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HMS Pickle at the Battle of Trafalgar

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The accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar are usually focused on the great victory won by Admiral Lord Nelson and HMS Victory but HMS Pickle at the Battle of Trafalgar played a key role both during the battle and in the aftermath.

This article discusses HMS Pickle at the Battle of Trafalgar, her activities and actions in the run up to the battle and in the days afterwards.

On 29 September Pickle captured the American brig Indefatigable.

October 9th 1805, Pickle with HMS Weazle was sent to assist Captain Henry Blackwood commanding Nelson’s frigates monitoring enemy coastline off Cadiz to provide information for the British fleet. During this period prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, Pickle was able to capture a Portuguese settee, a single decked vessel used as a transport that was carrying a much-needed cargo of bullocks from Tangier to the French and Spanish ships at Cadiz. This cargo was used to replenish the British fleet. As a spy ship, heavily disguised using different sails and flags managed to get close enough to Cadiz to count and give a comprehensive report of a combined fleet, Spanish and French, numbering 33 Frigates and ‘ships of the line’ their state of readiness, and ultimately with confirmation of leaving port. Pickle was observing and reporting to Nelson all through the run up to the Battle of Trafalgar giving a delighted Nelson three days to prepare.

October 21st 1805 as a tender, Pickle remained at the back of the fleet; too small to engage the large ships of the line. She was employed at ‘picking up survivors from the battle regardless of nationality... She was one of the first on the scene of the French ship Achilles fully ablaze with most of her crew desperately trying to escape. ‘Pickle’ picked up about 160 foreign seamen despite his ship having but a crew of forty and stowed them all below deck. An amazing feat especially when the French seamen were overheard plotting to overthrow the small British crew and take the vessel, it was thwarted by an officer locking the hatch until the seamen could be transferred later to a larger ship. Ships’ Surgeon Simon Gage Britton received the Trafalgar clasp alone for his actions both on board ‘Pickle’ and HMS Victory when he attended to Lord Nelson as he was dying. This rather unusual story emerged after the rescue of the French seamen and two women from the burning Achilles.

October 24th 1805 Trafalgar is won but it is soon back to business as Vice admiral Collingwood takes command of the battered British fleet. His own ship is in a poor state and dismasted he transfers to the frigate Euryalus and one of his priorities was to transfer news of the battle back to Lord Barham in London. Lieutenant Lapenotierre is chosen to accomplish that task, normally a fast frigate would have taken on the role but Collingwood dare not chance losing a ship of that calibre so the next option is ‘Pickle’. Another perhaps more compelling reason lay in an incident years before when as a passenger on board a ship which also conveyed Cuthbert Collingwood later to become Lord Collingwood; Lapenotierre realised the ship was heading for rocks and immediately ran to the wheel steering her out of danger. A grateful Collingwood knowing, he had saved the lives of everyone on board including himself promised to do him a service if the opportunity came his way. As he gave the despatches to the Lieutenant he reminded him of the promise and how he had kept his word. (Story found in the Cornishman October 19th 1905)

HMS Victory's deck in the heat of battle

HMS Victory's deck in the heat of battle

Jeanette’s story: A view from the other side

Edouard Desbriere wrote an excellent account of “The Naval Campaign of 1805, Trafalgar” (long out of print and now rare, valuable) from the primary French and Spanish official records.
Desbriere gives us an interesting insight into the true characters of many of the Royal Navy officers and men when he recounts the story of Jeanette. She was the wife of a maintop man. She was stationed in the passage to the forward magazine, employed passing up cartridges. She stated all the main deck ladders were shot away. Blazing wood fell down the hatches. Startled by heavy crashes saw the main deck planking above her burning and some guns fell through. Terrified Jeanette ran aft climbing through a gun port then via the chains to the rudder where she scrambled onto the curved after edge. Melting lead from the trunk lining dripped onto her neck & shoulders. Stripping off she jumped and swam to a piece of wreckage. The French man on it kicked her away. She found a smaller piece. Later another man put a large plank under her arms. Naked, eventually she was rescued by a boat from HMS Pickle, whose crew were soon out-numbered 4 to 1 by French survivors they had rescued. They gave her a headscarf, jacket and a pair of seaman’s trousers, and treated her burns. She recounted the number of men she had to fight off when they tried to take her oar. Her adventure was to become more incredible. She was transferred from HMS Pickle to HMS Revenge ‘looking a picture of misery & despair’. An officer noticed the dejected youth so made enquiries. He realized he was a she, a woman and from then her luck changed for the better. Jeanette was given an officer’s cabin and material to make clothes including some from a Spanish prize. 4 days later her husband was found on board, unhurt and the couple were re united.

October 26th 1805 Finally Pickle is released to take the despatches to London. The conveyed bitter, sweet, news back to England of a great victory but the death of Nelson. Immortal lines taken from a ballad 'penned' shortly after the battle: Make haste little Pickle, the admiral said, go and tell England that Nelson is dead. So, fly gallant schooner and make out all sail for you carry great tidings and canvas clad mail for the lordships, whose spirits our victory will gladden though the news of our loss the whole nation will sadden. La-Penotierre took his vessel with all hast through freshening winds and squalls. Each day brought fresh challenges and deep seas. November 1st 1805 an order is given to heave four of his twelve pounder carronades each weighing six hundred weight to lighten the ship in appalling weather conditions. November 2nd Lapenotierre makes contact with the 74 gun ‘Superb’ before continuing his journey. Desiring to land at Plymouth the sea was unremitting and it was to Falmouth he landed on November 4th 1805 to eager crowds anxious to hear news, many had relatives serving in the fleet. They wanted to know who was on the ‘butchers’ block’ He was polite but silent, immediately setting about hiring a ‘post Chaise’ to take him to Whitehall with important dispatches from lord Collingwood. Not an easy journey his route, still known as ‘Trafalgar Way’ took him just over 36 hours with twenty-one stops usually at inns to change horses, postilions and post chaises, a journey of 271 miles costing £46.00; six months’ pay for a lieutenant in those times. The entire journey from Cape Trafalgar to Whitehall was 1,266 miles with little rest. The trail is still known as Trafalgar Way and is celebrated up and down the country annually around the 4th to the 6th November as ‘Pickle night’
Lapenotierre was handsomely rewarded with £500 a Lloyds Patriotic Fund sword worth £100 and a silver muffineer given by the king of England King George and claimed his expenses. He also rose through the ranks to become a Post Captain.

Credit for the research that went into these accounts goes to ‘News of Nelson’ by Derek Allen and Peter Hore and Iain Mackenzie of the Naval Historical Board.