Able Seaman Thomas Fletcher; thence by family descent to the present owner
an important source that provides a rare glimpse of life at sea from the perspective of a second gunner during the campaign culminating at trafalgar. Very different from the polished correspondence of educated officers, this records, in terse, clumsy prose, the naval life of Thomas Fletcher (age 26) who had been pressed into service in 1803. He served on H.M.S. Defence, a third-class ship of the line with 74 guns that had been present at many of Nelson's earlier victories.
Fletcher begins his journal on 31 October 1804, shortly before the Defence sailed for Cadiz under Admiral John Orde. War with Spain was declared soon afterwards, and over the following months Fletcher records the daily business of the Cadiz blockade, including ships detained by the Squadron en route to Cadiz (“… [13 January] 9 am tooke A Spanish Ship from Hiavenear [i.e. Havana] Bound to Cadiz the Brig Begel in Company loded with Coch and Eile [i.e. Cochineal] and two boxes of Money on bord of her…”). On 23 February 1805 Fletcher recorded that: “the Admiral Maide A Signal for to Form the Line Of Battle … in Case of Action for the Newes is that the French fleet has got Out of Toloune and we think that they will make for Cadiz”. His record of rumours and false alarms over the next weeks reveal the high state of anxiety in the squadron, and on 9 April Fletcher provides us with a vivid account of the enemy's escape from the Mediterranean:
“at three the rewen [HMS Revenge] and Sorpe [HMS Sophie] Came runing out of the Gute and aleven Sail of the Line and Nine Sail of French Frigates and Six Sale of Spanish Ships of the Line In Chace of Theme … at fower The Admiral made the Signal To the Squadren to Cast the Ships of and at this time The French Ships Coming Down Very fast and the Admiral Made the Signal To have Every thing Over Bord Such as Casks and Things and to Cleare away For Action as fast as possable And at five [...] Made the Signal to make Sale as nite Coming On and there flete beine So Strong to our Sqardren only Six Sale of the Line.”
After this narrow escape, Orde ordered his squadron’s retreat to join the Channel fleet. The summer was relatively uneventful until, on 17 August, the Defence’s Captain George Hope received the signal to head south in their renewed hunt for the enemy. Entries over the next two weeks, as the Defence cruised south with Admiral Calder, give a strong impression of the high state of tension on the fleet. Fletcher records that they met with an English convoy on 20 August who had seen the enemy fleet in Vigo bay; two days later: “the Admiral Maid the Signal to the fleet To Clear away for acton … At half past 11 San waigo Bay but the french fleet was Gone…”.
In fact the Combined Fleet was by this time in Cadiz, which the Defence reached a few days later. On 6 September news was that “the french Was Making all Ready to Come Out”, but after this false alarm the Defence, cruising the same seas they had left in April, settled down to wait (recording on 29 September that “Lord admiral Nelson Joined Us with three Sail of The Line”). The Defence had a crucial place in the cordon around Cadiz, lying between the shore and the main fleet. She was therefore the first ship of the line to see the signal at 8 am on 19 October: “the frigate In Shore firid Signall gune To Us that the franch & Spanish Fleet Was out”.
The pivotal naval battle of the century was now imminent. Defence was placed towards the rear of Collingwood’s division, which attacked the rear of Villeneuve’s line. Fletcher provides a terse description of the Battle of Trafalgar:
“Moderate Breezes & clear Wheather at half past 5 in the morning The french & Spanish fleet We Saw to Leeward of Us We Maid A Signal Immeditly to Admiral Nelson that The Enemy was close by he answered it Immedily & maid all the Sail they Could towards them Admiral Nelson Maid A General Signal Saying Boold Britions fooley [i.e. follow] Me the Acton Begon Five Minutes past 12 it lasted untell 20 minutes to 5 in the Even[in]g we took 18 Sail Of the Line and one Blowing in the east Maid 19 in number we took Command Of the Shipes that Struck to us at 5 PM”
The Defence had done its duty, fighting bravely and taking a 74 gun Spanish ship, San Ildefonso. Fletcher gives a detailed account of the difficult aftermath of the battle: renewed alerts of possible enemy action, the gales that buffeted the fleet, the problems dealing with prisoners and the wounded. On 1 November “The Captain thought proper To Read a letter that he Rec[eive]d From Collingwood Concerning Admiral Nelson Death, the Captain & Officers & Seamen & Merigs [i.e. marines] for there good beheavor During the Acton”.
Fletcher’s journal tails off on 28 November, but he returned to it in later years to add two further entries, the final one being: “Tuesday Jenary 18: 1807 This Day the Defence Ships Company Received there Midles [i.e. medals] on this Day for the Acton of the 21 Day of October 1805.”
also including miscellaneous other material relating to Trafalgar, including an apparently unpublished contemporary poem by a participant in the battle, “The Battle of Trafalgar” (“Come all you bould Britons attend with a Cheer…”), by Able Seaman Joseph Dixon (from Whitehaven, Cumberland, aged 22, also serving on HMS Defence). The poem describes the sequence of events from the emergence of the combined fleet on 19 October, giving an account of all the British ships, the action, and the victory:
“...Gallant Nelson So brave for his Achievements Renown’d,
fell a Victour that day but with Glory was crowned
Now their Ships so enclosed By our bould British fleet
who always went Like lions their enemye to meat
they could Not withstand us for quarters they did roar
Saying Britons we have struck for to fight you no more…”
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale