfortunately ignited by a candle in a lantern.
I feel the greatest gratification in stating., that the gentlemen and their Cornish miners, in all 36, with my own crew, 11 more, behaved throughout the trying period with the greatest kindness, in getting the people from the boats, soothing their sufferings, giving up their own clothes and beds to the women and children, volunteering to go into the boats (which I had good reason to prevent), and leaving nothing undone to make them as comfortable as the limited size of my brig would allow (only 200 tons): it would be pleasing also, could I speak as highly of the crew of the Kent, but I cannot refrain from expressing my great disappointment of their conduct (in which I am borne out by Captain Cobb), derogatory in every respect to the generally received character of a British seaman, by refusing to return to the Kent for the people after the first trip, and requiring my utmost exertions and determination to compel them to renew their endeavours to get out the soldiers, passengers, and the remainder of their own shipmates who were left behind; and it was only by using coercive measures, in conjunction with my own crew and passengers, and telling them I would not receive them on board unless they did so, that they proceeded, though reluctantly, in their duty. I must, however, except the officers, particularly Mr. Thomson, fourth mate, and Mr. Phillips, the boatswain, whose conduct and behaviour, in every respect, justifies my warmest praise.
It may not be amiss to state, that two hours after the ship blew up, a soldier’s wife was delivered of a fine boy on board the Cambria, and both mother and child are doing well.
I remain, gentlemen, your most obedient servant,
(Signed) W. COOK.
Another account, from an individual on board, states that the ship took fire in the after hold, at half past one p.m., and blew up a quarter before three a. m. It is a remarkable circumstance that the only seaman lost was a man who was below and present when the fire broke out. Seeing the hold in flames, he ran to the cabin of the 2d mate and broke open his desk, from which he took 400 sovereigns, and rolling them up in a handkerchief, tied them round his waist. In attempting to leap into one of the boats, he fell short, as is supposed from the weight, and was drowned. When the man at the mast-head discovered the Cambria, guns were fired, and signals of distress thrown out. The gale, however, was so very heavy that it was for some time doubtful whether the strange vessel perceived the signals or was likely to turn aside from her course, but this painful suspense was soon removed by her approach. The boats of the Kent were now got out and placed, not alongside on account of the flames and the danger of staving the boats, but a-head and a-stern. Into the latter many got out from the cabin windows, but the chief part were let down from the bowsprit into the boat a-head, the men sliding by a rope, while the soldiers’ wives were lowered into the boat, slung three together.
The Times, 8th March 1825
On Tuesday, 1 March 1825, the Kent, an East Indiaman, with the right wing of the 31st regiment on board, caught fire in the Bay of Biscay, and was totally destroyed. The accident occurred about 10 o`clock A.M., towards the end of a violent gale of wind, when the ship was rolling heavily. One of the spirit casks being adrift, an officer of the ship endeavoured to secure it with some billets of wood, but the ship making a heavy lurch, he unfortunately dropped the light, and letting go his hold of the cask with a view to recover the lantern, it suddenly stove, and the spirits communicating with the lamp, the whole place was instantly in a blaze.
When there was no hope of saving the vessel, exertions were made to preserve the troops and crew. The noble example of the officers found a ready imitation in the men, and all showed the utmost order and firmness in this trying ordeal.The providential means of escape were provided by the brig Cambria, but it was not until three o`clock in the afternoon that Captain Cook succeeded in getting the first boat from the vessel. From that hour until eight in the evening, the boats were constantly employed bringing the people to the Cambria, and succeeded in saving 296 officers, non commissioned officers and privates of the thirty-first regiment, together with 48 women and 52 children belonging thereto, and 10 male and female private passengers. Captain Cobb and 139 of the crew, amounting in all to 553. Fifty-four men, one woman and twenty-one children were lost, but the number would have been much greater, had it not been for the excellent order observed. At two o`clock in the morning the Kent blew up, after being completely enveloped in flames for four hours previously.
The crew of the ill-fated ship did not behave in the manner that is generally attributable to the British seaman, as they refused to return to the Kent for their shipmates after the first trip, and it was only by the coercive measures of the captain who said he would not receive them on board unless they did so, that they reluctantly proceeded on their duty. Two hours after the ship blew up, a soldier`s wife was delivered on board the Cambria.
There were instances of men who who tied the children of brother soldiers on their backs, and leaping overboard swam with their burdens to the boats. Fourteen of the men who remained on the wreck were rescued the following morning by the Caroline and carried to Liverpool.
From Perils At Sea by Thomas Carter (Adjutant General`s Office) 1859