Lord Cuthbert Collingwood

1748-1810. Born on 26 September 1748 in a house on The Side, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he was the oldest of three sons of a bankrupt trader, Cuthbert Collingwood, and of his wife Milcah Dobson. The Collingwoods were descended from an established family that had fallen on hard times.

Collingwood was educated at his hometown grammar school from 1759, and in August 1761, together with his brother, Wilfred, he entered as a volunteer aboard the frigate Shannon 36 in the Mediterranean, commanded by his maternal uncle, Richard Braithwaite, with whom he served until the peace of 1763. He was subsequently employed under Braithwaite aboard the Gibraltar 24 from early 1766 through to March of the following year, and on the Liverpool 32 from the autumn of 1767 until the spring of 1772, both vessels being based on the Newfoundland station, with the latter later serving in the Mediterranean.

Lord Collingwood

In March 1772 he joined the guard-ship Lenox 74 at Portsmouth, commanded by a distant relative, Captain Robert Roddam, and in 1773 sailed for Jamaica aboard the Portland 50, Captain Andrew Barkley, returning home via North America in the Princess Amelia 80 with the same officer and being paid off in September. Having been recommended by Roddam to Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, he joined the Preston 50, Captain John Robinson, which took Graves’ flag out to North America in February 1774.

On 17 June 1775 Collingwood fought with the naval brigade at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, and he earned his lieutenant’s commission on that day before returning to England in January 1776 aboard the Somerset 70, Captain Edward le Cras. Later that year he served in the Leeward Islands aboard the sloop Hornet, which he had joined in March, and which was commanded by the tyrannical Commander Robert Haswell who was to serve in that rank for eighteen years. During this posting Collingwood was court-martialled for disobedience and neglect of duty on 30 September 1777 aboard the Winchelsea 32 in Port Royal, Jamaica, and although he was acquitted of all charges he was censured for petulance, receiving the recommendation that he should endeavour to be more cheerful in future.

In July 1778 he transferred to the frigate Lowestoft 28, Captain William Locker, in which position he succeeded his friend, the promoted Lieutenant Horatio Nelson, and on 20 June 1779, after a period aboard the Bristol 50, flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker, he was promoted commander of the brig Badger in succession to Nelson.

On 22 March 1780 Collingwood was posted captain of the frigate Hinchingbrooke 28, again succeeding Nelson, these early promotions for both officers being largely due to the patronage of Vice-Admiral Parker. Within weeks of being posted Collingwood fought in the disastrous expedition to San Juan, assuming command of the venture when Nelson was taken ill, and losing one hundred and eighty of his two hundred men through disease.

In December 1780 he transferred into the Pelican 24, which after capturing the Cerf 16 on 22 July foundered in a hurricane off the uninhabited Morant Keys on 2 August 1781. Once Collingwood had managed to despatch a boat to Jamaica the malnourished crew were rescued after ten days in this hostile environment by the frigate Diamond 32, Captain Christopher Parker. He returned to England in the early part of 1782, having been exonerated at the resultant court martial into the loss of his ship, and his participation in the American Revolutionary War finished with a spell commanding the Sampson 64 in home waters from January until April 1783.

Continuing in employment following the peace, Collingwood went out to the Leeward Islands in command of the Mediator 44 in September 1783, giving Commissioner John Moutray passage to Antigua. Here he served once more with Nelson, whose extreme views on the interpretation of the Navigation Laws he shared in opposition to the commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, which circumstances led to Nelson facing a civil trial in May 1785. At this time Collingwood’s brother Wilfred was also on the station commanding the Rattler. In 1786 Collingwood left for England, arriving in July to pay off the Mediator a month later.

A young Captain Collingwood, as drawn by his great friend, Horatio Nelson.

Thereafter he lived with his relatives in Northumberland for the next four years, rejecting the offer of the Ardent 64 and remaining unemployed. During the Spanish Armament he assumed command of the newly commissioned Mermaid 32 from July 1790, which he took to the West Indies under the orders of Rear-Admiral Samuel Cornish before paying her off in May 1791.

In February 1793, following the opening of hostilities with France, Collingwood was given command of the dull-sailing Prince 98 at Plymouth, serving in the Channel as flag captain to Rear-Admiral Sir George Bowyer from July, and being present at the pursuit of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November.

In 1794, having left the Prince in January, he served in the same capacity to Bowyer aboard the Barfleur 98 at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. During the fierce engagement he caught the admiral in his arms when Bowyer’s leg was shot away, whilst his ship suffered casualties of nine men killed and twenty-five wounded. Despite this high casualty list it was deemed that the Barfleur had fought from too far to windward, and he was one of many officers who were controversially not awarded a gold medal, much to his fury. Following Bowyer’s retirement Collingwood moved to the Hector 74 in August, but being unable to man her, and with the next vessel proposed to him, the Alexander 74, being captured by the French, he had to endure a brief period of half-pay.

At last in December 1794 Collingwood was appointed to the Excellent 74, in which ship he was employed in the Mediterranean from the following July. Devoted practice soon brought the Excellent to an advanced state of efficiency in gunnery, and she played a major part in the Battle of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797 when she went to Commodore Horatio Nelson’s aid on Admiral Sir John Jervis’ orders once the former officer had brought the Captain 74 out of the British line to block the passage of the Spanish van. The Salvador Del Mundo 112 struck to the Excellent, as did the San Isidro 74, but Collingwood left his compatriots to take possession whilst he attacked the other two Spanish ships which were captured by the British, the San Josef 112 and San Nicolas 80. He also engaged the giant Santisima Trinidad 136 with the help of the Orion 74, Captain Sir James Saumarez, although the largest warship in the world was eventually escorted away by her compatriots.

Following the battle, in which the Excellent had suffered casualties of ten men killed and twelve wounded, Collingwood refused a gold medal unless one in respect of the Glorious First of June was awarded him. The King promptly sanctioned its award, having been advised by Captain Sir Robert Calder, the bearer of Jervis’s despatches, that Collingwood’s endeavours had even eclipsed Nelson’s in the Battle of St. Vincent. With the medal came a letter of apology from the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, and in 1798 he was further rewarded with an appointment as a colonel of marines.

Collingwood’s involvement at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 rivalled Nelson’s for its brilliance

The testy Collingwood became further irked in 1798 when he was denied the opportunity to join Nelson’s detached squadron that won the Battle of the Nile on 1 August. Having continued to serve with the fleet off Cadiz the Excellent was sent home at the end of 1798, and in the following January she was paid off at Portsmouth. Collingwood was immediately offered the command of the Atlas 98 but he declined it in order to spend a period of recuperation ashore.

On 14 February 1799 he was promoted rear-admiral, and by May was back t sea serving in the Channel fleet with his flag aboard the very slow Triumph 74, commanded by a captain whom he considered to be fairly useless, Thomas Seccombe. He was detached under the orders of Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton as part of the reinforcement of twelve sail of the line to the Mediterranean during the Brest fleet’s cruise from April to August, and was with the force which followed the enemy back to its home port at the end of the campaign.

Remaining thereafter on blockade with the Channel fleet, he transferred in early 1800 to the Barfleur 98, which was commanded by Captain George Hopewell Stephens until December, then by Captain John Ommanney until the Peace of Amiens in 1802, although in the spring of 1801 Captain John Irwin briefly held the command. After sitting on various court martials into the Bantry Bay mutiny Collingwood struck his flag in May 1802 and went home to a house in Morpeth which he had purchased a year earlier after previously renting it.

When the war resumed on 16 May 1803 Collingwood initially served under the orders of Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis off Brest, going out in June aboard the Diamond 38, Captain Thomas Elphinstone, and assuming command of the inshore squadron. In this post he flew his flag for a short time aboard the Colossus 74, Captain George Martin, again briefly in August aboard the Minotaur 74, Captain Charles Moore Mansfield, and until December aboard the aptly named Venerable 74, Captain George Reynolds.

In February 1804 he shifted his flag to the Culloden 74, Captain George Reynolds, and took command of the Rochefort squadron. On 23 April he was promoted vice-admiral, and after a brief spell in the Prince 98, Captain Richard Grindall, he removed in August to the Dreadnought 98, Captain Edward Rotherham. During April 1805 he arrived off Ferrol as the second in command to Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, and in May he took command of a small squadron of four sail of the line off Cadiz. It was on this station, with just three sail of the line, that he witnessed the arrival of Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve and the combined fleet which had fought the Battle of Cape Finisterre against Calder’s fleet on 22 July. Refusing to be intimidated by the sixteen sail of the line that were despatched to chase him off, Collingwood returned and kept watch on the allies in Cadiz, off which port ships from various British squadrons soon began to congregate, and where Vice-Admiral Viscount Nelson later arrived to assume command.

Collingwood had to deal with the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar following Nelson’s death

He was subsequently second in command to Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, where he led the lee line in the Royal Sovereign 100, Captain Edward Rotheram, to which vessel he had been moved by Nelson as she was a faster ship than the Dreadnought. Rushing ahead of her consorts, the Royal Sovereign was the first ship into action, and such was her involvement that all of Collingwood’s servants bar one were killed. At the end of the battle, and upon learning of Nelson’s death, he shifted his flag into the Euryalus 36, Captain Hon. Henry Blackwood, taking the captured Vice-Admiral Villeneuve aboard with him, and he later transferred his flag to the Queen 98, Captain Francis Pender.

Collingwood was subsequently criticised for failing to see to the safety of the prizes in the storm that followed the battle, and for disregarding Nelson’s previous orders to anchor the fleet after the action, but in his defence not a single British ship was lost as a result of the battle or the storm. He duly received a pension of 2,000 guineas for his part in the victory, a sword from the Duke of Clarence, the thanks of parliament, and was created Baron Collingwood of Caldburne and Hethpoole.

Being confirmed as the new commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Collingwood flew his flag in the Queen 90, Captain Richard Thomas, and from the end of 1806 the Ocean 98 with Thomas, who would remain as his flag-captain until his death. As his second-in-command he requested Rear-Admiral John Child Purvis. Throughout 1806 he remained off Cadiz where he fostered a good relationship with the governor and people out of his consideration for the Spanish wounded, whom he had allowed to go ashore following the Battle of Trafalgar The trust and confidence he inspired in the Spanish would bear fruit when they overthrew the French a couple of years later.

In 1806 he censured Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth for abandoning Cadiz, to pursue Rear-Admiral Leissègues to the West Indies, even though that controversial officer fought and won the Battle of San Domingo on 6 February. Against his better wishes he was then ordered to send the same officer into the Dardanelles with less than clear instructions to act against the Turks in February 1807, although Duckworth’s own inadequacies contributed overwhelmingly to the failure of that expedition. In June Collingwood took the Mediterranean fleet to the Dardanelles from Cadiz in a more placatory attempt to win the friendship of the Turks, but this was no more successful than Duckworth’s efforts. Subsequent to the Treaty of Tilsit between Napoleon and the Russian Tsar in July he escorted Vice-Admiral Dmitry Nikolayevich Seniavin’s Russian fleet out of the Mediterranean in order to prevent their union with the French, and thereafter he generally cruised in the vicinity of Sicily so as to prevent any French attempt on the island.

On 7 February 1808 his fleet was absent when Vice-Admiral Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume escaped from Toulon with ten sail of the line and briefly occupied Corfu. Having inexplicably sailed away from a vessel which had come to warn him of Ganteaume’s escape, it was not until 3 March that Collingwood heard the news of the French break-out whilst at Cape St Vito on the north-west coast of Sicily. He was not overzealous in going in search of Ganteaume, and the French were back at Toulon by 10 April. There is little doubt that Nelson would have been more active in his pursuit of the French, and the incident did much to illustrate the general consensus that for all his devotion to duty, Collingwood lacked the tactical appreciation required of a fleet commander.

Retuning to Cadiz in June, he learned that the Spanish were now his allies following Napoleon’s attempted subjugation of their throne, and he was soon furnishing them with supplies. During a visit to Cadiz in September he was so lauded for his assistance and previous kindness to the wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar that a cavalry escort was required to allow his progress to an official dinner.

Collingwood died aboard his flagship, the Ville de Paris

In April 1809, with the Ocean in need of repairs following a severe winter, he removed his flag to the Ville de Paris 110, Captain Richard Thomas. Remaining on watch off Toulon for most of the year, he missed an escape and subsequent return of five French sail of the line during May, but he had the satisfaction of learning that enemy two sail of the line were burned on shore after they had attempted to flee from Rear-Admiral George Martin’s squadron on 25 October. Such was his contempt for the French at this time of the war that he suggested one of his subordinates, Rear-Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith, caused him more bother than the enemy.

On 9 January 1809 he was promoted major-general of marines following the death of Admiral Lord Gardner. By now he had a yearning to become a family man and to retire to his modest estate in Northumberland, although he had refused the Admiralty’s offer in 1808 of the command of the Plymouth station. Ignoring blinding headaches and stomach cramps, he failed to realise how much his health had deteriorated as a result of the sedentary life spent at his desk, and this dedication to duty would prove to be his undoing.

On 3 March 1809 Collingwood was ordered home on medical advice, and he finally resigned the station to Vice-Admiral John Child Purvis, who was commanding off Cadiz. Hardly able to stand unaided, he set sail with his flag in the Ville de Paris from Port Mahon at 2 p.m. on 7 March 1810, but within four hours had died. His body was returned to England aboard the Nereus 36, Captain Peter Heywood, under the care of his flag-lieutenant George Browne, and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral alongside his great friend Nelson.

On 16 June 1791 Collingwood married Sarah Blackett of Newcastle, the grand niece of Admiral Robert Roddam. The couple had issue two girls, Sarah and Mary Patience, with the result that upon his death his title became extinct. His brother Wilfred, a very promising officer, died of tuberculosis in 1787.

Collingwood was 5ft 10’ tall, slim, slightly bent and rheumatic in his old age, with penetrating blue eyes in a round, pallid face. Being long-sighted, he wore spectacles to read. He did not drink alcohol nor eat to excess, and for one of his standing he remained poor for much of his life, not least because of his wife’s excesses. Only during his time in command of the Mediterranean station did he make much money, being able to leave his daughters £160,000, a sum that had been bolstered by his inheritance of the Chirton estate and coal mine near South Shields in April 1806.

He was regarded as politically insightful, was benevolent, conscientious, capable, shrewd and unquestionably brave, whilst also being scholarly, painstaking, methodical, pedantic, puritan, dour, firm and thoughtful. He had a reputation for being stern and strict yet just, with a tendency to treat his officers more harshly than the common seamen. Admiral the Hon. Sir George Elliot suggested that he was unpopular, ‘an old bear – selfish’, and he was renowned for giving less than satisfactory dinners which earned him the nickname ‘Salt Junk and Sixpenny’, not least because of his predilection for offering old meat and cheap wine. Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Fremantle thought him severe and reserved, although privately he could be witty and ‘sardonic’. Out of earshot midshipmen laughed at him in awe and affection, although whether these were the same boys who had their pigtails sawn off with a pen-knife by Collingwood for failing to make correct observations is doubtful. They called him ‘Old Cuddy’.

Somewhat solemn and prematurely old, wooden, solitary, formal, conservative, reactionary and sensitive, he was a pious grandfatherly figure within the fleet, and some suggested he would have made a good bishop. Others affirmed that there was never a better friend to a seaman, but being reserved and a poor communicator he was incapable of relaxing with his men or his officers, although when commanding the Excellent he did enjoy the reputation of having an excellent band. The tale of him pausing during the Battle of Trafalgar to fold a sail well illustrates his character. Later in his career he gave up ordering capital punishment and maintained the strictest of discipline by watering any offenders’ grog, giving them extra ignominious duties, or occasionally moral lectures and a stern look of displeasure, both of which were as harsh as a flogging. The men appeared to love him nevertheless, and at his funeral the genuine grief of the common seamen was there for all to see.

In independent command Collingwood was dashing in battle with a gusto for hard blows, suggesting that he was happier in command of individual ships than a fleet. His broadsides were lethal and he was a renowned gunnery expert, and it is a fact that Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Berry and he were the only officers to earn three gold medals for actions fought during the wars. A good administrator but a poor tactician, duty meant everything to Collingwood. He preferred the life behind his desk at the detriment to his country’s dominance of the enemy, and without Nelson his reputation as a fighter would barely have survived the war. His failure to fully inspire his subordinates was illustrated prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, when the captains of the fleet off Cadiz compared his ‘unimaginative puritanical’ regime most unfavourably to Nelson’s. Nevertheless, the government and later the people of Spain had absolute confidence in his stewardship of the Mediterranean station, and he was trusted implicitly by the demanding Admiral Earl of St. Vincent.

Collingwood’s hobby was gardening on his estate at Morpeth in Northumberland, and he advocated that if everyone pressed acorns into the ground, as he did on his walks across the Northumbrian hills, there would always be a bountiful supply of oak for Britain’s fleet. His favourite companion was his dog ‘Bounce’, who was allowed to sleep next to his cot and was happy enough at sea, although he hated gunfire. A great friend of Nelson who could have been his alter-ego, Collingwood was less enamoured of Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, and displayed some bitterness towards Admiral Lord Howe as a result of the failure to award him a gold medal following the Battle of the Glorious First of June. Similarly the failure of the government to allow his honours to descend upon his daughters, as had been allowed to Lord Barham, bridled with him.