Saturday, 26 May 2012

Bought 225 Years Ago Today


  
                  Between 1783 and 1784, Blaydes Shipbuilders built the Bethia in No 2 dry dock on the River Hull. She was a three-masted square-rigger, with a 69 ft 11 inch long keel, was 24 ft 4 inches broad, 11 ft 4 inches deep in the hold, weighed 230 tons, and with a relatively flat-bottom, the Bethia was built to carry coal. 

In 1787, now owned by Messers Wellbank, Sharp and Brown, she was docked at Wapping Old Stairs, on the River Thames, London, where Sir Joseph Banks, who had been commissioned by the Admiralty to purchase immediately a vessel of not more than 250 tons, examined her. The vessel he recommended was to be refitted to carry a cargo of breadfruit and mangosteen trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, where the fruits were to be used as an inexpensive food for the plantation slaves. The owners valued the Bethia at £2,600, officers from the Deptford shipyard estimated her to be worth £1,820 12s 8d, and the Admiralty compromised at the price of £1,920, buying her on May 26th 1787. She was moved from Wapping to Deptford for refitting, which took three months to complete. £1952 was spent on rigging and stores, with a further £2504 on her hull, which together with the purchase price of £1950 brought the total cost to £6406 (well over half a million pounds in today’s money). 

Not Yet Rigged and Not In Sail

When she had been built, the Bethia had been planked against ship’s worm, which means all her underwater parts had been coated with horsehair and tar, with planks nailed over them. The Royal Navy’s policy was to cover the hulls of their ships with copper sheathing, which was expensive because of the price of the copper but it was a better method of protecting the timbers of the ships from the boring effects of teredo worms and barnacles, as they could be scraped off, rather than replanking the whole ship. The Bethia was beached broadside and careened over, the planks removed, all the iron fittings replaced with bronze ones (to counter the galvanic effects of iron and copper in seawater), then the hull was sheathed in copper sheets. She was then refloated, turned around, and the same process carried out on the other side. 


The improvement in speed, manoeuvrability and strength in the Navy ships soon meant that the term ‘copper-bottomed’ came to mean anything that was utterly reliable and trustworthy. 

The Bethia was not large enough to warrant a Post Captain, she would be commanded by a Lieutenant (who would be designated as Captain when at sea, as commander of the vessel), and she was recategorised as His Majesty’s Armed Vessel  (HMAV) when four four-pound cannon were added and ten half-pound swivel guns mounted on the beams. 


The between-deck and great cabin were altered to house the cargo of plants – a false deck was built with holes cut into it for 629 pots – 433 six-inch diameter pots and 196 eight-inch pots. The lower deck was lined in lead, with collection pipes in the corners, to conserve the water used to water the plants; skylights were cut to improve access to sunlight and air scuttles built to improve ventilation. 


A 23 foot launch, a 20 foot cutter and a 16 foot jolly boat were mounted on deck, and other changes made – a flag locker was added, the bell mount changed, a Brodie stove installed, and so on. In September 1787, she was floated alongside a hulk and re-masted, and five anchors were taken aboard – two 13 cwt cast iron bower anchors, and three iron-clad anchors - a 5 cwt stream used as a sheet anchor, and two smaller kedges stored in the hold. 


On December 23rd 1787 the ship left Spithead, on the Solent, bound for Tahiti. She carried 46 men, but her complement also included a ‘widow’s man’, a fictitious sailor who was included on ship’s lists by the Royal Navy to allow for payments to be made to the widows or families of any crew member lost or killed during the voyage. 


She was now under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh and had been re-named HMAV Bounty.


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