A Tewkesburian at Trafalgar?
In Tewkesbury’s Holy Trinity Church, there is a wall plaque that commemorates a certain William Sandilands, who served on board HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and who died in April 1867. His obituary in the Tewkesbury Register gave his age as 89 and further stated that he was “the last survivor” of the three men who carried the wounded Admiral Nelson down from the quarter-deck to the cockpit of the Victory.
Finding William 'Saunders'
The Tewkesbury Abbey Baptism Register reveals that a certain William, son of William and Fanny ‘Sandlands’ (sic) was baptised at the Abbey on 23 July 1783. If he had been aged 89 in April 1867, this would have meant that he was born in 1777 or 1778. However, it is known that parents often had their children baptised as children rather than new-born babies. There are records of other Sandilands in Tewkesbury during the early 19th Century, but none appears to be closely related to him.How are we to track Sandilands’ Naval career? There were two clues in his obituary. The first is that he served on board Victory as William ‘Saunders’, not Sandilands. Assumed names were not unusual in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era, but they could create problems for the owner – notably in claiming a naval pension – something that we shall come to later. The second clue was that he claimed to have earlier served on a ship called the Annybul.
The name Annybul is revealing and the source easily checked. The National Archives contain all the Royal Navy ship muster rolls of the period, and their website enables the researcher to check ships’ names. As expected, there was no Annybul: the word must have been an abbreviation, or a nickname, much like ‘Billy Ruffian’ for HMS Bellerophon.
The best candidate was HMS Hannibal, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line. There were fifteen muster roll volumes for Hannibal between 1794 and her capture in 1801. Fourteen of these cover the period she was stationed off the West Indies and, during that time, there were two crewmen named William Saunders. The first was from Sandwich in Kent, on-board from 19 April 1794 until his desertion in Jamaica on or before 15 October 1795. The second was a ‘negro’ – enrolled on 30 August 1797 who ‘ran’ (deserted) at Port Royal, Jamaica, 25 days later. (Hannibal took a number of negroes on-board whilst in the Caribbean).
Obviously, neither of these men fit the bill. However, the fifteenth muster, starting in mid-1801, shows us that Hannibal was paid off, re-victualled and had a new crew taken on-board. One of the new crew members was another William Saunders, origin unknown, who was entered on the roll on 28 May 1801.
Joining the Royal Navy
A word about ‘Muster Rolls’: these commenced whenever a ship was victualled for sea and a crew taken on-board. Each crew member from the captain to the youngest ship’s boy was listed in order of their appearance on board. These records were maintained by the ship’s purser, a man, usually of some financial means, warranted with the responsibility for all the ship’s wages and victualling. Every two months the entire roll would be re-copied: men having being discharged, ‘run’ or died were kept on the list, together with remaining crew members and newcomers.
We shall look at the Hannibal’s fateful 1801 voyage later, because the entry for ‘Saunders’ (as we must meanwhile call him) on the Hannibal’s muster roll of June 1801 gives us a vital clue. Muster Rolls usually reveal a crewman’s previous and subsequent ships. Hannibal’s tells us that Saunders had earlier served on HMS Sans Pareil, a captured French 80-gun ship-of-the-line serving in the West Indies. He had joined Sans Pareil with two other men on 16 July 1800, ‘entered’ as a ‘supernumerary for victuals’ (i.e. for food only, not on the pay-roll), having being ‘borne there’ (joined the ship while at sea) as a volunteer. (Other men joining the ship at the same time included two men ‘pressed’ from another ship. Slightly earlier, a prisoner on a charge of piracy was taken on board from the civil powers of the island of Trinidad, en-route to Britain on a charge of piracy, along with two witnesses.) Saunders was a crew-member from 10 August 1800, as an ‘ordinary seaman’. Unfortunately, Sans Pareil’s records do not tell us what Saunders did before joining.
One should pause here and consider three points. Firstly, being an ‘ordinary seaman’ meant that Saunders had previous sea-going experience – added to the obvious fact that he would have to have acquired this getting from Britain to the West Indies. Seaman were divided in to three categories: ‘landsmen’ – new men or those of dubious efficiency; ‘ordinary seamen’ – the vast bulk of crewmen, useful on board but not expert sailors; and ‘able-bodied’ seaman – good workers experienced in the ship’s duties.
The second point is that a man did not join the Royal Navy as a service, he was employed on-board a particular ship of the Royal Navy.
Thirdly, we must consider the status of the ‘volunteer’. Many people today assume that crews were all innocents, press-ganged in ports. This was not so. Before the French Revolutionary War broke out in 1793, volunteers made up 75% of ships’ strengths. War meant a greater need for men, so the proportion of those pressed grew to 50% as a result. Warships constantly sent boarding parties to merchant ships on the high seas and requisitioned likely-looking members of their crews. The men would then be put under pressure to be entered as volunteers. Doing so, the man was rewarded with a bounty – and it usually gave him greater status amongst his crew-mates. If a ‘pressed’ man remained obdurate he could be kept incarcerated below decks.
A volunteer joining in Britain would not necessarily come from a port – Muster Rolls show that men came from all over the country, inland as well as from coastal towns. The volunteer would make his way to a port, make his declaration, and be transferred to a ‘receiving ship’ from where he would be transferred to a Royal Navy ship in due course. One man, William Robinson, gave an account of volunteers waiting with criminals and pressed men, in the darkness below decks in a receiving ship. They were cold and seasick, deprived of decent food and relieved of their possessions by the wily ‘old salts’ around them. In such circumstances, they quickly lost the sense of patriotism as well as the desire for adventure and prize money that led then to enlist in the first place.
The Sans Pareil’s muster roll tells us also that Saunders was issued ship’s clothes by the purser, the cost of which, £1.2s. (£1.10p), was deducted from his pay. He also bought ‘dead man’s cloaths’, items belonging to a recently-deceased crew-mate, auctioned ‘at the mast-head’ for inflated prices to raise money for the man’s dependants. Saunders was also deducted for 3/2d. (16p) for tobacco.
One would have expected to see a forward posting from Sans Pareil to Hannibal in May 1801. Not so; instead, he was listed as being transferred to HMS Gorgon, a 44-gun frigate, by Admiralty order on or before 27 March 1801, and given a numbered ‘liberty ticket’ which was issued to any man being discharged from a ship’s roll before it was paid off. This ticket enabled the man to claim unpaid wages, when the ticket was matched with a matching counterfoil as the ship was eventually paid off. The Sans Pareil was not paid off until she docked in Plymouth in September 1802 – the upshot of this being that, like most crewmen of His Majesty’s Ships, Saunders was perpetually ‘in arrears’! Often, the only way to get money in such circumstances was to cash in the liberty ticket at an unfavourable rate with an on-shore broker.
The Gorgon’s muster marks Saunders’ enrolment on 1 November 1800 (the overlap between this date and the departure from Sans Pareil’s muster roll could be the time it took to cross the Atlantic, the Sans Pareil having remained on station in the West Indies, with a possible period on-shore). Saunders entered as ‘Able Seaman’; he had another 19/6d. (98p) deducted for more ‘dead man’s cloaths’, and 12/8d. (63p) for tobacco, both purchases being a large proportion of his monthly pay. At the time of Trafalgar, pay for an able seaman was £1.13s.6d. (£1.67p) a month, an ordinary seaman eight shillings (40p) less and ‘Landsman’ a further three shillings (15p) less.
Furthermore, Gorgon’s muster roll has him as coming from ‘Longdon’ There are two Longdons in Britain, one in Staffordshire and the other just 4 miles west of Tewkesbury. There are no references to any Sandilands or Saunders at that time in the Longdon Parish entries – is it possible that he moved there from Tewkesbury before going to sea?
Saunders was not with Gorgon for long: he ‘ran’ on or before 2 June 1801, while the ship was at Portsmouth. This was not unusual, as men often ran while a ship was at port, particularly after being paid. Obviously, when appearing on HMS Hannibal on 28 May 1801, he did not mention his time on Gorgon, as punishments for desertion were severe. Saunders entered Hannibal as an ‘ordinary’ seaman, his former rank and any moneys owing to him from Gorgon presumably being abandoned.
The Fate of the Hannibal
Annybul sailed from Spithead on 6 June 1801 and joined a squadron of five other ships-of-the-line, commanded by Admiral Sir James Saumarez. A month later, on 6 July, they took part in an abortive attack on a French squadron at Algeciras, near Gibraltar on the south coast of Spain, in an effort to prevent the French ships reinforcing others in the Mediterranean. During the action, Hannibal was ordered to sail between the French ships and the shore batteries and ‘rake’ the former with gunfire. Unfortunately, Hannibal ran aground; she was herself subjected to a protracted bombardment, from both the French ships and the Spanish batteries, which dismounted many of her guns. The wind changed direction, preventing the rest of the squadron from supporting the stricken ship. Her captain, Solomon Ferris, ordered the majority of his crew below decks to protect them from further casualties; eventually he succumbed to the inevitable and surrendered. Fifty-five members of his crew had been killed and an unknown number injured. A witness, Lord Cochrane, captured by the French shortly beforehand, revealed that the men of the Hannibal were released shortly afterwards on the terms of the Peace of Amiens, (a truce between Britain and France, that commenced later that summer).
“... he would tell (evidently considering it a signal proof of forethought and carefulness) how, having been paid off from the “Annybul,” just before he joined the Victory, at Portsmouth, he had no less than Ninety pounds in his possession on the day of the battle, “So,” says he, “thinks I, if I should be killed the officers might get hold on [sic] it, and I takes and ties it all up in my neckercher, so as it might go along wi’ me when they throwed my body overboard.” ...”
£90 would have been five years ordinary seaman’s wages before stoppages. Either old Sandilands exaggerated the amount or it included prize money from a now-forgotten action. Otherwise, £90 in coins was rather a lot to tie up in one’s neckerchief, unless some of that amount had been paid to him in recently introduced paper money.
Joining HMS Victory
The fragile Peace of Amiens ended on 16 May 1803 and the renewal of hostilities marked the start of the Napoleonic War, which continued until 1815.
HMS Victory’s Muster Roll reveals that Saunders was previously on HMS Utrecht (a captured 64-gun Dutch ship). The Utrecht’s muster roll confirms that he was one of a large number of men entered there on 2 April 1803. He enrolled as a volunteer, aged 29, and collected £2.16s. (£2.80p) as two months advance of pay. Utrecht (and Victory, which he boarded on 11 May 1803) recorded his home as ‘London’. Unless our man was an impostor (more of which below), one can imagine how easily a hard-pressed purser’s assistant misconstrued the word ‘Longdon’ when presented in a countryside accent.
Saunders’ service on 104-gun Victory, under the command of the celebrated Admiral Nelson, was the longest unbroken period that we have recorded of him at sea – two and a half years – mostly spent ‘blockading’ the French in the Mediterranean. The reason for the blockade here and on the enemy’s Atlantic coast was to prevent a concentration of warships providing an escort for Napoleon’s army, waiting in Boulogne with its ferries to invade England.
Blockading was an arduous business. The ships could stay at sea for as long as their timbers lasted; the months and years at sea, without respite in storm and calm, summer and winter, hardened the British crews. It also gave them time to perfect gunnery and teamwork. While blockading in the Mediterranean, Nelson saw to it that the sailing patterns were varied, to alleviate boredom. Food was obtained surreptitiously from coastal areas under the eye of Napoleon’s agents. Onions were a particular favourite with the crews, while huge quantities of lemon juice came from Italy and Sicily, along with cattle from North Africa. In fact, in twenty months off the coast of Toulon, only one man on-board Victory fell sick.
The Battle of Trafalgar
In mid-1805, Admiral Villeneuve’s French Mediterranean fleet broke Nelson’s blockade and, while the Victory and the rest of Nelson’s fleet chased him as far as the West Indies, the British squadrons stationed off the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain prevented the remaining French squadrons from reinforcing him. Eventually, Villeneuve returned to the French Atlantic ports.
The Victory temporarily returned to England. While Nelson was amused by his beautiful mistress, Lady Hamilton, at his home in Merton, Surrey, Victory was anchored off Portsmouth. We can imagine the frustration of Saunders and his mates: not one of the crew was allowed on-shore.
The news in September 1805 that Villeneuve had again sailed and concentrated with his allies in Cadiz was the cue for Nelson to rejoin Victory at Portsmouth; he sailed south to take command of the entire British fleet blockading the Franco-Spanish fleets.
Napoleon, exasperated by the failure of his fleets to concentrate for long enough at sea to escort his army across the Channel, turned his attention to Austria. Villeneuve was, therefore, ordered to the Mediterranean. On 20 October, he emerged from Cadiz with 33 ships-of-the-line. On being sighted by the British, they attempted to return to port. They failed, and the ensuing encounter was Nelson’s chance to destroy them – for he had perfected a plan to defeat Villeneuve. He would defy the conventional wisdom of naval warfare, where opposing fleets had sailed in parallel lines and slogged it out with firepower. Instead, Nelson would divide his fleet into two lines and ‘cross’ the Franco-Spanish fleet at its centre and rear, before the ships in the French ‘van’ (front) could turn and give support. Nelson knew that superior British seamanship and gunnery would win the day.
So it was that, shortly before midday on 21 October, the two British lines bore down on the Franco-Spanish fleet. Nelson was leading twelve ships in the Victory, while Admiral Collingwood, his second-in-command, was leading fifteen with the Royal Sovereign. Saunders, stationed on the quarter-deck, would have witnessed Nelson order the hoisting of his famous signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Shortly afterwards, the Victory and Royal Sovereign came under fire; both ships, being ‘First Raters’, were well able to absorb damage. There were, however, casualties – Mr. Scott, Nelson’s secretary, was struck by a cannon-shot and killed. Nelson exclaimed: “Is that poor Scott that is gone?” 
Saunders would have seen the body thrown overboard: the significance of Scott’s death was to become apparent in the sailor’s later life.
The Victory broke through the French line, astern of Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure, and disabled her by firing a full broadside through her stern windows. It was then Nelson’s misfortune that a small French 74-gun ship ran alongside the Victory. For this ship, the Redoutable, was the best trained in the French fleet. Long before, her captain, Lucas, having realised that French gunnery was no match for the British, trained his men in the art of shipboard fighting and mast-top musketry. Within minutes, these snipers had almost cleared the deck of the Victory and Lucas threatened to board.
The most widely quoted account of Nelson’s wounding and death is that of ship’s surgeon, William Beatty (1773-1842). Nelson was coolly pacing the quarter-deck, resplendent in uniform, orders and decorations; with him was Hardy, his captain. Moments later, Hardy turned to see his admiral being supported by James Secker, Sergeant-Major of the Marines, and two seamen, on the very part of the deck earlier bloodstained by Scott’s death-wound. A musket-shot had entered Nelson’s left shoulder, travelled through his body and had broken his spine. “They have done for me at last, Hardy.” he said. Beatty wrote: “Captain Hardy ordered the seamen to carry the admiral down to the cockpit...” 
Of Sandilands’ role in this event, we are told:
“He has a perfect recollection of leaving his gun, the aftermost of the starboard side of the quarter deck, to assist in carrying Nelson to the cockpit. Some time afterwards he was employed to carry down Lieutenant Rivers, and when returning to the deck he says that Nelson ordered him to go to Captain Hardy and learn from him how many line-of-battle ships had struck on the enemy’s side, bidding him make haste lest he should get stopped or killed by the way.” 
Sixty years later, however, Lt. Rivers’ son questioned Sandilands’ role in the carrying-down of Lt. Rivers but, a week later, his family were apparently convinced of Saunders/Sandilands’ presence. A more recent account has a gunner’s mate, Thomas Bailey, carrying the stricken Rivers to the cockpit. However, it is apparent from similar accounts and, by seeing the Victory today, that at least two men were needed to carry the wounded down the stairways.
The aftermost gun on the starboard side of the Victory’s quarter-deck is the nearest gun to the site of Nelson’s wounding, the latter being marked today by a brass plaque, so it is highly probable that Saunders was on-hand to attend to the stricken admiral. That the wounded Nelson used Saunders to convey a message to Hardy is not impossible because, as mentioned above, he had also carried at least one other man to the cockpit. Beatty’s account tells of frequent messages being passed by the dying Nelson in the cockpit and Captain Hardy on the quarter-deck; however, it makes no mention of Saunders by name. However, this is not unusual, as the only names mentioned in Beatty’s account are those of officers.
Despite the tragic loss, Trafalgar was a resounding victory. Eighteen French and Spanish ships were captured and one more destroyed; no British ships were lost. The Victory’s log recorded: “partial firing continued until 4.30, when a victory having been reported to the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B., and Commander in Chief, he died of his wound.”  Unfortunately, all except four of the prizes were so badly damaged that they foundered in a storm, which commenced that night. The Victory had also been badly damaged in the battle, and had the highest casualty-roll of the fleet – evidence of the fighting qualities of their foes on the Redoutable, many of whose survivors later drowned in the storm.
Nelson’s body was returned to London for a state funeral, while Victory was paid off for repairs. Her Muster Roll shows that many of her surviving crew-members were enrolled on the 98-gun HMS Ocean on 15 January 1806 and Saunders’ name is among those so recorded. However, Ocean’s muster rolls show that Saunders never arrived. We have no word of Saunders' subsequent movements. Apparently, he did not claim his Trafalgar prize money of £1.17s.8d. (£1.88), yet apparently signed for receipt of £4.12s.6d. (£4.62), his share of a Government grant paid to all those who were at Trafalgar, meaning that he had been traced. Following the end of the war against Napoleon, the Navy was drastically reduced in size: from some 140,000 seamen and marines in 1813 to just 19,000 four years later. Sandilands’ predicament echoes this:
“At the peace Sandilands left the Navy without claim to pension, went knocking about the world as sailors do, at last returned to his native place, Tewkesbury, and worked on the roads until old age and infirmity threw him on the parish.” 
In Tewkesbury, successive census records track Sandilands, as we again refer to him. In 1841, he was living with his wife, Elizabeth, in Well Alley. Ten years later, they were still there, William being aged 66 and (confirming his obituary) was employed as a road labourer. With them, were grandson Henry Jones, 23, an agricultural labourer originating from nearby Forthampton, his wife Louisa, a twenty-year-old dressmaker from Tewkesbury and their baby son. Also in the dwelling was another grandson of Sandilands, 13-year-old silk factory boy, William Sandilands, who had been born in Dublin.
William’s wife, Elizabeth, died aged 70 in 1853. By 1861 the Jones family had moved to South Quay Road and had grown to five children. William Sandilands, a gardener now aged 84, was listed as a ‘lodger’.
On the Parish
William Sandilands came to wider attention through the national and local press, because of what was seen as the injustice of the local Poor Law Guardians. An editorial comment from the Tewkesbury Register in 1859 revealed that Sandilands had been the recipient of a bounty from the Dowager Countess Nelson:
“For some years he was the subject of the bounty of Lady Nelson, who, on her attention being called to the distressed circumstances of the poor old tar, made the late Mr. Longmore her almoner and gave him a weekly allowance. Through some misadventure this stay of the old man’s declining years was withheld for some two years until recently, when, entirely in consequence of the intercession of a lady from the Isle of Wight, who was visiting last year in this town, it was brought under Lady Nelson’s notice, and he is now again in receipt of his pittance. An apprehension has been expressed that the guardians of the poor, hearing of his good fortune, may withdraw his 2s. 6d. per week and leave him again destitute of the comforts to which his years and honours entitle him, but we entertain no such fears. It was never contemplated by the framers of the new Poor Law Act that no distinction should be made in old age between the drunkard who wasted his opportunities and spent a life of indolence and dissipation, and the man who, by land or sea, had contributed his mite to the imperishable glories of this country, and owed the poverty of his declining years not to his fault but to his misfortune...” 
Two years passed and the threat to deduct the value of Sandilands’ bounty from his Poor Law Relief had, in fact, been carried out. Unfortunately, the rough-and-ready ‘means-testing’ that Sandilands faced, though over-zealously applied, was perfectly legitimate. Mr. R.A. Hullah, a well-wisher of Berners Street, London, who had earlier met old Sandilands, complained in the Times:
“...can you believe, Sir, that then the parochial authorities, with true parochial munificence, treated the Nelson allowance as part of his weekly income, and reduced their wretched grant to 1s. per week, thus leaving this old man to exist upon 3s. 6d. per week, occasionally increased by donations from kind friends in Tewkesbury! ... “They manage things better in France.” Fancy him there in a parallel situation. Why, he would be decorated, honoured, cared for, and nursed as a child of the State...” 
Fortunately, Sandilands had two new allies. Reverend Francis John Scott, Incumbent of Holy Trinity Church, Tewkesbury had reason enough rally to an old salt’s aid – he was the grandson of Nelson’s Secretary John Scott who had been killed on-board the Victory shortly before Nelson. The other was the Mayor of Tewkesbury, F.J. Prior, who was able to report to The Times that a substantial fund had been raised for the old sailor and that, furthermore, the matter had reached the ears of a more exalted person. This was clarified in the Tewkesbury Register two days later:
The £45 fund would have lasted 150 weeks at 6s (30p) a week, until September 1864. If the Queen’s £5 was extra, it would have extended this by a further sixteen weeks. There must have been further donations but, eventually, the fund was exhausted. In September 1865, Revd. Scott made a further appeal to the Times, which brought in a sum sufficient to allow Sandilands a shilling a day (5p) for the rest of his life. There was even a donation of a guinea (£1.05p) from a ‘Lieutenant Rivers, R.N.’ whose father was the young lieutenant carried from the quarter-deck of the Victory after Nelson.
An atmospheric picture emerges of the old man in his final years: “He himself was somewhat of an original – honest and industrious, but a rough diamond. His voice seemed to have been blown away out of the foretop at some remote period, and its hoarse remains added zest to the worthy old man’s droll sayings ... He had his little room, and sailor-like his pet cat, and so long as he could keep her from roaming he was quite contented...”.  A typed document from the Holy Trinity archives adds: “William Sandilands retained his faculties to the last, and was wont to recount many tales of his sea-going days during his retirement ... He ended his days alone in the Oldbury district, with a large cat as his companion.” 
William Sandilands died on 18 April 1867, the local Volunteer Corps, who fired a volley over his grave in Tewkesbury Cemetery, conveyed his body in procession.
In conclusion, we have to ask ourselves: was William Sandilands really one of the three who helped carry Nelson to the cockpit? Many times since have men invented their military exploits for reflected glory or financial gain. (This being a problem today with some so-called Vietnam ‘veterans’ in the USA.) We are not told why Sandilands used the name ‘Saunders’ at sea – if he had wanted to assume a disguise then surely he would have used something completely different. Possibly his name was bowdlerised at sea – did ‘Sandilands’ have too much of the ring of the lowly ‘landsman’ about it? We will never know. The use of an assumed name would almost certainly have caused problems for Sandilands in later life – as men doing so were debarred from claiming a pension. More pertinently, what was it that convinced the Nelson family, Reverend Scott, Mayor Prior and Queen Victoria’s advisers of his case? What was it that convinced the doubting son of Lieutenant Rivers? The Battle of Trafalgar was the most celebrated battle of the era, and Victory the most celebrated ship in that battle. Her survivors were envied by their contemporaries – any impostor would probably have been exposed during the ensuing publicity. The only thing that would have satisfied all these people was hard evidence, which, being ‘taken as read’ at the time, would not have been mentioned in print. That evidence would have been the Naval General Service Medal which was given to all who served at sea during the Napoleonic Wars, and who were still alive when the medal was instituted in 1847. A register exists of all recipients, while a special clasp was fitted to those who were at Trafalgar and such a medal was indeed awarded to a William Saunders of HMS Victory. 
Recently, the identity of one of the seamen who helped Sgt. Major Secker carry the wounded Nelson down to the cockpit has been revealed as one James Sherman. Therefore, in this case – and in the absence of further evidence – Sandilands can be considered the ‘third man’ of those who carried Nelson: if not ‘case proven’, then ‘case most likely to have been proven’.