Home » Blog » diary » SEA HISTORY 132, AUTUMN 2010


Reproduced here, an article kindly sent to us by Sally C McElwreath written by Rear Admiral Joeseph Callo USNR (Ret.) written for the authorative American magazine SEA HISTORY 132, AUTUMN 2010, (National Maritime Historical Society) which includes the renowned painting “I have urgent dispatches,” by Gordon Frickers, urgent_dispatches_in_framed.jpg

available as a signed numbered edition from page: http://www.frickers.co.uk/prints.html ~ you can order easily and securely on line using PayPal.

I found the article most interesting including because it is at variance with some of my research into the story of HMS Pickle.
There are several things I did not know and several I would suggest are debatable!, all part of the fun and fascination of HMS Pickle.
Maybe it is time I wrote a book on HMS Pickle?
Possibly with Joseph or Peter Goodwin?
Definitely time I scheduled in a new Pickle painting!

Trafalgar’s Last Chapter—HMS Pickle’s Moment here were many stories written about the Battle of Trafalgar. One of the most remarkable was the account of the smallest Royal Navy ship involved in that history-changing event. Her origin is murky, but she was probably built in a commercial boatyard in Bermuda. Around the turn of the 19th century, she could well have been used for trade along America’s Atlantic coast and for inter-island trade in the West Indies.
Her cedar hull, just under 100 feet in length overall and a displacement of 38 tons, was powered by a generous topsail schooner rig, making her both sturdy and fast. Her original name was Sting, and she is believed to have been seized with other merchant ships in the harbor when the British captured the Dutch island of Curaçao in 1800.
Eventually she was officially purchased by a British owner and then turned up in the Royal Navy as an armed tender. The Royal Navy renamed her Pickle, a word that was possibly chosen because it was part of a place name in Britain’s Plymouth area, but it might also have been in reference to the English custom of calling a rambunctious youngster “a pickle.”
The ten-gun HMS Pickle went to work doing what ships of her type did in the Royal Navy of the time, including inshore reconnaissance, suppressing privateers, rescuing crews from foundering ships, and carrying dispatches. And it would be in the latter role that Pickle had her moment in history.
As the smallest warship in Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, she was not directly involved in the horrific combat action at Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. During that bloody battle between the British and the French-Spanish Combined Fleet, Pickle stood off and supported the ships-of-the-line that were the main combatants. In addition to supporting the British ships, history notes that Pickle and boats from the larger British ships came to the aid of the survivors of the French Achille when that ship exploded. During that event several hundred men and two women were saved.

Immediately following the battle, Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who had been second in command under Nelson, selected Pickle and her young captain, Lieutenant John Lapenotière, to get the news of the British victory and Nelson’s death to London with dispatch. Timely knowledge of events, such as the Battle of Trafalgar, were not only newsworthy, but could be of strategic value if it was received quickly.

{illustrated here, the painting} Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

For Lapenotière’s mission, speed was essential, and the dispatches were handed to him with Collingwood’s admonition that “a moment’s time may not be lost in their delivery.”
The signal “I have urgent dispatches” was two-blocked at the top of Pickle’s mainmast, and Lapenotière set off for London on 26 October. The signal flying from her mainmast would have earned deference from any Royal Navy ship encountered on her mission. It would also have attracted very special attention from any French or Spanish warship.
After clearing Gibraltar, and racing northwards, Lapenotière was confronted by a violent storm off the Bay of Biscay. It was the kind of weather a small ship would normally avoid. But Lapenotière drove Pickle on through the gale and threatening seas, and when the ship began taking on a dangerous amount of water, he resorted to jettisoning her guns.
After clawing his way past the Bay of Biscay, Lapenotière was ironically faced with the opposite problem: light airs. With an easterly breeze, he was faced with a long beat to his original destination—Plymouth. Relying on his judgment as a seaman (Collingwood had given his young captain discretion concerning where to land on Britain’s Channel coast), Lapenotière chose a more westerly course and headed for the smaller port of Falmouth. Given the sailing conditions, traveling overland likely would be faster than extending Pickle’s transit to Plymouth by sea. Lapenotière also knew that there was reliable coach service between Falmouth and London.
On Monday, 4 November, Pickle eased into Falmouth, having covered more than 1,000 miles under extreme conditions in slightly more than eight days. Its successful completion was a tribute to Lapenotière’s determination and seamanship and to Pickle’s speed and seaworthiness.
Within an hour of his arrival, Lapenotière hired a post-chaise and departed for London. Racing through the countryside at breakneck pace, his horses were swapped out every ten to fifteen miles. He arrived at what is now known as the Old Admiralty at Whitehall at 0100 on 6 November, having covered more than 270 miles in about 37 hours—a remarkable feat in a post-chaise.
Collingwood’s dispatches were then delivered directly to William Marsden, Secretary of the Admiralty Board. Lapenotière’s statement as he handed the messages to Marsden reflected the seamen’s way of saying a lot with few words: “Sir, we have gained a great victory. But we have lost Lord Nelson.”

In contrast, Collingwood’s description of the action at Trafalgar put Nelson’s death first: “The ever to be lamented death of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, who, in the late conflict with the Enemy, fell in the hour of victory, leaves me the duty of informing my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that on the 19th instant it was communicated to the Commander-in-Chief from the Ships watching the motions of the Enemy in Cadiz, that the Combined Fleet had put to Sea.” The message went on to provide a summary of the action at Trafalgar.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, was notified right away, and copies of Collingwood’s messages were made quickly. Prime Minister William Pitt received word at 0300, by 0700 the King was notified, and by end of day a special London Gazette edition proclaimed the news to the public.
Following the Battle of Trafalgar, Pickle returned to her Royal Navy duties, including close reconnaissance of Brest harbor during a blockade by Admiral Cornwallis, the capture of an 18-gun French privateer off the Lizard, and the rescue of more than 600 crewmembers from HMS Magnificent after that ship ran aground.

On 27 July 1808, Pickle met an untimely end when she was wrecked on a shoal at the entrance to Cadiz harbor. Her Royal Navy career was ended, but for eight days in October and November 1805, she had played an important and unique role in the events that shifted the balance of power at sea for the coming century.


Rear Admiral Joseph F. Callo, USNR (Ret.) is an award-winning author and an NMHS advisor. His most recent book is John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior.


New York City “Pickle Night Dinner

Every year on November 4th, the Royal Navy Warrant and Chief Petty Officers’ messes mark the Battle of Trafalgar with a special dinner to commemorate the date when news of the battle (and of Nelson’s death) reached England in HMS Pickle.

On that date in 2004, a group of Americans interested in the historic career of Admiral Lord Nelson hosted an event in anticipation of the forthcoming Bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar at the New York Yacht Club. Seven annual events later, the New York City Pickle Night Dinner is now well established as an annual tradition, with attendees coming from across the country and overseas. Nelson is the focus of the event, as well as the special relationships between the United States and Great Britain and between the US Navy and the Royal Navy. The American Friends of the Royal Naval Museum hosts the event, with support from the 1805 Club, the Nelson Society, and the National Maritime Historical Society. The 2010 event will be held on Friday, 12 November. Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey, will be the guest of honor and main speaker.

(For more information, contact: sallymc79@nullverizon.net)
New York City “Pickle Night Dinner”
(photo included here, left) The annual New York City Pickle Night Dinner takes place in the spectacular model room of the New York Yacht Club.