Object biographies

Model of HMS Leopard (1790) from the founding collection of General Pitt Rivers

Eric W Edwards, Library Assistant, Balfour Library

In Case 71 in the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is a model of a sailing warship (1884.54.44) from the founding collection of General Pitt Rivers. The model represents the Portland Fourth Rate HMS Leopard, of 50 guns, as she would have looked prior to her launching. The model was made by George Stockwell. The keel of the ship was laid at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1775 but she was eventually launched at Sheerness in 1790.Not only was this model owned and donated by General Pitt Rivers, it is most probable that he was well aware of the history of the vessel herself. HMS Leopard is known in Royal Naval annals for her involvement in what came to be known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807.

George Stockwell is listed in pay books as one of only five senior shipwrights (Quartermen) working in Sheerness Yard in the 1770s and 1780s. Stockwell was christened on Christmas Day, 1729, at Sheldwich. The son of a well digger he entered the dockyard in 1750-1751. As a Sheerness-based model maker and Royal Dockyard shipwright George Stockwell was known to have been active between 1770 and 1790. The model of HMS Leopard was originally thought to have been made between 1770 and 1790, but later investigations proved the model was made at the same time and place as the ship herself. Within the model was found a folded and glued piece of paper. The quill written message therein stated “This moddle was made by Geo Stockwell at Sheerness in the year of our Lord 1787 in the 56 year of his age.” (Navy News, 2002).

There arose, during the years 1650 to 1800 a skilled tradition of constructing models of Royal Naval vessels that were exquisitely executed. As these models were commissioned by the Navy Board (who had the administrative responsibility for Royal Dockyards) they became the generic Navy Board Models. It would have taken George Stockwell and his apprentice a year to build a model ship such as HMS Leopard. It is not doubted that Stockwell’s skills entitle him to be dubbed the “…Michelangelo of the Navy Board Model Makers.” (Navy News, 2002).

Navy Board models always had well defined features. Each one had a scale of 1:48 and comprised the hull only. No rigging or masts were constructed. The model showed therefore gun ports, configuration of the decks, cabins, and carvings. They were always built from the finest boxwood from Turkey with its mature appearance and mellow yellow. Finer details were boxwood, brass, ivory and bone, with painting done in the naval colours of Prussian blue and Venetian red.

The Rating System of the Royal navy

HMS Leopard of 1790 was designated as a Fourth Rate of 50 guns with a crew of 343 men and boys. She was launched in 1790 and disposed of on June the 28th, 1814. She carried 22 long 24 pounder and 22 long 12 pounder carriage guns. In addition she had on the quarter and forecastle decks six 24 pounder carronades, 2 long 9 pounders, and an 18 pounder launch carronade. Between the beginning of the 17th century and middle of the 19th the Royal Navy employed a rating system to categorise its sailing warships. The original classification of 1686 was according to the assigned complement of the vessel, but a later categorisation (circa 1660) opted for rating according to the number of carriage guns mounted.

The structure was revised by Samuel Pepys as Secretary to the Admiralty in 1677. From now the number and weight of the guns carried determined the size of the assigned complement, total rations, and pay. The trend now was for each Rate to have a greater number of guns. Pepys ratio allowed for a First Rate to have 90 to 100 guns. However the scheme of 1801 gave a First Rate ship 100 to 120 guns. This increased the ratio for a Sixth Rate from 4-18 to 20-28 guns. After 1714 any ship with less than 20 was unrated. The term first-rate has passed into common usage and has come to signify the highest quality, whereas second-rate and third-rate used adjectively implies something of inferior quality. A First to Third Rate ships were regarded in this system as “ships of the line”.

Smaller Fourth Rate ships, such as HMS Leopard, with 50 or 60 guns on their two gun-decks were regarded as “line ships” until 1756. After that they were regarded as too small for heavy battle engagements.However, some Fourth Rate ships found themselves acting as flag-ships on far away outposts, or on convoy duties, some converted to troop-ships (e.g., HMS Leopard). A Fourth-Rate with its two gun decks had a crew of between 320 and 420 men and boys, and was about 1000 tons burthen. This ‘burthen’ ton was defined as 35 cubic feet of water and not a unit of mass. Thirty five cubic feet of sea water does have a mass very approximate to one Imperial (long) ton or 2240 pounds. Not so for merchant vessels. For merchant ships a ton is a ‘register’ ton or 100 cubic feet of water.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807

In early 1807, whilst blockading French ships in Chesapeake Bay, a small number of American and British seamen deserted their ships and joined the crew of the United States frigate USS Chesapeake. The harsh, press-ganging method of recruitment to Royal navy ships led to high desertion rates. Many sailors deserted to the United States where their seamanship skills were welcomed. Indeed, desertion by British sailors was common around the area of Norfolk, Virginia, where a Royal Navy squadron lay at anchor. Their task was to watch a pair of armed French ships who had sought refuge in the neutral harbour. Many subsequently joined of the American navy. The Royal Navy found this unacceptable. On June 1st 1807 the British commander in chief of the North American Station issued orders to the captains under his command. These naval officers were ordered to meet the American frigate Chesapeake in international waters beyond the limits of the USA and search for said deserters. Specifically they were to seek out sailors missing from the vessels Belleisle, Bellona, Triumph, Chichester, Halifax, and the Zenobia.

The USS Chesapeake was a 36-gun frigate of some 1244 tons that had been built in the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. She had been commissioned early in 1800 and operated in the West Indies and seas of the southern United States.In June 1807 the Chesapeake, flagship of Commodore James Barron, sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, bound for the Mediterranean. As such she was not prepared for any naval action. On the 22nd of June, 10 miles off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, HMS Leopard intercepted the American frigate. Captain Salisbury Pryce Humphreys of HMS Leopard hailed his quarry but Barron was incensed and refused. The question has been raised as to whether Humphreys was seeking deserters or hoping to press-gang American sailors into the Royal navy.

The Leopard fired three broadsides at the American ship, sending 22 shots into the hull of the American ship. The Chesapeake managing one shot in reply. Three Americans were killed, one was mortally wounded and 17 others injured. Barron thereupon surrendered and was boarded. Only four deserters were found – 2 African Americans, one white American, and one British sailor. All four were taken to Halifax where the Americans were jailed for a while and the British sailor, Jenkins Ratford, was eventually hanged. Humphreys returned to Virginia waters leaving behind the crippled Chesapeake which eventually limped back to Norfolk. Eventually converted to a troopship HMS Leopard was captained in 1814 by Captained Edward Crofton. She was wrecked on the 28th of June en route from Britain to Quebec. Grounded on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence in heavy fog, shewas destroyed but none on board were lost.

General Pitt Rivers must have been very aware of the history of the ship of which he owned the model. He must have also treasured the model that had so expertly been constructed by Stockton as the Michelangelo of model ship makers. Not only must General Pitt Rivers have taken an interest in the ship but he was no doubt impressed by the derring-do exploits of the Royal Navy on the high seas.

Sources Used

Hagan, K. J. This Peoples Navy: The Making of American Sea Power. The Free Press, (1991).

Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington DC 20374-5060

Rodger, N. A. M. The Command of the Ocean: a naval history of Britain 1649-1815. London, (2004).

Winfield, R. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792. Barnsley, (2007).

Winfield, R. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817 (2nd ed). Barnsley, (2008).



You can see an image of HMS Leopard at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Leopard_%281790%29

January 2010

This article is dedicated to the memory of my son William (23.6.1975 to 31.11.2009).

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