Oranges and Treasure

Hermione treasure ship

During the Seven Years’ War of 1756 to 1763, Philemon Pownoll commanded the Royal Navy sloop Favourite, while his friend Herbert Sawyer was in charge of the frigate Active. Cruising near Cape St Vincent (the south-western tip of Portugal) in May 1762, they spotted, chased and captured the Spanish vessel Hermione, bound from Lima in South America to Cadiz.

Captain Pownoll advert at The Sharpham Trust’s open day

The Hermione was brought into Gibraltar and then given a naval escort to England, where the cargo and ship were valued at over £500,000 – a staggering amount and the richest treasure ship then ever captured. Pownoll and Sawyer each received prize-money of nearly £65,000, making them the 18th-century equivalent of overnight millionaires.

Two sisters

The two friends had been courting two sisters, whose prosperous merchant father Lewis Arnold Majendie had lost everything in the terrible earthquake at Lisbon only a few years before. Pownoll and Sawyer were able to restore the sisters to their former wealthy lifestyle, and both couples were married in Gibraltar. Pownoll and his bride Jane returned to England, where he bought the Sharpham estate, not far from his home town of Plymouth, and converted the existing house into a mansion that still survives and is part of The Sharpham Trust.

The impressive Sharpham House built by Captain Pownoll. The photo was taken at The Sharpham Trust’s open day

The Great Siege

At the outbreak of the War of American Independence, Pownoll returned to duty, initially serving in American waters. When this war spread to Europe and the Great Siege of Gibraltar began in 1779, he took part in the first relief convoy from Britain. Not only that, but his was the first warship of the convoy to reach Gibraltar, in January 1780, where he found many old friends. While the convoy was unloading, Pownoll sailed to Tangier and brought back oranges, which were greatly needed to help relieve scurvy. He next sailed to the North Sea and a few months later was tragically killed in a battle with a French ship.

During the Sharpham Trust’s recent open day, Captain Pownoll (played by David Heathfield) brilliantly regaled everyone with his stories and handed out oranges to visitors to commemorate his part in the Great Siege.

Roy Adkins being entertained by Captain Pownoll at Sharpham House

Find out more

For further details about the Great Siege, see our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History (for which we discovered the story about Pownoll and the oranges). See also our Events page for our forthcoming talks on the Great Siege.

On 11th September 2018, about 9.30am to 4pm, The Sharpham Trust will be holding a fascinating Sharpham Heritage Day, focusing on the life of Captain Philemon Pownoll. This is an opportunity to see Sharpham House and the gardens, and hear and discuss aspects of naval history and much more, It costs only £20, including music and a lovely lunch with their gorgeous cheeses (and their famous Sharpham wine will be available for sale). See further details and how to book here.