McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Loss of the Victoria

HMS Victoria, 1888

Alas! Now o’er Britannia there hangs a gloom,
Because over 400 British Tars have met with a watery tomb;
Who served aboard the ” Victoria,” the biggest ship in the navy,
And one of the finest battleships that ever sailed the sea.

And commanded by Sir George Tyron, a noble hero bold,
And his name on his tombstone should be written in letters of gold;
For he was skilful in naval tactics, few men could with him cope,
And he was considered to be the nation’s hope.

‘Twas on Thursday, the twenty-second of June,
And off the coast of Syria, and in the afternoon,
And in the year of our Lord eighteen ninety-three,
That the ill-fated “Victoria” sank to the bottom of the sea.

The “Victoria” sank in fifteen minutes after she was rammed,
In eighty fathoms of water, which was smoothly calmed;
The monster war vessel capsized bottom uppermost,
And, alas, lies buried in the sea totally lost.

The “Victoria” was the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet,
And was struck by the “Camperdown” when too close they did meet,
While practising the naval and useful art of war,
How to wheel and discharge their shot at the enemy afar.

Oh, Heaven ! Methinks I see some men lying in their beds,
And some skylarking, no doubt, and not a soul dreads
The coming avalanche that was to seal their doom,
Until down came the mighty fabric of the engine room.

Then death leaped on them from all quarters in a moment,
And there were explosions of magazines and boilers rent;
And the fire and steam and water beat out all life,
But I hope the drowned ones are in the better world free from strife.

Sir George Tyron was on the bridge at the moment of the accident
With folded arms, seemingly quite content;
And seeing the vessel couldn’t be saved he remained till the last,
And went down with the “Victoria” when all succour was past.

Methinks I see him on the bridge like a hero brave,
And the ship slowly sinking into the briny wave;
And when the men cried, “Save yourselves without delay,”
He told them to save themselves, he felt no dismay.

‘Twas only those that leaped from the vessel at the first alarm,
Luckily so, that were saved from any harm
By leaping into the boats o’er the vessel’s side,
Thanking God they had escaped as o’er the smooth water they did glide.

At Whitehall, London, mothers and fathers did call,
And the pitiful scene did the spectators’ hearts appal;
But the most painful case was the mother of J. P. Scarlet,
Who cried, “Oh, Heaven, the loss of my son I’ll never forget.”

Oh, Heaven! Befriend the bereaved ones, hard is their fate,
Which I am sorry at heart to relate;
But I hope God in His goodness will provide for them,
Especially the widows, for the loss of their men.

Alas! Britannia now will mourn the loss of her naval commander,
Who was as brave as the great Alexander;
And to his honour be it fearlessly told,
Few men would excel this hero bold.

Alas! ‘Tis sad to be buried in eighty fathoms of Syrian sea,
Which will hide the secret of the “Victoria” to all eternity;
Which causes Britannia’s sorrow to be profound
For the brave British Tars that have been drowned.

June, 1893.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

HMS Victoria was launched in 1887, and named in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, which occurred in the same year. On 22 June, 1893, while on manoeuvres with the Mediterranean Fleet near Tripoli, HMS Camperdown rammed HMS Victoria, sinking her with 358 casualties. There’s an excellent analysis of what happened at Pre-Dreadnought Preservation, together with links and photos.

Vice-Admiral, Sir George Tryon, may well have gone down with his ship like a “hero brave,” but he was considered responsible for the disaster by ordering a risky manoeuvre to bring the fleet to anchor for the night. There is a reference to this aspect of the tragedy in Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne turns to port instead of starboard, crashes into another ship, and goes down with his own. Thus bringing Louis Mazzini one step closer to the D’Ascoyne title.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  The wreck of HMS Victoria was discovered in 2004. The extraordinary thing is that she had plunged bow first into the sea bed and was found actually standing upright at a 90 degree angle, something unheard of in any other shipwreck. This is probably due to the enormous weight of her forward guns. Tryon was known to be a collector of Nelson memorabilia, and a 2012 Daily Mail article claims that his sword was found on the wreck, but left in situ for some rather confused reasons. Since it’s in the Daily Mail, I take it with a huge pinch of salt. Intriguing idea, though.
Here is a fascinating video of a 2008 dive on the ship. You can clearly see her name on the stern. The divers ventured into the ship and filmed some of the debris, including the teacups and saucers, which would have been used by the ship’s officers. It’s an eerie reminder that this is not just a bad poem but a human tragedy.

If only McGonagall had known about HMS Victoria standing upright on the seabed and Nelson’s sword. He would surely have worked it into the poem.

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