The Battle of Trafalgar which took place on 21st October 1805 was only one of the battle which took place during the Napoleonic war, however it is the most famous and most written about, not in the least because it was of course the battle in which Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was killed on his flagship HMS Victory, now one of the main attractions at the Historic Dockyards in Portsmouth, where there is also a dedicated permanent exhibition to him: a good place to start to research his life and career, including a time line of Nelson the man and Nelson the “Hero”. There is also the Nelson Museum in Monmouth.
There are “over a 1000 books” detailing the life of Nelson, “more than 20 films and television programmes” and countless online resources, including various letters written by him regarding his fleets’ movements, his concerns and thoughts and the day to day management of his fleet from 1804 to 1805 and a collection of 251 letters (representing a sample) he wrote to his wife over a fifteen all held by the Navy Records Society. These can provide an overall picture of the life of an officer or seaman sailing in Nelson’s fleet at the period, including the Battle of Trafalgar and the personal life of Nelson himself. There are similar letters written by Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood between 1794 and 1809.
But what about the countless other officers who served in the Battle of Trafalgar: both commissioned officers and warrant officers.
A list of some 1640 officers and men who served at the Battle of Trafalgar comprising of 7 files compiled alphabetically by surname. There is also a list of those officers killed and wounded. This is also therefore a good place to start to check if your ancestor took part in the battle. The list provides the name, rank, ship and “other clasps” (other medals) which they were entitled to, for example:
“GRAHAM Thos LM Victory
GRANTHAM Abrahm Sailmaker Swiftsure
GRAY Francis Mid Orian entitled to Venerable 16 Jan ?
GRAY Henry Ord Colossus “
Steel’s Navy List
Produced monthly from 1782 to 1816 and provided various lists, such as:
- A full alphabetical list of the Royal Naval vessels, their commanders/captains and their stations;
- A list of British was ships lost, taken or destroyed;
- A list of enemy ships lost, taken or destroyed;
- A list of Admirals, Commodores, Captains/Post-Captains, Masters and Commanders who lost their lives.
Whilst this list provides little detail it may help answer questions such as what happened to an ancestors’ ship where little or no other information can be found, or if records for an ancestor appear to end abruptly with no explanation.
List of Royal Navy Post Captains 1714-1830, version 4
Published by the Navy Records Society this is a list of 2830 men arranged by date of posting to the rank of post captain. It provides the following details:
- Date of posting to rank of post captain;
- In some cases date or year of birth;
- The dates they were then later promoted through the ranks of Lieutenant, Commander, Rear-Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Admiral;
- Month and year of death
- Details of their fate e.g. retired, lost, died, superannuated.
This list can therefore again provide brief details of the career of those reaching the rank of post-captain and provide a starting point for further research. Paul Martinovich states:
“Dates of birth and death can reveal interesting information about the circumstances of an individual, and of post captains in general. Generally speaking, anyone who was posted before the age of 25 was either particularly lucky or well-connected, and often both. The youngest post captains were usually the beneficiaries of flagrant acts of nepotism by their admiral relatives”
Details of being decorated for their service may be found:
|Name||Posted||Born||Lieut||Cdr||RAdm||VAdm||Adm||Died||Fate and comments|
|William Hargood||22/11/90||5/1762||1/80||6/89||7/10||6/14||7/30||12/1839||KCB 1/15, GCB 9/31, GCH 31|
There are other navy lists but I will not mention them further as they do not cover the period of the Battle of Trafalgar and generally cover much later periods.
Trafalgar Ancestors database
Published biographical sources have been used alongside muster rolls, service certificates, Greenwich hospital in-pensioner records, passing certificates and survey returns to create this database. It contains more than 18,000 individuals “all those who fought in Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This includes Royal Navy commissioned and warrant officers, ratings, supernumeraries and Royal Marines……..[which] over time aims to provide genealogical and service details about these individuals”, so again could be a good starting point for research providing basic information as can be seen in the example below:
Ship: HMS Orion
Comments: From: Portsmouth
12 June 1805 to 3 August 1805
Ship’s pay book number: (SB 447)
4 August 1805 to 17 October 1805
18 October 1805
Catalogue reference: ADM 37/18
The database can be searched by surname only or by an advanced search including:
- Last name
- First name
- Approximate age on 21 October 1805
- Birth place
- Ships name
- Rating / rank
Patrick Marione’s The Complete Navy List of the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815
This is available on CD and is described as “The Complete Navy List contains the names of more than 11,000 commissioned officers who served in the Royal Navy from 1787 onwards, up to those who entered the service before 1817. The information, which has been collected comprises individual’s careers, their personal lives, their parents and families, the honours and pensions they earned, and much more, and extends into what they did after the Great War”.
The Ayshford Trafalgar Roll by Pam and Derek Ayshford
This Roll contains the names and details of over 21,000 men who were on the musters of the British ships on 21st October 1805 (although still on the musters, some men had been discharged before the Battle), including:
- The ship on which he served
- Rank or rating
- In most cases his age and place of birth.
- Other details such as families, former trades, pensions, awards, medals, physical descriptions, pictures, injuries sustained, illnesses and date of death where records/documents survived.
CD includes a program which allows you to search and analyse the data in many different ways.
Nelsons’ Band of Brothers: Lives and Memorials by Peter Hore
In terms of biographical information, this book is a good starting point for those officer in command of the ships. It contains a short biography on each of those commanding officers, not only who took part in the Battle of Trafalgar, but also took part the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Copenhagen and the Baltic. It is important to note that Captain Thomas Hardy and Captain Thomas Fremantle are biographed in the sections “The Battle of the Nile” and “The Battle of Copenhagen and the Baltics” respectively, the remaining officers are biographed in the section “The Campaign of Trafalgar” suggesting that Hardy and Fremantle appear to be the only two officers who fought alongside Nelson for a number of years prior to and during his command in the Napoleonic Wars.
These biographies provide information as to where they were born/spent their childhood years, although they concentrate on providing a brief factual account of their routes into the Royal Navy, the ships they sailed on, under whose command they sailed, the ranks they held on each ship and thus their progression through the ranks. They provide details of their role in the Battle of Trafalgar and in some cases their relationship with Nelson himself. They also provide brief details of their careers after the Battle of Trafalgar, when they died and where they are buried. This is the “bare bones” of their career from which a timeline can be drawn for easy reference.
The Naval Biographical dictionary by W O’Bryne, 1849
This, as its title suggests, is an A–Z (by surname) dictionary of nearly five thousand naval officers, “whose names are contained in the ‘Navy List’ for January, 1845”. Its usefulness in terms of those who served at the Battle of Trafalgar is therefore limited to those still living and listed on that Navy List for January 1845 but if it is known an ancestor was still living at that time then it is certainly worth referring to.
Being an A – Z dictionary it is easy to search for an ancestor by their surname. Each man listed has a biography of their career (some longer than others!).
Going back to our Midshipman, Francis Gray, O’Bryne’s book provides brief details of his three brothers who he lost in the Navy and tells us he was married with two sons and three daughters. It details his career in the Navy from entering in 1803 as a First Class Boy on board the Pegase under Lieutenant Commander Edward Crouch. He became Midshipman in 1805 serving on the Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar. It goes on to detail his continued service on the Orion until December 1813 and thereafter his service on board the ships Fortune and Venerable. It describes how “He had previously distinguished himself in the month of Oct. 1809, in jumping overboard when the ORION was refitting in Portsmouth Harbour, and rescuing the life of a boy named Edw. Simmons, who had fallen overboard, and could not swim” and how “On 7 of the following June, having passed his examination nearly five years, he was appointed Acting Lieutenant of the PIQUE…. to which frigate the Admiralty confirmed him on 26 of the next Aug”. It describes his further service assisting “Capt. John Marshall in the conduct of the Quarantine Establishment at Standgate Creek” and how he later “had the direction of the Police department of Chatham Dockyard” after which he “went, on half-pay for the purpose of joining the merchant-service, and has not been since officially employed”.
Royal Navy Biography by John Marshall 1760-1823
This comprises 12 volumes providing biographies of all Flag Officers, Superannuated Rear-Admirals, Retired Post Captains, Post Captains 1798 – 1806, Naval Operations of the Burmese War of 1824-26, Post Captains 1822 –1831, Commanders, Post Captains 1806 – 1811, and Post Captains 1812 – 1822, as extracted from the Admiralty list of sea officers. These records are somewhat difficult to navigate.
Anthony Gary Brown in providing a much easier reference index to Marshall’s work, states “the rather eccentric organisation of Marshall’s work that usually necessitates the researcher knowing something of the service seniority of a given officer in order to hazard which volume will contain his entry; and, even armed with this knowledge, a tedious amount of double-checking of Marshall’s own indices in the various volumes is usually necessary”. The biographies are similar in content to O’Bryne’s Dictionary although perhaps more detailed at the works do concentrate of the higher ranking commissioned offices on which they is perhaps more available official information than the lower ranking officers which can be found in O’Bryne’s Dictionary.
This is another A-Z list by surname of Commissioned officers who served in the Navy from 1660 to 1815, thus including the period of the Napoleonic wars and the Battle of Trafalgar. It is based on the original work commenced by David Bonner Smith who was the Admiralty Librarian from March 1932 to May 1950. He died in December 1950 before completing the work which was then completed by the Royal Navy College, Greenwich, in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum. A number of versions of this original list have then been published over the years including a version by C G Pitcairn Jones published by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in 1979.
The list is compiled from numerous sources including the Navy Lists and provides each officers rank(s), the year(s) in which he served in that/those rank(s), the date of retirement and the date of death.
The list is also available to search at www.ancestry.co.uk. The list is limited to Commissioned officer and therefore any Warrant Officers and lower ranking officers such as Midshipmen will not be included.
The Trafalgar Roll: The Ships and the Officers by Robert Holden Mackenzie (2004).
Originally published in 1913 and re-printed for the bicentenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 this book is arranged by ship and lists over 1,250 officers who served at the Battle of Trafalgar, including midshipmen, surgeons, clerks, boatswains and carpenters as well as commissioned officers, for 850 of which there are details of their careers. It also includes brief service history of every ship including the little schooner Pickle.
One of the aims of the TNA’s Trafalgar Ancestors project “is to eventually revise, extend and bring up to date Mackenzie’s Trafalgar Roll”.
Who’s Who in Nelson’s Navy by Dr Nicholas Tracy (2008)
This purports to be the very latest book containing biographies for two hundred Officers who served alongside Nelson in the Napoleonic wars. It is not limited to those who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. The A-Z chapters make for easy reference to find an Officer.
“Each biography, of around one thousand words, describes the events in these men’s careers and sets their achievements within the context of the wars. Their early lives and promotions are detailed as well as their marriages and family lives. Indeed, the extraordinary web of personal and service relationships that emerges is one of the fascinating themes of the book”.
The Mammoth Book of How It Happened Trafalgar by Jon E. Lewis (2005)
This book contains around 70 first-hand accounts not just of the Battle of Trafalgar but of the period 1793 to the Battle of Trafalgar and the aftermath set out in four parts. The accounts are by officers of varying ranks and include some of those from the French and Spanish fleets as well as the British fleet.
It is of limited use to family historians given the small number of officers whose account contribute to this book but may provide a first-hand account by an ancestor. There are of course many by Nelson himself others are by Captains, Colonels, Midshipmen, Second-Lieutenants, along with extracts for ships logs.
Midshipman William Dillan, HMS Defence, writes on the 29th May 1974 when engaged with the French, writes:
“I had never seen a man killed before. It was a most trying scene…[gory account of how the man was injured]…The captain went over, and, taking the poor fellow by the hand, pronounced him dead”
As darkness fell and the fighting ceased until dawn he goes on,
“I selected one of the topsail halyard tubs on the forecastle, and coiled myself as well as I could inside of it, where I took a snooze which I enjoyed. And felt more refreshed when I woke by the tars than I should have done had I gone to bed: at least I thought so.”
And he goes on at the end of the battle,
“The number of men thrown overboard that were killed without ceremony, and the sad wrecks around us taught those who, like myself, had not before witnessed similar scenes that war was the greatest scourge of mankind”.
The battle itself is described in great detail and perhaps not to be read by the faint hearted but this and many of the other accounts set out in this book really put you in the sailors’ shoes and bring their experiences to life!
There are also a number of Appendix, one of which is entitled “Life and death in the Royal Navy, 1973 – 1811”, which includes accounts of life on board ship in the navy during this period, written by Ordinary Seaman, but which provide a good picture of general life on board.
Naval Chronicles and Naval Chronicle, 1799-1818: Index to Births, Marriages and Deaths by Norman Hurst 1989
A monthly publication from 1799 to 1819 which provided news of campaigns, promotions and some announcements of naval births, marriages and deaths with a list of those named in those publications in a chronological and alphabetical order under the sections Births, Marriages and Obituaries having being collated by Norman Hurst.
Publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Illustrated London News sometimes included stories and news of officers, as sometimes did local and national newspapers and journals. At an officer’s death it is almost certain that at least the local newspaper would have included an obituary, giving a summary of their career.
The above in no way provides a complete list of sources available, however they are perhaps the most useful in determining whether an ancestor took part in the Battle of Trafalgar, their ship, their rank, details of their career both before and after the Battle. There are also numerous books which provide a more general insight into the Battle of Trafalgar and serving in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th century which may also help provide an overall picture of the life a navy officer ancestor may have had such as The Trafalgar Companion by Alexander Stilwell and Trafalgar, The Men, The Battle, The Storm by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig.