The British shipwreck that changed the world

One of the worst disasters in British maritime history, the wrecking of HMS Association led to two acts of parliament and the establishment of longitude.
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Our boat was only half a dozen miles out of St Mary’s, the main island in the Isles of Scilly, but the sea had become a different beast entirely. The waters that lulled against the harbour walls were long gone, and as we arced around the Western Rocks – a notorious cordon of razor-sharp skerries at the very south-westerly reaches of England – the swell surged. Waves slapped against the bow as the boat keeled to and fro. The water was the colour of midnight, and I peered into the darkness for a sign of the HMS Association, one of 1,000 shipwrecks that lie splintering into the seabed around Scilly.

Two parallel reefs, much of which is submerged at high water, the Western Rocks posed a formidable threat to sailors bound for safe harbour in Tresco or St Mary’s. And the names that each cluster of jagged granite has been given over the years – Inner Rags, Tearing Ledge – hint at the devastation wrought.

“It is doubtful if any collection of rocks in the whole of the British Isles has a worse reputation,” said Richard Larn OBE, president of the International Maritime Archaeological & Shipwreck Society and author of Sea of Storms: Shipwrecks of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. “This immense area of hidden danger has been the setting for the worst of the many wreck disasters on Scilly.” None, though, have been more tragic, nor played a more significant role in history, than the sinking of the Association in the early years of the 18th Century.

A 90-gun, second-rate English warship, HMS Association was the flagship of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who had worked his way up from lowly cabin boy to become Admiral of the Fleet in 1705. Shovell had distinguished himself in the Nine Years’ War and in early skirmishes of the War of the Spanish Succession, but after a summer spent (unsuccessfully) laying siege to the French port of Toulon, he set sail for home, departing from Gibraltar for England in late September 1707.

Surrounded by treacherous rocks, the Isles of Scilly have one of the highest concentrations of wrecks in the UK (Credit: David Chapman/Alamy)
Surrounded by treacherous rocks, the Isles of Scilly have one of the highest concentrations of wrecks in the UK (Credit: David Chapman/Alamy)

At around 20:00 on 22 October 1707, believing they were off the coast of Brittany and heading into the English Channel, the fleet ploughed on through the darkness and straight into the Western Rocks. The Association, under the command of Captain Edward Loades, struck the Outer Gilstone rock and sank within two minutes. Three other ships – the Eagle, the Romney and the Firebrand – were also wrecked. “The Weather being very hazy and rainy and Night coming on dark…some of them [were] upon the Rocks to the Westward of Scilly before they were aware. Of the Association not a Man was sav’d,” reported the Daily Courant, Britain’s first daily newspaper, at the time. Some 1,450 men were lost across the four ships, with only 24 survivors between them. It remains one of the worst disasters in British maritime history.

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