Trafalgar – the 13 year-old Veteran

21 October, 2010 at 12:57 am 3 comments

Helicopter parents are advised to hit the back button now. If you’re worried about leaving your 13 year old in the living room without supervision for ten minutes, the following tale might traumatise you.

“The One True Story of the Battle of Trafalgar” doesn’t exist. There are as many stories as there were people, ships and nations involved. And, not to forget, the historians writing about it! Nelson’s legendary signal before the battle, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, was also addressing the youngsters serving in the navy. Ship’s boys. Powder monkeys. And midshipmen.

Regulars of this blog will know the tragic story of young Norwich Duff who, at 13 years of age, saw his father die next to him, and whose letter to his mother with the sad news is probably telling us just as much about Trafalgar as documents of naval strategies.

From our modern point of view, the mere thought of sending a 13 year old to war is lunacy. It goes completely against our concept of protecting children (and rightly so!). But back in the 18th, early 19th century, a 13 year old midshipman wasn’t a child anymore – he was a “young gentleman”, with all the rights that came with the status – but also with all the responsibilities. No hiding behind barrels when the cannon balls came a-flying – a midshipman was expected to be on deck, like any other officer, not showing any fear – a role model for the men.

In a recent episode of “The Antiques Roadshow”, I came across the story of a 13 year old midshipman who had served in HMS Defiance during the Battle of Trafalgar, under the command of Captain Philip Charles Durham. Now most of you will think of Jack Spratt, the middie who fought alone against the Aigle until men and officers of the Defiance came to his help. His story will be told some other time, though.

The midshipman I’m talking about here was Spencer Smyth. He had joined the navy at 11, the same age as Collingwood first went to sea. Little did Smyth know that, centuries later, his great-great-great-grandson would take his naval service medal to the Antiques Roadshow! (My thanks to the gentleman in question, by the way).

The medal  is exceptional, but what really made this little bit of historical information so interesting was the fact that Mr. Smyth’s descendant  also brought a picture of his ancestor along, showing him with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar. You can see him on the left, sitting under Nelson’s portrait.

The gentleman said that he didn’t know what year the picture had been taken, but that he thought Smyth must have been well in his seventies. Now, the NMM has two pictures of Smyth in it’s possession, unfortunately none of them are available online. One is titled “Last survivors in the year 1880 of Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October, 1805“,  though, so I wouldn’t rule out that the picture was taken during a veteran meeting on 21st October in 1880 and Smyth actually was 89 years old!

We read about and discuss history – but Smyth was there. He was part of that history. He’s seen it all with his own eyes. I guess that’s what makes the picture so special – it’s not a pompous painting, it’s a simple snapshot of a veteran who experienced in person what we only know from books.

And what happened to young master Smyth later on in his life? I wish I could tell you; my research wasn’t very successful. He made his career in the navy, was wounded as a lieutenant in the Battle of Navarino (1827) which earned him promotion to Commander. He became an admiral  in 1878/79 and died in 1880. He married Martha Edmonds, the daughter of the Superintendent Master at Portsmouth and sister of a fellow officer. The navy, it seems, runs in the family.

Smyth must also have had a bit of artistic talent; he made the following watercolour of the Battle of Trafalgar.

The NMM also provides a picture based on one of his sketches. Another drawing, this time of a church, can be found here.

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Entry filed under: art, nelson, resource, royal navy, ships. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

Movie Tip: A Very Dashing Genius – “GOETHE!” Garrow’s Law: Cleaning up London for Sunday

3 Comments Add your own

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Citoyenne Aleksandra, Molly Joyful. Molly Joyful said: Trafalgar – the 13 year-old Veteran: http://wp.me/p9rmH-oo […]

    Reply
  • 2. Anna  |  7 November, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Wonderful post!

    Forgive this late reply. I thought you might be interested to know of another youthful Trafalgar veteran quoted in ‘Merchants, Medicine and Trafalgar: a history of the Harvey Family by Richard Morris pub. (Alderton Press 2007.)

    This charming story was recorded by Lady Louisa Harvey, wife of Sir Eliab Harvey who captained the Temeraire at Trafalgar. Sir Eliab’s wife, in a letter to her daughter, postmarked ‘Portsmouth, 5 December 1805, writes’:

    ‘Your father says every soul on board behaved like heroes [sic]. A dear little mid the size of Georgy [presumably a family member], but stout and handsome, eleven years old, has particularly pleased him – he walked about at his Station with his hands behind him looking about, and the Admiral at the hottest asked him: ‘Well, how d’ye like it ? – Why Sir, pretty well I think’; as unconcerned as he was when he dined here yesterday…..’

    It is good to know that he survived.

    Reply
  • […] Trafalgar ? the 13 year-old Veteran | Joyful Molly Quote: […]

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