Saturday, 3 October 2020

All at Sea - British Third Rates of Renown (HMS Revenge)

Destruction of the French fleet in Basque Roads April 1809 - Thomas Whitcombe
HMS Revenge was one of the eleven ships of the line in Lord Gambier's blockading squadron at the underwhelming victory of Basque Roads. 

HMS Revenge was designed by Sir John Henslow and built and launched at the Chatham Dockyard in Kent on the 13th April 1805, for the princely sum of £58,653, about £4,840,000 in modern money and reputedly being one of the first ships to been turned out in the Nelsonian, chequerboard effect, preference for the yellow ochre strakes and black gun ports, paint scheme.

HMS Revenge, sports her metal cast deck, with two forward mounted bow chaser guns, that help suggest the power of this large 74-gun ship.

With an original order for an 80-gun ship, the Revenge was designed as a large class 74-gun ship of the line, later reclassed as a 76-gun ship in 1817, with her upper deck armament consisting of 24-pounder guns instead of the 18-pounders carried by the smaller types, which, together with her reputation as a fast sailer, made her a very powerful addition to the British fleet that braced itself for the dramatic campaign that year to frustrate Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's plans for invasion of the British Isles.

HMS Revenge pictured at Gosport - National Maritime Museum.
Purportedly showing the 1805 ship, however the rather ugly pointed clipper shaped bow in this drawing suggests the later ship of the 1850's.

HMS Revenge didn't have to wait long before her first taste of action, and with her paintwork barely dry, she took her place as the eighth ship in Vice Admiral Collingwood's Lee Column as part of Vice Admiral Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, under her commander Captain Robert Moorsom.

Captain, later Admiral Robert Moorsom, commanded HMS Revenge at Trafalgar

At 09.00, on the 21st of October 1805, the two British columns of ships were about six miles from the Combined Fleet, with studding sails set and the men sent to their breakfast before the drum roll announced 'clear for action' as noted by a seaman aboard HMS Revenge;

'During this time each ship was making the usual preparations, such as breaking the captain's and officers' cabins, and sending all lumber below. The doctors, parson, purser and loblolly men were also busy, getting the medicine chest and bandages out, and sails prepared for the wounded to be placed on, that they might be dressed in rotation as they were taken down to the  . . . cockpit. 

In such a bustling . . . trying, as well as serious time, it was curious to note the different dispositions of the British sailor. Some would be offering a guinea for a glass of grog, whilst others were making a sort of verbal will, such as: "If one of Johnnie Crapeau's shots knocks my head off, you will take all my effects; and if you are killed and I am not, why I will have all yours"; and this was generally agreed on.'

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805 - HMS Revenge incorrectly illustrated here, was in fact the eighth ship in Collingwood's column, behind HMS Achille (not Achilles), and Polyphemus actually behind Swiftsure.

The Revenge broke the enemy line at about 12.50 and was the last of Collingwood's lead group of eight ships with a gap of about thirty minutes before the next British ship, Defiance, would arrive at the head of the second group.

Captain Moorsom had ordered that the Revenge would hold its fire on the approach, and only open fire at close range, stating;

'We shall want all our shot when we get in close, never mind their firing. When I fire a carronade from the quarterdeck, that will be the signal for you to begin ...'

The Revenge cut in ahead of the French Achille 74-guns and then turned to luff up on the stern of the Spanish San Ildefonso 74-guns, thus able to deliver close raking broadsides to both enemy ships in short succession, but the clever manoeuvre of turning between the two ships, exposed the stern gallery of Revenge to a raking broadside from Admiral Gravina's flagship, the three-deck first rate Principe de Asturias 112-guns.

The Revenge found herself at the centre of a trio of enemy ships and was only able to hold her own thanks to the emphasis given by Captain Moorsom to the gunnery training of his crew with Moorsom recalling the situation in a letter to his father after the battle;

'They closed so well together that a Frenchman's jib boom took my mizzen topsail, as I passed and he was near jamming me between himself and his second ahead. Perhaps it would have been better for me if he had done so; for a Spanish three-deck ship with Admiral Gravina's flag directly shot up my lee quarter, the Frenchman wore under my stern, and I was obliged to endure a raking fire for a considerable time without being able to help myself, for all our ropes were cut to pieces, and the wind was so light ...'
H.M.S. Revenge in the action off Cape Trafalgar - Lieutenant Lewis Hole (c.1805), first lieutenant of the Revenge.
She is seen here with the Spanish flagship Principe de Astuarias 112-guns raking her stern quarter as she fights desperately amid a group of enemy ships.

The battering from three different directions the Revenge received was described by Lieutenant Peter Pickernell;

'The shot entered the 3rd lower deck port from forward on the starboard side and struck the gun in which it made a large dint, then altering its direction, it struck the foremast in a vertical position and scooped out a large portion of the mast, which again altering its direction, it took a horizontal position and after decapitating a young midshipman by the name of Green, it struck the seven men at the foremost tackle of the first gun forward on the starboard side who were running out after loading, and killed the whole of them by severing them neatly in two. It then stuck to the ships side in a horizontal position, just above the waterway nearly under the breach of the gun, until the ship was in dock, when I cut it out by the Captain's desire.'

Revenge's battle for survival went on for about an hour with her receiving fire from a fourth enemy ship the French Aigle 74-guns, but in return receiving support from other arriving British ships, the first being HMS Defiance 74-guns. 

A seaman aboard the Revenge later wrote;

'After being engaged for about an hour two other ships fortunately came up and received some of the fire intended for us. We were now enabled to get at some of the shot-holes between wind and water and plug them.....

We were unable to work the ship, our yards, sails and masts being disabled, and the braces completely shot away. In this condition we lay by the side of the enemy, firing away, and now and then we received a good raking from them, passing under our stern...

Often during the battle we could not see for the smoke whether we were firing at friend or foe, and as to hearing orders, the noise of the guns so completely made us deaf we were obliged to look only to the motions that were made. In this manner we continued the battle until nearly five o'clock, when it ceased.'

Hull plan for HMS Revenge - National Maritime Museum

The close of the battle found HMS Revenge in a battered state as the surviving crew 'spliced the main brace' with the navy's traditional gill of rum issued to each man, having not eaten or drank since breakfast.

However despite taking nine shots through her hull leaving three guns dismounted, several lower deck ports destroyed and her stern, transom timbers, beams, knees, riders and iron standards much damaged, plus topside damage to her bowsprit, all three lower masts, main top mast and gaff, the crew of the Revenge came off surprisingly lightly, with 28 men killed and 51 wounded.

Among her casualties are recorded, killed, Midshipman T. Grier rather than Green as referred to in Lieutenant Pickernell's account along with Midshipman E.F. Brooks and among the wounded were Captain Moorsom, Lieutenant J. Berry, Master L. Brockenshaw and Captain P. Lely, Royal Marines.

A final footnote to HMS Revenge's battle was the rescuing of French crew from the Achille 74-guns which following an exchange of fire with HMS Prince 98-guns left the French ship without masts and on fire which later reached the magazine causing the ship to explode at 17.45, according to Midshipman Robinson of the frigate Euryalus.

The boats managed to rescue 140 members of Captain Denieport's stricken ship which included a fat black pig which ended up as a supper of pork chops aboard Euryalus and, depending on which account you credit, a young woman named Jeanette, naked or clad in just trousers and an old jacket.

A rather fanciful if at least modest depiction of the rescue of Jeanette a French woman who had stowed away aboard the  Achille to be with her husband and subsequently rescued by the boats from HMS Revenge 

Either way the crew of the Revenge behaved with the typical chivalry associated with the Royal Navy as recorded by one of her lieutenants on the discovery of the gender of one of their prisoners;

'A boat load of prisoners-of-war came alongside, all of whom, with one exception were in the costume of Adam. The exception was apparently a youth ... clothed in an old jacket and trousers ... a face begrimed with smoke and dirt, without shoes, stockings or shirt and looking the picture of misery and despair.

The appearance of this person immediately attracted my attention, and on asking some questions, I was answered that the prisoner was a woman ... I lost no time in introducing her to my messmates as a female requiring their compassionate attention. The poor creature was almost famishing with hunger, having tasted nothing for four and twenty hours, consequently she required no persuasion to partake of our table. I then gave her ... my cabin and made a collection of ... articles to enable her to complete a more suitable wardrobe.

I'm not really sure of the authenticity, but I really liked the Medusa's Head, figurehead which seemed a very appropriate and warlike apparition to have at the bow of such a formidably named ship.

One of the lieutenants gave her a piece of sprigged muslin which he had obtained from a Spanish prize, and two checked shirts were supplied by the Purser; these with a purser's blanket, and my ditty bag, which contained needles, thread etc., being placed at her disposal she, in a short time, appeared in a very different , and much more becoming costume.

Being a dressmaker she had made herself a sort of jacket, after the Flemish fashion, and the purser's shirts had been transformed into an outer-petticoat; she had a silk handkerchief tastily tied over her head, and another thrown over her shoulders, white stockings and a pair of the Chaplain's shoes were on her feet, and altogether our guest, which we unanimously voted her, appeared a very interesting young woman.'

It would appear that Jeanette's adventure ended happily as after being landed at Gibraltar five days later she discovered her husband had also been rescued from the Achille and the couple were reunited soon after.

Cutting out attacks became a speciality of the Royal Navy on blockade duties as demonstrated by the boats from Revenge cutting out the French brig Cesar in the mouth of the River Gironde.
Not the Caesar shown here but a similar cutting out attack to repossess HMS Hermione off  Puerto Cabello by the boats from HMS Surprise - Nicholas Pocock

Following repairs in Gibraltar and a proper refit in Portsmouth, Revenge re-joined the Channel Fleet to resume her blockade duties along the French coast, and developing a skill for cutting out enemy ships, such as the French brig Cesar taken in the mouth of the River Gironde on the 15th July 1806 in company with a squadron of six ships under the command of Commodore Sir Samuel Hood.

In 1809 the Revenge was busy escorting troops for the disastrous Walcheren expedition and in April of that year was with Lord Gambier's squadron in the Basque Roads action that saw four French ships of the line and one frigate destroyed.

From then until the end of the war Revenge continued to serve in the Channel, later transferring to the Mediterranean fleet in December 1812 and being paid off in August 1814.

At the Battle of Trafalgar HMS Revenge was armed with 30 x 32-pounder long guns on her lower deck, 30 x 24-pdr guns on her upper deck, 12 x 9-pdr guns on her quarterdeck, 2x 9pdrs and 2 x 32-pdr carronades on her forecastle and 6 x 18-pdr carronades on her poop.

This particular model is supplied with a metal deck as well as the stylised stern gallery and figurehead and I have to say all are well modelled and the deck fits fairly snug, but both it and the stern gallery may need a little filler in places to avoid any unsightly gaps.

Sources referred to in this post:
The Trafalgar Companion - Mark Adkin
The Battle of Trafalgar - Geoffrey Bennett
The Naval History of Great Britain - William James 

The next Third Rate of Renown to feature will be HMS Tonnant, and then its on to take a look at the French and Spanish ships but before that I have another book review, a Vassal game report and Mr Steve and I have have been on our travels again to Gloucestershire, beating the new lockdown restrictions to take in more battlefield walks and Iron Age hill forts.


  1. 4 hours in very close combat with at least 3 enemy ships - the real accounts of Trafalgar are far more dramatic than anything O'Brian or Forester could produce! Excellent post - as usual.

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Thank you, and yes indeed the accounts from the men involved are typically understated in many ways but the terror and drama still come through that the fiction has to work hard at capturing. That said Patrick O'Brian is fast becoming my favourite author for this genre and his characters excel over the others for the attention to detail, language and believable human characteristics, warts and all.


  2. Great information and stories that link to it JJ.
    Thank you for this wonderful series, but may I ask where you get all the fantastic images of paintings of launches and battles from ?
    Is this from multiple sources or specific websites?

    Regards Peter

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thank you, glad you enjoyed the read.
      The pieces I write are simply a pulling together of various sources to gather information that pertains to the specific ship in question.

      So you will see the works and internet pages referenced at the bottom of the post that provide the majority of the information and accounts quoted and this is intermixed with historical artwork and drawings alongside my representation of the model to try and capture how the ship might have appeared given all the limitations that apply.

      Where possible I look for artwork, much of it held for the nation by the National Maritime Museum, that is close to the time the ship was in action or where an artist took contemporary drawings on which his final picture was made.

      Artists such as Thomas Whitcombe and Nicholas Pocock are fantastic resources for images of the ships at that time and provide much of the inspiration for my models.

      Of course the main sources are books and as an historical wargamer I am an avid reader and the book revues posted on the blog are my way at pointing towards some of the best sources in print.

      Hope that helps

  3. Beautiful ship and history lesson JJ