Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707), whose death was the catalyst for the introduction of the 1714 Longitude Act.
Like Horatio Nelson (1753-1805), Cloudesley Shovell was born in North Norfolk; like Nelson he enjoyed an illustrious naval career, but as his biographer Simon Harris writes, he is largely forgotten today. Equally his association with Kent is little known.
At the age of 12 Shovell went to sea as cabin boy to John Narborough (1640-1688) on the Centurion, and went on to take part in naval battles of the Third Anglo-Dutch War including the Battle of Solebay (1672) and various skirmishes with pirates in the Mediterranean and on the Barbary Coast. In 1677 he was given command of his first ship, the Sapphire, and subsequently saw service in the Williamite War (1689-1691) and in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715), notably the siege of Gibraltar (1704). During part of this time Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was successively Clerk of the Acts of the Navy Board and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty (1660-1689): at first he approved of Shovell, but subsequently described him as a ‘poltroon’. The relationship between them was never an easy one.
Despite his own Norfolk origins, John Narborough owned the Knowlton Court estate between Sandwich and Dover. Narborough, like Shovell after him, went on to have a distinguished career, becoming an admiral and being knighted at the end of the Anglo-Dutch War in 1673. Narborough died at sea following a fever in 1688, and in 1691 Shovell married Narborough’s widow Elizabeth.
However, rather than settling at Knowlton (which would have been convenient for the Downs, the roadstead off Deal where the Navy often sought shelter), from 1694 it seems that Sir Cloudesley and Elizabeth made their home either at May Court in Crayford where Shovell had purchased the Lordship of the Manor or at a house in Soho in Central London. Shovell was elected as a Whig Member of Parliament for Rochester in 1695, a position he retained until his death. He funded the building of the Corn Exchange, and paid for the decoration of the ceiling in the Guildhall: both these buildings still exist. He also owned the estate at West Street in the parish of Northbourne near Deal, and Edward Hasted tells us that his heirs sold it to Mr William Nethersole, (who was a great-great-uncle of Kent author S.C. Nethersole).1
It was on returning from scuttling the French fleet at Toulon in the summer of 1707 that Shovell’s fleet encountered a savage storm off the Scilly Isles and lost its bearings. His ship, the Association, was wrecked and Sir Cloudesley and his two step-sons John Narborough and James Narborough, who were serving with him, perished when they were washed ashore on 22 October. Shovell’s tomb, designed by Grinling Gibbons, is in Westminster Abbey and the epitaph pays tribute to Shovell’s positive qualities:
Sr CLOUDESLY SHOVELL Knt Rear Admirall of Great Britain and Admirall and Commander in Chief of the Fleet: the just rewards of his long and faithfull services. He was deservedly beloved of his Country and esteem’d, tho’ dreaded, by the enemy who had often experienced his conduct and courage. Being shipwreckt on the rocks of Scylly in his voyage from Thoulon the 22d of October 1707, at night, in the 57th year of his age his fate was lamented by all but especially the sea faring part of the Nation to whom he was a generous patron and a worthy example. His body was flung on the shoar and buried with others in the sands; but being soon taken up was plac’d under this monument which his Royall Mistress has caus’d to be erected to commemorate his steady loyalty and extraordinary vertues.
Such was the loss of ships and men (around 2000) in that deadly storm that, following a petition by Merchants and Seamen, in 1714 Parliament passed “An Act for providing a public Reward for such Person or Persons as shall discover the Longitude at Sea”. To calculate longitude it was necessary to accurately calculate the amount of time you had spent sailing from a port whose longitude was known. The Longitude Act provided for a prize of £20,000 for anyone who could arrive at a practical method for calculating longitude to an accuracy of half a degree. Eventually a carpenter from Yorkshire, John Harrison, devised a series of portable clocks, the last of which was accurate to within three seconds a day, though he was not to receive the full amount of the prize.
As Simon Harris says, Shovell deserves to be remembered for his illustrious career during his life. In his death he deserves to be remembered as the catalyst which eventually brought about the solution to the problem of calculating longitude.
Further details may be found in Shovell and Longitude
This article was published: 20 January 2023.
Harris, Simon. Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Stuart Admiral. Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2001.
Harris, Simon. The Other Norfolk Admirals: Myers, Narborough and Shovell. Helion, 2017.
Sobel, Dava. (1995) Longitude: the True Story of a Lone Genus Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Fourth Estate, 1998.