UK: Sailors from HMS Lancaster Remember HMS Serpent

Sailors from HMS Lancaster Remember HMS Serpent

Sailors from HMS Lancaster remembered the dead from a Victorian naval tragedy – a disaster which had ramifications for every member of the Senior Service to this day. The sinking of the cruiser HMS Serpent off the Spanish coast in 1890 led to the compulsory issuing of lifejackets to all sailors, a rule still in force.

One hundred and twenty-two years ago, the tragedy of the torpedo cruiser HMS Serpent off the Spanish coast led to a fundamental overhaul of safety in stricken British warships – just as the loss of the doomed liner did for merchant shipping two decades later.

The Serpent was bound for West Africa to relieve another vessel when she was wrecked off the Costa da Morte – the Coast of Death – in a storm in November 1890.

Of the 175 souls aboard the three-year-old Devonport-based warship, only three survived: Edwin Burton, Frederick Gould and the impressively-named Onesiphorous Luxon.

They were the only crew wearing lifejackets that night and the loss of the Serpent led to the compulsory issue of lifejackets to all Royal Navy personnel – a regulation which remains in force to this day.

Five generations later and Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Lancaster was visiting nearby La Coruña on the latest stage of her training and trials following her £22m refit which was completed earlier this year.

During the visit, nine members of her ship’s company took time to visit the graveyard at Punto Do Boi, close to the wreck site; the bodies of more than 140 of Serpent’s crew were either recovered or washed ashore and buried.

They are honoured in the Cementerio Inglés – the English Cemetery – a small, square graveyard on the cliffs overlooking the area where the ship was sunk.

A team led by the frigate’s chief stoker, CPO Neil ‘Chelsea’ Halsey, spent a day working hard to clean and tidy the area.

“I am deeply humbled to have been able to spend some time tidying the cemetery that marks the loss of so many brave sailors from HMS Serpent.”  he said.

“Although the disaster was over 120 years ago, the site serves as a reminder of the dangers we face and why life saving equipment forms such an important part of life at sea. It’s a real honour to have been able to help in some way.”

On sailing from La Coruña, Lancaster herself sailed close to the spot where the disaster occurred and the ship’s company attended a short service of remembrance to commemorate the Serpent’s loss.

The frigate’s gunnery officer, Lt ‘Kenny’ Dalglish, said:

“Sailors across the world are acutely aware of the dangers that we face while in the unforgiving environment of the sea and to be able to commemorate the loss of so many of our predecessors was extremely poignant.”

His Commanding Officer added:

“Despite the huge advances in technology, the sea remains a most unforgiving environment.

“To lose almost an entire ship’s company is devastating and it is only right and proper that we took the time to remember not only our fellow servicemen but also that it took the loss of over 170 sailors before something as common place today as a lifejacket, became standard issue. May they forever Rest in Peace.”

Following her successful visit to Spain, Lancaster is returning to UK waters to continue weapon training as she continues her regeneration ahead of Operational Sea Training and deployment next year.

Naval Today Staff , June 12, 2012; Image: Royal Navy