Accounts of the Death of Captain John Hamilton
The story of Captain Hamilton's death was published across the country. Reports varied, slightly, from paper to paper, as often happens when many people witness the same event. Transcripts are included here to show the different varieties, beginning with a telling by a later Lord Eliot. This was published as an anecdote in the "Life of Edmond Malone" by Sir James Prior:
This Captain Hamilton was a very uncommon character; very obstinate, very whimsical, very pious, a rigid disciplinarian, yet very kind to his men. He lost his life as he was proceeding from his ship to land at Plymouth. The wind and sea were extremely high, and his officers remonstrated against the imprudence of venturing in a boat where the danger seemed imminent. But he was impatient to see his wife, and would not be persuaded. In a few minutes after he left the ship, the boat was upset and turned keel upward. The captain being a good swimmer, trusted to his skill, and would not accept of a place on the keel in order to make room for others, and then clung to the edge of the boat. Unluckily he had kept on his greatcoat. At length, seeming exhausted, those on the keel exhorted him to take a place beside them, and he attempted to throw off the coat, but finding his strength fail, told the men he must yield to his fate and soon afterwards sank while singing a psalm.
The most complete (but variant in details) version of John Hamilton's death was published in the "Caledonian Mercury" on 27 Dec 1755:
Extract of a Letter from Portsmouth, Dec. 19.
"Yesterday at Four o'Clock a most melancholy Accident happened to the Hon. Capt. Hamilton, of his Majesty's Ship Lancaster, lying at Spithead; who coming ashore in his Barge, in which were eight Men besides the Captain (the Sea running very high, about two Parts in three of their Way from Spithead, and by the Carelessness, it is said, of some of the People) they were overset, and the Captain unfortunately drowned, with three of the Men; the Weather at that Time being so bad that there was not a Boat of any Sort stirring near them. But as soon as possible Boats put out to their Relief, and took up five of the Men, who it seems supported themselves by holding on some Part of the Barge 'till help came, but too late to save the unhappy Gentleman, tho' he had got twice on the Barge (which lay at that Time Keel uppermost) but the Sea washed him off. When the Barge overset, the Captain had on a large Cloak, from which he with Difficulty disengaged himself, and swam about the Barge above twenty Minutes, exhorting the Men to Resignation in case they could not save themselves, and at the same time encouraging them to exert their Strength to preserve Life. In this Part of the World (and indeed I believe every where else, when the fatal Accident is known) Capt. Hamilton will be greatly lamented by all who had the Pleasure of knowing him, as he was a Gentleman who possessed every Qualification that might render himself, his Friends, and the People he commanded, happy.
P.S. One of the Men have been since cast ashore; but as it was Tide of Ebb when the Accident happened, it is a great Chance if any of the rest are found as yet."
Two reports were published in the "Derby Mercury", the first on 19 Dec 1755:
Gosport, Dec. 19. Yesterday the Monarch went into Dock, and is expected out this Day. The same Afternoon a Six-Oar'd Boat, belonging to his Majesty's Ship the Lancaster, the Hon. John Hamilton, Esq; Commander, coming on Shore from the said Ship, with the Captain, his Footman, the Coxswain, and six Men in her, the Sail being gyb'd, she broach'd to and fill'd, by which Accident the Captain, Coxswain, and one of the men, were unhappily drown'd, the others were saved by Boats going to their Assistance. The Loss of this Hon. Gentleman is great, he being much esteem'd for his Naval Abilities and exemplary Piety, (having Divine Service perform'd twice a Day at Sea to the Ship's Company) to whom he was a Father; his whole Behaviour was uniform and shew'd both the Christian and Gentleman.
And the second, published a week later, on 26 Dec 1755:
From Portsmouth our Correspondents acquaint us, that the Hon. John Hamilton's Death is universally lamented. Various are the Reports about it; some say he had hold of the Yawl, and was wash'd off; others that he had grasped two Oars, saying, that Providence would soon send a Boat to their Assistance, but the Oars separating he was soon gone, to the great Grief of all who knew him. He descended from a noble Family, being Brother to the Earl of Abercorn, to whom he did Honour. He was coming on Shore to set out directly for London, where his Lady is, and had his Portmanteau with him, which was saved by his Servant; but this unhappy Accident disposed a Gentleman to set out immediately to acquaint her in the discreetest Manner possible with the melancholy News.
Another detailed notice was published in the "Oxford Journal" (27 Dec 1755):
They write from Portsmouth that on Thursday last a Six-oared Boat, belonging to his Majesty's Ship Lancaster, the Hon. John Hamilton, Commander, coming on Shore from the said Ship, with the Captain, his Footman, the Coxswain, and six Men in her, the Sail being gibbed, she broached to and filled, by which Accident the Captain, Coxswain, and one of the Men were unfortunately drowned.
The others supported themselves by holding on some part of the Boat till Help came. The Captain got twice on the Boat which lay Keel uppermost, bu the Sea washed him off. When the Boat overset, the Captain had on a large Cloak, from which he with Difficulty disengaged himself, and swam about the Boat above twenty Minutes, exhorting the Men to Resignation in Case they could not save themselves, and at the same Time encouraging them to exert their Strength to preserve Life.
This honourable Gentleman was highly respected for his Naval Skill and exemplary Piety, having divine Service performed twice a Day at Sea to the Ship's Company, to whom he was a Father. His whole Behaviour was uniform, and shewed both the Christian and the Gentleman.
Shorter notices were published in the "Leeds Intelligencer" (23 Dec 1755) and the "London Magazine" (December 1755), respectively:
Portsmouth, Dec. 19. Yesterday at Four o'Clock a most melancholy Accident happened to the Hon. Capt. Hamilton, of his Majesty's Ship Lancaster, lying at Spithead; who coming ashore in his Barge, in which were eight Men besides the Captain, (the Sea running very high) they were overset, and the Captain unfortunately drowned, with three of the Men.
[Dec.] 18. Hon. John Hamilton, commander of his majesty's ship the Lancaster, drown'd by the oversetting of his boat, as he was coming on shore to Portsmouth. He swam 20 minutes about the boat, exhorting the men to resignation in case they were not saved, and at the same time encouraging them to exert their strength to preserve their lives. Two other persons were drowned with him.
Portsmouth locals continued to hope that Captain Hamilton's body would be found. The "Ipswich Journal" published an account (03 Jan 1756) of the finding of the body of one of the other sailors drowned in the accident:
Extract of a Letter from Portsmouth, Dec. 26.
One of the People who were drowned with the worthy and unfortunate Capt. Hamilton, was driven on South Sea Beech; and being found early in the Morning by one of the Invalid Soldiers of the Garrison, he stripped the Body, and left it entirely naked; for which Act of Theft and Inhumanity he was on Monday tried by a Court Martial, and sentenced to receive 200 Lashes the next Day; which were very heartily applied, to the great Satisfaction of the Spectators.
Hope for the return of Captain Hamilton's body faded, with a last announcement published in the "Leeds Intelligencer" on 06 Jan 1756:
Portsmouth, Dec. 29. The Corpse of the late Capt. Hamilton is not yet found.