1 February 1799. The wreck of the Proserpine
Proserpina, is the Roman goddess of springtime and wife of Pluto. She also lent her name to one of the more famous of His Majesty’s ships wrecked in the time of King George III. Richard Temple’s uncle was Thomas Grenville, an intellectual, bibliophile and sometime diplomat. He was on a secret mission to Berlin to broker an alliance. But HMS Proserpine which was commanded to convey him to Prussia was wrecked on this day in 1799.
There are many versions of the story this shipwreck, which so caught the popular imagination it was dramatised in a play at Sadler’s Wells. Tom Grenville’s letter to his brother Lord Grenville, gives a first hand account of the events.
I write one line to tell you that we are all alive and well, having providentially escaped from the wreck of the Proserpine to this small island, eight miles distant from Cuxhaven. We sailed, as you know, on Monday the 28th January, though, from the mails not having arrived, we had some small apprehension about the passage. We took a pilot from Helegoland, who dissuaded us from the enterprise; but the wind being favourable, and our own pilot confident, we determined to go on as long as we could with safety.
A sudden change of the wind however brought down from the Elbe such immense fragments of ice that, by the time we had passed Newerk in the way to Cuxhaven, we found it utterly impossible to proceed, and we began to attempt to return; the buoys being all cut away, we saw our danger and the difficulty which we should have in escaping the pressure of ice, the mass and rapidity of which it is not easy to describe.
On Friday the 31st, from there being no buoys left, we ran upon a sand-bank a few miles from this place and stuck there; in this situation we had to stand the rapid tides which brought down upon the ship on every side larger and thicker blocks of ice than I could have conceived it possible to have been put in motion; no boat could live a moment, and on Friday night the shocks were so great that our rudder was forced away, and the general opinion was that every hour was likely to break the ship down in a state that would leave us no chance of saving our lives, and we had already thrown overboard all our guns and heavy stores without any effect.
Desperate however as our state was, Mr. Fisher, Baron Kirkla, and I determined to make any effort rather than await with a certainty of perishing where we were. Providentially the ice had increased so much that on one side of the ship it was frozen quite fast in, though the tide still ran quickly on the other, and knowing that we could not be above a mile or two from the coast, we determined, and the captain and crew agreed with us, in trying to explore a passage on the ice on foot, and we succeeded well enough in this attempt to arrive safely at this place last night.
Upon mustering our numbers we find that we have only lost twelve persons who perished by the extreme severity of the weather in the hazardous march which we were obliged to make; the frigate still appears not to be entirely broken down, and if the weather admits of it before she disappears, the captain will endeavour to save what he can. None of our party have any one article of baggage or dress except what we have on our bodies, but our escape is so wonderful that I can only dwell upon our miraculous deliverance, and have not room in my mind for any other reflections of loss or of embarrassments. I have been fortunate enough to save the greater part of my papers […]
Of the cutter which sailed with us we know nothing, but we learnt here that the packet which sailed from Yarmouth on the same day that we did (commanded by Captain Dean, of Yarmouth) was lost three miles from this place on the day before that of our misfortune. The passengers, however, and crew all escaped, except one or two of the seamen. We are likely to be detained here a few days before any road is practicable for us to reach Cuxhaven; from thence we shall proceed to Hamburgh in order to buy some shoes and stockings and coats and waistcoats, and from one of those places I will write again to you a letter which will, I doubt not, reach you as soon as this, as they tell me the passage of the Elbe is not likely to be open this fortnight at soonest.