- Baker, K.G.
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Captain Blackwood, judging it would seem from the shouts which he heard with his own ears from the ships nearest the VICTORY tells us the Admiral’s message was greeted everywhere with enthusiasm. “It was received,” says Southey, adopting Blackwood’s account, “throughout the fleet with a shout of answering acclamation, made sublime by the spirit which it breathed and the feeling which it expressed.” But Blackwood’s position, in the flagship away at the head of the weather line, was by no means the best for general observation.
As a fact, partly owing to the lightness of the wind, which caused the flags to droop and prevented them blowing clear for their colours to be made out, partly owing to the crowd of canvas on the VICTORY, and on the other ships following her in the line ahead blocking out the view, as well as to the long distance over which the lines extended (six miles from van to rear), many of the ships following Nelson and Collingwood did not “take in” the signal from the VICTORY at all. They only received the message, after an interval, through the “repeating frigates”, whose duty it was to pass the Commander-in Chief’s signals along the line in both columns of attack. Even then some paid little heed to it and did not even enter it in their signal logs. With regard to this fact it should be borne in mind that a very few minutes after the Admiral’s message was signalled from the flagship, just as the repeating frigates were passing it along, the enemy began to open fire on our van, and this of itself would naturally draw off the general attention from everything else.
Lieutenant Pasco, who from the poop of the VICTORY had at least as good an opportunity as Blackwood of seeing how the Admiral’s message was received, simply states, as we have seen, that “it was answered by a few ships in the van.”
Another way in which Captain Blackwood’s mistake as to the cheering may have originated in the diary of midshipman Lovell, of the NEPTUNE, which was the third or fourth ship in Nelson’s line. “As our fleet gradually drew nearer to the enemy, there was, “he says, “a good deal of cheering going on all down both lines, the crews of the different ships cheering the ships ahead.” Captain Blackwood may have mistaken this cheering, as the sound came wafted to the VICTORY on the breeze soon after the hoisting of the signal as connected with the reception of the Admiral’s message.
The VICTORY’s men, when in due course the purport of Lord Nelson’s message was conveyed to them, gave it, as Dr. Beatty relates, three enthusiastic cheers.
In ROYAL SOVEREIGN, Collingwood, who on first seeing the flags going up in VICTORY had impatiently exclaimed, “I wish Lord Nelson would not make any more signals, we all know what we have to do,” when the wording of the signal was reported, received it with an expression of lively satisfaction and straightaway despatched an officer round the decks to announce the message to the ship’s company. The gallant “Tars of the Tyne” (as Collingwood called the men of ROYAL SOVEREIGN in his address to them before the battle), greeted it with a burst of cheering that was a sufficiently enthusiastic response. It was the same in BELLEROPHON, of Collingwood’s line, where the signal was received and acknowledged by signal midshipman (afterwards the world renowned Arctic explorer) Sir John Franklin. Captain Cooke of BELLEROPHON, the instant the Admiral’s message was reported himself went below, and as he passed along between the decks among his men as they stood at quarters, repeated it aloud everywhere, receiving in reply cheer on cheer from the gallant Billy Ruff’ns. And more than that. The men on the lower deck, in the heroic enthusiasm of the moment with one accord further responded by chalking “Billy Ruff’n – Death or Glory!” on their guns.
For years after Trafalgar men who either helped to carry Nelson to the cockpit or had hoisted Nelson’s signal with their own hands abounded all over England. Every “mumping sham salt” who accosted people along the highway with a whine for alms, had done one or the other, – not a few, as they did not hesitate to maintain, both! The yarn paid so well, indeed, that it is said, some of the Greenwich pensioners were not above doing a very profitable little business on similar lines, particularly with country visitors to the Hospital, who were always asking to be shown “the man who hoisted Nelson’s signal”. Of course the pensioners were always willing to oblige. Some “Greenwich canary” as pensioners in disgrace for getting drunk, who wore the punishment dress of a long yellow coat with red sleeves in place of the ordinary dark blue uniform coat were nicknamed – was, we are told, palmed off as a regular thing on the gaping visitors as the very man. It was added, to improve the occasion and draw more coppers, that the peculiar garb of the “Canaries” was worn as “an Admiralty privilege by men who had fought aboard VICTORY at Trafalgar!” Yet all the time the genuine VICTORY’s signalman was alive and not at Greenwich at all. His whereabouts were quite unknown for over forty years after the battle, until 1847 in fact, when poor old John Roome, the man who with his own hand had made the hoists on the 21 October, 1805, was accidentally discovered wandering in a state of penury in Blackfriars. He was then old and infirm and had been for years past been dragging out a precarious existence by hawking watercress in the streets.
The unfortunate fellow, who in Nelson’s time had prided himself on being one of the smartest lads in the VICTORY, had afterwards, it came out, deserted, thus losing his prospects of a Greenwich pension and a berth for life in the Hospital. Happily, though, the case was not hopeless. When and through the exertions, curiously enough, of the officer who had been Roome’s immediate chief at Trafalgar (Lieutenant Pasco, who, by another coincidence, happened in 1847 to be Captain of the VICTORY at Portsmouth), the old man’s position was submitted to the Admiralty, with the result that Roome was finally admitted as an inpatient to Greenwich Hospital, where he died in the year 1860. Lieutenant Pasco, the Signal Officer of VICTORY (he was severely wounded at Trafalgar), died a Rear-Admiral in 1853.
(The Navy and Army ILLUSTRATED, October 16, 1896.) from K.G. Baker