The Wrecks of HMS St. George and HMS Defence

Anchor from HMS St. George at Strandingmuseum, Thorsminde, Denmark

Anchor from HMS St. George at Strandingsmuseum, Thorsminde, Denmark

Below we discuss the horrendous losses inflicted upon the British Navy by the storm that raged across the North Sea at Christmas 1811. In the course of writing it we stumbled onto some interesting resources and were afraid they would get lost in the shipwreck narrative.

In the immediate aftermath of the wreck of HMS St. George and HMS Defence both wrecks were heavily salvaged. The recovered bodies were buried in the dunes adjacent the wrecks, though the body of Defence’s captain, Captain David Atkins and those of two sailors were buried in a church cemetery.

The wreck of St. George was so remote that even though the cannon were salvaged and moved onto the beach, no one could come up with a way of moving the cannon from the beach to any other location and they were subsequently abandoned.

The sand as well as the wave action and storms visited on Jutland buried the wrecks. But they were not forgotten.

Periodic attempts were made through the years to salvage the wrecks, especially that of St. George.

In 1876 the wreck was visited by commercial salvers using a primitive diving bell. They were probably after the reputed $500,000 in gold coins allegedly carried by St. George. After all, what sunken ship doesn’t? The company did manage to salvage two ship’s bells. One is displayed near the anchor pictured at the top of the page. The second was given to No Kirke, Ringkøbing.

In 1904 another salver recovered 48 cannon which were sold for scrap along with a quantity of copper nails.

The lure of gold persisted. During 1940 and 1941 the wreck was cracked open by the judicious use of high explosives and extensively dredged. More cannon and copper sheathing from the hull were recovered along with some artifacts.

In 1972, the anchor — pictured above — was recovered, but it was a visit to the site in 1980 that served as the catalyst to preserve at least the memory of St. George for posterity. A local diver reported that much of the sand which had previously covered the wreck was gone and it was only a matter of time until it was destroyed. The Danish government and private philanthropy collaborated to excavate the wreck and make the artifacts accessible to scholars and the public.

Over the next six years the wreck was carefully mapped and excavated and a museum, called Strandingsmueum St. George was built to house the artifacts. They include the mundane which opens a window into the world of the common sailor such as a stack of new shoes that would have been part of the purser’s slop chest and name tags, with still legible names, which would have marked a sailor’s seabag. There are luxury items from officer’s country such as an expensive cutlass made by John Prosser of Charing Cross, a porcelain and brass pipe, and a crystal chandelier bought in Sweden and destined for the owner’s home in England. And there is the unique:

a small Ost-indian wooden figure – obviously male with a remarkable and movable attribute.

I’ll leave to your imagination what obviously male movable attribute graced this wooden figure. Or you can drop by and find out.

Also of interest is the collection of photos from the wreck of HMS Defence at Kim Meineche Underwater Photography.


Filed under Age of Sail, Shipwrecks and Marine Archaeology

10 responses to “The Wrecks of HMS St. George and HMS Defence

  1. Kristen Hall

    Hello, I am working on a weather calendar that has an article about the Christmas 1811 Gale and am desperately trying to find illustrations/images for this article. I noticed you have a few–is there someone who could help me? (I emailed the Strandingsmuseum a month ago and have heard nothing back from them . . .) Thank you for your attention to this, Kristen

    • Nick Knowles

      Hi Kristen, if you are still looking for contemporary images, I just recently bought a small (21 cm x 13cm) woodcut that looks like it has been cut out out of a broadsheep newspaper. It depicts two dismasted British warships in distress in high seas, sailors clinging to rafts and people waving from a cliff in the distance. It has the text “The wreck of his Majesty’s Ships, the St George of 98 guns and the Defence of 74 guns. Printed and published by T Batchelor 115 Long Alley , Moorfields, London Lost off the coast of Ryssenstaen in Denmark, Dec 24 1811 and the Crews amounting to 1400 and upwards perished except about 18 who saved thermselves by raft.” If you would like and image please send me your email.

  2. Rorke Bryan

    It is probably much too late for your article but the Museum has a superb diorama of the sinking of the St.George whih would photograph really well.

  3. William Flynn

    When I visited the museum with the remains of the St George in Western Jutland I found a list of the crew members. Imagine my surprise when I found my own name on it. My Danish host told me it was because of the grog ration! William Flynn

    • S. Ferber

      Just reading of a list of the crew members. I believe my ggg grandfather Daniel Friederich Ferber Died January 1811 age 49 during the Christmas Storm. Can you help me with a list of the ships involved and a list of the crew if possible, or give me a contact that might be able to assist.
      Look forward to hearing from you
      Sandra Ferber, Queensland Australia.

  4. I was offerd to buy a Powderhorn (@ 30″ long and with a twist(or Curve) in the middle.It has a lot of HMS Defender Markings(Pix etc) on it and is of the
    Era.It,supposedly was used on the Defender to load the powder into the Canons.My Questions before I commit to purchase are; How do I authenticate it and,if She sank,how was it recovered?
    It is a Remarkable Horn.Would appreciate any Feedback/Help etc!
    Much Thanks-John

    • David Eddy

      Hi, Would anyone happen to have details of the crew of the St. George please? Many thanks 🙏

      • DD

        What do you need? A quite complete list is available at the museum and the admiralty records also contain the higher ranking members (earlier crew lists)

  5. John Neilson

    Update and correction on my previous writing on a 22″ Curved Canon Powderhorn which I had mistakenly attributed to ‘The Defender’.
    It came from The Brig DEFENCE’ and I have purchased it.It is Museum Quality and a Great addition to my collection! I still would appreciate any help/info on how this horn came to survive etc.-Much Thanks-john

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