The Prelude

News of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death was first made public in an ‘Extraordinary’ edition of the London Gazette, of November 6th 1805. The Times of the following day gave some fuller accounts of events, albeit mainly as short paragraphs relating to the battle and its aftermath as released by the Admiralty from Collingwood’s dispatches. But, amongst these key items of news there appeared the following brief report – almost as an aside.

‘Captain SYKES of the Nautilus, and Lieutenant LAPENOTIERE, of the Pickle, arrived at the Admiralty together about half-past one o’clock yesterday morning. The former did not, as was generally understood, arrive from the scene of the action; he fell in with the Pickle schooner, and on learning the intelligence proceeded immediately to Lisbon with the information, from whence he was sent with dispatches, by Mr. GAMBRIER, the British Consul, to England, and landed at Plymouth. Lieutenant LAPENOTIERE made the Port of Falmouth, and, by a singular coincidence, met Captain SYKES at the gates of the Admiralty.

This active Officer was yesterday promoted to the rank of Commander.’

In some respects this laconic account says it all, but on reflection the singular coincidence of Sykes and Lapenotiere’s almost neck and neck dash for home requires some further amplification. As remarked in the above report, Sykes ‘… did not, as was generally understood, arrive from the scene of the action; …’ In fact the Nautilus was not present at the battle at all, though to the casual reader, the final line of The Times report could even be taken to imply that Sykes was the one they made Commander. It was of course John Richards Lapenotiere who was there and then promoted – Sykes having already attained that rank some years previously.

As we shall see, Sykes only learnt of the battle of Trafalgar from Lapenotiere, by passing chance. But, immediately on learning the news, he chose to disobey his current orders to patrol off the south-western tip of Portugal, and set out pell-mell for home in a thinly veiled attempt to steal Lapenotiere’s thunder. Although not bearing any official dispatches, Sykes clearly hoped to steal a march on Lapenotiere. The bearer of such good tidings as a major naval victory could expect to be handsomely rewarded, as well as being feted, wined and dined as the talk of the town. Though The Times seems quite positive on this point, presumably because Sykes said so, there is now considerable doubt whether Sykes had any dispatches on board from Mr. Gambier. Indeed, given the tight timing of the Nautilus’s movements off the mouth of the Tagus on the morning of Tuesday October 29th, this seems most unlikely – see more below.

Dispatches or not, Sykes clearly set out to beat Lapenotiere to London to break the news, and in the event he only missed making the great announcement to the Board of Admiralty by a very narrow margin. Having failed in this respect he seems to have lost no time in giving a press release, or at least to have spoken openly in all the right places for the news to leak out, as the second sentence in the above Times report openly hints that Sykes had been lording it about in London making extravagant claims.

So – just who were these rival claimants for the honour of announcing the news of the great battle, and the tragic death of the immortal Nelson? [1] Which vessels did they current command? And what were the circumstances behind this novel race?

The Rivals & their Commands

Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere [2] was of French Huguenot descent. The son of Lt. Frederick & Mary Lapenotiere, he had been baptised at Ilfracombe on June 22nd 1770. At the age of ten, on June 8th 1780, he was entered as a servant on board his father’s command – HM Hired Armed Ship Three Sisters[3] That he actually served in her has been questioned, as he did not officially join the Navy until the age of 15 (in 1785) – as a Gentleman Volunteer, on board HM Hired Armed Ship King George. After steady progress he was duly examined for Lieutenant at Somerset House on October 2nd 1793, attaining his subsequent promotion on April 29th the following year. After a short period in command of HM Gun-Brig Berbice in 1794-5, he served as a Lieutenant in half a dozen HM vessels, before he was again given command – this time of HM Hired Armed Cutter Joseph in November 1799. When the Joseph was paid off and released during the ‘little peace,’ of 1802, Lapenotiere was lucky not to find himself on the beach on half-pay. Given the dramatic post-war run-down of the navy, he was very fortunate to be given command of HM Schooner Pickle on May 24th in that year.

Pickle[4] nominally a 10-Gun Schooner, had been taken into the Royal Navy as the Sting, when purchased in the West Indies in December 1800. Almost certainly built in Bermuda during the previous year, her chief dimensions were – length, over all, 73 ft.; breadth, 20 ft. 7½ in.; depth, 9 ft. 6 in.; 127 tons builder’s measurement. Although rated as a 10-Gun Schooner, she could not carry this weight of armament and was actually armed with only six carronades – 12, or 18-pounders. Which was about the same armament as the Falmouth Packets of this period.

Most Bermudan built craft of this era had a justifiable reputation for speed. Being mainly constructed of cedar wood, they were both strong and durable, while remaining relatively light. However, their fine underwater bodies could render them slightly crank, and this factor probably accounted for Pickle’s reduced armament. A modest vessel, her normal compliment was just 35 officers and men – again very similar to that of the Falmouth Packets in wartime.

The ‘little peace’ of 1802 did not last long, and by mid-May 1803 Great Britain was again at war with France. Once again a great fear of invasion gripped the public mind, and all along the south coast of England preparations were made to receive and repel any such attack.

At sea a large part of the British fleet blockaded the French naval ports, trying to keep the French ships of the line penned up and impotent. And, throughout 1804 Pickle was loosely attached to the British fleet blockading Brest. As befitted her size and manoeuvrability, she was mainly employed as a ‘go-for’ for the fleet – inshore scouting; carrying messages; running dispatches and returning sick seamen to England; bringing out light stores, fresh food and replacement personnel, and the like. She was not a particularly happy ship at this time. Desertions were frequent – though these most probably arose from opportunity than because of any particularly harsh treatment on board. There were, however, occasionally more serious incidents. The Royal Cornwall Gazette for July 21st 1804, reported an item culled from the Plymouth Journal.

Sunday 15th. – The seaman of the Pickle, of 14, (A.S.) Lieut. Laponotier [sic], who was tried on Friday on board El Salvador del Mundo, of 112, Vice-Admiral Young, in Hamoaze, by a court martial, J. Liddel esq. judge-advocate, was found guilty of mutinous and disorderly conduct on board that ship, off Brest, while he was on the look out, and sentenced to 500 lashes. An evidence against him for prevarication, pretending to be insane, was sentenced to one year’s solitary imprisonment in the Marshalsea prison.

The ‘evidence,’ being what we today would call a witness, clearly tried to feign insanity in order to avoid bearing witness against his shipmate – but the consequences of such non co-operation were severe. Most punishments seem draconian by modern standards, but there was an occasional hint of leniency. Following another court martial, held on board the El Salvador del Mundo, Flag-ship Plymouth, in February 1805. –

‘… on a cabin-boy of 14 years old, for theft on board one of the Spanish prizes; he was found guilty, but on consideration of his youth, the capital part of the punishment, by the lenity of the president and court was remitted; he was sentenced to receive only 200 lashes, and to be imprisoned one year in solitary confinement in his majesty’s prison of the Marshalsea, Southwark, and to be mulcted of all his pay and prize-money.’

What a lucky boy! So he didn’t hang, but just how ‘lenient’ can you get!

Early September 1805, saw the Pickle at Plymouth undergoing a short overhaul before being sent out again to rejoin the fleet. Lt. Lapenotiere, having apparently requested additional ‘officer’ support from the Admiralty, one Lt. John Kingdom joined her as his second in command, on September 20th, shortly before she returned to the fleet. This gave the little schooner two commissioned officers, an unusual situation in such a small vessel. Almost immediately afterwards she sailed again to join Admiral Lord Nelson’s blockading fleet off Cadiz. Carrying out mail and dispatches, and a draft of replacement seamen, she joined the fleet just in time to enjoy a peripheral role in the ensuing Battle of Trafalgar.

Commander John Sykes, [5] born May 25th 1774, the son of James Sykes, Naval Agent – he was well connected. He joined the Navy at the age of nine as a Captain’s Servant on board the Resource. Became a Midshipman [or Master’s Mate] in April 1789; made Lieutenant November 6th 1795; Commander June 18th 1800; Post Captain January 22nd 1806; progressing to full Admiral before his death in February 1858. October 1805 found him in command of HM Sloop Nautilus, on patrol off Cape St. Vincent, where he had been ordered to cruise by Nelson the previous month. His ship’s company’s task being to give any British warships heading south a copy of Nelson’s ‘General Order and Rendezvous for the Fleet,’ or to give the fleet fair warning of any units of the enemy fleet heading down from Brest.

Nautilus[6] an 18-Gun Sloop, was then just over a year old having been built by Jacobs of Milford Haven, where she was launched on August 12th 1804. Rated as a sloop of war, her dimensions were – length, over all, 112 ft; breadth, 29 ft 6in; depth, 9 ft; 438 28/94 tons builder’s measurement. Although rated as a sloop she was rigged as a three masted ship, and carried a nominal compliment of 121 officers and men. Off Cape St. Vincent, Sykes and his command were performing that essential but invariably monotonous and all too often thankless task of patrol and look-out.

Nautilus too does not appear to have been a particularly lucky or happy ship. During just 25 days checked between October 20th and November 13th: One supernumerary seaman died – from an undisclosed cause. One boy seamen fell from aloft when the ship was taken aback, and was drowned. The ship was taken aback on at least two other occasions – albeit in fluky wind conditions. And four seamen were flogged for insolence, and/or neglect of duty. Each of these men received from 24 to 36 lashes each at the grating with the cat-o-nine tails. Strictly speaking captains were not permitted to summarily order more than 12 lashes, without recourse to a regular Court Martial – but this restriction was consistently ignored by RN captains. While still at anchor in Plymouth Sound on November 13th, after her return to England from off Cape St. Vincent, two more seamen were flogged ‘for neglect of duty’ – John Fitzpatrick receiving 18 lashes, and John Elliott 12.

The Primary Sources

In determining the correct sequence of events leading up to the race for home, and the progress of the race itself the author has relied extensively on the entries kept in the official log books of the two vessels concerned. Kept by the commanders of HM vessels, and their sailing masters, these logs were a combination of a navigational record and daily journal of proceedings on board – amplified from time to time with supplementary notes about any particularly remarkable occurrences. When completed they were submitted to the Admiralty office for inspection. However, as some log books spanned several years, at the end of each intermediate voyage a fair-copy was submitted to the Board of Admiralty to acquaint them with current information at the earliest opportunity. These log books could also be called in, in evidence, in the event of a court of enquiry or similar. As working documents, the remarks invariably consist of chopped phrases rather than sentences, with an extensive use of naval jargon and accepted abbreviations. The spelling is often quaint, and the rendering of the names of RN ships, even the very well known ones, is essentially phonetic.

Unfortunately Lt. Lapenotiere’s ‘Captain’s Log’ [7] for his time in the Pickle does not appear to have survived – at least not in the public domain. Thus we have to rely on the Pickle’s Sailing Master’s log [8] for a first hand account of her progress and proceedings on board – her master at the time being Mr. George Almy. An Acting 2nd Master, Almy kept a very full log, though his handwriting was cursive almost to the point of becoming shorthand in places.

On the other hand both the Captain’s [9] and Master’s [10] logs survive for the Nautilus. The first of these examined by the author just happened to be her Master’s log kept by Mr. John Bamber. As a deck log and navigation account it is an execrable record. Having spent so long beating up and down off Cape St. Vincent and Point Sagres, her master seems to have forgotten what records he should have kept. Any hopes that the Captain’s Log – notionally kept by Sykes himself – would be any more informative were only partially fulfilled. I say notionally because entries continue in the same hand after Sykes had gone ashore at Plymouth on the evening of November 4th. – so these were probably written-up by the Captain’s clerk.

While Bamber’s log was not a straight copy of his Captain’s log, they were both kept in a similar casual style, recording wind directions, noon positions and remarks (which frequently vary). Neither records hourly distances run, nor courses steered, though Sykes’ does occasionally give the daily miles run, together with the course made good by calculation. He also gives several noon longitudes and a few noon latitudes. In the main however their use as a navigational record is at best crude. Presumably, because they were continually cruising within sight of land, they were relying essentially on land-fall observations coupled with some basic dead reckoning during sea runs from landmark to landmark.

Only in the remarks section is Sykes’ log a little more fulsome and helpful, but even here the relative value of some of his observations is questionable when compared with Almy’s.

In comparing these logs the precise timing of sea-borne events relative to ‘shore time’ has proved vexing. To explain this it must be appreciated that the contemporary naval practise was to start each new day at noon. What is not so certain is when they changed the date! Which give rise to problems in any reconciliation between ‘Navy time’ and ‘Shore time.’ Navy time has proved a hoary chestnut for many modern scholars, not so much in the running of the 24 hour clock, nor yet in the striking of bells, nor the turn of the watches, but in reconciling the recorded dates of specific events. By matching key parts of the above three logs with known events, it is possible to determine that the Navy normally ran half-a-day ahead. Typically therefore, ‘Remarks on Board the Pickle Friday Nov. 1st,’ in fact covered the 24 hours from Thursday noon on October 31st, to Friday noon on November 1st, etc. But, what is by no means certain is whether those on board considered the Friday morning as part of the 31st of October, or the 1st of November?

Notably, the Captain’s log for the Gannet, [11] on Monday 28th of October 1805 (which entries opened and closed at noon), records at the closure – ‘Noon … Rec.d Admiralty form for altering of keeping the Log.’ The days thereafter, commencing with Tuesday 29th – opening and closing at midnight. Employed on Channel patrol, convoy and anti-smuggling duties, she would have been one of the first naval vessels to receive and implement this instruction.

The Prelude to Battle

In the days immediately before the Battle of Trafalgar, HM Schooner Pickle was patrolling inshore of the British fleet off Cadiz. Occasionally working in company with the Phoebe, and at others with the Sirius, she was constantly working to and fro – down as far as Cape Spartel and back up again to Cadiz.

At 3 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday October 20th, when about 30 miles south west of Cadiz, the enemy fleet ‘… consisting of thirty three Sail of the Line, fore [sic] frigates & two Brigs …’ were discerned from the Pickle, bearing NNE, and standing to the south west. Throughout that following night contact was maintained with the enemy vessels, though there was little chance of them escaping in the prevailing conditions – Pickle, one of the handiest vessels in the fleet, never making more than three and a half knots at any time during that night. At five the next morning the British fleet ‘…wore towards the Enemy…’ and began increasing sail in a dying wind. Now, barely making one and a half knots, they inched closer, and about 9 a.m. the enemy were observed to have ‘… formed three Lines & seem.d to Be Ready for action.’ The Pickle’s log did not record deciphering Nelson’s famous signal ‘England Expects…’, but merely records that ‘At 10 the Commander in Chief made Signal to prepare for action with a N.o of other Signals.’ At noon Lapenotiere recorded the Pickle’s position as being ‘Cadiz N 30° E Distance 28 miles. … the Commander in Chief was within about 2 Leagues of the Enemy which was laying too.’

After noon Almy’s log then moves on to Tuesday October 22nd, though is was still in effect still the afternoon of Monday the 21st, and records. –

1 PM – Light airs & clear. At ½ p-12 the Royal Sovring Commenced her fire & Broke through the Enemys Line. The Enemy directed a very warm fire on the above Mentiond Ship untill she was covered by the Victory and two or 3 other Ships.
At ½ p-2 we discovered Fore [4] of the Enemys Ships dismasted the wind Being Light our Ships were not all yet in action.
At 4 we discovered Several of the Enemy Ships making Their Escape
At ½ p-4 the Enemy Seas.t their fireing Except fore Ships which were trying to Effect their Escape to windward & was attacked By two of our Ships But their Rigging & Spars Being damaged the Enemy effected their Escape – Nineteen of them Struck & one took fire & Blew up – out Boats to Save the men.
At 6 the Boats Returned in Cutter and made Sail Saved one hundred and twenty or thirty men. [12]

The ‘fore’ enemy ships reported as making their escape by the Pickle, proved to be the Le Duguay Trouin (74) Captain Troufflet, Le Formidable (84) Rear-Admiral Doumanoir, Le Scipion (74) Captain Villegrey, and the Mont Blanc (80) Captain Barouger. All were captured by Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron off Rochfort on November 4th, and later escorted into Plymouth.

The French man-of-war that blew up was L’Achille, and although the Pickle had played no active part in the battle, the actions and exertions of her crew immediately afterwards were noteworthy. In thus saving this large number of French seamen, the Pickle’s crew inadvertently put themselves in a precarious position, and there are several subsequent historical allusions to an attempted seizure of the schooner by the French prisoners. As also some lurid descriptions of finding a naked female French ‘seaman’ swimming in L’Achille’s wreckage. However, there is no mention of either of these incidents in her log, which merely notes that her crew spent most of that evening and well into the night ‘… Assiting the disabled Ships.’

At midnight Laponetiere reported on board the Victory, returning about 2 a.m., during which interval the boats’ crews continued to render what assistance they could to other units of the fleet. The following morning saw the battered fleet having to contend with a freshening ‘breeze’ – ‘At 10 Reef.d the main Sail fore Sail & middle Jib. The Jolly Boat Employed Carrying Prisoners on board of different Ships. all the Prizes in tow.

The removal of some of the French prisoners had reduced the immediate potential threat of seizure, and batches of prisoners continued to be transferred to more suitable holding ships as and when the weather and opportunity allowed.

At noon on the 22nd Pickle gave her position as just four leagues north west of Cape Trafalgar, which was ‘…then in Sight.’ During the early afternoon they were able to send another boat load of prisoners ‘… on Board of the Drednot.’ But by four p.m. they were again under reduced sail and in the grip of a strong westerly gale. Even so, they had managed to claw back some of their leeway, though they were still within 5 leagues of Cape Trafalgar. At six that evening in worsening conditions it was noted that several ships were now ‘… Not in tow.’

Navigationally the Pickle seems to have boxed all round the compass during this 24 hour period, but at 2 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd things were recorded as a little ‘… more moderate,’ and she was able to carry her ‘…main Try Sail & Storm Jib.’ In slightly better conditions about 10 a.m. they were again able to launch their boats to put some more prisoners on board different ships, and Collingwood was able to signal for the disabled ships to be again taken in tow.

At 11 a.m. however there was a brief period of alarm when it was reported that the enemy fleet was coming out again, and at half past eleven the signal was made to ‘prepair for Battle at anchor.’ A desperate prospect, which providentially never came to pass. It fortunately proved to be a false alarm, as the British fleet was in no condition to fight another major action under sail – let alone at anchor.

By noon on the 23rd the Pickle had managed to claw a little more to the North West, and was now seven or eight leagues off Cape Trafalgar. That afternoon they were able to send two more boat loads of prisoners on board the Victory, but during the evening the gales freshened yet again threatening the very survival of the battered fleet.

There was a slight improvement during the early hours of the 24th, but by mid morning the gale was again piping up. About noon the Pickle recorded that ‘The Signal was made to take the Prisoners out of the Prizes And Cut there anchors from the Bows & Let them go – Land in Sight to the East.d a heavy Swell from the West.d’ This order to cut the prizes adrift, without anchors, to let them drive onshore and become wrecks, was an extremely unpalatable one and indicates the desperate situation in which Collingwood then considered his fleet. The potential loss of hard earned prize money was particularly galling. Only desperate measures could justify such extreme action, but the British fleet now lay just to the northward off Cadiz, and only seven leagues off that lee-shore.

After literally hanging on to the ‘bitter’ end, during the afternoon of the 24th the weather at last began to improve perceptibly, and the Pickle resumed her duties carrying messages for the Commander in Chief between the Euralus and the Prince, when several of our ships were observed at anchor – still with their prizes. Despite the dreadful prevailing conditions a number of captains had clung on to their prizes, having no doubt failed to see the aforementioned signals to abandon them. Or they were so preoccupied with the survival of their commands as to be unable to carry any secondary orders into effect!

About eight that evening another of the French prizes was observed to blow up, she remained unidentified by those on board the Pickle, but was ‘… Supposed to have Bin Set on fire.’ However, this last event has not been corroborated by any other source.

By noon on the 25th, four days after the battle, the British fleet had at long last attained some ‘sea-room,’ and now lay about 57 miles west of Cadiz. The immediate anxiety for their safety was relieved, and the Pickle was now in almost constant attendance on the Commander in Chief.

The Trafalgar Dispatches

Lord Collingwood’s initial ‘Trafalgar Dispatches’ were written on the morning of the 22nd, the day after the battle, but it was some four days later before he was able to dispense with the Pickle’s services, and send his momentous dispatches home to England. While there was no strategic need for utmost dispatch in conveying the intelligence to the Admiralty, duty and propriety required that Collingwood informed their Lordships, the King and the nation at the earliest available opportunity. He certainly would not have wished to incur their Lordships displeasure by appearing in the least degree tardy in informing them of their great victory and tragic loss. Other senior commanders had been severely censured for less in the not too distant past and Admiral Calder was then still on his way home to face their Lordships displeasure. However, the immediate needs of ensuring the safety of the fleet had outweighed these considerations for a few days.

With the gale abated and the fleet no longer at immediate risk, the task of sending his dispatches home was now uppermost in Collingwood’s mind. Lapenotiere was duly summoned on board the Euryalus about nine o’clock on the morning of the 26th, and spent the rest of the morning in attendance on Collingwood. Meanwhile the Pickle lay hove too just off the flagship, when a constant exchange of hailed messages would undoubtedly have informed those on board the schooner of her imminent departure for England. While Lapenotiere was on board the flagship the Pickle began discharging her remaining prisoners into the Revenge, and making preparations for a fast passage home. On board Euryalus Lapenotiere received Collingwood’s dispatches and his personal instructions thereon. –

By Cuthbert Collingwood Esq. Vice-Admiral of the Blue commanding a Squadron of His Majesty’s Ships off Cadiz

You are hereby required, and directed, to proceed in His Majesty’s Schooner under your command, and on your arrival at Plymouth, you are immediately to forward the accompanying dispatches to the Secretary of the Admiralty, by taking them yourself express to him, or (if the Quarantine Laws prevent it) by sending them the moment of your Arrival, to Vice Admiral Young, for the same purpose.

Should you be prevented by an Easterly Wind, from fetching so high up as Plymouth you are to make the first port you can in England and act as is above directed, taking care to obtain a receipt for the dispatches with which you are charged, and which are of the highest importance.

As I trust you are fully aware of the great importance of those dispatches being forwarded as soon as is possible I rely on your using every exertion, that a moments time may not be lost in their delivery.

Given on board the Euryalus off Cadiz 26th October 1805

Cuthbert Collingwood

To Lieutenant Lapenotiere commanding His Majesty’s Schooner Pickle
By Command of the Admiral

If necessary these dispatches are to be thrown overboard and for which you are to be prepared.

We shall consider the potential effects of the ‘Quarantine Laws’ later, but at about noon Lapenotiere returned on board the Pickle with the Trafalgar dispatches, when Almy simply recorded, ‘… the boat returned, in Boat & Made sail for England.’

During the past 24 hours they had again lost a little sea-room, falling back towards Cadiz which then lay ‘South, 48 degrees East, 33 miles.’ It was about twelve-thirty when they effectively got under way to begin their run for home. But, what started out as a race for honour and the personal pride of the crew, was to turn into a race proper as it progressed.

More … The Race for England