Did Scilly Naval Disaster Lead To Navigational Revolution?

HMS AssociationScilly’s role in the development of new ways to measure longitude may have been overestimated.

That’s the view of historian Richard Dunn from the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, who is challenging the accepted view in an article published on his blog.

The famous wreck of the HMS Association and three other ships off Scilly in 1707, the worst peacetime disaster in British Naval history, led to the deaths of over 1,300 seamen.

It’s widely accepted that navigational errors caused the disaster and is quoted as being responsible for the development of new methods of measuring position, and the introduction of the 1714 Longitude Act.

That led to a prize for anyone who could find a simple way to determine a ship’s longitude.

But Richard says he can find no evidence in the history books or newspaper reports of the time that there was a ‘public outcry’ over the tragedy in Scilly or any people in authority calling for improvements as a direct result of the wreck.

Instead, he says a petition to Parliament by two men, William Whiston and Humphry Ditton, in 1714 was more influential.

They’d developed their own method for determining longitude so had an interest in seeing the legislation passed.

The Isles of Scilly Museum contains many artifacts from the wreck and in 2007, the three-hundredth anniversary of the disaster was commemorated in the islands during a series of special events including a play about clock-maker John Harrison, who claimed a £20,000 prize in 1772 for his chronometer.