Lost at Sea: Lieutenant Charles Stuart

Published: 11 July 2016

In our Collection we have a ring set with a woven lock of hair; a mourning ring, popular throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries to commemorate the loss of a loved one. This particular ring remembers Lieutenant Charles Stuart and gives us enough detail in its inscription to begin the search into the circumstances surrounding his death. 

On the 11th of December 1795 HMS Leda foundered in a heavy gale off the cost of Madeira with the loss of all but a handful of the men on board, and sadly our hero Lt Charles Stuart, son of the 4th earl of Bute, was not amongst them.  Charles was the 3rd eldest of the Earl’s 6 children by his first wife Charlotte and his death must have come as an especially hard blow to the couple who had tragically lost their eldest child John less than two years before, who died after a riding accident at Bassingbourne Hall in Essex aged just 26. 

The Royal Navy ships like the Leda, a fifth-rate frigate in the Royal Navy, where Charles had landed a prestigious posting as a lieutenant, were highly prized among seamen as these ships were actively employed intercepting enemy vessels and could claim ransom for the crew and cargo. Ships such as the Leda were small and speedy and were used extensively during skirmishes, like those during the American War of Independence, to great effect. 

Although popular, the vessels had a major flaw which lost Charles Stuart his life and would eventually see to their phasing out of service; the gun ports for the lower of the gun decks could not be opened in rough seas should the ship be overwhelmed, thus limiting their fire-power.  This design issue and the devastating events of 11th December are recorded in a letter from the British Consul at Madeira:

At the request of Capt. Danl. Wallace of your brig Success I now address you. From him I first learned of the unfortunate and melancholy catastrophe of H.M.S. Leda which happened on the 11th. at midnight. Every soul on board perished except seven seamen, who were providentially saved in the jolly boat and reached the brig Brownlow of Belfast (Capt. Pinkerton) whose humanity does him the highest honour.
He took them on board and hove to his vessel in expectation of picking up some others, but his laudable intention was not crowned with success. Two of the survivors were put on board the Success on the 15th by Capt. Pinkerton from whom Capt. Walker received the following particulars. About midnight an alarm was given that one or two of the cabin guns had fetched away and went through the side. The Leda in about ten minutes afterwards filled with water and sank. The lashing of the boats were cut away and they floated off the deck. About forty of the people got into the pinnace. It is imagined that she was lost about the same time as the Leda went down.
Note. In this convoy were the brig Success and the ship Hibernia both of Belfast.
To Messers. Jones Tomb Joy & Co. dated 26 Dec. 1795

A memorial in Canterbury Cathedral to 17 year old John Monins le-Geyt tells the tale of another young life lost on this tragic night:

Hair was used extensively in jewellery throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Its use often commemorated the loss of a loved one or relationships between lovers, parents or children, particularly those that were living apart. The use of hair brought two individuals closer together through the use of a part of the body, worn close, and made even more poignant if the person had passed away. Hairwork, as it was known, evolved over the Centuries from simple woven designs to more elaborate images made from hair to even grinding hair into paint. 

Hair locket in our Collection engraved Catharine Forbes Ferguson

This ring illustrates perfectly the ability of objects to tell a story and in this case many stories; it encompasses everything from Naval History, the traditions of mourning, techniques of jewellery making and of course the tragic personal story of Lieutenant Charles Stuart.