Richard Kempenfelt

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Richard Kempenfelt
Richard Kempenfelt.jpg
Portrait as a Rear Admiral
Died(1782-08-29)29 August 1782
Spithead, England
OccupationRoyal Navy admiral

Richard Kempenfelt (1718 – 29 August 1782) was a British rear admiral who gained a reputation as a naval innovator. He is best known for his victory against the French at the Second Battle of Ushant and for his death when HMS Royal George accidentally sank at Portsmouth the following year. A good account of his life, relatives, personality and career is given in Hilary L. Rubinstein's book Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George published by Seaforth in 2020. It includes information about him not previously known.

He was born at Westminster. His father, a Swede, was a professional soldier in the British service.

Naval career[edit]

Richard Kempenfelt was commissioned a lieutenant in January 1741. He saw service in the West Indies, taking part in the capture of Portobelo during the War of Jenkins' Ear. In 1746 he returned to Britain, and from then until 1780, when he was made rear admiral, he saw active service in the East Indies with Sir George Pocock and in various quarters of the world.

In 1779 he was made Chief of Staff or Captain of the Fleet under Admiral Sir Charles Hardy on HMS Victory which was to lead a hastily assembled fleet to oppose an invasion of England set to begin with the destruction of the Portsmouth naval base by the French and Spanish Armada of 1779.[1]

In 1781 he won the Battle of Ushant, with a vastly inferior force, defeating the French fleet under De Guichen and capturing 20 ships.

Royal George[edit]

In 1782 he hoisted his flag on HMS Royal George, which formed part of the fleet under Lord Howe. In August this fleet was ordered to proceed to the relief of Gibraltar, and underwent a refit at top speed at Portsmouth.

On 29 August 1782, Royal George was being heeled off Portsmouth to allow repairs to be made to the water intake for the deck wash pump, which was three feet below water level. The larboard guns had been run out and the starboard guns moved into the centre of the deck to heel over the ship until her lowest gun ports were close to the surface of the water. A supply vessel, Lark, approached Royal George on her low side to transfer a cargo of rum. According to an Admiralty report – not made public until early the next century – the larboard cannons' weight on the ship's central frame caused excessively decayed timbers to break. This caused the ship to heel to such a degree that the sea washed in at her gunports, and she soon began to ship water in her hold. A sudden breeze on the raised side of the ship forced her further over and the water rushed in. The crew were ordered to right the ship but the fallen cannon could not be moved. Within a couple of minutes she rolled on to her side and sank before any distress signal could be given.

1783 medallion commemorating the sinking of Royal George

Nine hundred people were estimated to have lost their lives, for besides the crew there were a large number of tradesmen and women and children on board. About 230 people were saved, some by running up the rigging, while others were picked up by boats from other vessels. Kempenfelt was writing in his cabin when the ship sank; the cabin doors had jammed due to the ship heeling, and he perished with the rest. William Cowper's poem the "Loss of the Royal George" commemorates this disaster. Kempenfelt had effected radical alterations and improvements in the signalling system then existing in the British navy. A painting of the loss of Royal George is in the Royal United Service Institution, London.

He took a great interest in evangelism. His hymns were published in "Original Hymns and Poems" By Philotheorus (Exeter, England: B. Thorn, 1777). Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada, is named for him.

See Charnock's Biog. Nav., vi, 246, and Ralfe's Naval Biographies, i, 215, and, especially, Hilary L. Rubinstein, Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, England,2020, ISBN 9781526764997


A memorial to Kempenfelt, by the sculptor John Bacon the younger, was placed in Westminster Abbey in 1808.[2]

Kempenfelt Bay, part of Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada was named for him.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Miller, Nathan (2000). Broadsides The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 61. ISBN 0-471-18517-5.
  2. ^ Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851, Rupert Gunnis