Scilly Isles

The Scilly Isles (formally the Isles of Scilly), off Land's End, Cornwall, are where Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell ran his HMS Association and three (or four) other ships, including the Eagle and the Romney, onto the Gilstone Ledges (a local guidebook says the Western Rocks) on the night of 22 October 1707, losing about 2000 lives, including his own, due to uncertainty about their position - though some stories say the sailors were drunk from celebrating a famous victory. An extended description says he was leading a fleet of 21 ships back from an unsuccessful operation in Spain (though [Sobel, p.11] says it had been a success and there were five warships) and had been proceeding by dead reckoning for several days in bad weather and had only one hazy view of the sun on 22 October. Shovell summoned his captains to discuss their position and the consensus was that they were near Ushant at the south entrance to the English Channel, but the captain of the Lennox asserted that they were approaching the Scillies, about 100 miles north-northwest of Ushant, and, unfortunately, he turned out to be correct. [Sobel, pp.12-13] says a seaman had approached Shovell and said he had been keeping track of the ship's position and that they were dangerously close to the coast - such navigation by a sailor was rigorously prohibited and Shovell immediately had the man hanged for mutiny. [Sobel, pp.12-13] relates that Shovell was one of only two persons to be washed ashore alive, but that he was promptly killed by a fisherwoman for his ring - she confessed on her deathbed some 30 years later, producing the ring. There is a monument at the inlet of Porth Hellick, on the island of St. Mary's, about 1½ miles east of Hugh Town, where Shovell's body was washed ashore.

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[Timpson, p.100] relates that Shovell had a disagreement with his pilot and hanged him, and that no one else knew the route! He also says that after the fisherwoman's confession, Shovell was uncovered and moved to Westminster Abbey.

The error was really more one of latitude than of longitude. Nonetheless, this disaster led to Parliament passing the Longitude Act in 1714, offering £20,000 for a solution of the problem of finding longitude at sea. (The £ was worth about 100 times its current value. Skilled labourers, such as carpenters, earned about £16 per year.) (See London other institutions.)


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An extract from The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles created by David Singmaster

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