Nelson's Third Rate Ships of the Line
by Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the August 2006 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
In a modern dictionary the term ‘third-rate’ is defined as ‘not of high quality, mediocre or inferior’. In Nelson’s navy nothing could be further from the truth.
The term when applied to a ship of the line simply meant that it did not pack as much firepower as a first or second-rate ship. A third-rate was a ship of the line mounting 64 to 80 guns, typically built with two gun decks. The 74-gun ship eventually became the most popular size of warship as although cheaper to operate and more manoeuvrable than a first or second-rate ship, it still had enough firepower to destroy any single opponent. At Trafalgar in 1805 these ships were the backbone of the victorious British fleet as the following examples show.
A 74-gun, third-rate ship of the line, she was built by Randalls of Rotherhithe and launched on the Thames in 1798. When first commissioned she was a part of the blockade off the coast of France and was commanded by Captain William Brown. However, because Captain Brown had been called as a witness at a court martial, the ship sailed from Plymouth along with HMS Victory and HMS Thunderer on 18 September 1805 under the captaincy of First Lieutenant John Pilford.
At Trafalgar, HMS Ajax was seventh in line in Admiral Lord Nelson’s column and she fired on both the French ship Bucentaure (74 guns) and the Spanish ship Santissima Trinidad (136 guns) before assisting HMS Orion in forcing the surrender of the French 74-gun ship Intrepide, losing just 2 of her crew with a further 9 injured. During the storm that followed the battle, HMS Ajax rescued many seamen from ships in danger of sinking.
In 1807, she was serving in the Dardanelles as part of a squadron under Admiral Sir John Duckworth when fire broke out in the cockpit late one evening. As the fire burned out of control, passengers and crew were forced to take to the water. Although 380 people were rescued, 250 lost their lives that night including many of the crewmen who had been at Trafalgar.
William Sewell joined HMS Ajax on 1 March 1805 as a Landsman aged 20, stating his place of birth as Whitehaven, Cumberland. It is likely that he survived Trafalgar and was still with the ship in 1807 when it was destroyed.
A 74-gun, third-rate ship of the line, she was built in 1803 at Deptford and commissioned in 1804 by Captain James Morris, under whom she sailed to join the British blockade off the port of Brest. In 1805, before Trafalgar, HMS Colossus was one of the inshore squadron watching the combined French and Spanish fleets at Cadiz and passing intelligence from the frigates outside the port to Nelson’s fleet waiting further out to sea.
At Trafalgar, she formed part of Vice Admiral Collingwood’s column and followed HMS Tonnant and HMS Mars into action, exchanging broadsides with the French 74-gun ship Swiftsure. She then found herself sandwiched between the Spanish vessels Argonauto and Bahamas, both 74 guns, After silencing the Argonauto and dismasting the Bahamas, she fired on the Swiftsure once again, bringing down its mizzen mast. HMS Orion then shot down the Swiftsure’s main mast and both the Swiftsure and the Bahamas were taken as prizes.
During the battle, HMS Colossus suffered heavy casualties with 40 dead, including the ship’s Master, and 160 injured, Captain Morris and 14 other officers being among them. The total casualty figure was the highest in the British fleet with only the Victory, Temeraire and Royal Sovereign having more men killed. As well as the skill of her captain and the courage of her crew, her success may have been due to her ‘secret weapon’; the standard 18 pound guns on HMS Colossus had been replaced by 24 pounders. HMS Colossus was towed into Gibraltar by HMS Agamemnon and returned to England for repairs on 19 November 1805.
One of the quartergunners on HMS Colossus was Edward Saul. He was born in Boston, Lincolnshire in about 1775. Also on HMS Colossus was Robert Seywell who joined the ship on 29 April 1805, six months before Trafalgar. A private in the Royal Marines, his age is unknown but his place of birth is shown as St Patrick, Dublin.
It is not known whether either man survived the battle.
A 74-gun, third-rate ship of the line, she weighed 1707 tons and was one of a class of six modelled on the captured French ship, Courageux. She was built at Chatham dockyard and launched on 9 October 1790.
Henry William Bayntun was appointed Captain of HMS Leviathan in 1804 and the ship assisted in the blockade of Toulon. At the Battle of Trafalgar, captained by Bayntun, HMS Leviathan was fourth in line in Admiral Lord Nelson’s column and she fired on both the French ship Bucentaure (74 guns) and the Spanish ship Santissima Trinidad (136 guns) before forcing the surrender of the Spanish 74-gun ship San Augustin. HMS Leviathan lost 4 of her crew with a further 22 injured.
After the Napoleonic Wars, she was converted into a prison hulk in 1816 and laid up at Portsmouth, finally ending her days as a gunnery target and broken up in 1846.
George Sauls was 36 years old when he joined HMS Leviathan on 23 November 1803 as a Landsman but was immediately made up to Ordinary Seaman. His place of birth appears as Mavigizet, but he is almost certainly from Mevagissey, Cornwall where he was born in about 1767. He made a will in favour of his wife on 15 March 1804 and on 12 August 1804 he was promoted to Able Seaman.
If the men highlighted above survived their service with the Royal Navy and lived to a reasonable age we might one day find their death recorded in General Registration from 1837. It is likely that the men who fought at Trafalgar would be held in some esteem, at least by their local communities, in the same way as the veterans of Waterloo were. We might therefore hope to find some mention in a local newspaper, or perhaps a memorial inscription referring to ‘a hero of Trafalgar’. Of course, the best outcome of all would be if one of Admiral Lord Nelson’s men were to be on your family tree.
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