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The witch and the warship

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:31 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Imagine the scene. The dockyard is full of workmen, women and children; bands are playing and eager spectators and townspeople mingle happily with dignitaries and naval officers. It is July 21 1853, and the 90 gun wooden hulled warship Caesar is about to be launched from the slipways of Pembroke Dockyard.

The appointed hour arrives, speeches are made and, to the accompaniment of loud cheers and encouraging shouts, the new ship begins to slide into the river - and then she sticks, fast. No matter what the dockyard officials and workmen try to do, the Caesar simply refuses to move.

When the matter is investigated it soon transpires that somebody - obviously with a keen eye to economy - has ordered fir wood to be used instead of oak for the launching ways, those stretches of planking along which any newly built ship is meant to slide until she reaches the water.

Fir is soft and, consequently, as the new hull took shape and as the ship grew heavier and heavier, the Caesar simply bedded herself into the wood. She couldn't have hit the water, even if she had wanted to!

To make matters even worse, the tallow used to grease the launching ways was of very poor quality.

For the people of Pembroke Dock, however, there was a much more sinister reason for the Caesar's failure to enter the water. A local woman called Betty Foggy, renowned in the area as a witch and spell caster, had tried to enter the dockyard to watch the launch.

It was customary at Pembroke Dock - and in most Royal dockyards - to throw open the gates and allow locals in to watch any launch. It was quite an occasion for the people of the town. In the middle years of Victorian Britain there was not much in the way of public entertainment, particularly in out-of-the-way places like Pembroke Dock, and the local people looked forward to such free treats.

However, when Betty Foggy tried to get in, an eagle-eyed policeman turned her away. "You can't come in," he said. "It would be unlucky." No matter how much she protested the policeman was adamant. There was to be no admission for Betty Foggy.

Dozens of people saw Betty turned away and, more importantly, heard her words. "Very well," she mumbled. "If I can't come in then there'll be no launch today."

Her curse seemed to work and before evening the story of the failed launch and Betty's supposed part in the affair was all around Pembroke Dock and nearby Pembroke. Betty Foggy had put a curse on the launch.

It was Sunday 7 August, when most people of the town were conveniently engaged in morning service, that the Caesar finally slid into the waters of the Cleddau River. For 17 days workmen had been quietly building huge wooden structures, known as camels, under the hull of the ship. Slowly but surely the Caesar's keel was raised up out of the fir wood into which it had sunk.

Never being the people to admit a mistake, the dockyard officials were quite sanguine in their explanations - "Betty has lifted her curse!" they declared.

The people of the town believed them and the story has gone down in Pembroke Dock folklore, the witch who cursed the launch of HMS "Caesar."

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  • Comment number 1.

    My grandfather told me this story Phil – his grandfather was a shipwright in the ‘yard when the Caesar stuck fast on the ways. One wonders if the team of shipwrights in those days ‘lifted’ the ship to be launched by rhythmically driving in wedges with their shipwright's mauls in time to the chiming of a bell by the Foreman Shipwright.
    Grandfather also told me of another mishap in the ‘yard, this time when he was working there, when the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert , launched in 1899, ‘fell over’ in the dock when she was being fitted out.

  • Comment number 2.

    When the V &A was launched, as you say, she fell sideways - she was decidedly top heavy. They towed her out into mid-stream and put two or three hundred dockyard maties on board. Then they made them run from port to starboards and back again - several times - to check the ship's stability. I can't imagine Health and Safety (not to mention Unions) allowing workmen to take their lives into their hands like that these days! Queen Victoria hated the V & A, much preferring the passage boat Alberta - also built at Pembroke Dock.


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