Exhibit of the Week: Eye witness account of Battle of Trafalgar

Part of the letter sent by Mark Fitzwilliam to his uncle.
Part of the letter sent by Mark Fitzwilliam to his uncle.

The Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most seminal and glorious moments in British military history, and considered a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, effectively ending French plans to invade England.

Twenty-seven British ships of the line under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson defeated 33 French and Spanish ships; they lost 22 vessels, while the British didn’t lose a single one.

But what must it have been like to be there? The Scarborough Collections can help to answer that question: a prized item is a letter sent by 30-year-old Scarborough quarter gunner Mark Fitzwilliam to his uncle, Andrew Carclough, and ‘hant’ back home – they lived on Merchant’s Row.

The letter is dated 21 October 1805 – the very day of the battle (although it’s believed that perhaps only the first page was written on that day, with the rest added a few days later). It was penned aboard the HMS Revenge, a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line which took part.

It’s impossible to improve on Fitzwilliam’s first-hand account of the day, so here’s an extract – complete, of course, with idiosyncratic early 19th-century spelling and grammar:

“Here I shall give you a Brief account of the action of Cadiz to the best of my knowledge. Which happened on the 21st off October. We discovered the combined fleet at 5am in the morning which consisted of 33 sail of the line 3 frigates 2 Briggs 18 Sail of the line French and the rest Spanyards which they came out on purpose for to take us, drawing a great many soldiers on board every ship, which they thought nothing could withstand them as they themselves have told us since their Admorals and Captains told them that they had nothing to do only to bring the English fleet into Cadiz and ever man was to have a gold medall.

“But they soon found their mistake; our fleet consisted of 26 sail of the line 2 frigates and one Sknoonor there being but very little wind and they lay to the seaward of us like a wood in a line. Bold Nelson made a signal for to make sail which the signal was answered by every ship for to let them. See what Britons could do when their King and Country stands in need; The action commenced at half past 11 o’clock the signal was made Glory to Old England. Bold Nelson was killed after he seed the battle won he died in the arms of Victory crowned with Glory he said now I die for peace since the victory his our own their was 19 ships of the line struck to British Colours one burnt one sunk and one took the next day by the Denegale which in all made 22} 11 French and 11 Spanyards; the action began at ½ past 11 and lasted untill ½ past five.”

Later in the letter he describes the sorry state of the Revenge after the battle: “We have got one and twenty shot between wind and water and very much shattered about the Hull such another day I would never wish to encounter.”

Fitzwilliam eventually returned to Scarborough where he died in 1847 and is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. He seems to have been remarkably accurate with his information – Scarborough’s Museums Trust’s Documentation Assistant Jim Middleton has cross-referenced his account with other historical documents, and comments on Fitzwilliam’s facts and figures:

‘The combined fleet consisted of 33 sail of the line, 3 frigates, 2 briggs’: the combined fleet had 5 frigates, but other than this the numbers are correct.

‘The British fleet had 26 sail of the line, 2 frigates and a schooner’: the British fleet had 27 sail of the line, 4 frigates, a schooner and a cutter.

‘30 men were killed and 50 wounded’: on the HMS Revenge 28 were killed and 51 wounded.

‘Four ships survived and were taken to Gibraltar’: records show that indeed only four of the British prizes, the French Swiftsure and the Spanish Bahama, San Ildefonso and San Juan Nepomuceno survived to be taken to Britain.

It seems remarkable that in such a pre-technology age and presumably amid some chaos, the information was disseminated to the crew so quickly and accurately.

The Fitzwilliam letter is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.