Category Archives: Navy

Can you help find Camperdown hero Jack Crawford’s colours?

Sunderland folks have launched a nationwide appeal to find the flag that young Sunderland sailor Jack Crawford famously nailed to the mast of HMS Venerable during the battle of Camperdown in 1797.

The illustration is courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

His a dangerous action is said to have changed the course of the battle, which the British Navy went on to win. It’s also claimed that this event is the source of the saying ‘to nail your colours to the mast’.

Born in Sunderland’s East End on 22 March 1775, Jack became a keelman ferrying coal on the River Wear at the age of just 11.

After being press ganged into the Royal Navy in 1796, he served on the gun ship HMS Venerable under Admiral Duncan, the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief of the North Seas.

In 1797, Britain was at war with France, Holland and Spain and, on 11 October, the British and Dutch Navies met in battle off the coast of Norway, near Camperdown, close to Bergen.

In a daring but successful move, Admiral Duncan divided the British fleet into two groups, which firing broadsides broke through the Dutch ships. The strategy prevented the Dutch fleet from joining the French Navy, and scuppered plans to first invade Ireland and then to attack Britain.

During the fierce fighting, HMS Venerable was badly damaged and the main mast, bearing its flag – or colours – was brought down. As the Union Flag (the original Union Jack without the red saltire of St Patrick) was the command flag of Admiral of the Fleet, its loss could have been interpreted as surrender.

Under heavy fire, 22-year-old Jack climbed the mast and nailed the colours to the top to ensure no-one imagined there had been a surrender.

He was later hailed a hero for his action and honoured at a great victory procession in London, and the people of Sunderland presented him with a silver medal. Later he was formally presented to King George III and granted a pension of £30 a year.

In 1890 a bronze statue commemorating his deed was erected in a Sunderland park and unveiled by the Earl of Camperdown, the grandson of Admiral Duncan. At this ceremony, it is said, the colours Jack nailed to the mast were on display.

Since that time, however, they have been lost and Sunderland is now anxious to find them ahead of the Tall Ships race which will be in the town’s harbour in July next year.

Anyone who can shed light on the whereabouts of the colours is asked to ring 0191 2656111 or email

For more on Jack Crawford, click here.


Can anyone cast light on this rowing gig, currently being restored at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

David Griffiths who is leading a team of volunteers working the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s Boathouse No 4 to restore what they believe to be an old Royal Navy rowing gig.

However, David and his co-workers know little that is certain about her and he hopes an reader might be able to help with the history and perhaps some construction details. If anyone can help, please either add a comment using the link below or email me at, and will direct your message to David.

Here’s what David has to say:

‘The boat is 15ft 5in stem to stern, with a beam of 4ft. She has no construction plate or details on her, other than that her transom is marked with an engraved ‘204/17’.

‘She has two thwarts for one man each, two oars each, and would have had a coxswain’s seat with backrest. Thus, in rowing terms she was a coxed, double sculling skiff.

‘She also had a small thwart toward the bow, but whether this was intended to carry another person is not clear. It may have been structural only, or perhaps supported a towing post.

‘We have no records on her. She is commonly and affectionately known as the Dartmouth gig, and the rumor is that she was built by (or for) the navy for use by cadets at Britannia Royal Naval College.

‘I understand that there was a time when the navy believed that every man should know how to pull (row), and that boats of this kind were built in quite large numbers.

‘We believe that after her life in Dartmouth she was brought up to Whale Island, here in Portsmouth, where she sat as surplus for some years before being obtained, maybe some twenty-five years ago, by the Naval Base Property Trust.

‘Sadly she has been greatly neglected over the years, and even subjected to deliberate sabotage, but now, with perseverance, my team is bringing her back, plank by plank.

‘I believe she is built in white pine on oak: a visitor came in one day and said this was the case, adding that he was a historian with expertise in wood construction.

‘It certainly has some of the feel and appearance of being old, and but her knees, stem and stern post are all laminated.

‘I have managed to locate some photographs of a boat that appears to be identical to ours, and which was for sale on-line some years ago. Named Bluie, it apparently had a plate indicating that she was built by shipwright apprentices in Devonport, but it had no date. I’m hoping this might be a clue…

‘Our boat is currently replanked up to number ten on each side, so we are at the point of fitting new sheer strakes then framing her out. From that point though, we are lacking the details which will allow us to fulfill an authentic restoration.

‘If anyone out there among your readership can cast any light on our delightful little boat, I would be most grateful.

‘Best wishes, David Griffiths’

So Long, farewell

So Long, as she is now, photographed by Christopher Sainsbury

Journalist Paul Sullivan has been making enquiries about a sailing cutter that was moored on the marshes at Lymington and which recently disappeared, pretty well without warning, as far as most people were concerned. Here’s his story:

For half a century, an old clinker-hulled boat moored out in the salt marshes near Lymington in Hampshire was a familiar and cherished sight for locals, and a fascinating discovery for visitors. But then, suddenly, she vanished. This is the story behind the mystery of a missing landmark.

She sat in the middle of the narrow channel known as Oxey Lake, on the seaward side of the sluice gates at the ancient salterns just outside Lymington, tucked in behind the Isle of Wight, away from the shipping lanes, the broiling waters around the Needles Channel, and sheltered from southwesterlies.

She was a century-old sailing cutter, supposedly built at the Mediterranean Fleet’s yards in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Royal Navy blueprint first drawn in Nelson’s time.

At 32ft in length, she was originally a two-masted lug-rigged harbour supply boat, but from the 1970s converted to a ketch, but now moored fore and aft in Oxey Lake, owned by a reed-cutter called Norman, who lived on board.

She’d settled into this sedentary life, offering cramped but cheap single-man’s accommodation in return for his enthusiastic if less-than-Naval guardianship. Tarpaulins across the boom kept the rain out of her cockpit and her white hull got an occasional touch-up, but most importantly Norman’s occupancy was life-preserving – the night-time heat of a Calor stove and sooty oil lamps was just enough to keep the damp at bay.

In her silent moored solitude, under huge skies, she became a landmark, a sight to be discovered by the summer people, on foot, in plastic kayaks, along the rail of the Wight ferries or from the sparkling decks of company yachts. Passing runners, dogwalkers and birdwatchers fixed on the flight pools might barely gave her a glance, but at a still dawn or twilight, you could pause to study her silhouette and her perfect reflection on the water.

Before that? She’d had a hard working life, it’s said: lashed to the deck of warships, sent off to haul back supplies from bays and shallow harbours. She had no home: at each harbour boats like her were usually exchanged for another similar vessel that would ferry out the supplies and be hauled up to take her place.

So she passed from warship to warship, with no captain’s log to record the passing. Someone might know more, of course, but Norman, if he knew, usually said nothing, though sometimes among friends and fellow drinkers at the Thomas Tripp pub he would paint heartbreaking scenes of her chopping through fractious seas littered with the great allied fleets off Suvla Bay, taking the boys in to Gallipoli.

There were other stories too but, really, who knew? Whatever the truth, by the late 1950s, she found herself in a civilian yard in Southampton, on a fleet disposal list, a curiosity tucked in behind the surplus torpedo boats and dented landing craft.

Norman bought her, worked a re-fit of sorts, added a proper cabin, laid new deck, repaired repairs and, with help, re-rigged her as a ketch, then took her to Lymington, and then Oxey Lake, and lived on her.

But then, just in the last year or so, he left. Although the reed-cutting finished by the end of the 90s, Norman was allowed to stay on the mooring into his retirement, hauling back and forth between bank and boat in a little tender for shopping and trips to see family, and to go to the Thomas Tripp for sometimes risky Saturdays at the bar from which he’d return on his bike after midnight, slow and tottering along the bank in the darkness, quietly cursing and searching for invisible ropes.

Those who knew kept an eye on the boat and on him, but he was strong and strong-minded, and determined to stay. For his family it meant years of concern until a mild stroke a few years ago swept away his objections to leaving. In the end, a compromise was reached: Norman moved onto a fibreglass cabin cruiser with curtains at the old Dyer Brothers yard in Southampton.

The yard offered good access and other boats, electricity, heating, and the unexpected pleasure of soft carpet under bare feet. At night there were far fewer visible stars, but there was hot water and headroom.

Meanwhile, the cutter waited, out in the salterns, her hull settling in the mud. The violence of her past – the groundings, the gales, the collisions, the boots and bullets, the bangs and scrapes – many were hard and damaging, but they were working injuries, things to be itemised, repaired, replaced and attended to. But now with no work and no plan, the damp went cold to her core, unchecked. Light fingers of dark rot caressed her keel, searching for a hold.

The talk in the Tripp was of something crueler. Gribble worm eats at the frame of a wooden boat, they said, weakening the joints, slowly letting the mud suck the keel down, locking it in a greasy embrace strong enough to let a rope and a hard tow rip her in two. Could be she’ll stay there, they said – who’d want the risky job of moving her and be left with nothing but responsibility for the clear-up and the bill.

Still, they said, you’d think he’d have cared more, not just left her. Just bar talk, perhaps, but each drinker felt the irony of her coming fate, in the sucking, stinking blue-grey mud.

And then she disappeared.

The news seeps back in to the town, from a morning jogger, from a couple just back from walking their retrievers – that old boat is gone, with just the tender left on the bank. It’s weird, they said, like seeing a well-known painting with the subject rubbed out, like someone had taken away Tesco’s or the war memorial overnight, so familiar it takes a while to work out it’s missing.

Bit by bit, by word of mouth, by phone, by text, email, people asked about her, realising they don’t even know if she had a name. (Norman had privately christened her So Long, though 2850 Alx is what the Navy stencil-cut into her stern.) She is missed, loved. People want to know where she is, where he is, what happened. Over a week, the story unfolds.


At early light, Norman was back, finally. With a friend, and with the cabin cruiser pushing against a bitch of a tide for most of the trip they’d nosed in to the mouth of her channel, come along her port side. Working quickly and efficiently, quicker than he’d thought, they’d tied a line to her bow, cut the mooring ropes. Norman stayed on her, the friend on the cabin cruiser eased her around and pulled just ahead. Gently throttling forward, the towline rising, tightening, feeling into the load. There was a moment – and then she moved easily, eagerly, the unlikely pairing cutting smoothly out into a calm, biddable sea, a light wind, clear and bright.

Those few who saw, working out early along the Solent, peered through cabin glass, slowing their engines, turning to stare at her fine white hull, rocking masts, quickly understanding the cabin cruiser’s rude proximity, the nature of this voyage.

At a pre-arranged point, another cabin cruiser with big twin engines, a neighbour from Dyers, took over the tow, taking the speed up to 6 knots. And Norman stayed on her, for nearly eight hours, as this strangely unmatched little flotilla of three slowly disappeared east.

Now she’s back in Southampton, out of the water, properly laid up for winter for the first time in decades, unrigged, de-masted, shored up securely in the busy little Drivers Wharf yard on the Itchen, just down from Dyers, where there are workshops filled with noise and skills and tools and knowledge.

Craftsmen’s eyes have looked her over; their hands have rubbed along her sides, studied her shape, assessed and itemised her needs. Norman couldn’t leave her; he is still strong, focused, and making plans. Next year he’ll be 80, though she’ll be well over 100. She waits, warming gently in the sun.

Copyright © Paul Sullivan, 2017. All rights reserved. Photos © Christopher Sainsbury, 2017

Thanks Paul and Christopher! Here are some more of Christopher’s photographs: