Unsung North-East men of Trafalgar

Tony Henderson on Trafalgar's unsung local heroes.

Tony Henderson on Trafalgar's unsung local heroes.

At the astonishing age of eight, William Pryce Cumby enlisted in the Royal Navy.

The youngster from the village of Heighington in County Durham would go on to command frigates in the Napoleonic wars and fight at Trafalgar in the warship Bellerophon - or Billy Ruffian as the vessel was nicknamed by sailors.

He retired from active service in 1815 and built Trafalgar House in the village.

He is one of the 500 men from the North-East who took part in the battle.

It is inevitable that the spotlight in what is the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar should rest on leaders such as Nelson and Collingwood.

But the "ordinary" men who made up the armies and navies and who bore the brunt of battles fade, unknown, into the past - their stories untold.

An exception from the period is Wearsider Jack Crawford, who won fame by nailing the shot-away colours back on to the mast of the ship Venerable in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. He became a national hero and has a statue in Sunderland.

In his new book, Newcastle College history lecturer Tony Barrow seeks to bring back from the mists of time the identities, and some of the experiences, of North-East sailors in the 22 years from 1793 and especially at Trafalgar.

He lists the names, ages, North-East birthplaces and crew function of the local sailors in Trafalgar ships such as Colossus, Bellerophon, Leviathan, Prince, Revenge, Royal Sovereign and Victory.

Plucked from the obscurity of history are, for example, 34-year-old Richard Nicholson, from Blyth, on Bellerophon; Benjamin Hopper, 30, from Etal in Northumberland, on Colossus; 17-year-old James Blake, of Newcastle, on Leviathan; quarter gunner John Dobson, 29, from Longhorsley in Northumberland, on Prince; quarter gunner James Graydon, 21, of East Rainton, on Royal Sovereign and 53-year-old George Ireland, of North Shields, on Victory.

The North-East coast, with its ports, fishing and coal shipping industries, was a prime training region for seamen.

The Admiralty press gangs took advantage and as well as scouring the ports also stopped collier brigs on the Tyne-London run and snatched men for the navy.

Tony Barrow picks up tantalising threads of the lives of North-East Trafalgar men, such as midshipmen Grenville Thompson, son of a Newcastle merchant who joined up at 15, and George Castle, son of a Durham solicitor who enlisted at 14.

Both fought in Royal Sovereign - the first ship to engage the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar and which fought alone for at least 20 minutes against huge odds.

Thompson was badly wounded, but recovered. He died of fever in the West Indies in 1818. George Castle was just 16 at Trafalgar. Stationed at one of the heavy 32-pounder guns, he wrote an eye-witness account,

Leviathan took on the French flagship and the biggest warship in the world, the four-decker 130-gun Spanish Santissima Trinadadia.

The master and commander of Leviathan was John William Trotter from Gateshead, whose gravestone is at St Mary's Church in the town.

James Thompson, from Northumberland, and Thomas Main, of Stockton, were wounded on Leviathan and had their left arms amputated by the ship's surgeon during the battle.

Main sang the whole of Rule Britannia while his arm was cut off above the elbow.

Robert Jackson, 21, of South Shields, served on Colossus, which had the most North-Easterners in its crew and also suffered the highest casualties of any ship in Nelson's fleet.

Fascinating stuff.

Trafalgar Geordies and North Country Seamen of Nelson's Navy 1793-1815 by Tony Barrow (North-East England Press, £11.95).

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