James Hodgson of the Filey Bay 1779 Research Group tells of how one of the most dramatic historical events off the Yorkshire coast is the catalyst for a new level of tourism, business and community engagement … and with plans for visits by US and Royal Navy warships.

Much has been written about the Battle of Flamborough Head as we gradually approach its 250th anniversary. The sensational event took place on September 23rd of 1779, some three years into the American War of Independence. France had already joined the war against Britain and the fledgling Continental Navy of America’s 13 colonies was for the first time able to take the fight to England’s coast.

A squadron of five French and American ships with a combined complement of 130 guns and 1,000 men left France on August 14 1779 to harass and attack shipping. The squadron was led by Scottish-born John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard. Almost 100 years later, Jones would be credited as the ‘Founding Father’ of the US Navy and his body interned in a marble sanctum in the Crypt of the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Bonhomme Richard, later sunk

Unknown to Jones at the time, a large merchant fleet, laden with essential supplies for the British war effort (including timber for masts and iron ore for cannons) had left Elsinore in Denmark on September 1 1779 under the escort of HMS Serapis, a 44-gun frigate under Captain Richard Pearson, and The Countess of Scarborough, a converted 22-gun sloop built in Whitby, under Captain Richard Piercy. Having sailed from France and around the coast of Ireland and Scotland in a northerly direction, the enemy squadron led by Jones was sighted from Scarborough Castle on Monday September 20 1779, heading south. A red flag was hoisted at the castle to warn all shipping in the area.

Three days later, the merchant fleet and its Royal Naval escorts arrived off Whitby and proceeded to sail south.  The Bailiffs of Scarborough, Messrs William Porrett and Thomas Haggitt, sent a letter by boat to Captain Pearson to warn him that the hostile squadron was nearby. The fleet, which by this time was approaching Filey Brigg, was immediately ordered by Pearson to turn north and take refuge under Scarborough Castle and the protection afforded by the South Steel Gun Battery above the harbour.

The ensuing encounter, in which the two British ships were outnumbered and outgunned two-to-one, is regarded by most Americans as one of their finest naval victories.

The reality is that, although Jones and his squadron of four ships captured both HMS Serapis and The Countess of Scarborough following a long and bloody battle (between 300-400 men were killed or wounded) he failed in his objective to capture or destroy any of the merchant fleet of 41 ships – and his own ship, the Bonhomme Richard, sank somewhere off Filey Bay shortly after the battle had ended.

By putting themselves between the enemy squadron and the merchant fleet, the Royal Navy escorts had clearly done their duty and saved the day. Captains Pearson and Piercy were awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Scarborough, showered with gifts by grateful insurers and later knighted.

But if Jones and his squadron had been sailing past Whitby on the day the merchant fleet made landfall, there could have been a very different outcome. Would the efforts of Pearson and Piercy alone have been enough to prevent the capture or destruction of the merchant fleet without the added protection afforded by the guns of Scarborough Castle? We’ll never know.


Filey Bay 1779 is a community interest group which undertakes research regarding, and seeks to raise awareness of, the Battle of Flamborough Head. It is working with businesses and organisations to promote tourism along the 1779 Heritage Coast from Bridlington to Scarborough. The group is working on projects such as a 1779 Monument, mobile Heritage Centre, booklets and guides, an annual collectable poster, and an international extravaganza in 2029 for the 250th anniversary.  If you are interested in getting involved, please see fileybay1779.comor email fileybay1779@gmail.com

By James Hodgson courtesy of TopicUK


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