The thread about the short life and times of the first Royal Navy warship built in Leith and why it took so long to build more

This Leith local history thread is brought to you by chance of a couple of typos in a book, which meant I couldn’t find what I was looking for but instead found an altogether more interesting tale of late 18th century shipbuilding in Leith and naval affairs. The typo referred to the building of the first “ship of the line” in Scotland in Leith in 1750, a ship named Fury. However none of this stacked up, as the first HMS Fury wasn’t built until much later and wasn’t a ship of the line.

HMS Melvlle in 1831, British School, Collection of the National Maritime Museum
HMS Melvlle in 1831, British School, Collection of the National Maritime Museum

In the Royal Navy, a ship of the line meant a specific sort of ship – a 1st, 2nd or 3rd rate to be precise – and something much, much larger than I thought would have been getting built in Leith at this time. So I was pretty excited to think that Leith had built what at the time would have been one of the largest sorts of warships it was possible to build, especially as early as 1750.

Although Newhaven, just along the coast, had built the biggest ship in the Christian World in the 16th century, this was a one off. By the mid 18th century Leith was a busy shipbuilding centre, but it built vessels of only 20-40 tons displacement usually, no larger than 70. All this took place in North Leith, at the time a separate place from South Leith. Indeed shipbuilding was the primary industry of North Leith and almost the whole river bank between the Abbot’s Bridge (now near Quayside St.) and the Sandport (now under the Custom House) was taken up by Carpenter’s Yards, carpenters being the shipbuilders’ incorporation .

Alexander Wood's 1777 Town Plan "To the magistrates, the commissioners of police and the four Incorporations" from the collection of the WS Society, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Alexander Wood’s 1777 Town Plan “To the magistrates, the commissioners of police and the four Incorporations” from the collection of the WS Society. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

North Leith built 2-400 tons of shipping a year. Most yards generally built 2-3 ships per year, and there were usually 5 yards in operation. Most of the timber, particularly the “crookit” wood for the ribs came in from Norway, but exotic and Scottish timber was also used. The Carpenter James Jamison died in 1749, and a younger man, John Sime (or Syme) takes it over. At the same time he marries the widow of James Beattie, only a few months after the latter’s death and acquires that shipyard too. John had a son, John, by his first marriage, and together John Sime and Son begin to corner the Leith shipbuilding industry. Sime rebuilds a large tenement near his yard, builds himself a house, has a smithie and a square of houses for workers.

Sime also buys over the burnt out remains of one of the first glasshouses (glass works) in North Leith and turns that over to shipbuilding when the latter business relocates to Salamander Street. In 1751, Sime successfully petitions the Edinburgh council for the “tack” (the tenancy) of the shore at the Sandport, the ancient sandy beach of North Leith long used by the fishermen and for small scale boat building . In 1770 the Simes build the first drydock in Leith . It was not 1720 as some sources say, therefore not the first in Scotland, as that honour goes to James Watt’s dock in Port Glasgow.

Wood's town plan showing the Simes' "Carpenters' Yard". Their dry dock is that in the centre of the map above the "A" of the word Harbour. From the collection of the WS Society. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Wood’s town plan showing the Simes’ “Carpenters’ Yard”. Their dry dock is that in the centre of the map above the “A” of the word Harbour. From the collection of the WS Society. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

This dock is still there, by the way, it’s just filled in and you just have to look for the outline of the coping stones in the open grass area and on the quayside.

Google Earth image showing the outline of the dry dock in the grass behind the gardens of the tenements at Sandport Street
Google Earth image showing the outline of the dry dock in the grass behind the gardens of the tenements at Sandport Street

And look closely at the back of the tenement, you’ll see the tell-tale “Sandport Street Notch”, which allowed room for a docked ship’s bowsprit mast to penetrate the envelope of the much later Victorian building.

The "Sandport Street Notch" © Self
The “Sandport Street Notch” © Self

Anyway, moving on. By the later part of the 18th c., John Sime and Son had cornered almost the entire local industry, taking over the lease of the 2nd dry dock and having half the shipbuilding land in North Leith. Indeed other Carpenters complain of them acting as a monopoly. In August 1777, the burgeoning Simes get their best order yet, an order from the Royal Navy none other, for a warship. This would be the first (and only) warship built in Leith for the Royal Navy (and I think in Scotland) and the only such built in the 18th century. This ship is to be HMS Fury, a 16 gun “ship sloop” of the Swan class. These were typical small warships of the time for every sort of role apart from battles of the line, and with the American Revolutionary War raging far across the sea, the Navy was desperate for such vessels .

Ship’s Crest of a later HMS Fury

Even though it was small, at 300 tons burthen displacement, it was by far and away the largest thing built in Leith up to that time and the Simes had to build a special new platform for it on the Sandport as the existing yards were too small. This can be seen on Wood’s plan. Remarkably, the noted and prolific Scottish landscape illustrator of this time – John Clerk of Eldin – happened to sketch this yard in the late 18th or early 19th century, before the Custom House was built. Shipyards were really just open ground at this time, the huts would have been for stores or perhaps a smithy.

Excerpt from John Clerk of Eldin's illustration of Leith showing the Sime's shipbuilding yard at the Sandport in the foreground. CC-BY-NC National Galleries Scotland
Excerpt from John Clerk of Eldin’s illustration of Leith showing the Sime’s shipbuilding yard at the Sandport in the foreground. CC-BY-NC National Galleries Scotland

We know almost exactly what Fury would have looked like, as the plans for the class survive and it’s become one of the most popular model shipbuilding kits of this sort of vessel.

And here is a model of HMS Fly of this type from an auction sale. The ships were noted at the time for being particularly handsome and well embellished with decorations. They were built with 16 gun ports, but usually shipped 14 x 6 pounder main guns when built.

And here are the period plans from the Admiralty archives and a model of the Kingfisher under construction (in reality she wouldn’t have had the guns at this time).

The Fury took about 18 months to go from laying down to launching, the longest of any of the 21 Swan-class ordered in 1775-1779, probably the result of Sime’s inexperience in building such large ships and warships. It is evident that the Admiralty were frustrated by the slow progress as there are letters between them and their Overseer – Mr Coleman – in Leith about delays to the launch. But launch she did, on the 5th March 1779. Alas, tragedy stuck, and after moving only 4 feet she “burst the ways because the dog shores were not knocked away in time” The “dog shores” are those timber braces seen in Jeff’s model above. A carpenter was killed in this calamity, and she came to rest, upright and undamaged, but marooned above all but the spring high tide. And there she sat until March 19th when the state of the tide allowed her to be floated out.

Back before launch, in February, the Admiralty had ordered her to be fitted out for Channel Service (against the French, who were waging a maritime war on Britain at this time in support of the American Revolutionaries). Her captain was appointed, Alexander Agnew of the “Hazard”

There’s a good chance this portrait in the Royal Museum of Greenwich shows a younger Agnew when he was a Lieutenant onboard HMS Pallas. The 45 year old Agnew had progressed relatively well in the navy up to this point, although without major acclaim.

Possible portrait of Agnew. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Agnew proceeds to Leith to take charge of his new command when it was in the final stages of fitting out and there’s a flurry of correspondence in the archives from him arranging the more important crew positions. e.g. David Lesslie – Sailmaker, William Long -“Surgeon of the cutter Nimble“, Alexander Robertson – master.

From what the correspondence suggests, the Admiralty are clearly frustrated. They probably just want their badly needed new ship ready and launched as quickly as possible and nothing more to do with her builders. There are further dark omens for Fury however, as Sime senior passes away around this time and there are issues in fitting her out. There are “no gang boards for the gunnels“, the boats have no oars, she has not been rigged and Agnew is ordered to find a contractor to do this. The Overseer at Leith complains that for lack of a carpenter the ship cannot be provisioned and will remain in Leith at the government’s expense. Finally, James Patton rigs the ship and in June or July the Fury is able to leave Leith and head off on service.

On July 13th 1779, Fury shows up in Whitby Roads with the armed tender HMS Advice, and they impress (i.e. press gang) the entire crew of the recently arrived whaler, Adamant.

Illustration of press ganging
Illustration of press ganging

At the end of July, Fury is back in Leith as she is reported leaving with the tenders HMS Africa and HMS Swan with 300 impressed men destined for the new 74 gun ship of the line HMS Edgar. Impressment was the horrible practice by which the Navy filled its lower decks, but some men were meant to have immunity. In 1780, John Sime, Fury‘s builder, successfully sued Captain the Hon. Charles Napier, for impressing his apprentices and taking them to London.

Fury heads for the Nore, the Royal Navy’s command in the Thames Estuary but within months is back in Leith Roads in a hurry, hot on the heels of the American swashbuckler John Paul Jones, in the USS Bonhomme Richard, who was rumoured to have just invaded Newcastle upon Tyne.

British cartoon of John Paul Jones as a pirate
British cartoon of John Paul Jones as a pirate

That panic over, in January 1780 she arrives at Sheerness on the Thames with the “Beaver’s Prize” (no giggling at the back) to be fitted out for Carronades – a particularly short and heavy cannon – developed by the Carron company further up the Forth – perfect for giving small ships a hefty punch. Fury now joined a small squadron under Commander Matthew Squire of the “Ariadne“, along with Trotten’s HMS Queen and Raines’ HMS London and they went pirate hunting in the channel.

On April 30th, the pirates (three French privateers) were sighted off Flamborough Head, where the pesky John Paul Jones had caused the senior service some embarrassment the previous year by refusing to allow them to beat him in battle.

The Battle of Flamborough Head, John Paul Jones’ “Bonhomme Richard” tangles with the Royal Navy’s HMS “Serapis”. Richard Paton, 1780

This would be a chance to right a few wrongs, however it all now went a bit wrong again. When Commander Squire gave the order to engage the privateers only Trotten in the Queen joined in. For whatever reason, Agnew in the Fury and Raines in the London refused. In doing so, Agnew and Raines broke two of the golden rules of the Royal Navy. Firstly, follow orders from your superior and secondly and more importantly, never ever never fail to aggressively engage the enemy.

As a result of Agnew and Raines’ failure, the privateers were able to escape. A court martial was convened on board the frigate HMS Santa Margarita at the Nore under Vice Admiral Robert Roddham. Roddham honourably acquitted Commander Squire as “spirited, great, and highly to be recommended“, and threw the book at Agnew and Raines. Agnew and Raines were found guilty of “ignoring orders and failing to do their utmost” and sentenced to be broke, i.e. kicked out of the Navy dishonourably.

Agnew was a man of independent wealth and standing from a landed family of army officers, but it is likely he ended his days as something of a social pariah for his crimes. As for the Fury she now had a spell of better luck under her new captain, Commander Thomas Totty (I said, no giggling at the back) and in July takes the French privateer Union Americaine and profits from the prize. The newspaper at the time report that Fury was in company with the other Royal Navy ships Imphigenia and Monkey Cutter (oh, come on!) Totty would go on to become a very respected and senior officer, praised by none other than Horatio Nelson in a letter between them “For believe me, my dear Sir, that with the very highest respect for your character, I feel myself your most obliged and affectionate servant.”

In January 1782, Fury was taken over by Commander Thomas Wells and set sail under him for the West Indies. At the Leeward Islands the following year, Wells is promoted to full Captain and a bigger ship and Fury is taken over by Commander William Sidney Smith.

Commodore Sir William Sidney Smith by Robert Ker Porter, 1802

Smith had enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks, being commended by Admiral Rodney at the battle of Cape St. Vincent and being promoted for his efforts beyond his age. After further meritorious conduct at the Battles of the Chesapeake and the Saintes 1782, he was given the Fury as his first command. Smith performed well in the Fury and was soon promoted full Captain and upwards to the frigate Alcmene. Later in a glittering career, Smith’s service at the Siege of Acre in command of the Royal Navy forces was instrumental in preventing Napoleon’s victory. Napoleon soon abandoned his Egyptian campaign and later said of Smith “That man made me miss my destiny“.

Boney "misses his destiny" at Acre.
Boney “misses his destiny” at Acre.

As for the Fury she served a further year in the West Indies, under Commanders William Bentinck and then William Smith. She is noted to have taken the French ship Polacre in this period and returned to England in November 1784 and was “paid off”, i.e. taken out of service. She would never put to sea again, and in 1787 the Admiralty ordered her broken up, which started at Woolwich in April of that year.

While most of her class were also paid off at this time as the result of the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary wars in 1783, and such a big Navy being too expensive to maintain during peacetime, she was gotten rid of unduly quickly so one wonders if she was in a particularly poor condition. The Navy was shortly at war again however and as soon as 1790 a new Fury was ordered, again a 16 gun sloop. But this time she was ordered from the Dockyard in Portsmouth, Leith (or Scotland) would not build another ship for the Royal Navy in the 18th century. One wonders if the frustration of the length of time it took to build Fury and the numerous mistakes made in her launching and fitting out put the Admiralty off Scottish shipbuilding altogether! indeed until the 20th century, Leith would only builds 2 other warships for the Royal Navy, the 12 gun sloop Earnest and the 12 gun brig Woodlark both of 1805. The unlucky Woodlark was wrecked off Calais under command of the inexperienced Thomas Innes only a few months later.

Alexander Agnew died in obscurity in 1792 at the age of 58, somewhere unknown, having committed one of the ultimate sins for an officer and a gentleman.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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