The History of the Seventh Vanguard of the Royal Navy
1870  - 1875
                                                                                                  LIST OF CAPTAINS

                                                                                          1 Oct.   1870   Richard H.G. Lambert
                                                                                          1 Apr.   1871   Richard A. Powell, C.B.
                                                                                          6 July   1871   David Spain
                                                                                        14 Oct.   1873   Richard Dawkins

The seventh Vanguard, built by Cammell-Lairds at Birkenhead, was completed in 1870. Described as "an iron central-battery battleship," she was a half-way example in the development from the old wooden ships  of the line to the modern battleship; her hull was built neither of wood nor of steel, but of iron; her guns were arranged neither in the broadside manner of the sailing ship nor in the centre-line turret fashion of today, but in a central battery; and, though fitted with two engines developing 5312 horsepower capable of driving her through her two screws at 14 knots, she was also built with three masts and ship rigged. Her armament consisted of ten 9-inch guns and four 64-pounders.
She first commissioned in 1871 for service in the Coastguard squadron, and recommissioned in 1873 for the same service, based on the Irish ports.

Her life was a short one and came to a sudden end at 1130 on 1st September 1875.  Vanguard and five other accompanying 'ships of the line' left Kingstown on the morning of September 1, 1875. As a consequence of earlier rumblings by Irish MPs on the absence of the Fleet in home waters, a squadron of seven impressive battleships was assembled to sail the colours around Ireland and to make calls on several ports. On the last scheduled leg of the cruise, they sailed from Belfast to Kingstown, where Admiral Tarleton suggested, that having earlier missed calling on Queenstown, four of the major ships should continue on, and conclude the cruise there. It was 10.30PM on Wednesday when the big ships assembled amid the cheering onlookers at Kingstown, before sailing out and steering for the Kish lightvessel. Once having rounded the light, the four ships parted company with Achilles and proceeded south in single line formation for Queenstown. Their new course took them down the outside of the Kish Bank with Warrior and Hector ahead of Vanguard and Iron Duke. Their speed was approx. 7-8 knots as they merrily headed south, passing to the east of the East Kish Buoy. It was at that position approximately, that Admiral Tarleton in the Warrior gave the signal ordering the Vanguard and the Iron Duke to take up a new position abreast and to seaward of his own. In attempting to follow this order, the careers of several fine officers aboard these two vessels would end in ruins and ignominious notoriety.

The Collision

At about midday, hazy conditions gave way to a captain's nightmare in the form of a sudden thick fog, which enveloped the impressive formation making the two pairs of battleships invisible to each another. Having lost sight of the other pair, and with no other means of communication, the Warrior and Hector remained together and continued to Queenstown, completely unsuspecting of the calamity that had befallen the Iron Duke and Vanguard, or of the undesirable place it would insure them in the history books.
Like many accidents, there were several separate circumstances, which alone, might later have been considered only minor infractions, but when they converged, spelt disaster. During the 'coming up' manoeuvre, Richard Dawkins captain of the Vanguard, handed over the bridge to his officers and went below to lessen the ship's burden of carrying so much fine food and wine. Unbeknownst to him, his close friend captain Hickley in the Iron Duke had been overcome with a similar desire. After the fog had first thickened, the officer on the deck of the Iron Duke became a little concerned about loosing the Vanguard and made the fatal error of veering slightly to port, which he compounded by slightly increasing the ship's speed. By itself, the manoeuvre might have had no lasting consequences but at the same time, and from suddenly out of nowhere, the officer on deck of the Vanguard caught site of a converging sailing ship emerging from the fog.

Both captains had by now returned to their bridges and unaware of the new position of the Duke, Captain Dawkins made a quick signal before drastically reducing speed and turning the ship to port in order to avoid ramming the sailing vessel. Unfortunately, by then the Iron Duke had caught up on the Vanguard, and could just make out her sister ship looming out of the fog, but alas it was too late. The Iron Duke ploughed into the Vanguard at amidships on the port side, after which those aboard the Duke could only assist the doomed vessel by helping to rescue her crew before she gave a final lurch and plunged 17 fathoms beneath the waves.

The Retribution

The ensuing court-martial was swift, and the Admiralty, who was said to have belonged to a bygone age of 'wooden walls', handed down stiff justice. The engineer and carpenter Tiddy, poor fellows that they were, got it for not plugging the 9'x3' hole with canvas. Despite the proximity of the lucky sailing ship, the officers on deck of the Vanguard got it for slowing down. And even though there was no court martial in respect of the Duke, her officer on watch, Lt. Evans, was arbitrarily and severely reprimanded for speeding up. It was later said, that the young officer went to the grave with repeated nightmares of the fatal collision. Both captains had thirty-five years experience afloat with the RN but neither service nor the fact that his judgement had saved 360 RN seamen from drowning spared him from disgrace. His 'ship was dismissed' and Dawkins was never employed again. Amongst the accusations levelled at him was, that he did not do all in his power 'to get all available pumps worked'. His explanation, that as there had been a loss of steam, leaving the pumps operational by hand only and totally inadequate in preventing the ingress of an estimated 50-600 tons of water per. min., was dismissed. The decision was very unpopular and the mood of the day was reflected in the following extract from a ditty heard in music halls.

'In steering' says he, 'to avoid a big smash
I used common sense d'ye see.'
'We know nothing at all about that at Whitehall'

Said the Lords of the Admiraltee.
For the Adm'rals all who just sit at Whitehall
Should know about ships d'ye see.
We must clear out those frauds who proclaim themselves Lords
From out of the Adm'raltee.

Captain Dawkins lost his rank and esteem at the hands of those who he had served faithfully since he was a very young man. And although another loss is commonly only jokingly referred to, captain Dawkins also lost his dog on that ill-fated day. Not just another animal, but one he considered to be his 'friend'.

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An appeal for help:


Chris Thomas recently published a book about the loss of the seventh HMS Vanguard. Two of his wife's great-grandfathers were onboard at the time, and Chris's book tells the story from the point of view of the people involved. The book is called “Lamentable Intelligence from the Admiralty: The Sinking of HMS Vanguard in 1875”, published by Nonsuch Publishing in 2006. It covers what happened that day, as well as describing life aboard, the (sometimes farcical) proceedings of the Court Martial, the after-effects, and present-day diving on the wreck. There is a full muster list of the officers and crew. Chris has already made contact with a number of people whose ancestors or family members were also on Vanguard, her sister ship HMS Iron Duke, or their flagship HMS Warrior. He continues to be interested in photographs of crew members, memorabilia, or family stories about the incident. If a relative of yours was involved in any way, or if you have any information that could be useful, please get in touch with him at If your ancestor was a coastguard who spent time aboard Vanguard in 1875, the website contains a full list of such men’s names.


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