Iconic Ships 7: The Billy Ruffian – HMS Bellerophon

July 2021

Today we have episode 7 of our Iconic Ships mini-series in which a curator of a historic ship makes a case for their ship being iconic, or a historian takes a ship from history but which sadly no longer survives and make a case for that ship being iconic.

HMS Bellerophon – known fondly as the Billy Ruffian – was a Third 74-gun ship of the line with one of the most extraordinary careers of any warship in the great age of sail. She was the first ship to engage the Revolutionary French at The Glorious First of June in 1794; she made up the fleet under Horatio Nelson, hunting the French and assisting in their destruction at the Battle of the Nile in 1798; and she fought under Nelson once more against the combined French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. As well as these larger events, she spent time on blockade duty off the coast of France, defended the West Indies whilst based on the Jamaica Station and kept an eye on the Spanish, in Cadiz. She transported Napoleon Bonaparte to Britain after his surrender in 1815, perhaps one of the events she is most renowned for, before ending up as a Prison Hulk on the Medway and then later in Plymouth.

The story is told today by naval historian Kate Jamieson who you can (and should) all follow on Twitter @Kejamieson_

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Today we have episode six of our ‘Iconic Ships’ miniseries in which a guest is given the chance to make the case that their chosen ship is iconic, and at the end of the year we will have a public vote to see who has won. Today, I’m delighted to say we have Kate Jamieson, a naval historian who spends her days working in maritime security, but claims she is not a pirate. You can find her on Twitter @kejamieson_ where she is a force to be reckoned with in the world of social media. Kate is a big fan of the 18th century Navy and has chosen as her iconic ship, HMS Bellerophon, a 74-gun ship of the line launched in 1786, which went on to have one of the most remarkable careers of any ship in the great age of sail. Here is Kate to tell you more.

    Kate, thanks so much for coming on, I really appreciate it. Now I did ask you to do an episode on an iconic ship, and we were talking about choosing one from the 18th century. Why did you choose the Bellerophon? There were so many to choose from.

    Kate Jamieson

    There are! The Bellerophon is probably I guess one of the most iconic ships. And I think quite a lot of people interested in naval history have heard of her either as the Bellerophon or the Billy Ruffian and to go by, I guess, the more colloquial name that her crew gave her. But she had a fantastic history and really played a role in three of the largest battles of the period, I guess. I just think it’s fascinating, her history.

    Sam Willis

    What do we know about her name?

    Kate Jamieson

    So Bellerophon was named after the Greek hero Bellerophon, who was the son of Poseidon, who famously slew the Chimera and tamed Pegasus. Her crew referred to her as the Billy Ruffian – which happened with quite a few of the ships of the time – and it’s thought because they couldn’t necessarily pronounce the name.

    Sam Willis

    I love the kind of sense of you know, association and fondness with the ship these nicknames give a sense of.

    Kate Jamieson

    Absolutely.

    Sam Willis

    And so, she was famous not just for one, but for three different battles.

    Kate Jamieson

    Three, yes: the Glorious First of June in 1794, the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and, of course, the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

    Sam Willis

    I suppose before all that though, that she had to be built. Let’s start with her design and construction. What do we know about that?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, so the Bellerophon was designed by Sir Thomas Slade, who was considered to be one of the finest shipbuilders in Britain, really. He was a surveyor initially, before going on to build the ships himself, and eventually became known for building these kinds of wonderful ships that really stood the test of time.

    Sam Willis

    I mean, I’ve always been astonished by the amount of resources it would take to build an 18th-century ship of the line. What do we know about the number of trees that it took to build Bellerophon?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, so it’s thought that – So, she was a 74-guns ship, and it was thought that generally, you’d use between 3,000 and 3,700 loads for these ships, which is about 3,000 oak trees. But all of these trees had to be – they’re pretty old by this point – so they were all about 80 to 120 years old as well, which gives you some sense of how many trees you needed and how long these trees really needed to grow for in order to be able to then build these ships.

    Sam Willis

    One of the interesting things is they didn’t just need an oak which had grown in an oak forest, what they tended to need were oaks which had grown in isolation so that they had the space to grow and they could achieve those magnificent shapes. It does make you wonder about how much land was taken up. I’ve got no idea! How much land takes up 2,000 trees?

    Kate Jamieson

    Quite a lot, quite a lot, I think. Especially – so, I used to live near the New Forest, which is obviously famous for its shipbuilding yards, and the whole of this sort of Solent, really.

    Sam Willis

    It’s such an important part of the world for British shipbuilding. I suppose she first really cut her teeth in the French Revolution, in the late 1790s. What did she get up to during that period?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, she actually started out predominantly being laid up in kind of a reserve until the French Revolution began, at which point they had to go and, A – find a crew for her and then B – take her, find a use after a kind of repair job and a slight refit. So, she initially started out on blockade duty, obviously stopping the French going in and out – stopping imports and exports, and sort of limiting the time that the French could get to sea, in order to train or fight really. Predominantly, I think she started out off Brest, actually, in fact, which is an interesting one in itself.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, and it was a difficult place to blockade, if any of you who have sailed in the Bay of Biscay, it’s not a brilliant place to spend huge amounts of time there. And the Bellerophon found it tough as well, didn’t she?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, absolutely. And I mean, like you said, the weather is not great. And you only really had a few sorts of windows of opportunity that you could use in order to stop people from actually escaping just because of the nature of where she was.

    Sam Willis

    It did give the – the blockade was advantageous in the fact that it gave them a lot of time to practice their seamanship. And one of the stories I like about the Bellerophon is how she became famed for being so quick. And it really suggests that her crew were really, were highly skilled.

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, absolutely. I mean, you don’t gain the nickname ‘The Flying Bellerophon’ for no reason at all. And that really does come down to her crew just being so efficient.

    Sam Willis

    How did they get the name?

    Kate Jamieson

    The Flying Bellerophon? So, whilst they were on blockade duty, Howe decided that he was going to use some of the movements away from Brest, where they were blocking the French, to sort of see how quickly the ships were – in a sort of race, I guess. Bellerophon managed to go past everybody and then even getting back before everybody else and furling away all of the sails before they even caught her again. And after that, Howe decided to create a flying squadron which was made up of all of his fastest ships and obviously the Bellerophon was one and she became well known for being incredibly fast.

    Sam Willis

    And it wasn’t long before the crew could really get going with what they wanted to do which was fight the French. And this is a period right at the beginning of the French Revolution during the reign of terror – so the summer of 1794, an extraordinary period; when, yes, the Glorious First of June was the name of the battle fought on the 1st of June which became known as the hardest fought battle of the age of sail and Bellerophon played an amazing part.

    Kate Jamieson

    She did, yes. So, prior to the 1st of June obviously, they were sort of engaging slightly with the French towards the end of May – the weather wasn’t necessarily in their favour, I think at one point it was really thick fog and nobody could actually do anything. So, they use it to repair the ships from earlier engagements but obviously by the time the 1st of June came around the weather was in their favour. And then obviously they engaged with the French and went on to battle.

    Sam Willis

    It’s a really interesting story, isn’t it? The French were coming back from America with grain ships, and it was a matter of trying to – anticipating their arrival and then stopping them. What was Howe’s plan for the battle?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, Howe’s plan really was to stop, as you said, the convoy. And initially, the French were trying to avoid a battle, but Howe organised his fleet into a line which became – which was obviously how most battles were fought, and they chased the French for quite a while, eventually broke their line, and then engaged on the 1st of June.

    Sam Willis

    What was the Bellerophon’s role in all of this?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, the Bellerophon was actually one of the first ships to go into action. I think they said that she was within gunshot of the enemies rear and gave them a very warm and fierce reception which the enemy then returned with great veracity, which I always find entertaining. The ship she of course decided to take on was the French three-decker the Revolutionnaire, which is a vast ship. And yes, during the battle one of her midshipmen, Matthew Flinders (who obviously we know for becoming an incredibly famous explorer, actually through, with the Royal Navy) was a midshipman at the time and said that his Admiral had lost his leg when an 18-pound shot which came through the barricadoes of the quarterback in the heat of action. And of course, the captain replied, in that very stoic British sensing: “Thank you, never mind my leg: take care of my flag”, which I find amusing.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, it’s very good. And this was Admiral Pasley, and for those of you listening, if you ever want to read a diary by an 18th-century sea officer, that is entertaining as well as informative, then you can do much worse than the diaries of Admiral Pasley. And he seemed to have had a wonderful relationship with his crew, but the ship was so smashed up at the Glorious First of June it took weeks to repair and Pasley lost a leg. So, the Bellerophon was moving on to a new period in her life, wasn’t she?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, absolutely. And I mean, I think it took five weeks for her to be actually repaired once they got back to Britain. And it was a vast amount of damage. I think all three of the topmasts are ruined, she couldn’t steer. And I believe they actually sort of sailed her back with a kind of jury rig to get her repaired. And of course, Pasley left the ship, and a new commanding officer came on who didn’t particularly like the fact that the men had a very set way of working. And he thought that they were actually very ill-disciplined, but I think, I believe it’s probably just the fact that they, you know, they worked in the way that Pasley wanted them to work, and Captain Cranstoun probably didn’t agree with that.

    Sam Willis

    So, there were also hints of mutiny, but certainly hints of unrest weren’t there during this period?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, absolutely. Of course, you had the famous mutiny at the Nore. And actually, later on, whilst the Bellerophon was off Cadiz even there was another sort of mutinous act on one of the other ships that she was serving near – and I believe the ringleaders were hung.

    Sam Willis

    It was you know, real – a period of real uncertainty. This is what – the spring and the summer of 1797. And back on blockade duty, this time off Cadiz rather than Brest, but still very trying, very difficult. But they were unusually close to Brest I believe – sorry, to Cadiz – they were unusually close to Cadiz.

    Kate Jamieson

    They were very close Cadiz. I think some of the sailors actually wrote that they could see the woman walking on the wall. So that must have given them a little bit of some entertainment, I guess. But yes, the weather was also a lot better in the Bay of Cadiz than that of Biscay and off of Brest.

    Sam Willis

    They’d be off chasing again. So, what happened the following summer? What happened in 1798?

    Kate Jamieson

    Since 1798, at this point, Horatio Nelson had been chasing the French around the Mediterranean trying to find them. He’d heard that they were near to Turkey, and then he headed back towards Sicily, but actually, it transpires that the French were in Egypt; he eventually found out that they were off of Crete, or modern-day Crete, which I think at the time was called Candia. And he knew exactly where they were going. So, they headed for Abu Qir Bay in Egypt.

    Sam Willis

    And what was Napoleon trying to do in Egypt?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, Napoleon obviously had his designs on Egypt. And it’s actually a really fascinating period of time to research if no one has read up on it, Napoleon’s encounters in Egypt. And actually, one of my favourite sorts of stories to do with Napoleon in Egypt is how many of the items that he discovered are now in our museums.

    Sam Willis

    Including the Rosetta Stone. Yes, one of the most important discoveries because that was the means by which the hieroglyphs – the Egyptian hieroglyphs – were, were later decoded. Everyone, go and look at the Rosetta Stone if you can and – we should probably put pressure on them to take it back. Maybe it should be in an Egyptian Museum. So, Nelson comes along, the Bellerophon is part of his fleet, and they find the French at anchor of Abu Qir Bay. What happens next?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, they sailed in, on the sort of late afternoon, early evening of August 1st. The French were aware that Nelson was coming; they could see the ships, obviously. But they decided that they weren’t going to put to sea because they had an edge in firepower. And I guess they sort of thought that the plan would be as most battles are that it would kind of be just fought with the two ships firing broadsides at each other. Eventually, the chap in charge of the French, Vice-Admiral Brueys realised that Nelson was coming – he couldn’t understand what the signal flag said at all. And Nelson was obviously kind of planning for the wind to allow his ships down the line – stopping the French from coming and reinforcing. And they use the fact that the French were anchored in order to then use that to their advantage and pass through the inside of the French line.

    Sam Willis

    Wasn’t it a kind of key moment when the British – I think it was Foley in the Goliath who realised that the French were at single anchor, which meant that they could swing on their anchor’s a full 360 degrees, allowing the British to get to the landward of them as well as to seaward of them – just squashed the front

    Kate Jamieson

    squashed in the middle.

    Sam Willis

    But the Bellerophon has a pretty tough, tough time of it, doesn’t she?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, she struggled. So, she was the eighth ship in the British line, and actually, interestingly going back to our conversation about Thomas Slade earlier, five other ships of his design were also at the battle, still going years later. So, she sailed for the centre of the French line; she was coming under fire and unfortunately, she ended up alongside Orient, which was the French flagship, and she felt the full weight of those broadsides. There were 120 guns compared to the Bellerophon’s 74. The guns were blown off their carriages, the rigging was shot away. I mean, the Bellerophon’s crew were really well drilled, and they did what they could to come back, but, you know, she was being utterly destroyed. And within an hour, her captain was unconscious: most of our senior officers were killed or wounded, her masts had been shot away, there was a fire on Orient, which kind of distracted them slightly. But they decided that what they were going to do is try and use what little rigging they had left on the bowsprit to try and move Bellerophon away from Orient, knowing obviously that if she caught fire too badly, she would in fact explode, which is obviously what happened later in the battle.

    Sam Willis

    One example – there are several examples of ships exploding in battle in the 17th and 18th centuries, but this one seems to take the biscuit: a catastrophic explosion. And I think the Bellerophon was very lucky indeed to survive. So, I mean, it really does change the nature of the war in the end of the 1790s. And then there’s – it’s kind of all change, isn’t it? The Bellerophon gets sent off to the Caribbean; what was going on there?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, she’s sent off to the Caribbean, where she was mostly kind of protecting British merchant vessels at this point. By the time she got there, sort of 1801-1802 we weren’t at war, but we were obviously still having to protect our ships because it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on things. So yes, she ended up in Kingston and was there for the next couple of years actually.

    Sam Willis

    I always think it’s fascinating if you read people’s diaries, who’ve been say, on the channel station, and then in the Mediterranean, and then across to the Caribbean, just how significantly things actually change even though their conditions of actually being on the same ship are remarkably similar – so different jobs, all round. She’s there for quite a long time, until the summer of 1804, and then we have the build-up to the Battle of Trafalgar. What was she up to then?

    Kate Jamieson

    1804, she ended up heading back to Britain, which took five weeks, which isn’t actually that bad if you think about how long it takes to sail now on a modern-day yacht. And yes, it took her five weeks to get back. She went and joined the channel fleet, blockading breast again. And then in 1805, she was sent to patrol the streets of Gibraltar under Collingwood after the Admiralty had heard that the French had sort of escaped from Toulon. So, whilst Nelson’s there chasing Villeneuve around the West Indies, Collingwood was blockading Cadiz again, until sort of later in the autumn, which is obviously where we start heading towards Trafalgar.

    Sam Willis

    And then, you know, it all kicks off when the French and the Spanish are seen being put to sea. What happens next?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, around the 19th of October, the French and Spanish fleet are putting to sea – the signal was passed down the British line. It was actually the Bellerophon’s first lieutenant, who was the first in the fleet to spot it and said that it was – he had the joy and the prospect afforded of an opportunity of bringing the enemy’s fleet to action, and mostly consequently terminating the blockade, which they had been so long and so disagreeably employed. I don’t think anyone particularly likes being on blockade duty. So I think they were quite glad to have the prospect of something a little bit more exciting.

    Sam Willis

    How did Bellerophon fit into Nelson’s plan for the battle?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, Nelson – so Bellerophon, sorry, was in the line, she was behind Royal Sovereign – five ships behind I think, actually, with Collingwood on Royal Sovereign, obviously.

    Sam Willis

    How did the battle unfold in the location that Bellerophon was fighting?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, so obviously, at around 11:15 Horatio Nelson hoisted his signal “England expects that every man will do his duty”, and an hour later, an hour after that Bellerophon was the ship that broke through the enemy line after, like I said, Collingwood on Royal Sovereign. She engaged the Monarca and stopped her from actually returning any fire temporarily. But then as she came back through, she realised that she was on a collision course with one of the French ships and hit her – much larger than Bellerophon, she had larger guns, she had soldiers. But as well as she was also taking fire from three other ships including Swiftsure, going back to try an [lost] another sister ship that had been captured by the French earlier in 1801.

    Sam Willis

    Bellerophon was so smashed up at the Glorious First of June and the Nile, did she escape damage at Trafalgar, or was it a similar story?

    Kate Jamieson

    No same story, unfortunately! By about one o’clock in the afternoon, the main and the mizzen mast had collapsed, they were over the side. The rigging was caught everywhere. Unfortunately, her captain was shot at around quarter past one-ish, I think, but you know, just before when he was asked if he should be taken below, he said ‘No, no, just let me lie quietly one minute’, and one of his lieutenants took command. But she was basically under fire from every angle – she had no manoeuvrability. The French crew were firing muskets and throwing grenades through the gun ports, and one of them actually almost caused the Bellerophon to catch fire. There was a slight fire near the gunner’s storeroom, and thankfully, the door to the magazine was shut and the master gunner got some water and put the fire out without anybody else realising what had happened, thankfully.

    Sam Willis

    It’s one of those great reminders that, yes, you have these battles – we know how they turn out – but the sailors on board didn’t know how it was going to turn out

    Kate Jamieson

    No, absolutely

    Sam Willis

    very close indeed. But they were immensely courageous. And I do particularly love the story of Christopher Beaty.

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, absolutely. So, for those that don’t know, Christopher Beaty who was one of the crew of the Bellerophon was apparently so fed up that the ensign kept being shot away that he climbed what was actually left of the rigging and attached four corners of a flag where he could using nails, I suppose. But the French were so amazed that he was actually even trying to do this that they just let him get on with it and kind of watched, which is actually quite nice because prior to that they had just been shooting anyone that was trying to gain some altitude, I guess on the ship.

    Sam Willis

    The advantage of height. So, you know, the battle ends, Nelson’s dead, but there’s been a very comprehensive victory over the allied French and Spanish – did the Bellerophon head straight back or did she go to Gibraltar?

    Kate Jamieson

    So, she went into Gibraltar along with quite a few of the other ships. Obviously, she was incredibly damaged, and as well as being damaged from the battle, there was the famous storm that hits after the battle that ruined quite a lot of the other ships. She sort of had some emergency repairs completed in Gibraltar and then managed to, I guess, limp back to Britain. And she was needed to have a refit, but they kind of decided that well actually Bellerophon should accompany Nelson’s body back to Britain on the Victory, so she was taken into Plymouth dockyard eventually to be repaired. And then she went back onto blockade duty.

    Sam Willis

    Boring! But she did go and do – well, having said boring it’s strategically fascinating. And trying to understand the logistics of the blockade – if you’re a naval historian or someone interested in naval history, then 18th-century blockade, the whole way that it works is completely extraordinary: maintaining an umbilical cord, essentially back to the dockyard, so the ships could stay there, and the sailors could all stay fed and also healthy. And we know that the Bellerophon went on to, you know, serve in the North Sea (I think this is fascinating) under Sir James Saumarex that’s strategically interesting, and also, she takes part in the War of 1812. But it’s after those – that period – it’s 1815, right at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, where the Bellerophon suddenly shoots to fame again; tell us the story of what happens there in the summer of 1815.

    Kate Jamieson

    So yes, in 1815, so six weeks in fact, after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Bellerophon became famous; they’d received a letter wanting to discuss the terms of Bonaparte surrender; and yeah, the eventually Napoleon arrived on Bellerophon, and he was in custody and taken to Britain. They were all treated very well. In fact, I think he was even given the Great Cabin. And he wanted to, I think Napoleon wanted to travel to North America, and he sort of hoped to gain some kind of asylum and that didn’t happen. So, he got taken to Brixham and then Plymouth, and there’s a famous, I guess, kind of a plaque down on Plymouth Hoe today where you can go and find out a little bit more about the fact that apparently hundreds of people were trying to get out in small boats to see Napoleon on the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound.

    Sam Willis

    I wonder if he secretly enjoyed the fame, or he was hiding. It was very famously he wasn’t allowed to set foot on British soil was he – he had to stay on the boat.

    Kate Jamieson

    Absolutely. Because he wanted an audience with the Prince Regent in fact, because he thought that it would be nice, I suppose to also recommend Captain Maitland for promotion to Rear Admiral as an appreciation of his hospitality. But yes, he didn’t manage to step ashore, unfortunately.

    Sam Willis

    And then, I mean, Bellerophon, she goes on to do what a lot of ships in the Navy did after they had retired from service and served as a convict ship. Do we know much about her history in that period?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes. So, obviously, after the wars, Napoleonic Wars, she was paid off, all of her masts and guns were removed and she was essentially just a hulk taken into Sheerness dockyard, where she was taken and fitted out as a prison ship. So, while she was a prison hulk, she held around, I think, 435 prisoners. And then eventually, it became a ship used to house boys rather than adult prisoners, which she continued doing until 1826 when they decided that actually, the arrangement of the space inside made her unsuitable. And then she went on to become a convict hulk until she was sold off in 1836 for timber, which is quite sad, really, isn’t it?

    Sam Willis

    I wonder where all those bits of timber have gone?

    Kate Jamieson

    Yes, you do see some of them around don’t you in church doorways, and places like that.

    Sam Willis

    That’s a particularly common place to see them actually, it really is. So, there we are those I think, out of all of those, why do you think – what’s the sort of the most important reason you should think, we should all think of Bellerophon as being an iconic ship?

    Kate Jamieson

    Well, for me, I just think it’s the history. I mean, she took part in three of the major battles, she had Napoleon on board. As well as that, I mean, even things like the blockade duties I find fascinating and think they were so important for victory at that time. That the fact that she just sort of took part in everything makes her iconic really.

    Sam Willis

    No, I agree. It really encapsulates so much of all of the different roles and all of the different events of the 18th century. Kate, thank you so much for speaking to me today.

    Kate Jamieson

    Thanks for having me.

    Sam Willis

    Many thanks for listening. Do please make sure that you find the Society for Nautical Research on social media, on Twitter, and on Facebook, and also the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, which has its own YouTube channel and Instagram page, all full of fabulously innovative ways of presenting our maritime past as well as filmed interviews. As I go out and about on my travels. The Society for Nautical Research’s free forum can be found @snr.org.uk, and I would urge you all to check that out – a fabulous and ever-growing miscellany of queries and answers.

    As we’re talking today about the 18th century Navy, there are a couple of relevant queries from Ede Crawford, and I’m sure there will be someone out there who can help her with the answers. First question: Where was the powder kept on board a large sloop? Would the powder monkeys have to go right down there, or would the ammunition be passed up on pulleys as in the ship of the line? Also, at what stage in the firing of the gun would they run to fetch the powder – while it was being sponged, or earlier before it was being fired? Question two: How many men were required for the gun crew of a 12-pounder carronade?

    If you can help with either of those questions, do please get in touch. You can find the posts in our forum on the age of sail at snr.org.uk. Otherwise, please do join the Society. It does not cost very much but you will receive four copies a year of the Mariner’s Mirror Journal, you can apply for tickets to come to our annual dinner on HMS Victory (a really magical experience), and your money goes towards publishing the most important maritime history, and towards preserving our maritime past.

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