The Medical Chest that Belonged to Nelson’s Surgeon

January 2021

The medicine cabinet that belonged to William Beatty, Nelson’s surgeon on HMS Victory.

An early nineteenth century medicine chest with a brass plaque engraved ‘William Beatty Warranted Surgeon RN 1803’ has come into the possession of a Hampshire antiques dealer from a private collector near Bristol. Members of the Royal Navy Medical Service are aiming to crowdfund to buy it to retain a part of the RNMS history and to donate it to the Haslar Heritage Group. The Haslar Heritage Group have been granted the use of the Old Medical Supplies Agency building at the site of Haslar Hospital to develop into a visitor’s centre with a museum for the Royal Navy Medical and Dental Services. In this episode, Dr Sam Willis speaks to Jo Laird, one of the navy medics behind the campaign – about her role as a naval medic in today’s navy, and her interest in the chest as a means of commemorating the past but also of bringing attention to the role of navy medics today in the fight against Covid. This episode will be followed soon by a special episode on William Beatty and life as a surgeon in Nelson’s navy.

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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. Welcome, everybody to a special edition on the life of William Beatty, the Royal Naval surgeon who tended to Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, a medical chest purporting to belong to Beatty, has recently come up for sale and I spoke last week to Jo Laird, Royal Naval medic, about her Crowdfunding campaign to purchase the chest for the Haslar Heritage Group. We spoke about life as a medic in today’s Navy, and today we’re going back in time to find out a little bit more about William Beatty, and what it was like to be a surgeon in Nelson’s Navy.

    So, who was William Beatty? William Beatty is today, and was in his lifetime, famous as the surgeon of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The man who attended Nelson at his death, although his gravestone records that it was actually Walter Burke, the purser of HMS Victory, in whose arms the immortal Nelson died. Beatty was twenty-two in 1805. He had a long and distinguished career after Trafalgar, becoming Physician Extraordinary to George IV, and to the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, who knighted him. In 1803 though, the date on the medicine chest and the year that the Napoleonic Wars began, he was 20. He had been qualified as a surgeon for eight years and had already served in four ships in the Royal Navy. In July 1803, he joined HMS Spencer, a 74-gun battleship under the command of Robert Stopford, which after blockading the Spanish port of Ferrol joined Nelson off Toulon in August. In December, he transferred to the Victory after her surgeon George MaGrath was appointed surgeon of the Naval Hospital at Gibraltar; Beatty and MaGrath had become friends, and it is likely that MaGrath recommended him to Nelson. Captain Stopford wrote that Beatty’s conduct ‘has merited my entire approbation’. Beatty and MaGrath were Ulstermen, Stopford was a son of the second Earl of Courtown in County Wexford. Beatty was born in Londonderry in 1773. His father and grandfather were officials in the Irish Revenue Service. He may have joined the Navy because an Uncle, George Smith a surgeon in Londonderry, had been a Naval surgeon with good connections. But at least 19 young men from Londonderry became surgeons in the Navy or the Army in the wars against the French of 1793 to 1815. He was apprenticed there, then studied in either Glasgow or London, where he qualified as a surgeon’s mate on 5th May 1791. He was five days away from his 18th birthday.

    His first appointment was a surgeon second mate on board the 64- gun ship Dictator, a receiving ship in the Medway in Kent. A receiving ship took pressed men and volunteers and processed them as they entered the Royal Navy. In September 1791, he moved to the Iphigenia, a 32-gun frigate at Sheerness. And then on 1st February 1793, he was promoted to surgeons first mate of the Hermione, a 32-gun frigate, fitting at Chatham for service in the Caribbean; the same Hermione that would see the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history, which has been covered in one of our previous episodes, already; I would urge you all to listen to that. His younger brother George went with him as a volunteer hoping to become an officer in the Marines. The Hermione sailed on the 10th of March with a convoy and on arrival saw action against the French. In December, he was appointed acting surgeon of the Flying Fish, a much smaller ship captured from the French, whose surgeon had died possibly of yellow fever. The Flying Fish saw active service, blockading Port-au-Prince, and intercepting French blockade runners – helping stop the French attacking Fort Akul, Leogane in Haiti, and then assisting in the capture of Port-au-Prince. On the 25th of June 1794, Beatty was appointed acting surgeon of the Alligator, a 28-gun frigate under Captain Thomas Affleck, where he had to confront an epidemic of yellow fever. It was a disease for which the 18th century had no cure, and a quarter of the crew, about 50 people, died. On his return to England, he took the examination for surgeon in February 1795. He qualified to serve in second rate ships of the line with crews of 700 or more, which places him in the top fifth of successful candidates in 1793 to 1815. However, there were only 3 second rates in active service, and he joined the 28-gun frigate Pomona, stationed in the Downs, that’s in the channel off Sandwich and Deal, for convoy duties.

    On the 19th of July, his Captain Lord Augustus Fitzroy accused him of disrespect and contemptuous behaviour after an argument about his patients. Beatty was court-martialled but was acquitted, and when the Pomona was paid off, he joined the 38-gun frigate Amethyst, a French capture fitting at Portsmouth, commanded by Thomas Affleck. But she was wrecked on Alderney in December, and he moved to the 32-gun frigate Alcmene in March. For the next five years, the Alcmene saw action off Portugal and Spain and in the Mediterranean, capturing enemy privateers and merchant ships. And then in 1799, helping to capture to homeward bound Spanish frigates carrying 661,206 pounds worth of bullion with valuable cargoes as well. Beatty’s share of the prize money was £2,468, that’s 40 years’ worth of pay. The Alcmene also evacuated the Neapolitan royal family in January, which is when he may have met Nelson. In March 1801, he moved to the 36-gun frigate Resistance at Portsmouth, in which ship he served on the North American station until peace in 1801. Britain declared war on France in May 1803, and in July Beatty returned to active service in the 74-gun Spencer for Channel duty, blockading Breast, and then in August, the Spencer joined Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet. In December Nelson appointed him surgeon of the Victory, he stayed in the Victory until he returned to England and in 1806, he became surgeon in charge of HMS Sussex, a hospital ship at Sheerness, where he wrote his bestselling ‘Authentic Narrative of the death of Lord Nelson’, which was published in 1807.

    So, what was it like being a surgeon in Nelson’s Navy, a surgeon in the Royal Navy at the time of Trafalgar was a warrant officer below the commissioned officers in rank. He lived and ate in the wardroom, with the lieutenant’s and the master, purser, and chaplain, but his cabin was on the deck below in larger ships like the Victory. From January 1805 he had a uniform, a plain blue coat, like other warrant officers, with a stand up collar that had one embroidered buttonhole on each side, two for hospital surgeons, and gold lace edging for physicians. In 1803 his basic pay was £65 a year, less than a lieutenant at £91, but in January 1805, there was also a pay rise to improve the quality of applicants. And Beatty, with more than 10 years’ service, was due £254 and 16 shillings a year, rather more than a lieutenant, now at £109 pounds and 4 shillings, and less than the Victory’s captain at £364. The surgeon had to supply his own medical chest, which is why there is this medical chest now on sale, and his own instruments. Beatty’s instrument case can actually be seen in Glasgow at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Once he had joined his ship, his instructions were: to ‘examine the necessaries sent on board for the use of the sick men and report any deficiencies to the captain: then to visit the men under his care at least twice a day, and oftener, if their circumstances will require it: and to inform the captain every day of the condition of his patients, which was usually done by a written sick list’. From 1804 medicines, but not his instruments were supplied by the government. He also kept a daybook of his practice, noting therein the names of the men that come under his care, their hurts, injuries and wounds, and distempers, the day they were taken ill, and the day of their recovery, removal or death, together with his prescriptions and methods of treatment while under cure. And from that information, he was to produce two journals, one of diseases and one of operations on wounds or hurts. In the Victory, Beatty had two assistants, Neil Smith, and a William Westenburg, who had both joined the ship that year. The regulations actually allowed three, but at Trafalgar, there were only 71 medical officers in all the British ships of the line instead of the 88 allowed. However, during Beatty’s time on board, he only had an average 10 to 15 patients each day, and from the 29th of December 1804 to the 21st of October 1805, he recorded that the Victory only had five deaths, one a fever, three of consumption and one from a spinal injury, and two hospital cases both consumptions. James Kerr was surgeon of the 74-gun Elizabeth in 1778, sailing from Portsmouth to the West Indies, and he recorded how he spent his day when not in action:

    Official Dispatches

    We are now at sea and our way of life settle according to custom. My time for rising is at seven or half after seven o’clock, breakfast at eight, at nine I see my patients which takes half an hour or an hour. From that to eleven generally, read or write in my cabin, then take a walk on deck, give the captain and account to the sick. After having stretched my limbs, seeing what the admiral is doing and what the fleet, I come down to my cabin again and take up a book till the drum beating the roast beef of old England warns me to dinner. After dispatching this necessary piece of business and the grog being finished, the remainder of my time till supper is spent variously in reading, writing, card playing, backgammon, walking or conversation as humour leads. From suppertime at eight o’clock till bedtime is spent in chit chat over our grog drinking.

    Sam Willis

    By 1805, most ships had a dedicated sick berth or sickbay for the cure of patients when the ship was not in action. It had a skylight, Georgian battleships with gunports closed and lit only by a few wax candles in horn lanterns could be very dark and was separated from the rest of the upper deck by movable canvas bulkheads. It had canvas cots instead of hammocks for patients with fractures or surgical cases, benches, a settee for the ‘weakly people’ to recline on, tubs for bathing, a stove to cook basic foods such as porridge and broth, and its own enclosed toilet. In the Victory, it comprised the whole of the upper deck immediately forward of the foremast, encompassing the first gun on each side, so 38 foot wide and 16 feet deep at its greatest. A report exists of its contents at Beatty’s arrival: 22 beds with bedclothes, 2 urinals, 3 bedpans, 14 spitting pots, and 70 pounds of soap. Although it was an improvement on the earlier arrangement, which had patients in their hammocks where they regularly messed, or on the airless orlop deck below the waterline, it was not perfect. Dr Thomas Trotter, physician of the channel fleet, who promoted its use, wrote that the utmost attention is paid to cleanliness and purity. But this was not always possible in practice. The Reverend Edward Mangan, who was in the new 74-gun ship, Gloucester, off Holland in 1812, and recorded a visit to the sickbay under the care of Mr Walker, our able and humane surgeon, wrote:

    Official Dispatches

    The apartment referred to is forward on the half-deck close to the ship’s head, which is the general water closet for the crew. Add to this that whenever it blows fresh, the sea, defiled by a thousand horrible intermixtures, comes more or less into the hospital, and on the above occasion passed completely through it, augmenting most severely the misery of the patients who amounted to the usual number of 18 or 20 men, labouring under the common afflictions to which seamen are liable. Some with hideous ulcers, a general complaint, arising from bruises received in the course of their hard work, and exasperated by the damp in which they lie, and by the foul water they are obliged to drink; some with ruptures, an ordinary consequence to young men from pulling ropes; some with ulcerated lungs and difficulty of breathing; others suffering from lacerations, dislocations and fractures from falls; and one or two cases of burning fever. The scene presented by this crowd of sufferers to be conceived must be beheld, described it cannot be. A few of the scattered features, however, may afford an imperfect notion of it: the place less than six feet high, narrow, noisome and wet; the writhing, sighs and moans of acute pain; the pale countenance which looks like a resignation but is despair; bandages soaked in blood and matter; the fetter of sores; and the vermin from which it is impossible to preserve the invalid entirely free. Yet to get put on the doctor’s list is considered an indulgence as it exempts the sick man from that more dreaded state of toil and servitude to which, when fit for duty, he is necessarily exposed.

    Sam Willis

    There was a large dispensary on the orlop deck for the 150 medicines in chests, seven-foot square, where the surgeon could make up the medicines. It was next to Beatty’s cabin, which was 10 foot by nine foot wide. This cabin was next to the captain’s and lieutenant’s stores, on the other side of the deck, with a smaller purser’s cabin, the steward’s cabin, and the midshipmen’s berth, and forward were the cabins and stores for the bosun, gunner, and carpenter. The sick berth was dismantled as a ship went into action, and everything necessary was transferred to the orlop. When the ship went into action against the enemy, the instruction said, ‘he is to keep himself in the hold, where a platform is to be prepared for the reception of the wounded men, and himself and his mates and assistants are to be ready and have everything on hand for stopping their blood and dressing their wounds’. There was a rough triage in the Georgian Navy, with a surgeon attending to the most serious cases and the assistance to the others. He also had untrained men called ‘loblolly boys’ (loblolly being an old name for gruel), and some of the women, who were unofficially on board. The surgeon of the 80-gun Tonnant, at Trafalgar, only had one assistant. He recorded that for his 76 casualties, he relied on the purser and a petty officer’s wife, a very big woman, who as fast as the unfortunate wounded were operated on, lifted them off the table bodily in her arms, and bore them off, as if they were children to their temporary berths out of the way, elsewhere. Robert Young was the surgeon of the 64-gun Ardent, at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797, and he recorded his experiences in his log:

    Official Dispatches

    I had no mate, having been without one for three months before, I was employed in operating and dressing till near four in the morning, the action beginning about one in the afternoon. So great was my fatigues that I began several amputations under a dread of sinking before I should have secured the blood vessels. 90 wounded from an official compliment of 491 were brought down during the action. The whole cockpit deck, cabins, wing berths and part of the cable tier, together with my platform and my preparations for dressings, were covered with them so that for a time they were laid on each other at the foot of the ladder, where they were brought down, and I was obliged to go on deck to the commanding officer to state the situation and apply for men to go down to the main hatchway and thus make room in the cockpit. Melancholy cries for assistance were addressed to me from every side by wounded and dying, and pitiless moans and bewailing from pain and despair. In the midst of these agonizing scenes, I was able to preserve myself firm and collected, and embracing in my mind the whole of the situation, to direct my attention where the greatest and most essential services could be performed. Some of the wounds, bad indeed and painful, but slight in comparison with the dreadful condition of others, were most vociferous for my assistance. These I was obliged to reprimand with severity as their voices disturbed the last moments of the dying. I cheered and commanded the patient fortitude of others, and sometimes exhorted a smile of satisfaction from the mangled suffers and succeeded to throw a momentary gleam of cheerfulness amidst so many horrors.

    Sam Willis

    George McGrath was the surgeon in the 74-gun Russell, in the same battle, and operated on Henry Spence, a seaman. He wrote:

    Official Dispatches

    Being in the act of running out one of the foclse guns to fire it, a large cannonball from the opponent’s ship struck him a little above the ankle joints and carried away both legs. During the time that I was examining the legs another man came to the cockpit with profuse haemorrhages from a large artery that was divided by a splinter. I was therefore necessitated to leave Spence, previously applying the tourniquet to staunch the man’s bleeding, which was soon done and afterwards Spence was laid out on the table and the operation was performed in the usual way, which he bore very well indeed, so much so that he did not require an assistant to hold him on the table. Lucky it was that he bore it so well as a shot at this time came into the cockpit and passed the operating table, close, this startled all the women who formed the chief of my assistants.

    Sam Willis

    So, although the surgeons operating area was below the waterline, it was not safe from enemy action. In the French fleet, 10 surgeons out of 88 were killed at Trafalgar, and a report from an army physician, Sir James Fellows records:

    Official Dispatches

    In the Colossus, the surgeon had just performed an operation when a cannon shot passed into the cockpit knocked down the table and wounded his assistant who was taking him some dressing. The unhappy brave fellows were laying down on the deck after being amputated rolled over one another. Onboard the Bellerophon the same thing happened and the distress it occasioned cannot be conceived.

    Sam Willis

    British losses by all causes in the wars of 1793 to 1815 have been calculated as disease and accident at 84,440; foundering, wreck, fire and explosion 12,680; and by the enemy 6540. So that’s 84,440 by disease and accident and 6540 by the enemy. Beatty was appointed physician of the channel fleet in 1806, and after the war he had a practice in Plymouth before becoming physician at Greenwich Hospital. He was involved in building Nelson’s Column and died in 1842. His obituary in the Londonderry Sentinel stated, ‘it may justly be said of Sir William Beatty that the whole of his professional life seemed to accord with the sentiment expressed in Nelson’s last and ever-memorable signal to the fleet. That is, England expects that every man will do his duty’.

    Well, I hope you very much enjoyed this special on William Beatty and life as a surgeon in Nelson’s Navy. We’ve got much more wonderful material coming your way soon. Do please keep in touch with us on social media. You can find us on Twitter, you can find us on Instagram and also online @snr.org.uk How can you help? Well, please leave us a review on iTunes. Please tell everyone you know if you’re enjoying it, but most of all, what you can really do to help is to join the Society for Nautical Research. And your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime and naval history and also towards preserving our maritime past and you can find out how to do that @snr.org.uk.