The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  11 January 2011 

Following the erection of Smeaton's Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759, the seaway into Plymouth was as safe as an open approach and adequate lighting could make it.  But Plymouth Sound itself was not a safe anchorage, open as it was to southerly and westerly gales.  This situation did not change until the great Breakwater was started in 1812.

In the meantime enormous losses of merchant-men occurred.  In periods of storm, and especially of south-westerly gales, the Sound lay wide open to the surge of waves tailed hundreds of miles away in the Channel and the Atlantic, which crashed against the rocks of The Hoe and rushed up the Cattewater carrying havoc everywhere.  The were instances of big warships being dashed on the shores of the Sound and broken up with much loss of life in 1691.  There was the great tempest of 1703.  In 1760, six of nine warships anchored in the Sound were dismasted and six merchant vessels wrecked in the Cattewater.

Then on January 26th 1796 the East Indiaman "Dutton" was cast ashore under the Citadel.  The story of the "Dutton" was a classic tale.

She had on board some four hundred soldiers of the 2nd or Queen's Regiment and a large number of women and children.  The ship was making a run for the shelter of the Cattewater but hit the shoal of rocks now under the Mount Batten Breakwater and lost her rudder.  Thus rendered unmanagable, she crashed on to the sharp rocks under the Citadel ramparts and but for the valour and strong sense of one man, all of them would have been lost.  As it was there were only 15 casualties.

Captain Edward Pellew, Royal Navy, of "HMS Indefatigable", was on his way to dine with Doctor Hawker, vicar of Charles Church.  Seeing crowds of people running towards the Hoe, he left his carriage and followed them.  He was watching from the shore as the ship struck broadside onto the rocks and her masts fell on to the landward side.  There was chaos and confusion all around as the officers on board had given up hope of saving the passengers and no one on shore would attempt to board the wreck.  Pellew resolved to take charge of the rescue and called for volunteers to follow him.  One source says that a young midshipman followed him but a contemporary account of the rescue mentions Mr Edsell as risking his life by helping to bring a small boat alongside, delivering two extra hawsers from the ship to the shore.

A rope had been thrown to the ship from the shore and people were being slowly dragged through the surf and broken water one by one.  Captain Pellew used this means to get on board, where he quelled the panic on board by threatening to run his sword through anyone who disobeyed his orders.  He had many ropes put out, ordered the troops to stand back, and put the women and children ashore at the several points along the deck now available. Larger boats from the Dockyard and Captain Pellew's own ship, the "Indefatigable", arrived to help, and by dint of Pellew's authority a scene of madness and desperation was transformed into one of orderly rescue.  Among those he saved personally was a three-weeks-old baby and it was said that nothing in the whole event so impressed the Captain more than the struggle of the mother's feelings before she would entrust her child to his care.   Only three men were left on board the wreck when Captain Pellew left her, the first mate, boatswain and third mate, who dealt with hauling the rope to the shore.  By this time the "Dutton's" deck was below water. When he reached the shore the great crowd now gathered on the rocks greeted him with a roar of cheers. They had silently watched Pellew at work, repressing the selfish, correcting the disorderly, illustrating the power of courage and discipline upon a distracted and terrified ship's company. Now they let themselves go.

This gallant Cornishman made a deep impression on Plymouth. George Eastlake wrote a eulogy in verse hailing him as the 'sublimely great and good' man who chose to dare:

          "The dreadful passage of the raging flood,

            And join the children of despair . . ."

The full verse was read at the ceremony in which the Corporation presented Captain Pellew with the Freedom of the Borough.  The exploit also won for him a national fame and affection, which the King reflected in creating him Lord Exmouth.  He was 29 years old.  On March 5th 1796 he was created a baronet, Sir Edward Pellew of Treverry.

For nearly another fifty years he was to serve the country in the Navy. Three years after the "Dutton" affair he quelled a mutiny in Bantry Bay by seizing the ringleader with his own hands.  In 1816 he conducted a campaign against the Dey of Algiers and bombarded his stronghold when that potentate rejected his demand for the abolition of Christian slavery in his dominion, an action which brought the honour of being elected Viscount Exmouth.  The year following this action (1817) the whole Town was delighted when Admiral Pellew was appointed as Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, an office he held until 1821.  He was raised to Vice-Admiral in 1832 and died in 1833 after a very distinguished career.   His grave is at Christow Churchyard, Devon.

The courage of Mr Coghlan, mate of ther small boat in which Midshipman Edsell reached the wreck, and of Mr Hemmings, the master attendant from the Royal Dockyard, who brought a large vessel to the scene and rescued hundreds of the stricken.  Indeed, Mr Coghlan was offered a position on Sir Edward's own quarter-deck in appreciation of his service.

Several streets in the Stoke area of Devonport commemorate the occasion. and the cafe on the front of the Hoe, under the shadow of the Royal Citadel, proudly carries the name of "Dutton's".

This building was originally a magazine and armoury, with guard house, erected in 1847 to the designs of Colonel J Oldfield, the Commanding Officer of the Western District Royal Engineers.  It was built of coursed and dressed stone and has a flat, bombproof roof.  The two doors on the southern end are recent and the original entrance is now a window to their right.   This building has a Grade II listing.



  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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