Victory‘s boats at Trafalgar

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    Malcolm Lewis

      I am interested to know if there are any references to Victory and other British ships towing their ships boats astern when engaging the enemy at the Battle of Trafalgar or any other naval actions at that time.
      Geoff Hunt in his painting ‘Victory racing Temeraire for the enemy line’ (see Nelson’s Ships, Peter Goodwin 2002) depicts both vessels each towing two boats. One assumes Geoff Hunt had a source for including these.
      I recall references to towing ships boats with officers’ furniture to avoid their possessions being damaged in battle and being referred to as ‘furniture boats’. Was it Admiral Lord Howe at the Battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 whose furniture boat was destroyed despite the accepted etiquette between enemies of not firing at boats used for this purpose?
      Clayton and Craig in their book Trafalgar, the men, the battle, the storm (2004) page 125, mention that Nelson’s furniture, including his portrait of Emma Hamilton, was safely stowed below so presumably the boats in Hunt’s picture were not used for officers’ furniture.
      On the day of the Trafalgar battle the winds were very light and one might have thought that even towing small boats would have further slowed progress. It could be that boats were launched to clear the decks for action. Victory usually had six boats and maybe she towed the two cutters, routinely carried on the quarter davits.
      Injury from wood splinters was a serious hazard and could be another reason why boats were put in the water as they would have been highly vulnerable to damage.
      I would be grateful for any suggestions or references.

      Tony Beales

        The following is from William James, Naval History of Great Britain from… 1793… 1820, London 1827, vol IV p85:
        ‘All further hostility having, as well it might, ceased on board the Redoutable, Captain Hardy ordered two midshipmen, Messieurs David Ogilvie and Francis E. Collingwood, with the sergeant-major of Marines and eight or ten hands, to go on board the French ship, and (not to ‘take possession’ for, had that been deemed of any importance, a lieutenant would have been sent, but) to assist in putting out a fire which had just broken out afresh. This party, not being able to step on board for the reason already given, embarked from one of the Victory‘s stern-ports in the only remaining boat of the two that had been towing astern, and got to the Redoutable through one of her stern-ports. As a proof, too, that all hostility had then ceased on board the French ship, the Victory‘s people’s were well received. Their boat, we believe, was soon afterwards knocked to pieces by a shot. The other boat had been cut adrift by a shot just as the Victory was about to open her fire, and was afterwards picked up with her oars and tackle as complete as when, early in the forenoon, she had been lowered down from the quarter.’

        Malcolm Lewis

          Thank you Tony for this reference. One does forget how detailed were William James’ writings on all aspects of Trafalgar. Fascinating to read how despite the carnage on that fateful day seamen on both sides helped one another in time of need.
          James goes some way in answering my query although as yet I can find no mention of the other four boats stowed on the booms. Midshipman Roberts in his report (5.12.1805) to Captain Hardy regarding the damaged Victory sustained does not include anything about these boats.

          Tony Beales

            William James also refers to the only remaining boat on p 117 (after Nelson’s death): ‘Captain Hardy directed Lieutenant Alexander Hills to take the punt, the only remaining boat, proceed in her to the Royal-Sovereign…’.
            Specific information about the Victory’s boats at Trafalgar is indeed quite hard to come by, but I have now remembered that there is some information in the William Rivers material at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth. There is a note (RNM 1986.573/11 – separate to other material) which describes the trajectory of the shot that caused his first injury (three of his teeth were knocked out by a splinter). It states that the shot passed through the launches, and a diagram shows the arrangement of the four boats then on the booms in some detail, being:
            Aft starboard: Large Cutter 32 foot
            Aft larboard: Launch 32 foot
            Forward starboard: Pinnace 28 foot
            Forward larboard: Yawl 26 foot

            The shot is shown passing through the 32 foot launch. The note is not dated, but my belief is that it was written about 20 years after Trafalgar.
            Other than this, I have not come across any record of the damage to the boats.

            Frank Scott

              Towing a few boats should not have had any impact on ship speed and handling – their weight and drag would have been tiny compared to that of the parent ship.

              On a practical note, another good reason to tow at least a few boats would have been that it was much easier to launch them before an action, ready for use, rather than to attempt it afterwards. Action damage to running and standing rigging, spars and the boats themselves could create many post-action problems, particularly as the French tended to direct much of their gunfire at the rig.

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