Category Archives: Sailing ships

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.


Sailors go 200 years back in time to crew sailing vessel which brought news of Trafalgar

Portsmouth Naval Base volunteers are to sail the schooner Pickle from Hull to the Solent to attend a celebration of the original HMS Pickle’s voyage to Falmouth carrying the news of the victory at Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The battle took place off Cape Trafalgar (not far from the Southern tip of the country) and the journey took ten days – and then it took another 37 hours for captain Lieutenant John Lapenotiere to reach the Admiralty in London.

On arrival, it’s recorded that he announced: ‘Sir, we have gained a great victory but we have lost Lord Nelson.’

The accomplishments of Lapenotiere and his small boat are celebrated each November 4 – the anniversary of Pickle’s arrival in Falmouth – with Pickle Night, an evening for naval ratings to remember the heroes of 1805 and generally let their hair down, often dressed in the uniform of the day.

HMS Victory hosts a special Pickle Night event on the great ship’s lower gun deck with 104 specially-nominated ratings dining with Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock.

HMS Victory executive officer WO1 Dickie Henderson along with some senior ratings serving aboard Nelson’s flagship thought this year the presence of a replica (the original Pickle was wrecked more than two centuries ago) berthed next to Victory, would add to the proceedings.

The current Pickle was built 20 years ago in the Baltic, has a hull similar to the original and was adapted to look more like the original HMS Pickle to mark the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar.

The crew will live in more comfort than sailors of Nelson’s era but he sailing gear would have been recognisable to old time sailors. On her  planned way south from the 25th-30th October, she is to call at Harwich, Dover and Eastbourne, and reach Portsmouth on the 30th.

Thanks to support from long-time Navy supporter Sir Donald Gosling and his foundation, and the RN RM Charity, up to six sailors, at a time, from HMS Victory and Portsmouth Flotilla will be able to crew the Pickle on each leg (the longest is 36 hours)… I gather there has been no shortage of volunteers.

The Dutch in the Medway, by PG Rogers

The Dutch burn English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 1667)(Jan van Leyden, 1669)

People are getting quite excited about Medway Council’s commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Raid on the Medway, which includes a series of events leading up to fireworks on the 17th June.

Perhaps the most excited group are Dutch yachties, who have long since booked up every space in local marinas and moorings. I expect the Medway’s creeks will be nearly as busy as the waterside that evening.

The battle itself was actually a huge humiliation for the English Navy and a daring, in some ways lucky, but carefully calculated success on the part of the Dutch United Provinces navies. There are some interesting short videos to watch on YouTube (one here and one here),  but if you really want to understand what happened at Sheerness, in Gillingham Reach and off Upnor Castle (and what is now Chatham Marina, Seaforth Publishing has just released PG Rogers’ classic work on the topic, The Dutch in the Medway.

Nab it quick, I say, while it remains on offer, for as well as explaining the background and aftermath, its chapters describing the action is as gripping as it is fascinating – even more so if you’re a North Kent sailor and know the Medway.

It’s really essential reading ahead of an event that will be a celebration for the Dutch (who call the battle ‘The Trip to Medway’). For the British it’s a bit more complicated – I’m expecting both a celebration of how our nations now get along well, but also a moment for commemoration and quiet thought about how such a national humiliation was allowed to happen. My take, which won’t surprise many who know me, is that we should never place too much trust in government decision making or propaganda.

The background was the second Anglo-Dutch war, which was sparked by continuing rivalry over trade and anger over the torture and the killing of nine British traders at the island of Amboyna by the Dutch.

In the period before the Medway, the second Anglo-Dutch war was generally thought in England to be coming to an end: there had been battles and now peace negotiations were taking place at  Breda.

But it was also a time when state finances were at a very low ebb, military procurement badly managed and payment very slow, Navy vessels unmanned, slow progress in building military defences, and a very small army, and a King who was apparently more interested in the fun of court life than the affairs of state. It was, you might think, just the right moment for a Dutch military intervention aimed at influencing the outcome of the Breda talks.

Intervene they did – and this is what Rogers describes so well.

With the help of various disillusioned English seamen and military officers, the Dutch sailed up the Thames, took Sheerness and then, aided by a handy NE breeze, sailed up the Medway for two fierce engagements in the narrow waters off Gillingham and Chatham involving cannon fire, fireships, the destruction of a defensive chain, and boardings of English ships defended by unarmed men – some of whom, not surprisingly, chose to escape rather than face certain defeat and very likely death in an unequal fight.

The second battle occurred three days later – but by this point the British defence had been strengthened, and the attackers were subjected to heavy cannon fire. The Dutch did not reach and destroy the Chatham shipyards, probably partly because the narrowness of the channel (making navigation difficult, perhaps particularly with a NE wind) and because a number of ships had been deliberately sunk to narrow the channel.

By this point a great deal of damage had been done to bthe English Navy’s vessels, its reputation and pride. Ships had been sunk or burned, and the big and symbolic Royal Charles (previously it had been the ship that brought Charles II to England) had been captured. There were attempts at propaganda belittling the Dutch victory, but it seems to have been difficult to hide the truth of a defeat so close to London.

And it wasn’t over yet – the Dutch continued to ply the Thames Estuary, preventing cargo ships from delivering good such as coal to London, and terrifying the folks of capital, who by now were half sure that the Army and Navy were in no state to protect them from the apparently fearless, well led and well informed Dutch, who had gained considerable respect.

It’s perhaps a minor point, but even the feat of  getting the half-rigged Royal Charles down the shallow Medway and safely back to Amsterdam was seen as a great achievement. Once there she was put on show as a prize, which naturally caused great anger in England.

My assessment is straightforward. The Dutch in the Medway is well worth reading, perhaps particularly at a time when we’re reconsidering our role as a trading nation and our relations with the rest of Europe.