Tuesday, 22 September 2020

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

HMS Bellerophon, amid crowds of sightseers in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 with Napoleon Bonaparte aboard after his surrender - John James Chalon 

Perhaps alongside HMS Victory, there is a no more famous ship in the Royal Navy of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars than HMS Bellerophon or the Billy Ruffian as she was affectionately known.

With battle honours including those of three major fleet actions, The Glorious First of June 1794, The Battle of the Nile 1798 and Trafalgar 1805, together with service in the squadrons of blockade who patrolled through all weathers to clear the seas of the enemy by compelling them to either stay in port or risk battle by putting to sea, she served throughout the 'Great War' to the end, being the British ship that rescued a defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and saved him from the retribution of a Europe devastated by his war of conquest and tyranny.

 As a symbol of Britain's 'Wooden Walls', perhaps there was no finer example or a more appropriate ship for Napoleon to be rowed out to between six and seven o'clock on the morning of 15th July 1815 off the French port of Rochefort, to offer his surrender to Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland RN, announcing;

"I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws."

Later declaring;

"If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the east. But wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way."

HMS Bellerophon was one of the ten ships of the modified Arrogant Class, 74-gun ship of the line, originally designed by the great British ship designer Sir Thomas Slade and launched on the 6th October 1786 at Frindsbury on the River Medway in Kent.

Named after the Greek hero Bellerophon who rode the winged horse Pegasus and slew the hybrid monster Chimera with a fire breathing head of a lion and a snakes head at the end of its tail, the name proved a difficult one for ordinary sailors to pronounce and thus she inherited her equally famous nickname 'Billy Ruffian'.

HMS Bellerophon, seen here on the stocks at Frindsbury in Kent during her construction

Ordered during the dramatic closing stages of the American War of Independence, she was launched in a time of peace and post war cut backs and subsequently laid up and not commissioned until January 1790 with raised tensions with Spain following the Nootka Sound Crisis; a British East India trading post on Vancouver Island seized by Spanish warships followed by an envoy in London presenting a demand for Spanish sovereignty in the Pacific.

However by October 1790, the Spanish had backed down in the face of a newly raised and fitted out British squadron of 29 ships of the line, 9 frigates, 2 sloops, 4 cutters and 2 fireships under Admiral Lord Howe, agreeing reparations for damages, joint trading rights and an abandoned claim to exclusive rights to the northwestern coast of America.

The Spanish insult to the British flag at Nootka Sound 1789 - Robert Dodd

The British mobilisation was however fortuitous as, because of it, in 1793 the Royal Navy was in an excellent condition of preparedness for war with Revolutionary France and Bellerophon was in the vanguard of that mobilisation.

Sir Thomas Pasley seen here as a Rear Admiral in 1795 - Lemuel Francis Abbott

With the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War, HMS Bellerophon was commissioned in March 1793 under her original captain from 1790, Sir Thomas Pasley, joining the Channel Fleet under Admiral Lord Howe where the ship soon developed a reputation for being a fast sailor, gaining the nickname 'The Flying Bellerophon' and seeing her assigned to the flying squadron of the fastest ships in the fleet and with Pasley appointed Commodore.

It was under Pasley's command that the Bellerophon and her squadron captured the French 28-gun corvette Blanche in November 1793.

Pasley promoted to Rear Admiral would still be leading the flying squadron during the Atlantic Campaign of 1794 commanding the Bellerophon, together with the Russell, Thunderer and Marlborough all 74 guns, scouting ahead of the fleet in search of the French.

Bellerophon brings Revolutionaire to combat - Edouard Groult, The Glorious First of June 1794, Osprey

It was in this role that Bellerophon spotted the twenty-three ship French fleet on the morning of the 28th May, and with Howe signalling a pursuit, saw Bellerophon close on the rearmost French ship, the first rate 110-gun Revolutionaire, which, spoiling for a fight, had dropped back and began a 70 minute duel, with Bellerophon attacking the great ship on the lee quarter astern, as seen above.

The Bellerophon threw a broadside of 829 pounds to Revolutionaire's 1,212 pounds, but the French ship's gunnery was poor with most of her shots flying high, cutting up Bellerophon's rigging and damaging her masts, particularly her mainmast.

However by the time the other British ships had come up to relieve Bellerophon, the Frenchman had a fire in her mizzen top, later having the whole mizzen mast shot away as Bellerophon pulled off to make repairs, able to re-join the battle the next day, but seeing the French first rate forced to return home to make urgent repairs, with damage that would see her scrapped two years later.

On the first of June Bellerophon was the second ship in Lord Howe's line as the British admiral turned his fleet towards the French line with the intention to cut it and attack from the leeward side.

Captain Sir William Johnstone Hope

Not all the British ships were able to, or indeed did, press such an attack, this being still the early days of the use of such tactics, but unlike HMS Caesar, the lead ship, Bellerophon under Pasley and her commander, Captain Sir William Johnstone Hope, did at least close on her opposite opponent, going broadside to broadside with Eole 74-guns and later Trajan 74-guns, with the later free to come to the others aid due to the inaction of Captain Anthony Malloy commanding Caesar.

The opposing fleets close - Battle of the Glorious First of June

However the Bellerophon's gunnery was more than capable of dealing with both adversaries, causing them to break off and flee to windward but not before Bellerophon's fore and main topmasts had been shot away and with Rear Admiral Pasley hit and taken below to have his leg amputated, expressing to concerned crewmen "Thank you, but never mind my leg: take care of my flag" with the frigate Latona hailed to assist by towing the Bellerophon out of the action.

Lord Howes victory on the Glorious First of June 1794 - Thomas Whitcombe

The Bellerophon was fortunate, in that her casualties were relatively light with just four killed and, including Admiral Pasley, around thirty wounded and following repairs at Plymouth after the battle she would resume her duties with the Channel Fleet.

With a resumption of blockade duties Bellerophon was attached to Vice-Admiral Sir William Cornwallis's squadron (five ships of the line and two frigates) on the 7th of June 1795 and involved in an action that saw the British squadron chased by the main French fleet, later to be famously referred to as Cornwallis's Retreat as the British admiral successfully extricated his badly outnumbered squadron, with a well fought rearguard and a successful bluff of having the frigate HMS Phaeton signalling to an an unseen recipient over the horizon and convincing French Admiral Villaret Joyeuse to break off in fear of British reinforcements approaching beyond his visibility.

Cornwallis's Retreat June 17th 1795 - Thomas Luny

For a more detailed look at this action see my posts, links below, about HMS Mars and HMS Royal Sovereign, Cornwallis's flagship at the action.

Suffice to say the Bellerophon and HMS Brunswick were not sailing particularly fast in this action that must have caused Cornwallis some concern, and both ships were forced to ditch anchors and stores in their efforts to increase their speed.

After an £8,000 refit in October 1795, she resumed duties in the Channel in January 1796, serving time with the Irish Squadron following the failed French invasion of Ireland of January 1797 and in the March she was issued orders to join Admiral Sir John Jervis commanding the Mediterranean fleet on blockade in the Bay of Cadiz.

The Inshore Blockading Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson off Cadiz, June 1797, from left to right His Majesty's Ships, Bellerophon, Orion, Thesus, Colossus and Irresistible - Thomas Butterworth 

Visited by her inshore squadron commander Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson on the 3rd June she would later be detached in May 1798 from Jervis's fleet to join Nelson's reinforced squadron tasked with tracking down a large French fleet out of Toulon carrying troops led by French General Napoleon Bonaparte.

Vice Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers

The subsequent three month campaign would result in Nelson finally tracking the French fleet to Aboukir Bay close to Alexandria in Egypt after French Vice Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers had deposited his passengers ashore and anchored in the bay in support of the French invasion force.  

The Battle of the Nile, 1st August 1798 - Nicholas Pocock

Arriving late in the day, Nelson wasted no time in directing his squadron to attack the anchored French line, catching his enemy unprepared for such an immediate attack, with decks cluttered with stores and men ashore in work parties, hastily recalled with the sighting of the British ships and with the lateness of the day bringing on a night battle as the two lines engaged at close range.

The Battle of the Nile, 1st August 1798

The resulting action saw the British ships acting independently to best direct their fire together to overcome their French opponents with the lead five ships working around the French position to attack from the shore side thus enveloping the leading French ships in attacks from both sides as their comrades placed their ships to seaward.

The French van was rapidly overcome by this tactic and the fury of the battle inevitably worked its way along the line as fresh opponents presented, with the British ships drifting down it, using a north-east wind that made it extremely difficult for the rear most French ships to come to the aid of their van and centre including the French flagship L'Orient 120-guns.

Captain Sir Henry D'Esterre Darby

However the British approach was not without issues that saw several of them deploy their anchor cables late or not at the correct length to pull up at the best position to engage their opponents seeing the Bellerophon, eighth ship in the British line, under her commander Captain Sir Henry D'Esterre Darby head for the centre of the French line only to find herself dragging her anchor as she fell alongside the mighty French flagship to commence an hour long unequal duel that saw Bellerophon lose seventy of her crew in the first stages of the fight, including her captain, taken below unconscious with a head wound.

At 9pm with many of her officers wounded or killed and her mizzen and mainmast shot away, Bellerophon cut her cable to drift away from the battle, with her crew fighting fires aboard, but noting in her log a fire started on the L'Orient.

The Battle of the Nile 1798 - Thomas Whitcombe
L'Orient is depicted in the centre heavily on fire with the Bellerophon immediately behind, dismasted and drifting

Taking fire from the Tonnant 80-guns as she drifted off into the dark, Bellerophon would narrowly miss being fired into by HMS Swiftsure 74-guns as she drifted still further, with Swiftsure fortunately deciding to ignore the unidentified damaged ship and instead take the Bellerophon's place in the line to resume the battle with L'Orient.

Captain Darby, regaining consciousness, resumed command and got his ship anchored at the east end of the bay to start repairs to his badly damaged ship.

The battle raged throughout the night, ending as a decisive British victory and the destruction of the French fleet and the L'Orient, which blew up following the fight with Bellerophon, the latter losing 57 killed and 140 wounded.

Following the battle, Bellerophon sailed under jury rig to Gibraltar to refit and then onward to Britain, arriving at Spithead on the 2nd April 1800, to enter the Portsmouth dockyard for a more thorough refit, not returning to service until 25th June 1801 after which she did another ten months of blockade duties with the Channel fleet before being ordered to join Admiral John Duckworth's West Indies squadron, arriving on the 27th March 1802 and finding the war over following the Treaty of Amiens.

Bellerophon was still serving in the West Indies when the Napoleonic War commenced in May 1803 and her role as a blockader recommenced with duties resumed this time off Saint Domingue where her patrolling saw the capture of several French privateers, three frigates a corvette and a brig.

On the 24th July 1803 Bellerophon and her blockade squadron (Elephant, Thesus and Vanguard, all 74-guns) spotted and chased two French third rates (Duquesne and Duguay Trouin each 74-guns) and the frigate Guerriere, later to gain fame as HMS Guerriere in her fight with USS Constitution.

On this occasion the Guerriere along with Duguay Trouin escaped but the Duquesne was overhauled and taken after a few shots that left one man killed aboard Bellerophon.

Bellerophon continued her blockade duties and with the French under siege from Haitian rebels, prevented any French troops from escaping the island and helping to force a French surrender on the 30th November 1803, and escorting their surrendered ships, including three frigates to Jamaica.

My picture of HMS Bellerophon's figurehead as displayed in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

In June 1804, following a severe bout of malaria that decimated Bellerophon's crew in the previous February with over 200 falling sick, she was ordered home, escorting a convoy and arriving in August to receive a refit in Portsmouth and later a new commander, Captain John Cooke who would take command in April 1805 whilst Bellerophon was part of the Channel Fleet.

Captain John Cooke assumed command of HMS Bellerophon on the 24th April 1805

In May 1805, Bellerophon was detached from the Channel Fleet as part of a squadron under Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood to patrol the straits of Gibraltar on the lookout for a French fleet under Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve and was off Cadiz in August when Villeneuve appeared with a much larger force causing Collingwood to pull off as the French force entered Cadiz.

On the 28th September 1805 Vice Admiral Nelson arrived off Cadiz with reinforcements and to take overall command of his and Collingwood's squadron setting the scene for the final great fleet action of the era at Trafalgar the following month.

On the 21st October 1805, HMS Bellerophon was the fifth ship in Admiral Collingwood's Leeward Column as they bore down on the Combined Fleet.

As you might expect from a Royal Navy ship that would see more action than just about any other for this period, Bellerophon would be in thickest part of the fighting and end up suffering the second highest casualty count for the British fleet, with her captain, master and boatswain among them, suffering 150 casualties (27 dead and 123 wounded).

The Bellerophon would break the enemy line at around 12.30 p.m. receiving fire from four enemy ships as she did so (Bahama, L'Aigle, Swiftsure and Montanes, returning that fire, double shotted, as she passed between the two Spanish 74's Bahama and Montanes, raking the former in the stern and the latter in the bow as she passed though aiming to luff up alongside Bahama, only to end up colliding with L'Aigle as she emerged across Bellerophon's bow, smashing into the French ship's larboard quarter, leaving, according to Bellerophon's log, her foreyard entangled with L'Aigle's mainyard.

Whilst locked together with the 74-gun L'Aigle, the contest developed into a fierce struggle to defend the upper deck of Bellerophon, whilst she battered the lower decks of L'Aigle with her faster firing broadsides threatening to pummel her adversary to strike.

The fighting topside saw three French attempts to board the Bellerophon repulsed with L'Aigle's Captain Pierre Paulin Gouregge cut down by the fire of Royal Marines whilst leading one of them, soon followed by the death of Captain John Cooke as described by a witness account;

'He had discharged his pistols very frequently at the enemy, who as often attempted to board, and he had killed a French officer on his own quarterdeck. He was in the act of reloading his pistols ... when he received two musket-balls in the breast. He immediately fell, and upon the quartermaster going up and asking him if he should take him down below, his answer was "No, let me lie quietly one minute. Tell Lieutenant Crumby never to strike.'

Bellerophon's First Lieutenant, William Crumby left a vivid account of the action and having described the raking of the Spanish ships and the collision with L'Aigle, he recounts being sent by Captain Cooke to inform the lower decks of the new situation and to order them to concentrate their fire against the Frenchman;

'.... I reached the quarter-deck ladder, having stopped to give some directions by the way, I was met by a quartermaster, who came to inform me that the Captain was very badly wounded, and, as he believed, dead.

I went immediately on the quarter-deck  and assumed the command of the ship - this would be about a quarter past one o'clock - when I found we were still engaged with L'Aigle .... Our quarter-deck, poop and forecastle were at this time almost cleared by musketry from troops onboard L'Aigle, her poop and gangway completely commanding those decks, and the troops on board being very numerous. At this moment I ordered all the remaining men down from the poop, and calling the boarders, had them mustered under the half-deck, and held in readiness to repel any attempt that might be made by the enemy to board us; their position rendering it quite impracticable for us to board them in the face of such a fire of musketry so advantageously situated. But whatever advantage they had over us on those upper-decks was greatly overbalanced by the superiority of our fire on the lower and main decks

HMS Bellerophon, sandwiched between enemy ships at Trafalgar at the time her Captain, John Cooke was killed - Thomas Whitcombe 1805

L'Aigle soon ceasing entirely to fire on us with her lower-deck, the ports of which were lowered down, whilst the fire from ours was vigorously maintained, the ports having, by my orders, been hauled up close against the side when we first fell on board her, to prevent them being torn from their hinges when the ships came in contact.

While thus closely engaged and rubbing sides with L'Aigle, she threw many hand grenades on board us, both on our forecastle and in at the ports. Some of these exploded and dreadfully scorched several of our men: one of them I took up myself from our gangway where the fuse was burning, and threw it overboard.

One of these grenades had been thrown in at our lower-deck port and its explosion had blown off the scuttle of the Gunner's storeroom, setting fire to the storeroom and forcing open the door to the magazine passage .... the same blast which blew open the storeroom door shut-to the door to the magazine; otherwise we must all in both ships inevitably have been blown up together.....

At forty minutes past one L'Aigle hoisted her jib and dropped clear of us, under a tremendous raking fire as she paid off. Our ship at this time was totally unmanageable, the main and mizzen topmasts hanging over the side, the jib-boom, spanker-boom and gaff shot away, and not a brace or bowline serviceable. We observed the L'Aigle was engaged by the Defiance and soon after two o'clock she struck ....'

My interpretation of L'Aigle as shown in my post from February

L'Aigle suffered 170 casualties during the battle (100 wounded and 70 killed) and many more drowned following her capture and loss on the 26th October seeing in all two thirds of her crew perish in the aftermath of battle.

Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland

Bellerophon would go on to serve in the Baltic from 1806 to 1809 and then back to her blockade duties with the Channel Fleet from 1810 that would culminate in her final famous moment in the spotlight of history with Napoleon's surrender to Captain Frederick Maitland off Rochefort as covered at the top of the post.

Captain Maitland's silver terrine

As a final postscript I was in Paris in 2015, following a bicentennial visit to Waterloo and during a visit to Empress Josephine's private residence Chateau de Malmaison I was able to see a selection of items relating to Napoleon's surrender which included a silver terrine from Captain Maitland's dinner service and a speaking trumpet used aboard Bellerophon at that time.

Bellerophon's speaking trumpet

HMS Bellerophon was paid off on the 2nd September 1815 as the country together with the rest of Europe got used to a long term of peace following the carnage of the previous twenty-five years.

Stripped of her guns and masts and fitted out accordingly, Bellerophon assumed her new role in January 1817, accepting her first cohort of convicts, later being renamed HMS Waterloo.

Like many of her sisters, Bellerophon would end her days as a prison hulk before being broken up

The ship was finally sold off in 1836 and her timbers were finally broken up with some of her stern ornaments and figurehead saved for the nation by being purchased by Captain Maitland.

HMS Bellerophon would normally have been armed with 28 x 32 pounder long guns on her lower deck, 28 x 18-pdrs on her upper deck, 14 x 9-pdrs on her quarterdeck, 4 x 9-pdrs and 2 x 32-pdr carronades on her forecastle and 6 x 18-pdr carronades on her poop.

At Trafalgar she had a crew of 522 men (450 naval and 72 Royal Marines), understrength by 68 seamen.

As a final epithet to a famous ship, Bellerophon or Billy Ruffian achieved lasting fame in several folk songs of the period, perhaps the most famous to modern audiences being 'Boney was a Warrior' as performed by British troops lined up on the field of Waterloo in the 1970 film of that name.

Somewhat anachronistically, as the song has the lines;

Boney went a cruisin'
Aboard the Billy Ruffian
Johnny Franswor 

Perhaps the troops were so assured of victory under the Duke that they knew how events would turn out!

Sources referred to:
Fleet Battle and Blockade - Chatham Pictorial History
The Glorious First of June 1794, Osprey - Mark Lardas & Edouard Groult
The Trafalgar Companion - Mark Adkin 
A History of the Royal Navy - Martin Robson

Next up, a walk to Froward Gun Battery near Dartmouth, another British Third Rate of Renown and a book review.


  1. Nice post Jonathan, I like your historical commentary, it always brings your models to life. Cheers Greg

    1. Thanks Greg, a labour of love and what makes historical wargaming such fun.


  2. Beautiful rendition of the famous ship.