Keelman and war hero Jack Crawford nails his colours to the mast

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Jack Crawford climbs the rigging

Searching a few weeks ago for information about a quite different Jack Crawford, I learned about the one pictured above.

He was a keelman from Sunderland until he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy in his early 20s, and found himself on board HMS Venerable under Admiral Duncan, the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief of the North Seas. The story of this Jack Crawford’s fame, though, begins at the battle of Camperdown, in 1797, when the British and Dutch navies met in battle off the coast of Norway, near Camperdown, close to Bergen.

Instead of forming a line of ships, Admiral Duncan split the British fleet into two groups, which broke through the Dutch ships, firing broadsides. Although a daring move, it was successful because the Dutch ships were not yet ready for battle, and it prevented the Dutch fleet from joining the French navy in order to invade Ireland.

HMS Venerable’s main mast was broken in the fighting, but while under heavy fire the young Jack climbed it and nailed the Union Jack to it. This was the command flag of Admiral of the Fleet, and was both an  important identifier and a symbol of British power.

The loss of the flag could be a great blow to morale and could affect a battle, and the phrases to ‘nail your colours to the mast’ and ‘show your true colours’ are believed to refer to the importance of these flags.

In recognition Jack was later formally presented to King George III and granted a pension.

For much more on this story, the monuments to this local hero and information on material in Sunderland’s museum, click here.

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