Volunteer Review of 1869 and the Ferret Disaster

Dover Harbour c1850 from Western Heights. Dover Library

Dover Harbour c1850 from Western Heights. Dover Library

It is a little known fact that the first Volunteer Corps – the forerunners of the Territorial Army – was founded in Dover! Thomas Hyde Page, who was born 1746 and educated at Woolwich Military Academy on being invalided out of the army, came to Dover to recover. He bought land in Buckland and built the house now Listed as 110 London Road. Later knighted, Sir Thomas was a military engineer and responsible for a number of important defence works at the Castle during the American War of Independence (1776-1783). He was also responsible for starting what eventually became the Western Heights fortifications and the building four shore batteries. These were Guilford Battery, under the Castle cliffs; North’s Battery, where Granville Gardens are today; Amherst Battery to the east of where the Clock Tower is today; and Townsend Battery close to the present day Lord Warden House. Together with Archcliffe Fort and a canal along the seafront, the fortifications made an effective line of defence during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).

It was during the American War of Independence, in 1779 that Thomas Hyde Page set up the Dover Corps and by 1798, the number of Dover Volunteer Corps had increased to eight. By the mid-nineteenth century, nearly every town and city in the country boasted of having at least one volunteer corps and they were brought together by Annual Reviews. These involved mock battles that included the professional military and the Royal Navy and when held in Dover were a major tourist attraction. People would crowd the Seafront, Admiralty Pier, Western Heights, Castle Hill and anywhere else it was thought that they would get a good view. At the best locations seats could be reserved for those who could afford them and for invited dignitaries!

Easter in 1869 fell early, Good Friday was on 26 March and the weather was far from clement. There had been a snowstorm the night before and the weather on the Saturday was no better. It was over this holiday period that Dover was hosting the annual Volunteer Review and the town had ‘subscribed liberally’ to ensure that compensation could be paid to farmers whose land the Volunteers were likely to cross. The towns folk had ensured that every flagstaff supported the Union Jack, bunting was the best money could buy – some had been specially imported from Paris – and the Castle, Archcliffe Fort, Western Heights and the remaining Batteries that Thomas Hyde Page had built were all illuminated. It was expected that some 20,000 members of volunteer corps from all over the country would arrive in special trains at Dover on the Saturday together with tourists and Dover was going to ensure that it was a Review that no one would forget … and they were right, but not for the right reasons!

The national newspapers based in London covered the event but the reporters were far from happy that it was been held in Dover. This appeared to be for social reasons rather than military. Their write-ups were littered with such comments such as Dover ‘was not quite as agreeable as Brighton!‘ The reporters arrived in the town by early trains on the Saturday morning and in their first communications were disparaging about the state of the town. Writing scathing comments, such as the bunting that festooned the shops was bedraggled and damaged. They did make a nod that this may have been due to the weather but they were not complimentary. Albeit, by 11.00hrs even these cynical reporters had to admit that when the first official train arrived, ‘even the bunting looked resplendent!’

Volunteers arrival at Dover Priory Station Illustrated London News 04.05.1867. Dover Library

Volunteers arrival at Dover Priory Station Illustrated London News 04.05.1867. Dover Library

The different battalions arrived at the Town,  Harbour and Priory Stations and from there marched along the streets through the Pier district and then the Seafront to a large parade ground adjacent to North’s Battery. The streets were lined were cheering crowds and the Naval ships in the harbour were dressed overall. Their crews, on the decks, waved their hats to the marching Volunteers. After reaching the parade ground, the Volunteers were dispersed to hotels or lodging houses, depending on their rank.

Church Service at the Castle. Illustrated London News 10.04.1869. Dover Library

Church Service at the Castle. Illustrated London News 10.04.1869. Dover Library

The stormy weather continued through out the night of Saturday/Sunday and at about 02.00hrs the bark Annie Sharpe, was driven onto the rocks off Shakespeare Cliff. The crew were saved and taken to the Sailors’ Home. The next morning, Easter Sunday, more Volunteers arrived by special trains, while many of those who had arrived the day before went to the different places of worship. They then marched up to the parade ground in the Castle, where they were joined by the enlisted men stationed in Dover. There, a formal church service was held attended by the town’s dignitaries led by the Mayor, John Birmingham.

The route, both to and from the Castle, was crowded with people and according to a report of the time, ‘the windows of most of the houses were occupied by ladies.’ On returning to the town, the Volunteers were dismissed and were free to spend the rest of the day as they wished. It was also reported that many of the women of Dover ensured that this was made as pleasurable as possible!

Although the snow had ceased in the morning that Sunday, a gale blew in the afternoon and it had hardly abated when it began snowing heavily again. In the harbour and bay, there were a large number of merchant vessels as well as the Royal Navy Squadron. The Royal Sovereign was the leading vessel commanded by Captain A W A Hood. There was also the Scorpion under Captain G A Brooker, Staunch commanded by Lieutenant Hall, Stork under Lieutenant Stewart, Ernest under Lieutenant Hunt, Maguet under Lieutenant Fairlie and sailing brigs Martin and Ferret. These were eight-gun sailing vessels used as training ships for boys. The Ferret came from Portsmouth and moored on an Admiralty  buoy near the Admiralty Pier. She had a crew of 17 men, eight stewards, was carrying 86 boys and under the command of Lieutenant Carré. Some of the boys were Dover’s Sea Scouts – later Sea Cadets.

Lord Warden House formerly the Lord Warden Hotel where a splendid feast was going to be enjoyed by the organisers. AS.

Lord Warden House formerly the Lord Warden Hotel where a splendid feast was going to be enjoyed by the organisers. AS.

Even though the weather was atrocious instructions were issued for the next day. The enemy were to land at St Margaret’s, east of Dover, then advance to Dover where they would storm the southeast bastions of the Castle from both land and sea. The Volunteers were to lay a field telegraph and use steam traction engines to take the heavy guns up the hill into position to defend the Castle batteries. At sea, the opposing ships were to sail out of the Downs towards Dover where they would be met and defeated by a fleet of ships that included the brig Ferret. The exercise was to last about two hours before the ‘invaders’ retreated. It was then expected that the Volunteers would then return home, by special trains, with their corps. When the despatch was completed, the organisers would spend the evening at the Lord Warden Hotel to enjoy a magnificent meal and toast each other on another successful exercise.

Castle Hill area 1844

Castle Hill area 1844

Because of the weather, it was decided to take a train of seven 18-pounder cannons up the hill towards the Castle and the battleground on the Sunday. The convoy was tightly chained together and hauled by 2 ten-horse powered traction engines. The road, in those days up to the Castle was designed for horse-drawn vehicles. That is, from St James Street across and up Laureston Place it snaked to lessen the gradient and at the top, where the hill was steeper, the road zigzagged. Throughout the road varied in width and because the convoy was unable to articulate it became stuck!

At the Castle, unaware of the convey ascending the hill, a number of soldiers resplendent in uniform and some on horse back started towards the town, pulling a gun carriage. By the time the two ‘forces’ met in Laureston Place the route was already crowded with Dovorians and tourists. They loudly proffered advice with some not using the choicest of language. Chaos ensued and tempers were rising. From the midst of the crowd stepped three people. They were a well-dressed young man wearing a bunch of violets in his buttonhole, a boy and a young lady on horseback and between them, they took command of the situation. The boy put stones under the 18-pounders while the man with the violets told the locals to loosen the chains. The lady ordered the soldiers from the Castle to go back from whence they came and refused to take no for an answer. The problem was quickly resolved but the report does not give the names of these three.

The weather on Sunday night / Monday morning continued to deteriorate and soon after midnight, the force seven – eight wind had gone round from south-east to east-north-east accompanied by a heavy running sea. The Ferret rolled heavily and at 04.33hrs, low tide, the chain of the Admiralty buoy broke. The Quartermaster of the Watch had the brig’s anchor let go but after seven shackles of chain had been run out the anchor had still not ‘snubbed’. He had the compressor bowsed in order to try to get the anchor to bite but with little effect and the Ferret bore rapidly towards Admiralty Pier. The order was given for the boys, asleep in their hammocks, to prepare to abandon ship. The Ferret ran, stem-on, into the Pier.

Sailors' Home, Blenheim Square. Dover Library

Sailors’ Home, Blenheim Square. Dover Library

Just tied up, on the lee side of the Pier out of the wind, was the Dover-Calais mail boat, the Breeze. The commotion on board the Ferret was heard by the crew but the deck of the Ferret was about 20feet (approximately 6metres) below the top of the Pier. Nearby was the Maid of Kent and the crew of both ships threw lines and ropes to the beleaguered boys. Some of them mounted the rigging and from the yards climbed, but for most, the crews of the Breeze and Maid of Kent hauled them up. Although initially one of the boys was reported missing all were eventually rescued and taken to the Sailors’ Home.

Scene of the wreck of the Ferret. Illustrated London News 10.04.1869 Dover Lbrary

Scene of the wreck of the Ferret. Illustrated London News 10.04.1869 Dover Lbrary

It was hoped that the rising tide would right the Ferret but she was stuck fast. Lieutenant Carré, officers and men had stayed on board and succeeded in getting on board, from a tug, that had come to help, a large hawser and secured it around the foremast. The tug then commenced steaming and the Ferret’s port chain was slipped. However, the tug was unable to make progress, the hawser parted and the Ferret slid along the Pier. Onlookers stood by helplessly as heavy seas crashed onto the little ship and the rising tide swamped her. By 10.30hrs on the Monday morning, crowds that had, the day before, lined the streets of Dover in welcome, watched along with Volunteers, as the raging sea smashed the little ship.

On the roofs of trains that had drawn up at the Harbour Station the passengers were watching the disaster unfold before them. Suddenly the little vessel appeared to break free and there were audible sighs of relief. She righted herself and as her two masts rose majestically above the Admiralty Pier in an upright position, the crowd cheered. Then her masts slowly arced towards the sea and the she was lost.

The Coastguard, under the command of Navigating Sub-Lieutenant Morrison, were there with lines and lifebelt, to help the officers and crew to get off the beleaguered ship, but they managed to abandon ship without help. However, one of the onlookers clambered down to the rocks in order to get a souvenir from the beleaguered ship. He was caught by a wave and carried out to sea but was successfully rescued by Volunteer West of the Queen’s Westminster and London Rifle Brigade. The rescuing subsequently received the Royal Humane Society medal for Gallantry.

Attacking force near Guston - Illustrated London News 10.04.1869. Dover Library

Attacking force near Guston – Illustrated London News 10.04.1869. Dover Library

By mid morning, the weather had moderated and the heavy rain ceased. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces (1856-1895) Prince George the 2nd Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904) and cousin to Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was in charge of the Review and he arrived. With him were Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught (1850-1942), Francis, Duke of Teck (1837-1900) and Earl Granville the Lord Warden (1866-1891). They had ridden from Walmer Castle where they had been staying. The Duke of Cambridge was told of the catastrophe and was well aware of the weather conditions but commanded that the Review should go ahead as planned. He was somewhat taken aback by the Volunteers, who appeared to be in disarray and he issued the order to ‘Sound the Assembly at once.’ The wet and bedraggled Volunteers assembled.

As the Volunteers were getting to their positions, the weather took yet another turn for the worse and eventually, due to the increasing strong winds, heavy rain and sleet, the exercise was abandoned. At sea, the inclement weather was also a cause for concern. Nonetheless, there is a contemporary drawing of the two turret-ships, Royal Sovereign and Scorpion, actively engaged in firing at the Castle and being met with return fire. Although the weather had ensured that the weekend manoeuvres did not go as planned the events that did take place were memorable than the Reviews that went ahead as planned.

On 22 April 1869, a Court Marshall was convened for the trial of Lieutenant Hilary Carré and the officers and crew of the Ferret over the loss of the sail-training vessel. The court was presided over by Captain R W Courtney and composed of Captains S H Henderson, Thomas Bridgeman Lethbridge (1829-1892), J C Soady, S A Wilmshurst. A Mr Martin, paymaster of Her Majesty’s yacht and a barrister-at-law officiated as Deputy Judge-Advocate. After hearing all the evidence the Court concluded that no blame could be attached to any person and that the cause of the accident was caused by the breaking of the Admiralty buoy chain. Lieutenant Carré and his crew were commended for successfully getting all the boys to safety and for twice trying to save the ship – when the chain broke and before she finally went down.

The Ferret disaster, without loss of life, reflected well on the people of Dover but the reasons why it happened gave the Admiralty cause for concern. At the time, Admiralty Pier had been built as part of a Harbour of Refuge with another Pier designated to be built where the Prince of Wales Pier is today. The second Pier had been put on hold but following the disaster, the Admiralty saw the necessity for it. However, the second Pier was again put on hold and in the end, the Harbour Board built the Prince of Wales Pier with the money raised by a passenger tax of one shilling per head. This formed a Commercial Harbour that doubled as a Harbour of Refuge and was completed in 1902. The harbour we see today was commission by the Admiralty and opened on Friday 15 October 1909 during weather akin to that experienced on the weekend of the fateful Volunteer Review.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury; 02 & 09 April 2009

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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