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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

The Crew of HMS Victory at Trafalgar

Sixty miles south of London, and a little more than 1.5 hours by train, is the city of Portsmouth. With a history going back to Roman times and a significant naval port for centuries, Portsmouth is considered the home of the Royal Navy. Portsmouth has around 2/3 of Britain’s surface fleet stationed there, including the 2 new supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and HMS Prince of Wales. Her Majesty’s Naval Base is also home to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, located in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard section of the naval base. Housed in 18thC buildings that were originally storehouses, sail lofts and other buildings concerned with the maintenance and supply of the Royal Navy, the Museum has various exhibits telling the history of the Navy, including the Battle of Trafalgar.

Modern Portsmouth

Portsmouth's Historic Naval Dockyard

The stars of the Museum though are the 3 great ships: the Mary Rose (one of Henry VIII’s ships, sunk in 1545 and salvaged in 1982); HMS Warrior (a 40-gun steam-powered armoured frigate built for the Royal Navy in 1859–1861); and HMS Victory (104-gun, first-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, ordered in 1758, laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765, best known for her role as Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805). As fascinating as the other ships are, the Victory has always been my favourite. Since boyhood I have read authors like C S Forester, Alexander Kent, Patrick O’Brien, and Dudley Pope, who all wrote about the Navy in the days of sail, the great Georgian navy. And the Victory is the last great example of those wooden ships. To walk the original lower gundeck on the Victory, is to walk through history. And ever since I visited the ship as a teenager, an aspect of Victory’s history that has always fascinated me is the large variety of nationalities that served on Victory at the time of Trafalgar. It is likely that this was common practice on Royal Navy ships throughout this period. For many years there was an information board located close to the public entrance of the Victory, taken from the Muster Roll of HMS Victory, detailing the names and nationalities of most of the crew. Sadly, this disappeared some time ago, which is a shame as this is one aspect of history not well known.

HMS Victory

HMS Victory's lower gun deck. Originally this housed 32-pound cannon. These are mostly replicas

At the time of Trafalgar, Victory had a crew of 821 men. It would have been possible to sail and manoeuvre the ship with far fewer, but large numbers were needed to man her guns and fight in battle. The old belief that Victory’s sailors were forced to serve by the Press Gang or were convicted criminals who chose to serve in the Navy rather than sit in gaol, is too simplistic. Among the crew at Trafalgar were 289 volunteers, as against 217 who had been pressed into service and no one at all who had been recruited from prison.

HMS Victory's main stern cabin

Seamen learned their trade early and Victory’s crew were overwhelmingly young. Approximately 40% were under the age of 24 and the youngest boy on board was 12 (though for good measure the Purser, who was the oldest crew member, was 67). This was also a multi-national crew of seafarers, with one in ten coming from outside the British Isles. While the vast majority were from the British Isles, other nationalities represented were, Maltese, Dutch, German, West Indian, Brazilian, Norwegian, Indian, Danish, Jamaican, Italian, Swiss, Canadian, African, Swedish, Portuguese, French and American. While the other nationalities came from countries that were either neutral or cobelligerents, the last two may come as a surprise. It is likely that the French were volunteers, given the chance to escape a prison hulk, even if it meant fighting against their own country. The Americans (23 in number) were mostly 29 years old or under, and so were born in the newly independent United States, but three were older, the oldest being 47. The men are listed as being born in a range of east coast cities, including New York and Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charlestown. It is difficult to be sure how they came to be on board a British warship. In one case, Samuel Lovett, he is listed as pressed (forcibly impressed into service) but all the others are listed as joining from other British vessels. However, it is possible that they were pressed from US vessels, perhaps in the West Indian trade, onto other British ships and from then on listed as transfers rather than pressed. It was common practice in times of war, when crews were desperately needed, to transfer men immediately from one ship to another on reaching harbour to ensure that they did not desert. One of these Americans, though, Richard Bulkeley, is listed as a Midshipman, one of the ship’s officers, albeit a very junior one. One can only speculate, but perhaps he came from an old, Loyalist family?

One of the plaque's on Nelson's Column showing a Black British sailor

There are nine West Indians listed on board the Victory at the battle. They include Jonathan Hardy, 25, an ordinary seaman, John Thomas, 23, a Jamaican landsman, and John Francois, 32, an ordinary seaman. An African is illustrated on one of the plaques commemorating the battle on the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. We know from other examples, though, that if they were British-born or recruited in Britain, they would not be identified as anything other than British. One example of the difficulty of establishing the ethnicity of the crew, is that of James Brown of Liverpool (which has had a black community since the mid-eighteenth century), a Black British seaman who is said to have taken part in the battle. In some sources he is named as a chief boatswain on the Victory, although the only James Brown on the Muster Roll is listed as an ordinary seaman.

While the Museum is still closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, it is hoped that the museum will reopen sometime this year. Portsmouth is easy to reach by public transport and makes for a great day out, especially if you are staying in London and want a change of pace.

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