A Tewkesburian at Trafalgar A Correspondence

by Sam Eedle
Bulletins 14 (2005) and 15 (2006) contained the story of William Sandilands (died 1867) of Tewkesbury, who related that he had fought on board HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. In later life, he had returned to Tewkesbury and in his old age he received a small pension (£5.00 p.a.) awarded by the Dowager Lady Nelson, the value of which was subsequently deducted from his Poor-Law Relief payments. The ensuing scandal and appeals in 1861 and 1864 were recorded not only in the Times, but repeated in local newspapers throughout the country. Even Queen Victoria made a donation. Now, improved means of tracking down the contents of newspaper articles online have revealed a fresh seam of correspondence, hitherto untapped, which helped to establish the old salt’s credibility.  
In 1865, the Reverend F.J. Scott of Holy Trinity Church had repeated earlier appeals for donations. In the letters page of the Times of 30 August, he wrote:

" … He is 89 years of age, bedridden but tolerably healthy, and in this mild climate may live for a year or two. He has a perfect recollection of leaving his gun, the aftermost on the starboard side of the quarterdeck, 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 to make haste back lest he should get stopped or killed by the way ... As the grandson of Nelson’s public secretary, who was killed with his chief on the Victory’s quarter-deck, I am deeply interested in this poor old seaman …"

Two days later, the following letter appeared in the Times, from H.E. Rivers, Greenwich Hospital: 

"Seeing the account in the Times of the 30th of August of a man named William Sandilands having carried Lieutenant Rivers below from Her Majesty’s ship Victory’s deck when he lost his leg at Trafalgar, I was induced to examine the ship’s books to see if such a name appeared, as my father, the late Lieutenant Rivers, was not the person to neglect an old salt, especially one who claims to have rendered him such service as that described in the letter referred to. After a careful search I find no such name on the Victory’s books at the time, so that either [F.J. Scott] has been misled, or the man went by some other name in the service. The matter should be cleared up, in order that Lady Nelson and the public generally may not be imposed upon."

On 4 September, Revd. Scott replied in the Times, first thanking several named donors: 

" ... In reply to the letter signed by 'H.E. Rivers' in The Times of to-day ... William Sandilands entered on-board the Victory as William Sanders. Will Mr. Rivers kindly withdraw the doubt he has cast upon my statement, lest he should injure one who was of real service to his gallant father? ... I have just been to visit and question old Sandilands on the subject of this letter. I suddenly asked him, 'Where was Lieutenant Rivers hurt at Trafalgar?', 'Leg shot off' was the immediate reply."

Mr. Rivers’ reply appeared on 6 September. 

"... It affords me satisfaction to find my search concerning the above-named old sailor has not been fruitless, my suggestion having proved correct, that he must have gone by a different name ... The information for the supply of the ready answer that Mr. Scott says was given as to the nature of the wounds received by the late Lieutenant Rivers, and received as conclusive evidence, is easily attainable from any list of the killed and wounded. My object is simply to protect the public, as I have met with similar cases to the one in question. It now appears that the man’s name is Saunders, not Sandilands; and I find, on further search, there were three men bearing that name in the action. I can only add that I shall be glad to assist in cheering the old man’s few remaining years if I can identify him as one of those three men."

On 8 September, Mr. Rivers stated his satisfaction: 

"... I have the pleasure to inform you that I have been able to identify the old sailor Sandilands as William Saunders, aged 90, rated AB [Able Seaman] on the books of Her Majesty’s ship Victory at Trafalgar, making no doubt this man is one of the few surviving heroes of that action. He seems to need pecuniary aid, in which I shall endeavour to assist, and trust the public will furnish the Rev. Francis J. Scott, MA, of Tredington, Tewkesbury, the means of providing the old man with the few comforts he requires ... H.E. Rivers."

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