HMS Minotaur (built 1793)
Her History, Her Officers, and Her Crew

The Wreck of the Minotaur in 1810

The Wreck of the Minotaur by JMW TurnerIn 1810 on 22nd December, under the command of Captain John Barrett, as a result of a navigational error the Minotaur was wrecked in a gale on the Haak Sands off the mouth of the Texel, with around 370 of her crew lost, including Captain Barrett.

The Minotaur sailed together with HMS Loire from Wingo Sound on the 15th December.  On the 19th December Captain Schomburg of the Loire ignored the advice of his master and pilot and changed course further out into the North Sea, but the Minotaur continued on her course with disastrous results on the night of the 22nd December.

The 2nd lieutenant and eight midshipmen with over 100 men survived and were made prisoner. Lieutenant Robert Snell, Mr Thompson, the master, and some of the surviving crew were tried by court martial on the 30th May 1814 but were acquitted.

The picture is by J.M.W. Turner and was titled "The Wreck of the Minotaur" while in Lord Yarborough's collection.

The following account is extracted from: "Narratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy; between 1793 and 1849", by William O. S. Gilly


His Majesty's Ship Minotaur, of 74 guns, Captain John Barrett, was ordered by Admiral Sir James Saumarez to protect the last Baltic fleet, in the year 1810.

After seeing the convoy through the Belt, the ship sailed from Gottenburg about the 15th December, and, with a strong breeze from the east, shaped her course alone for the Downs.

At eight o'clock, in the evening of the 22nd, Lieutenant Robert Snell took charge of the watch; the wind was then blowing hard from the south-east, the weather thick and hazy, and the ship, under close-reefed topsails, and courses, was going at the rate of four knots an hour.

At nine o'clock, the captain gave orders that soundings should be taken every hour, under the immediate direction of the pilot of the watch. At midnight, the pilot desired that the vessel might be put on the other tack, and all hands were instantly turned up to carry out his directions, and Lieutenant Snell was in the act of informing the captain of what was going on, when the ship struck.

The helm was ordered to be put up, but the first shock had carried away the tiller; fruitless attempts were then made to back the ship off, but she had struck with such force upon the sand that it was impossible to move her. The carpenter now reported fifteen feet water in the hold; and it increased so rapidly that in a few minutes it rose above the orlop deck. The officers and the whole of the ship's company were assembled upon deck, and the universal question passed from mouth to mouth - 'On what coast have we struck?'

The pilot of the watch maintained that they were on some shoal in the English coast; the other pilot, however, was of opinion that they were upon the North Haacks, and this proved to be actually the case.

For a few minutes after the ship first struck there was some degree of confusion on board; but this soon subsided; order and tranquillity were restored, and the men all exerted themselves to the utmost, although she struck the ground so heavily, it was almost impossible for them to keep their feet.

The masts were cut away, and other means taken to lighten the ship; and guns were fired as signals of distress, but no aid was afforded to them during that long and dismal night. The darkness was so intense, it was impossible to see beyond a few yards, and they could only judge of their proximity to land, by the sullen roar of the breakers as they dashed upon the shore. In this state of uncertainty and dread, the night passed away; and daylight at last discovered to the crew of the Minotaur the horrors of their situation. The ship was firmly imbedded in sand, and had gradually sunk till the water covered the forecastle. All the boats excepting the launch and two yauls were destroyed, either by the falling of the masts, or the waves breaking over them.

At eight o'clock, A.M., the Minotaur parted amidships, and the sea made a clear breach over her. The gunner, seeing that she could not hold together much longer, volunteered to go off in the yard, and endeavour to obtain assistance from the shore. Captain Barrett at first refused the offer, as he thought it impossible the boat could live in such a sea; but upon further consideration, he gave his consent; and the gunner, with thirty-one of the crew, succeeded in launching the yaul, and getting clear of the wreck.

The ship now presented a most distressing scene - portions of her timbers and spars were floating about in all directions, with casks of spirits and provisions which had been washed up from the hold. Crowded together on the poop and the quarter-deck were officers and men watching with eager anxiety the progress of the boat. After two hours of breathless suspense they saw her reach the shore. Their comrades' success was hailed with joy by the shipwrecked crew as a happy omen for themselves - it inspired them with hope and confidence, and some of them immediately attempted to lift the launch into the sea. They fortunately succeeded in getting her afloat, and numbers then rushed to get into her, amongst whom was Lieutenant Snell. He failed in his first attempt, and then swam to the foretop, near which he knew the launch must pass, to enable her to clear the wreck. He watched his opportunity, and when the boat approached, jumped into the sea, and was taken on board.

In the course of an hour, the launch gained the shore, where, instead of receiving the assistance they expected, and the kindness their unfortunate circumstances demanded, the crew were met by a party of French soldiers, and immediately made prisoners. In vain, they implored the Dutch officers, who were also on the beach, to send boats to the aid of their unhappy comrades on the wreck, their earnest entreaties were met by a cold refusal.

During the morning, Captain Barrett, and about a hundred men, attempted to reach the shore in the second yaul, but she was swamped and all were lost. At two o'clock in the afternoon, the after-part of the ship turned bottom up, and the remainder of the crew perished.

The fate of Lieutenant Salsford was distinguished by a singular circumstance. A large tame wolf, caught at Aspro, and brought up from a cub by the ship's company, and exceedingly docile, continued to the last an object of general solicitude. Sensible of its danger, its howls were peculiarly distressing. It had always been a particular favourite of the lieutenant, who was also greatly attached to the animal, and through the whole of their sufferings kept close to his master. On the breaking up of the ship both got upon the mast. At times they were washed off, but by each other's assistance regained it. The lieutenant at last, became exhausted by continual exertions, and benumbed, with cold. The wolf was equally fatigued, and both held occasionally by the other to retain his situation. When within a short distance of the land, Lieutenant Salsford, affected by the attachment of the animal, and totally unable any longer to support himself, turned towards him from the mast, the beast clapped his fore paws round his neck, while the lieutenant clasped him in his arms, and they sank together.[13]

Such was the fate of the Minotaur, her captain, and four hundred of her crew. There is not the slightest doubt but that, had the Dutch sent assistance, the greater part of the ship's company would have been saved; and it would appear by the following extract from a letter, written on the subject by Lieutenant Snell, that the risk attending such a humane attempt, on the part of the Dutch, would not have been great. Lieutenant Snell says:--

'The launch which had brought on shore eighty-five men, was of the smallest description of 74 launches, with one gunwale entirely broken in, and without a rudder. This will better prove than anything I can say how easy it would have been for the Dutch admiral in the Texel to have saved, or to have shown some wish to have saved, the remaining part of the crew.'

On the other hand, we have the report from the chief officer of the marine district of the North coast, addressed to the Minister of Marine, in which he states, that 'Captain Musquetie, commander in the Texel Roads, sent, at daylight on the 23rd, two boats to reconnoitre the Minotaur, but the wind and sea prevented them approaching the vessel.'

It is to be hoped, for the honour of the Dutch officers, that they did really put out to the relief of the Minotaur, and that they considered the attempt an impossibility, which a British sailor deemed one of little risk. It is evident that there must have been considerable danger for boats, from the fact of the second yaul being lost, and Captain Barrett's hesitation before he allowed the gunner to leave the ship in the first yaul; and in charity we must give the Dutch the benefit of this evidence. At the same time, we have the equally conclusive testimony of the safe landing of two boats from the Minotaur, that it was not 'impossible' for even a somewhat crazy boat to live on such a sea. At daylight, on the 24th, the survivors of the Minotaur's crew were marched off as prisoners to Valenciennes. From which place, the gunner, Mr. Bones, contrived to make his escape on the 3rd of February. After suffering the greatest privations, concealing himself in barns and stables by day, and travelling by night, on the 17th of March he got on board a smuggling lugger, about a mile from Ostend, the Master of which agreed to land him in England for the sum of L50.

* * * * *


The loss of the Minotaur may be attributed to their not knowing their position; the pilot's desire to put the ship on the starboard tack at twelve o'clock at night, with the wind from the south-east, showed that he thought himself on the English coast. This fatal error in the navigation of the ship is not easily accounted for; it arises in a great measure from the dread of approaching the dangerous shoals on our own coast, many of them far off the land, such as the Leman, and Ower, Smith's Knowl, the Ridge, and others further in shore. Great fear of these shoals is felt by all hands, and no doubt the man at the helm would be cautioned not to bring the ship to the westward of her course, and he would therefore be apt to err on the other side - currents also may have carried her to the eastward. I am tempted to offer this opinion from having experienced a similar danger. In the year of the Battle of Copenhagen, I was in the Lynx sloop of war on her return from the Baltic, and when we supposed ourselves in mid-channel, between Yarmouth and the Texel, about two o'clock, in the middle watch, we touched the ground in broken water; happily the weather was moderate, and, by hauling to the westward we soon got into deep water again. The following morning, about ten o'clock, we spoke a lugger, and were informed that we were seven or eight leagues from the coast of Holland. The distance ran from the time we struck, told us that we must have been on the Haacks. A happy escape!


[13] "Naval Chronicle", vol. xxxvii. p. 183.

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