In the parish church at Bulwick is a bronze plaque to the memory of Admiral Sir George Tryon (1832–93), born at Bulwick Park, his family home. He entered the navy young and held a series of important appointments, including Secretary of the Admiralty. In August 1891, he was appointed to the command of the Mediterranean fleet, which by constant drill and exercise he transformed into a fighting unit. His reputation as a tactician was prodigious: it is all the sadder, then, that he is mainly remembered now for a naval blunder.
He was leading the fleet on manoeuvres aboard HMS Victoria, commissioned as flagship of the fleet, to replace the older HMS Camperdown. On 22 June 1893, en route from Beirut to Tripoli, the fleet was steaming north-north-east in parallel columns six cables (1,200 yds/1.1 km) apart when Tryon ordered the two lines of ships to turn inwards towards each other. His intention appears to have been to bring the fleet into the anchorage with the two columns (as well as the ships in column) at two cables interval. However, to finish up at this distance, they needed to start ten cables apart. When staff questioned the signal, Tryon would not listen. They assumed he knew what he was about.
But he seems to have made a mathematical error, with the result that the Camperdown’s ram struck the Victoria below the waterline, making a long breach. The sea’s inrush was so great that she quickly went down by the bows, taking with her Tryon, 22 officers, and 336 men. As the ship was sinking, the admiral was reported as saying, ‘It is entirely my fault.’
Hard on the heels of the disaster came more sensational reportage. Staff-Commander Hawkins-Smith, the navigation officer, who stood by Tryon in his last moments, said at the ensuing court martial, ‘Nearly all the various yarns which have got into the papers, such as the coxswain offering the lifebuoy, and the Admiral refusing to save himself, are pure inventions.’ Later, Christina Hole, for example, reports that the Victoria sank, ‘carrying the Admiral and one midshipman who defied orders and refused to leave him with it’ – a distortion of the fact that, when Tryon turned round to order the signalman to give the signal ‘Send boats’, he saw one of the midshipmen and said to him, ‘Don’t stop there, youngster – go to a boat.’ A few moments later the ship turned over. One of the saddest aspects of the tragedy was that many midshipmen were lost.
Then there were the alleged omens, many and various: among other things, people now remembered that HMS Victoria was recommissioned on a Friday the thirteenth. The culmination of all this was a remarkable ghost story based on the widespread belief that a sailor’s fetch would come to warn his family of his death. After the tragedy, reports began to circulate that, on 22 June, Lady Tryon had been giving an ‘At Home’ in her London house in Eaton Square, when one or two of her guests were surprised to see what they thought was her husband walk across the drawing room without saying a word. They knew that he was then supposed to be in the Mediterranean, and there had been no rumour of his return, nor did Lady Tryon appear to expect him. At the moment when they thought they saw him, he had already been drowned.