Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood

Born at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1750, Cuthbert was educated at the local Grammar School. It was here under his excellent headmaster, the Reverend Hugh Moises, that Collingwood acquired a love of books and mastered the difficult art of expressing himself in a style of writing which was to make his published correspondence a part of English literature. It is from his letters that we know most about Admiral Collingwood, for, through the medium of the letters, we can penetrate the veil of reserve which prevented men who came into contact with him from recording their impressions. Indeed, surprisingly little is known of the Admiral outside of his own letters.

Collingwood entered the Navy in 1761 when he was eleven years old. From this day until he died at sea, of his fifty years of service in the Royal Navy some forty-four were passed in active service abroad. On one occasion he actually remained at sea for the incredible space of twenty-two months without dropping anchor….

Cuthbert would never allow that he had left home too soon to join the Royal Navy. “Boys make very little progress in a ship without being well practised in navigation; and fifteen is too old to begin, for very few take to the sea at that age“.

He also told his midshipman that “before you are five and twenty you must establish a character that will serve you all your life“, and followed it up with the following advice. “I recommend a strict and unwearied attention to duty; never to let disappointment appear if one did not get the rewards considered due and sit alone rather than drinking in mean company”.

He saw his first action before he was twenty five at the Battle of Bunkers Hill in America where he fought ashore with a body of seamen and where his conduct earned him promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. He knew too the feeling of losing a ship as this happened to him in a hurricane in the West Indies which left him on a barren island in the Morant Keys for ten days awaiting rescue. He also knew too how to displease their Lordships at home as, together with Nelson, he got into trouble for his ‘strenuous enforcement of the navigation laws in the Antilles’. (Where he was considered to be in the right, but somewhat over zealous).

Collingwood and Nelson were to become the greatest of friends, and he succeeded Nelson on three occasions; as First Lieutenant in the Lowestoft, as Commander of the brig Badger and finally as Captain of the Hinchingbrooke. They both took part in the ill-conceived San Juan expedition where the pestilent climate nearly claimed Nelson. Collingwood, after himself surviving several attacks of the ‘yellow jack’ disease, buried 180 of the 200 members of Hinchingbrooke’s ships company in a period of four months.

Collingwood lived during that period of tremendous change as the self-confidence of the classical world of the 18th Century gave way to the restless England whose rustic silence was already broken by the rumbling of the new machines and its clear skies clouded by the smoke of factory chimneys. In periods when the Fleet was not engaged in pursuit of war, as was custom in that era, the peacetime Navy made Collingwood, Nelson, and many others ‘Post Captains’ and sent them home on half pay. This did allow them to consider other matters and thirty years after he had entered the Navy, Collingwood married Sarah Blackett, a daughter of the Mayor of Newcastle, and made his home in the pleasant Northumberland village of Morpeth. Sarah bore a daughter within a year of the marriage and was soon expectant with her second. Collingwood thought himself settled and in great comfort – as happy as a sailor on the beach could be.

Then the French guillotined their monarch and, in February 1793, declared war on England.

It fell to the Royal Navy to counter the Napoleonic threat to our shipping – the greatest tonnage in the world. With perhaps the exception of Nelson, no officer in high command had such a sense of the weight of the duties involved, or the significance which lay behind them, as Collingwood left his family and uncomplainingly returned to sea for five years ceaseless blockade of the French coast.

From 1793, two years after his marriage, until his death, he was only one year in England. He saw but little of his home and yet often revealed his innermost thoughts towards it in the dignified, fond letters he sent from distant seas to Sarah and his two daughters. Through days of privation and loneliness, discomfort and frugality, he could spare moments to write loving and wise words to those at home, showing a delightful simplicity of greatness from a man burdened with ill-health, the conduct of a fleet and a mass of political correspondence.

Collingwood became First Captain to Rear-Admiral Bowyer onboard Barfleur, a first rate 98 gun ship which was to take an important part in the battle fought off Ushant on 1st June 1794. “The Glorious First of June”. This famous battle started in a pedestrian manner amongst sea mist so thick that the men on Barfleur could only hear the bells and drums on the ships of their French foes. But after three days of hard fighting before the victory he was able to observe to the Admiral “The action is beginning at the time our wives are going to church, but the peal of bells the ships will ring around the ears of the enemy will outdo the parish bells“.

Admiral Bowyer certainly proved he was made of stern stuff as he recorded “as complete a victory as was ever won at sea” as the battle actually cost him a leg which was lost to a grape shot from the French. The Admiral then went home to a Baronetcy, whilst Collingwood’s contribution was somewhat overlooked until Bowyer mentioned it, too late, to Lord Chatham in Portsmouth.

Collingwood nearly got a fortnights leave when he returned home, but was prematurely recalled almost in the hour of meeting his family by an express from the Admiralty.

Commanding Excellent in the Mediterranean he guarded Corsica, blockaded Toulon, and especially distinguished himself in the battle of Cape St Vincent. Sir John Jervis, the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, mentioned Collingwood in his dispatches (together with Nelson) as having contributed very much to the fortune of the day, and recommended him for a gold medal. Collingwood, at his stiffest, remarked that he could not accept one for Valentines Day, whilst one for the First of June was withheld. Two medals and a letter of apology followed, along with orders for Collingwood and Nelson to yet again forgo leave and blockade Cadiz.

Cadiz may have been considered a quiet number at the time, all things being considered, as Nelson was dispatched to lead a fruitless expedition to Tenerife where he lost his right arm. At home there was the seamen’s revolt at Spithead and the more dangerous politically inspired mutiny at the Nore. To ease the situation in the Channel Fleet, ships with a bad reputation were continually being sent out to Jervis who selected the men with ‘the most ungovernable spirits’ and sent them to Collingwood to bring to order. Yet the Excellent remained the model ship of the Fleet with Collingwood seeking the cause of the trouble rather than inflicting punishment for crimes committed. He fought the dirt, disease, bad diet and monotony that were the demons of the day, even forming a ships band with home made instruments in order to provide diverse interests and maintain the morale of the ship’s company.

Excellent was eventually returned to Portsmouth for a refit and Collingwood was at long last able to return to Morpeth for a period of overdue leave.

In 1799, Collingwood was promoted to Rear Admiral of the White and hoisted his flag in Triumph and returned to the Mediterranean.

An attachment to the Channel Fleet in 1801 provided the unique opportunity for his wife and daughters to travel to Plymouth. The (perhaps inevitable) express ordering to proceed to sea arrived one day at 2pm, but attendant at a courts martial prevented him from slipping before dark. It was whilst he was dining with Nelson that word came of his wife’s arrival, after a full weeks journey. At dawn of the next day they departed as his ship sailed. Sarah lodged at Plymouth Dock and Paignton waiting and watching for the return of the Barfleur from a five month deployment which stretched into a full year.

The “Peace of Amiens”, though fragile, then arrived early in 1802, and with it the Collingwood’s headed north for the spring. He was now in his fifty third year, his hair white yet his figure spare and his energy unbounded. He enjoyed a full year as a country gentleman, and developed the habit of walking the fields with a pocketful of acorns to drop in the hedgerows in order to provide the wood for future shipbuilders. He also took great comfort from his family and two daughters, then aged nine and ten. He wanted the girls to learn French, but ‘admire nothing else’ from that country, and he thought too that they would find Spanish easy. There was even a certain charm in being disturbed each morning at six by the sound of a wagon as it rumbled past his window, as it underlined the fact that he was at home and the country was at peace.

Great Britain declared war in 1803, and Admiral Cornwallis on his ship Venerable greeted Collingwood with the words “Here comes Collingwood, the last to leave and the first to rejoin me“.

Promoted Vice Admiral, Collingwood blockaded Brest until 1805 when he was despatched in command of a squadron to reinforce Nelson. He changed his flag from Dreadnought to Royal Sovereign and it was in this vessel that he caused Nelson to remark “See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action“, as, second in command and in charge of the lee line, he led through the enemy line some minutes before the Victory in that most famous of battles, Trafalgar.

It was towards dusk when an officer joined Royal Sovereign to report that Nelson was wounded, and Collingwood ‘saw the fate of his friend in the officers eye‘.

Collingwood succeeded Nelson to the Mediterranean Command, and became Baron Collingwood of Hethpoole and Caldburne in the county of Northumberland He tried ceaselessly to get the French out of harbour and into battle, but no more major actions were fought. Sir John Moore visited him on the Ocean, a fine new first rate, and found him cheerful and affable to the officers, a man of good sense, of the old school and unaffected in his manner. Yet his letters home complained of failing sight and digestion problems and his health declined. He applied for leave again and again but was thwarted by his own reputation for the plain fact was that whilst Collingwood was in command in the Mediterranean, the enemy lived in fear and Britons could sleep soundly. So there he must stay, hardly ever leaving his ship, often passing the whole night on the quarterdeck, or sleeping fully attired whenever storm or danger threatened.

On the evening of the 7th March, 1810 on the Ville de Paris the great sailor died. He never complained of the long term of banishment which the duty to his country imposed on him. Two years before, he had written to Lady Collingwood, “I shall be very glad when the war is over–The Service is become very arduous. I cannot tell you all about it in a letter; but some long winter’s evening I will give you the whole history.” … Alas ! Those long winter evenings at Morpeth were not to be.

Admiral Collingwood’s memory is one of human courage and endurance. He placed service before self and was humane in days when it was not fashionable to be humane. His singleness of purpose, subordination of self, and undying loyalty were summed up in his motto ‘I will be sustained unchanged‘.

Collingwood was laid to rest besides Nelson in the crypt of St.Paul’s. In Tynemouth a fifty foot pillar flanked by four cannon from the Royal Sovereign bears a statue of the great Admiral facing out to sea.

This account of Admiral Collingwood has been compiled from the HMS Collingwood archives.