As a boy, I was enthralled by two of the greatest battles ever fought at sea – Sir Francis Drake’s famous victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Admiral Lord Nelson’s remarkable triumph at Trafalgar in 1805.
One hundred and seventy years after the Battle of Trafalgar, I worked near the place where news of Nelson’s great conquest and death was first announced in England – the Minstrel’s Gallery at the old Assembly Rooms in Chapel Street, Penzance.
The stunning declaration was made two weeks after the battle – after the captain of a local fishing boat encountered the schooner Pickle as she made her way to Falmouth to reveal the heroics of Nelson and his fleet against the might of the French and Spanish Navies.
As a young newspaper reporter, I covered celebrations of that titanic confrontation at sea on October 21, 1805, often reflecting on the men who fought and died that day and the ships that won immortality in the conflict.
I could never have imagined that a member of my family had been at the centre of the drama of Trafalgar – in a ship which would save Nelson’s Victory from catastrophe and be forever remembered in one of Britain’s favourite paintings.
Twenty-year-old James Arscott, of Teignmouth – the grandson of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Roberts (1714/18-1785) – was master’s mate in the 98-gun ship HMS Temeraire in the battle.
He was one of 720 men and boys crammed into the ship’s gun-decks. The youngest officer aboard was 12-year-old midshipman Alexander Brennan. The youngest crew member was Richard Elliott, who was just 11.
Temeraire raced to the rescue of HMS Victory as Nelson’s flagship seemed ‘doomed’ in her darkest hour of the battle. A sniper’s bullet had left Nelson dying on her lower decks and Victory was on the brink of being boarded and captured by officers and crew of the French man o’war Redoutable.
In the face of impending disaster, Temeraire sailed across the stern of the 74-gun Redoutable and delivered a devastating broadside which severely damaged the French ship and killed almost a third of her crew.
When the captain of Redoutable later surrendered his ship, only 156 of her crew of more than 600 were left alive. Forty-seven of Temeraire’s officers and men were killed in the battle and 76 were wounded.
James – one of 14 men from Teignmouth who served at Trafalgar – survived to fight another day. Upon her return to England, thousands flocked to see the battle-scarred Temeraire. Among them was artist Joseph Turner who captured her last voyage in 1838 in his famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire.
James, born in West Teignmouth in 1784, was just 32 when he died on September 27, 1816 in Teignmouth. A review of his naval service said that ‘being disappointed in obtaining promotion at the peace, he retired from the service in disgust, broke a blood vessel, and died lamented by all who knew him, both as an officer and a private gentleman’. In his will, he left a ring to Eliza Mitchell, believed to be his sweetheart, with the motto: ‘Accept this gift of a dying officer’.
THE FULL STORY OF JAMES ARSCOTT IS TOLD IN MY SPECIAL REPORT, JAMES ARSCOTT: HERO OF TRAFALGAR
One of the most iconic images of Trafalgar – a painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867). A Public Domain image (Wikimedia Commons, Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805).
How James is listed in The Trafalgar Roll, produced by Robert Holden Mackenzie (1859-1916) and published in 1913. It contains the names of all officers of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines who fought in the battle.