The Battle of Trafalgar Special, Part III: HMS Pickle
HMS Pickle – First with News by Gordon Frickers
In this, a joining-together of our Great Sea Fights and Iconic Ships series we feature HMS Pickle, the small topsail schooner that was chosen to sail as swiftly as possible back to England with news of the British success at the battle of Trafalgar, and also with the tragic news of the death of the British fleet’s commander, Horatio Nelson. The story of how the battle dispatches made it all the way to London from Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain is quite remarkable, and is told brilliantly by Kathy Brown, Director of the Trafalgar Way – the overland route taken by the pickle’s commander, Richard Lapenotiere.
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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 everybody and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror, and particularly welcome to the second of our episodes dedicated to the history of the Battle of Trafalgar. Today we are looking away from those mighty warships that contested one of the hardest fought battles in history towards one of the smallest, but certainly most important vessels there, the topsail schooner HMS Pickle, the vessel that was chosen to sail as swiftly as possible back to England with news of the battle and news of the death of Horatio Nelson. It’s a quite remarkable story and there is no one finer who could tell you about it than Kathy Brown. Kathy is director of the Trafalgar Way – the overland route taken by the Pickles commander Richard Lapenotiere. Kathy’s naval family background, business experience and her love of games, fun, and storytelling have combined to ensure that the Trafalgar Way story is retold for generations to come. You can visit the Trafalgar Way website @thetrafalgarway.org for information, downloadable resources, and to discover how you can be involved in the project. But first, do please enjoy Kathy’s telling of this unique maritime tale.
The case of HMS Pickle, presented by Kathy Brown, director of the Trafalgar Way, Britain’s first national heritage coaching route. Words by Adam Preston and Kathy Brown.
Pound for pound HMS Pickle is history’s most iconic ship.
Anyone who’s interested in maritime history knows the importance of good communications. The ability to send and receive information, often complex, sometimes urgent, which we take completely for granted today, was once a slow, cumbersome and occasionally life-threatening business. The vessel I am proposing as one of history’s most iconic ships was a topsail schooner with the unassuming name ‘Pickle’. She was just seventy-three feet long and twenty feet seven and a half inches wide. She was hulled for just fourteen guns and probably only ever carried ten at most. But as this little ship stepped briefly into the spotlight of history, she ushered in a new world.
Though she was small, she was mighty in her own way and as you will soon appreciate, when it comes to ships whose name and story we readily recall, she punches far above her weight. This is because in November 1805, a time of great threat from Napoleon Bonaparte to British shores, His Majesty schooner Pickle, carried home to a watchful nervous England the first news of a battle off Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain. It was probably the most significant naval message ever conveyed, dispatches that confirmed Britain as the world’s first maritime superpower. How she came to do this, and what happened on that journey constitutes one of the great true tales of maritime adventure. It is a story that showcases the tremendous effort required for safe effective communication in those times. And it makes us realise just how far technology has come since.
You may well have heard Pickle’s tale before. But something you may not be aware of is that she began service in the Caribbean as a tender called Sting. She was one of several ships captured by British forces on the island of Curacao in 1800. She’d probably been built in Bermuda and her design was innovative, revolutionary even. Lord Hugh Seymour, the commander in the Caribbean who purchased her, wrote to the Navy Office that she was “a clever fast sailing schooner of about 125 tonnes, coppered, and in every respect suited to the service for which she is destined.” The two-masted Sting had no square yards, but two booms, allowing the foresail and mainsail to be angled to take maximum advantage of the wind. With her dead drop, both fore and aft in the hull to stop her being blown sideways, she could sail far closer to the wind than her round bottom square-rigged rivals, giving her a degree of manoeuvrability and control that captains of the day had hitherto only dreamed of having. But as captains back then would have readily acknowledged, square-rigged ships were built for battle. Sting was built for speed. When Sting first crossed the Atlantic in 1801, bringing home the body of Lord Seymour in a lead-lined coffin, there was some confusion at the Navy office, who mistook her for Seymour’s previous tender named Pickle, for which Sting had been purchased as a replacement. Whether it was a blunder or cover-up for Seymour’s extravagance in making the acquisition is not quite clear. But in January 1802, her Captain Thomas Thrush was ordered to open her log under a new name ‘Pickle’, he must have been rather confused at this command. In any case, he wasn’t around for much longer. On the 23rd of May 1802, Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere took over her command. He was a Devon man born in Ilfracombe, where he learned seamanship under the watchful eye of his father, also a naval officer. The Lapenotiere’s had Huguenot ancestry, and with four generations having been employed in the service of the monarch, there was no question where their loyalties lay.
Sadly, the English press hardly ever got this French-sounding name right. And it was spelled every which way. John Richard Lapenotiere was a reliable, hardworking and extremely capable officer, albeit one who struggled to get noticed compared to his better-connected peers. That is until he had his date with destiny. And from then his name would be forever paired with a troublesome little ship he now captained. Pickle was not troublesome because of her sailing qualities. In fact, her smooth lines and sail configuration made her a swift and pleasant ship to helm. On one trip from Farole off the northwest coast of Spain to Plymouth, she clocked an average of ten knots making passage in just forty-nine hours. The problem was that she was built for tropical waters. Her fine lines allowed a lot of water over the rail, and the waters that she now plyed were mainly very cold. To add to this discomfort, due to the addition of an extra deck inside the small hold, she offered only four foot six inches of headroom below decks. The situation was worsened when Lapenotiere took command and ordered the removal of four of her ten guns to the hold to improve the ship’s trim. One crew member wrote that he was “discontented and very wet in the Pickle.” And the men didn’t just grumble – they also ran. In a space of just one month, August 1802, Lapenotiere lost ten men to desertion, another seven deserted in October. Her full complement was only thirty-five. Lapenotiere repeatedly requested a detachment of Marines to be allocated to help him keep his crew on board.
In the coming months and years, Pickle had her fair share of adventures, taking several prizes in spite of her diminutive stature. She suffered storm damage, and she helped rescue the crew of the 74-gun Magnificent after she was wrecked while blockading Brest. She saw action too, surviving a hair-raising attack by several Spanish gunboats who pursued her off Cadiz, during which Lapenotiere was described as “conducting himself with great spirit and propriety.” In the years leading up to Trafalgar, Pickle served as one of the busy dogs’ bodies of the fleet, engaged primarily in delivering dispatches, but also probably being used to spy on French activity and report back to channel commanders in Plymouth. When the Treaty of Amiens broke down in 1803, Napoleon’s ambitions turned in the direction of British shores. To this end, he built up an immense flotilla of barges in northern French ports – invasion became a real possibility. Now, this sets the scene for a tense and nervous England on tenterhooks for news, and a routing for its naval heroes.
Early in 1805, Napoleon was ready. He ordered his French and Spanish fleets to sail for the West Indies, to draw the British away from the channel. The Franco Spanish fleet straggled into Martinique between the 16th and 26th of May, and on learning that Nelson was in pursuit of their commander, Admiral Villeneuve started straight back for Europe. The combined fleets made the Spanish coast and were ordered to join Bonaparte at Boulogne. However, it is said that on starting out, they were spooked by some strange sails, and they turned south instead. Off southern Spain, Vice-Admiral Collingwood saw their approach and hung back, effectively kettling the enemy in Cadiz, where they dropped anchor on the 21st of August. By this time, the gulf stream had wafted Nelson back to England, and he was enjoying his final short sojourn at the home he shared with Emma Hamilton in Merton. He was informed of Villeneuve’s location on the 2nd of September, set sail, and the stage was set for Trafalgar. But what of Pickle? On the 14th of September, we know that Lieutenant Lapenotiere, who was at that time a widow with two young daughters, was busy getting married to one Mary Anne Graves at the church of St. James in the village of Anthony in Cornwall. No honeymoon for him; his orders arrived the very next day, he was to put to sea immediately his ship was ready, and wind and weather permitted. And then he was to head south to Cape St Vincent in Portugal and use his best endeavours to join Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson.
Meanwhile, on his way to join Collingwood, Nelson had intercepted the 18-gun brig Nautilus under the commander of John Sykes, who was heading back to England carrying dispatches. Nelson gave him orders to take up a position off Cape St Vincent and remain there and gave the duty of delivering the England bound dispatches to a smaller vessel. Sykes’ job was to relay to passing British naval ships, Nelson’s secret rendezvous location off Cadiz, and to report any French ships seen heading north. Pickle on her journey South fell in with Nautilus on the 28th of September, and Lapenotiere thus received the intelligence he needed to locate the British fleet. Little did he realise that on his return journey four weeks later, Sykes would almost prove to be his undoing.
On the 5th of October 1805, Pickle joined Captain Blackwood’s inshore squadron off Cadiz. Due to a shortage of frigates, Pickle was again asked to function as one of the ‘eyes of the fleet’, sailing in close to the enemy port and reporting on numbers and movements. On the 18th of October, Pickle was situated three or four miles off Cadiz lighthouse when she discovered the combined enemy fleet getting underway, and it was she who signalled this news to Blackwood in your Euryalus. Once the battle proper commenced, Pickle could do little more than hover at the periphery. An observant Midshipman from HMS Euryalus wrote, “How well I remember the ports of our great ship hauled up, and the guns run out. And as from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step the Pickle, schooner, close to our ship with her boarding nets up, her tompions out and her four guns about as large and formidable as two pairs of Wellington boots.” The image is irresistible. In her own diminutive way, the tiny Pickle was as ready for battle as Nelson’s flagship Victory.
But although she didn’t fire a single gun, Pickle soon played her part. When the French 74-gun Achille caught fire and her French crew began leaping into the water, Pickle crossed the whole battleground from north to south and Lapenotiere sent in his cutter and his jollyboat to pull survivors from the water. This was extremely hazardous work as the flames engulfed them the French guns were firing off randomly. Pickle’s muster list shows that one hundred and sixty prisoners were taken, meaning the little ship must have been packed like a can of sardines. Notoriously, amongst those rescued was a twenty-five-year-old French woman, the wife of one of the Achille’s main top men, who was found naked and clinging to wreckage. The ‘Adventures of Jeanette’ as she has become known, were recorded by Captain Robert Moorsom of Revenge, who got the story from the crew of Pickle, “When the Achille was burning, she got out of the gun room port and sat on the rudder chains. Then some melted lead ran down upon her and forced her to strip and leap off. She swam to a spa where several men were, but one of them bit and kicked her until she was obliged to quit and get to another which supported her until she was taken up by the Pickle.” Jeanette was transferred to Moorsom’s ship where he then claimed: “I ordered her two Purser’s shirts to make a petticoat and most of the officers found something to clothe her.” Back in Pickle, the situation was becoming treacherous. The prisoners were heard plotting to take control of the vessel during the night, but the attempt was quashed. At midnight Lapenotiere was rowed across to Victory where Nelson now lay dead. Lapenotiere stayed there two hours and left behind his surgeon Simon Gage Britton to treat the wounded. The next day, the wind rose to a westerly gale.
Now, at Nelson’s death commander of the British fleet had passed to Vice Admiral Collingwood. The great victory at Trafalgar will always be Nelson’s crowning glory. But the solid and reliable Collingwood now faced the greatest challenge of his career, to stop the furious storm that followed the battle from turning that victory into disaster. In fact, the storm was so terrible that more men were killed during that than had died in the battle. It is an indication of how severe it was that Collingwood could not turn his mind to delivering news of the victory to England until the 26th of October, five full days after the battle, by which time he had further news to relate.
Early on, Collingwood had shifted his flag from the damaged Royal Sovereign into Captain Blackwood’s frigate Euryalus. Pickle had been in continual service ferrying prisoners, even as the storm worsened again on the 25th of October. But at dawn on the 26th Lapenotiere was summoned on board at Euryalus. And by 10am, he was being handed the greatest opportunity of his life. Being tasked with delivering momentous news of victory is a great honour, which transforms careers, places your name in the history books, and comes with a rich purse. Had it not been for the storm, it is almost certain that Captain Blackwood would have been sent with the important dispatches, in Euryalus, arguably the frigate was a more proper means of announcing to the world that the balance of power on the open seas had now shifted decisively in favour of Great Britain, and Blackwood was thought to have been Nelson’s choice for such a mission. As it was Collingwood was obliged to choose Lapenotiere and Pickle. Writing to Marsden, the secretary at the Admiralty, that he had “no means of speedier or safer conveyance with me at present.” Entrusting the dispatches to Lapenotiere would also have been a function of his previous experience with the man. He knew the Pickle’s captain to be dogged and resilient. And his seamanship in command of a dispatcher’s vessel was exemplary. His orders were crystal clear: “I trust that 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 moment’s time may not be lost in their delivery.” There was a p.s., “If necessary, those dispatches are to be thrown overboard, and for which you are to be prepared.”
At noon on the 26th of October, Pickle made sail for England. Ahead lay a journey of over 1,000 miles. The crew would have been aware that they carried the first news of victory. However, exhaustion, and perhaps nerves began to tell. Off Cape St Mary the Leadsman lost his grip and for the second time, in two days, a deep-sea lead and ninety fathoms of line were lost to the deep.
At 10am on the 28th of October, the familiar sails of HMS Nautilus were sited at her station off Cape St Vincent. So important were the dispatches in Lieutenant Lapenotiere’s keeping, and so urgent his mission, that he turned down Sykes request to come on board Nautilus, and instead, the ranking officer was forced to join Lapenotiere in Pickle for a few hours, as she continued northwards. It is not known what is said between the two men, possibly, Sykes argued that Nautilus was a more suitable ship for delivering news of Trafalgar. We know Sykes was given a verbal account of the victory by Lapenotiere and was told that Collingwood requested he take the news into Lisbon. Sykes made some efforts to do so. Early on the 29th of October, he stood off the mouth of the Tigers. He fired guns calling for a pilot and eventually stopped a Portuguese boat and passed his dispatch across to her. This document was never heard of again. Maybe Sykes was stung by the humiliation of taking orders from a Lieutenant, maybe he really did believe he was doing the right thing. But at some point, he made the decision to race Lapenotiere to England. To cover himself, he wrote to Vice-Admiral Collingwood, “I have ventured to proceed, solely activated by a zeal for the service and in hopes to meet your wishes on the occasion in becoming a security for the information of the Pickle should any accident befall her. In that acting Sir, I much wish to deserve your commendation.”
Later that day, the crew of Pickle sited some sails behind them off the burling rocks and recognise them as those of Nautilus. With a following wind, Nautilus, the larger vessel, was able to catch up and eventually overtake them. The crew of Pickle must have realised then that they were in a race.
At dawn on Thursday, the 31st of October, things were again looking bleak for Lapenotiere and his crew as they pass the costa de morte, or ‘coast of death’. The wind had increased to gale force once more. The ship was straining under the pressure, and she was now so behind her rival, that Nautilus was almost certain to snatch all the glory and commander Sykes the rewards of bearing the first news of victory to England. Then a huge wave swept over the ship tearing away the jib-boom and the spirit sale yard. The forepeak was practically underwater, and it quickly became clear that the pump was blocked. The crew started to bail by hand – forming a human chain with buckets. All day they fought to save the schooner Pickle and their own lives too. At 5pm Lapenotiere made the painful decision to jettison his four 12-pound carronades plus their gun carriages to reduce weight. This desperate measure won them precious time, but it wasn’t until the 2nd of November that the conditions calmed. And when they did, it truly was a case of the sublime to the ridiculous. The wind fell away completely. After days of struggling and wild storms, the shattered crew were now ordered to work the enormous sweeps; for five hours they heave northwards, inching forward by the power of the men and their oars alone.
On the fourth of November, at 2am, Pickles sited the Lizard lights, and soon the manacles rocks with visible. Lapenotiere could have struggled on to Plymouth. But he had good reasons for heading into Falmouth instead, where his former Ilfracombe neighbour, Captain John Bowen was a naval Commissioner. Collingwood’s orders had stated, “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.” At Plymouth, Lapenotiere could easily have found himself languishing in quarantine, while Vice Admiral Young raced to London and on to glory. But instead, at 9:45am, Pickle anchored south of Pendennis Castle at Falmouth and Lapenotiere, was rowed ashore with his precious package. Within the hour, Lapenotiere was striding up Falmouth’s fish strand quay, avoiding customs and delay. Ahead of him lay a land journey of some three hundred miles – a journey which in those days could take up to three weeks. As a naval officer and regular carrier of dispatches, Lapenotiere would have been highly familiar with the efficient system of post chase express coaches that operated throughout England, and he now made full use of it.
These light carriages typically painted bright yellow, were pulled by two or four horses, with a postboy seated not on the carriage itself but riding each near side horse to urge them forward. By midday, our messenger was on his way. For the next thirty-seven hours, he would travel virtually nonstop to London, changing horses twenty-one times and sometimes carriages too, running up a bill of 46 pounds 19 shillings and a penny which would have been around half a year’s salary for a Lieutenant back then. Once the jolly-boat had returned to Pickle without Lapenotiere, Pickle was taken onward to Plymouth under the command of sub-Lieutenant Kingdon and Master Almy.
It turned out that Sykes had been delayed on route having been forced to take evasive action from a French detachment. He’d eventually come ashore in Plymouth around twenty-four hours after Lapenotiere reached Falmouth. And he was very much still in the race. It seems that he too evaded quarantine, perhaps persuading Admiral Young that his verbal account needed to be delivered in person. He too grabbed a post chase his route coinciding with that of Lapenotiere somewhere between Okehampton and Exeter where the Plymouth and Falmouth roads come together. An eyewitness later recorded that the two competing carriages were seen at Dorchester barely an hour apart. He said the traveller in the first carriage reported that he brought “good news of great importance”, and the second that his dispatches contained “the best and most capital news that the nation ever experienced”, it’s interesting to hear how discreet they were.
It’s not known for sure which of the two offices was ahead at this point. Although logic suggests, and storytelling intrigue begs that Sykes might have been in front with Lapenotiere hot on his heels. But what we do know is that finally, it was Lieutenant Lapenotiere who reached the Admiralty first drawing up at 1am on the 6th of November, just minutes before Sykes. It’s fun to imagine what those coach journeys were like, and what thoughts were rampaging through the heads of the competing officers. For surely whoever was behind knew that the other was already ahead.
Lapenotiere is said to have barrelled into the Admiralty boardroom, where he found William Marston, the first secretary, still up working by candlelight and about to retire for the night. He famously announced, “Sir, we have gained a great victory, but we have lost Lord Nelson.” For his troubles, he was promoted to commander and eventually rewarded the princely sum of 500 pounds, enough to buy himself a fine house. He was also written into the history books. Sykes was debriefed and sent on his way the following day.
And what became of little Pickle? After a short rest, repairs and reprovisioning in Stonehouse pool in Plymouth, she continued under new command, performing her dispatch duties and inshore work. In 1807, she was party to the capture of the French 14-gun cutter Favorite but otherwise had a quiet time. Then in July 1808, travelling from England with dispatches for Collingwood, who was once more stationed off Cadiz, Pickle ran aground on the Chipiona shoal near the mouth of the Guadalquivir, the river which runs down through Seville. A court-martial followed.
Despite the presence of Marines who had finally been appointed to keep order, the crew were said to be a reluctant rabble and perhaps this has contributed to Pickle’s demise. In the end, it was ruled that an unaccountable navigation error had caused the schooner to steer too close to the shore. The officers were left off with a reprimand. Collingwood himself had other suspicions, for he had learned that at the time of the wreck, a woman had been on board ship, and he wrote somewhat un-magnanimously “I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship, that mischief did not befall the vessel.” He gave orders that she should pay for her own passage home.
An ignominious end to our little icon. But her legacy was already implanted in the hearts and minds of the Royal Navy. Because a further eight vessels were in due course named Pickle. The last was broken up in just 1964. Is it time for another? Instead, we have a legacy of this pint-sized icon in another form. Since 1974, all around the world, Pickle nights are held on all around the 6th of November, the date Lapenotiere reached the Admiralty. From warrant officer’s messes to the swanky New York Yacht Club, this still young tradition of recognising the journey of Lapenotiere and the plucky little schooner who bore him safely home is rapidly becoming a stalwart of the naval community’s calendar.
Once you know the story of HMS Pickle, you never forget it. She represents not just the essential part played by communications in maritime history, but so much more. The spirit of the British Navy, of that great passion for the service, exemplified by men like Lapenotiere, whose struggles, and adventures went largely unnoticed and unrecorded; Pickle is the underdog, who suddenly, due to extraordinary circumstances, finds herself in the limelight of history, and rises magnificently to the occasion. When this little ship was inundated with water off the coast of death in a furious gale, her crew exhaustive beyond measure, and worst of all, her great task and honour a risk of being snatched by a larger ship, she and her crew fought on, never slackening their efforts or giving up for a moment. It’s a story to inspire us all. And it’s for that inspiration, and her essential role in one of the great turning points in history, that I propose that HMS Pickle is history’s most iconic conic ship per cubic inch.
Thanks to Mariner’s Mirror for this opportunity to talk about HMS Pickle and her adventures. The Trafalgar Way is now an official National Heritage route. And you can find out more about this story and the activities of the Trafalgar Way at www.thetrafalgarway.org. A special thanks to Peter Hore, undoubtedly the world’s principal expert on HMS Pickle whose excellent book ‘HMS Pickle: The Swiftest Ship in Nelson’s Trafalgar Fleet’ has become something of a bible on the subject.
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