Coachlines - November 2018

22.11.18 Cmdr Mark Leaning RN

Word of a great victory at Trafalgar

Many of you will know that on 21st October 1805 a fleet of 28 Royal Navy ships engaged the combined fleet of the French and Spanish navies made up of 33 ships in what became known as the Battle of Trafalgar. In the space of an afternoon the Royal Navy wrought total destruction upon its opponents such that by the end of the day only eight ships of the combined fleet remained under the flag of France or Spain.

This great naval victory paved the way for the Allies to rid Europe and the wider world of Napoleonic tyranny, it led to a prolonged period of global naval dominance by the Royal Navy during which the British Empire flourished and it was responsible for the loss of Admiral Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s most successful and iconic yet perhaps personally flawed sailors in the history of the Royal Navy. Of course this was an age before the miracles of the mobile telephone, the internet and such controversial social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp or Twitter.

So how was news of this great victory transmitted back to the shores of Britain and into the hands of their Lordships in the Admiralty? Simple; it was written on a piece of parchment and handed to the Commanding Officer of a fast sailing vessel with orders to get it back to London as quickly as possible. And so it was that on 26th October Admiral Collingwood detached HMS PICKLE under the command of Captain John Richards Lapenotière with the dispatches telling of the great victory. This was a signal honour for any junior officer, since it almost guaranteed promotion and fame, and some of the other junior officers of the fleet later expressed anger that it was Lapenotière who was chosen.

HMS PICKLE was much too small to serve an active role in the Battle of Trafalgar, but her assistance was invaluable during the difficult and dangerous task, which arose during the ensuing storm. In the week that followed the battle Lapenotière’s ship was engaged in rescuing survivors from the water, taking men off sinking ships and even towing damaged hulks in an effort to rescue them from the waves.

Born in 1770 in Ilfracombe, Devon to a Huguenot exile family that came to Britain in 1688 with William of Orange, Lapenotière was acutely aware of the significance and honour that had been bestowed upon him. His transit was completed without further incident and he arrived in the English Channel on 1st November. However, realising that the wind was so strong it would prevent him from making landfall further up the Channel, he landed at Falmouth. He then took an exhausting series of mail coaches and horses overland to London, where he arrived on 6th November. The journey was about 271 miles and involved 21 changes of horses. It took 37 hours to complete and cost £46. Each stage was between 10 and 15 miles long completed at a speed of just over 7mph; the horses were changed at each stop.

Once in London he gave his despatches to William Marsden, Secretary of the Navy, with the simple words, “Sir, we have gained a great victory. But we have lost Lord Nelson.” As his peers expected, Lapenotière was greatly rewarded for his feat. He received promotion to Commander, a sword from the Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund, and £500 in cash. King George III gave him a silver spice sprinkler, which is now owned by the mayor’s office in Liskeard.

Lapenotière was subsequently given the command of the 16-gun HMS ORESTES and participated in the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, where he was badly wounded by an exploding gun. Once recovered from his injuries, his next four years of sea service were spent sailing the ORESTES out of Plymouth during which he took two privateers (one French, one American), and a rich American merchant ship.

In 1811, he received promotion to Post Captain but was unable to secure a Ship of the Line and spent the remainder of the war on shore duties; he never captained a ship again. Settling with his family in Menheniot near Liskeard in Cornwall, he died peacefully in 1834 and was buried next to his second wife in the churchyard at Menheniot.