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.


Nelson’s last shore run

John Simpson has been thinking about Nelson, as many do around the anniversary of Trafalgar – as I write, I can see the position of the schooner Pickle on the AIS as she makes her way to Dover and then the Solent for Pickle Night celebrations.

Here’s what John has to say:

‘This Spring I visited Old Portsmouth and the small Camber Dock. It was wonderful to see how this area has been rejuvenated.

‘In 1805 Nelson ate his last breakfast ashore before the battle of Trafalgar near to Camber Dock at The George Hotel, which doesn’t exist now.

‘He left via the hotel’s back entrance to avoid the crowds waiting to see him going down to the beach – by this point in his career, he was in danger of being mobbed like one of today’s rock stars.

‘He passed the 500-year old Square Tower (used then by the navy to store meat – I bet that smelt) and crossed a drawbridge through a sally port to a redoubt on the shore, then joined a boat that rowed him out to his flagship HMS Victory and his fate; she was anchored in St Helen’s Road (to the East of the Isle of Wight).

‘Thirty years ago we used to come into the Camber with our school boats. It was useful to teach students how to tie up onto a harbour wall using long warps and a fender board with the rise and fall of tide, and it was a free mooring!

‘The place and pub were very dilapidated though many local fishing boats still used this handy place. Once I awoke to find our boat Gallivanter pinned down by the bows on a rising tide under a bit of ruined harbour wall ladder. All the crew’s weight was needed to free her.

‘New houses and pontoons were being built and sometimes we would tie up to them.

‘Nowadays Ben Ainslie is using part of this dock as a base for his Land Rover-sponsored America’s Cup campaign. He may have failed in Bermuda, but let’s hope he gets angry again for the next one!

‘There’s also storage racks for powerboats and RIBs, with with quick forklift access to the water and a good diving school. The Bridge Tavern looks much posher with a good mural painted outside…

‘Careful timing is still needed to enter the dock due the Isle of Wight ferries very close to the north. Their wash sweeps round to tiny basin; when a ferry leaves good attention is needed, particularly if you’re moored to the wall.

‘Portsmouth Harbour’s main entrance has always been narrow and busy with Isle of Wight ferries, ferries to France and of course the Royal Navy. It’s still controlled by a Queen’s Harbour Master, which means that that the Royal Navy can close it anytime.

‘The narrow channel has had to be dredged for the new aircraft carriers built in Scotland, and the current harbor master must have been bricking it when the new one came in.

‘Small boats have to keep very close to the west and must use their engines even if they have a sail hoisted.

‘Thinking about Nelson’s last walk through the old town still brings a shiver down my spine. The forts, beach and old walls still attract many visitors. It was wonderful to see it all again on a hot sunny day.’

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’