Midshipman Scarlett and the Sinking of HMS Victoria

Neil Bancroft

Many people are aware of the Memorial to the poet Shelley in Christchurch Priory, but it is quite likely that many may not know of the presence of another tablet, to the memory of a young Midshipman Scarlett, located close to that of Shelley’s. This proximity is not coincidental, as young Scarlett was closely related to the distinguished poet.

Lawrence James Peter Scarlett was born in Kensington, London in 1877. His father, Leopold James Scarlett, a Captain in the Scots Guards, and his mother, born Bessie Florence Gibson, had been married at Christchurch Priory in 1871. His father, then aged 23 had been listed in the 1871 census at “Boscombe Place, Pokesdown, Christchurch” as a nephew of the householder, “Percy F Shelley”. This Percy Florence Shelley was of course the son of the eminent romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, author of the novel “Frankenstein”.

Young Lawrence made an early start to his naval career, being listed in the 1891 census at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and after passing out had been posted to the battleship “HMS Victoria”. The tragic death of this young midshipman at the age of 15, on this ship, was directly as a result of one of the worst peacetime accidents to befall the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century.

The scene of this tragedy was in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Lebanon, near the port of Tripoli, and the date was 22nd June 1893. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean  Fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Sir George Tyron, consisting mainly of the latest “ironclad” capital ships, battleships and battle-cruisers, had been carrying out the annual fleet exercises, and were now preparing to anchor up off Tripoli. The Royal Navy had seen no major fleet action since Trafalgar, almost 80 years before and in a completely different naval era, but was still subject to the same rigorous discipline, one aspect of which was manifested in maintaining extreme attention to the precision of all drills and movements, however mundane.

Admiral Tyron was particularly renowned for ensuring his fleet took every opportunity to display faultless order, and he intended that this coming up to anchor in formation would be no exception. His Fleet was divided into two columns, steaming parallel to each other, the ships line astern, towards the Lebanese coast.  Admiral Tyron was in the battleship “HMS Victoria” at the head of one of the columns. Victoria was the last word in warship design, featuring a turreted pair of 16 inch guns on the foredeck and was the first Royal Navy ship to be powered by triple expansion steam engines which could give her a very impressive turn of  speed.

The other column was headed by the battleship “HMS Camperdown” under the command of  Tyron’s deputy, Rear Admiral Albert Hastings Markham. The Camperdown was of an earlier design and still had an underwater ram fitted to her bows, a weapon which although once thought to be effective had now fallen out of favour and was not fitted to Victoria.

The manoeuvre that Tyron intended, to bring his fleet together, before anchoring up for the night, was for the two columns to turn inwards, towards each other, through 180 degrees so that they would still be parallel but much closer together and steaming in the opposite direction before slowing to drop anchor.  He had informed the captains of all the ships in the fleet of his intention but they had expressed concern that with the columns already only 1,100 yards apart and with their ships having minimum turning circles of around 800 yards diameter this manoeuvre was impossible, but he brushed their objections aside.

When Tyron gave the order to turn, Admiral Markham, leading the other column, hesitated, realising the obvious danger. Tyron immediately had the signal “What are you waiting for?” semaphored to him. Stung by this criticism and realising only too well the likely consequences for his career of disobeying his commanding officer’s order, Markham started to turn.

As the Victoria and the Camperdown came closer and closer it became obvious that Markham’s fears were fully justified and collision was inevitable. Even then there was a serious delay in both ships putting their engines into reverse, which might at least have reduced the impact. As it was, the bows of the Camperdown struck the Victoria, and Camperdown’s ram penetrated about 9 feet into Victoria’s hull 12 feet below the waterline. Because the Camperdown’s engines were now in reverse she then went astern, exacerbating the situation by withdrawing her ram from the gash and allowing the Victoria to flood even more quickly.

Because the fleet was not at action stations the watertight doors in Victoria’s bulkheads below decks had not been secured and her bows started to sink rapidly. Similarly, as it was a hot day in June in the Mediterranean most of the ports and scuttles were open for ventilation and soon these were also being flooded as the bows sank. The ship quickly listed to starboard  before capsizing completely just 13 minutes after the collision and sank, bows first, very shortly after.

Three hundred and fifty-seven of Victoria’s crew were rescued by boats from the other ships in the fleet and three hundred and fifty -eight died,   Midshipman Lawrence Scarlett amongst them.   Admiral Tyron also drowned but some officers on the bridge who did survive reported that before the ship went down Tyron was heard to say “It was all my fault”.

The Memorial to Midshipman Lawrence Scarlett reads :-

SACRED

TO THE MEMORY OF

LAWRENCE JAMES PETER SCARLETT

 BORN APRIL 27th 1877

MIDSHIPMAN

WENT DOWN WITH 400 SHIPMATES IN

HMS VICTORIA

AFTER COLLISION WITH

HMS CAMPERDOWN

JUNE 22nd 1893

  He bringeth then unto the haven where they would be

                                                                      Psalm CVII  30