One of my most memorable recent dives was last October in only a few metres of water at the head of Deadman Bay, near Kingston at the eastern extremity of Lake Ontario in Canada. My brother Alan and I had gone in search of HMS Prince Regent, a British frigate of the War of 1812 that had been abandoned in a backwater and lain undisturbed for over a century and a half. What we saw when we found the wreck far exceeded our expectations. We had known that a large part of the lower hull remained intact, preserved in the fresh, cold waters of the lake, but we had little idea of the haunting, eerie image that would be caused by the weed and algae growth that shrouded the wreck. Fortunately Alan had his video camera with him, and was able to capture the atmosphere of the site in the film you can see opposite.
The story of HMS Prince Regent and the two other large warships launched at Kingston during the final year of the war, HMS Princess Charlotte and HMS St Lawrence, is a fascinating one for many reasons. Although the ships only saw limited action – in the case of HMS St Lawrence, none at all – they were one side of the arms race that developed between the British and the Americans on Lake Ontario during the war, with the Royal Navy Dockyard at Kingston competing with the American yard at Sackets Harbour to build the most powerful ships. Without the extraordinary efforts of the Kingston shipwrights, completing ships in near-record time, the race could have been lost and the war gone badly against the British. The problem was that large warships on the Atlantic could not be brought down the St Lawrence River to the lake, as the rapids above Montreal had not yet been bypassed by canals; the largest warships on the lake before 1812 were sloops and brigs. The ships launched at Kingston in 1814 were to be the only British warships of their size to be built and operated exclusively on fresh water, with design features uniquely adapted to conditions on the lake and reflecting the enormous pressure to complete the vessels in time to act as a deterrence.
After the Royal Navy commander on Lake Ontario, Commodore Sir Thomas Yeo, ordered the construction of frigates at Kingston, the yard quickly expanded in readiness. White oak was felled, artificers were brought from the yards of Lower Canada and from England, and old ships at Quebec allocated for the purpose were stripped of ballast, guns, canvas and other material to be taken past the rapids to Kingston for the new vessels. By late November 1813, only a few months into construction, the Governor-General was informed that Prince Regent promised to be 'as fine and formidable a Frigate as any sailing on the Atlantic.' After what must have been an extraordinary winter of activity at the shipyard, both Prince Regent and the smaller Princess Charlotte were launched on 14 April, as soon as the lake ice had melted. Within three weeks they had been crewed, fitted out and trialled, Prince Regent proving to sail 'remarkably well.'
To the casual observer there would have been little to distinguish these ships from the seagoing frigates of the Royal Navy. They were in fact of heavier construction than had been the norm, with thicker timbers and closer-fitting frames, the British having learnt the lesson of earlier frigate actions in the Atlantic where heavier-built American vessels had withstood shot better than their British opponents. The most striking difference lay below the waterline; because the lake ships had no need to carry large quantities of drinking water - and thus had no need for a capacious hold - they could be sharper in profile, with a steeper frame 'deadrise'. This feature and a shallower draft made them fast and weatherly, and without the weight of water more guns could be carried. Other features reflected the expediency of construction. There had been no time to season the oak properly, so the wood was green, more vulnerable to rot. Shorter lengths of timber were used than was normally the case, scarfed and bolted together, and there had been no compass timbers or 'grown knees' from which curved elements were normally cut. Nevertheless, with a crew of 550, and armed with thirty twenty-four pounders and twenty-eight carronades - twenty of them 32 pounders and eight massive 68 pounders – she was well up to the task at hand, and with these two ships and several large brigs Sir Thomas Yeo had a frigate squadron as formidable as any that were ranging the high seas in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars.
War Service and aftermath
With the 1814 Spring sailing season underway, Sir James Yeo was determined use his new ships to attack Sackets Harbour, but the Governor-General Sir James Prevost refused to allocate the troops required to mount an assault in strength. Instead, Yeo turned his attention to the less heavily defended Fort Oswego, a staging post from New York via the Hudson and Oswego rivers where it was believed that guns destined for the new American frigates lay in storage. By attacking the fort and taking the guns, Yeo planned to secure advantage over the Americans for the 1814 season. On 3 May, he left Kingston with HMS Prince Regent, HMS Princess Charlotte and six sloops and brigs, arriving off Oswega two days later. After a delay caused by the weather he landed his assault force of Royal Marines, a Royal Navy landing party and soldiers of the Glengarry Light Infantry and the Regiment de Watteville, over a thousand men altogether. Much of their powder was soaked in the landing, so they attacked at the point of the bayonet. After a bombardment from the frigates and the smaller vessels, they advanced up the slope and took the fort at a cost of some 80 casualties, inflicting some 60 casualties on the Americans and capturing some 30 more.
The Battle of Fort Oswego and the subsequent blockade was to be Prince Regent’s only active service. In the event, only a few of the American guns were discovered at Oswego and, despite the blockade, the remainder got through to Sackets Harbour, ensuring American supremacy on the Lake after the completion of their own more heavily armed frigates in July. The tables were turned yet again with the completion of the huge three-decker HMS St Lawrence at Kingston in September, but the war ended that winter and she never fired her guns in anger. By July 1815, Thomas Strickland, a shipwright tasked with surveying the ships, described the vessels at Kingston as swinging at their moorings with their top masts removed, laid up and housed over. Only Prince Regent, which had been renamed HMS Kingston in December 1814, remained in commission, serving as a headquarters and a floating barracks.
Despite their reduction after the war, the laid-up ships in Navy Bay at Kingston still presented a dramatic vista; Lieutenant Francis Hall of the 14th Light Dragoons, in his Travels in Canada and the United States, 1816 and 1817, described how you come by ' ...uncultivated islands, and an uninterrupted line of wooden shore, seem conducting you to the heart of a wilderness, known only to the hunter, and his prey: you emerge from a wood, double a headland, and a fleet of ships lies before you, several of which are as large as any on the ocean.’ The Rush-Bagot agreement of 1817, reducing naval forces on the Great Lakes, ended the career of the squadron, with the ships being put ‘in ordinary’ and suffering badly from leaking and dry rot by 1819, little surprise to the surveyors who knew they were ‘built of green materials and of a bad quality.’ By 1826 they were described as half-sunken, and only six years after that HMS Kingston had disappeared from the Navy List, having been sold and partly broken up in 1832-3. Finally, some time between 1829 and 1843, the hulks of Kingston and Burlington – the renamed Princess Charlotte - were pumped out and towed round into Hamilton Cove, later renamed Deadman Bay, where their remains lie in shallow water to this day.
Diving HMS Prince Regent
The wreck at the head of Deadman Bay was visited in 1912 by Toronto newspaperman Charles Snider, whose measurement of its length – just over 160 feet – was later used to identify it as the former HMS Prince Regent, as the length corresponded with the 155 foot gun deck recorded in Strickland’s 1815 survey; the position of the mast steps and the steep frame deadrise has also been shown to correspond with the plans. In 1938, a hard-hat diver was employed by the Fort Henry museum at Kingston to raise artefacts from the second wreck in the bay, now known to be the former Princess Charlotte, including shot, iron ballast blocks and 18 guns, several of them French guns spiked in 1758 by the British when they captured Fort Frontenac – afterwards renamed Kingston - and evidently used as ballast. It seems likely that similar artefacts also existed in the wreck of Prince Regent. In 2000-1 the wreck of Princess Charlotte was surveyed by a team under Dan Walker from Texas A&M University’s Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and all of the War of 1812 hulls off Kingston have been subject to a survey programme by Parks Canada under the direction of Michael Moore. Two excellent publications arising from those projects are listed below.
We found Prince Regent to be an unexpectedly atmospheric dive. Kitting up in the carpark beside the marina on Deadman Bay, we walked down to a small beach and swam towards the head of the Bay. The wreck lies in a backwater, only two to four metres deep, with no boat traffic overhead and only ice and weather being likely to degrade timbers just beneath the surface. We swam over dense masses of weed that rose to within a metre of the surface and obscuring the bottom, and at first wondered whether we would see the wreck. When we did it was an arresting sight, nestled in the weed like the mouldering carapace of a whale. Much of the surface detail of the timbers was obscured by zebra mussels, and covered with thick algae. The hull is heeled over on its port side, with the starboard frames projecting towards the surface like the ribs of a skeleton. The most striking survival is a large part of the stern, including the stern post, gudgeons and a pintle stop. Swimming forward, we saw the unusual mast-steps, formed not from shaped timbers placed on top of the keelson but from gaps in the upper row of the keelson timbers themselves, the sides being made up from timbers bolted on and strengthened with crutches. At many places on the hull we could see where the planking had been attached with iron spikes, and the frames and other timbers with iron bolts.
Surfacing at the bow, my mask half in and half-out of the water, and looking back along Deadman Bay towards Kingston - the eerie image of the timbers shrouded in algae below, and above that the modern yachts of the marina - it seemed as if I was viewing a cross-section through history, and a vivid reminder of the 'war of carpenters', as one contemporary put it, that played such a critical role in deciding the future of North America two centuries ago.
Moore, Jonathan, 2014. Frontier frigates and a three-decker: wrecks of the Royal Navy’s Lake Ontario Squadron. In Crisman, J. (ed.), Coffins of the Brave: Lake shipwrecks of the War of 1812. College Station, Texas A&M University Press, pp. 187-218.
Walker, Daniel Robert, 2007. The identity and construction of Wreck Baker: a War of 1812 period Royal Navy Frigate. MA dissertation, Texas A&M University.