Every November 6th (or within a couple of days of that date), throughout the Royal Navy, in ships and shore establishments around the world, Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers Messes celebrate the victory at Trafalgar with a ‘Pickle Night’ Dinner, so named for the vessel that carried the news home to Britain, His Majesty's Schooner PICKLE
This tradition is unique, in that we know exactly when, where, how and why it began, and who invented it – rather like a version of the story of the newly founded American College that put up a notice saying ‘Freshmen will not walk on the grass of this quadrangle – this tradition will commence forthwith’.
In 1974 the President of the Senior Rates' Mess of HMS NELSON, the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth, asked the Commodore of the Barracks for permission to celebrate Trafalgar Night 1974, in the same way as the Wardroom - why should the commissioned officers have all the good parties? Commodore Lea - now Vice Admiral Sir John Lea - thought this was a splendid idea, but saw one possible snag - the difficulty of getting a sufficiently high-profile guest to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory, in competition with all the Wardroom Trafalgar Night Dinners going on simultaneously throughout the Navy. So he suggested they celebrate the arrival of the news of the battle two weeks later - by which time the ‘special guest’ might be able to look another glass of port in the eye again... Despite being of such recent invention, ‘Pickle Night’ already feels like a proper, ages-old naval tradition.
But what was the story of the PICKLE herself, and what is her place in Royal Naval history? She was, of course, a schooner. So any reference to her as HMS PICKLE or any description of her as a ship is historically completely wrong. In 1805 terms a ship was a three masted, square-rigged vessel, and a naval ‘ship’ (with a capital S) was under the command of a Captain RN. The PICKLE was neither.
The schooner, as a type, first appeared and was developed in the Eastern colonies of North America from about the early 18th century. They were two-masted, fore and-aft rigged, with a foremast and mainmast - the contemporary European equivalent, the ketch, was also two-masted, fore-and-aft rigged, but with a mainmast and mizzen.
Schooners were first taken into service by the Royal Navy in the 1760s, American built and mainly for service off the American seaboard and in the Caribbean - their native waters if you like. William Falconer's 1768 Universal Dictionary of the Marine entry for schooner shows just how unfamiliar the type was then: “A small vessel with two masts, whose main-sail and fore-sail are suspended from gaffs reaching from the mast towards the stem; and stretched out below by booms, whose foremost ends are hooked to an iron, which clasps the mast so as to turn there on as upon an axis, when the after ends are swung from one side of the vessel to another”. Clear as mud.
Schooners have never been common vessel types m the Royal Navy, but they do have a surprisingly long history. The last two to appear in the Navy List were purchased in the 1880s for the anti-slavery patrol in the Indian Ocean, but in the 20th century other mercantile schooners - with auxiliary motors - were taken up for service as Q-Ships during the First World War, and some of the last generation of West Country trading schooners saw service in the Second World War - but only as barrage balloon moorings at Falmouth.
In 1800 Vice Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica, wrote to the Navy Board in London to inform them that he wished to purchase a new schooner to act as tender to his flagship HMS SANS PAREIL. The Navy Board wrote back ordering him to do no such thing, but Lord Hugh was son of the Marquis of Hertford, grandson of the Duke of Conway, son-in-law of the Marquis of Waldegrave and the Duchess of Gloucester, friend of the Prince of Wales, MP for Portsmouth and a former Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty - he was also tall, rich and handsome, of course - and he was not about to be told what to do by some bean-counting civil servant. So his next letter to the Navy Board in December 1800 described their newly purchased tender, the STING, a ‘clever, fast-sailing schooner of about 125 tons, coppered and in every respect suited for the service’, cost just £2500. She measured 73 ft. overall - just about the length of a World War Two harbour service launch - 56 ft. 3 in. on the keel, by 20 ft 7 in breadth and 9ft 6in depth, giving a tonnage measurement of 127 tons. For naval service she was armed with six carronades, 12 or 18 pounders, and had a complement of 35 to 40. She was built in 1799, probably at Bermuda, for a consortium of Jamaica merchants, perhaps (given her name) with the intention of using her as a privateer. Instead, she was chartered bareboat to Lord Hugh's squadron at £10 a day (so buying her outright made financial sense). The squadron's previous tender - a cutter named PICKLE - was never formally registered by the Navy Board, and was by now too worm-eaten to be of any further use. Lieutenant Thomas Thrush of the flagship SANS PAREIL was given command of the STING, and her first year of service in the Caribbean was as squadron despatch vessel, carrying despatches, orders, stores and personnel to the station's outlying ships and establishments. The Navy Board had ordered that the STING should be renamed PICKLE, but throughout her time in the West Indies this order was ignored. The reason for the order was probably not to keep the illustrious name PICKLE alive - nobody cared that much about an unregistered tender with a really rather silly name - but to disguise the acquisition of a new schooner from the Royal Navy’s oldest and most bitter enemy, the Treasury.
In September 1801 Lord Hugh Seymour died of yellow fever - in the phrase of the time ‘fell victim to Jamaica's fatal climate’. Naturally, his family and connections wanted him to be buried at home in England, and so the STING, Lieutenant Thomas Thrush commanding, first formally opened a Pay Book as an independent command in October 1801, to carry the Admiral’s body home to England.
Between January and March 1802, the STING refitted for Channel Service at Plymouth, and in February the Navy Board again insisted that the STING be renamed PICKLE, and this time they got their way. HM Schooner PICKLE'S first employment was in coastal patrols in the English Channel between the Solent and Land's End - the French Revolutionary War was winding down by that time, but there were still smugglers at large (she captured one smuggling cutter in April, a month after the Peace of Amiens was signed). In May 1802 Lt Thrush was relieved by the PICKLE's new commander, Lt John Richards Lapenotiere. Thrush, who had been one of Lord Hugh Seymour's proteges, was promoted Commander, and eventually in 1809 to Post Captain. He had an unspectacular career, and doesn't feature much in the standard naval histories - his real claim to fame is the manner in which he resigned his commission in 1825, in a 32 page pamphlet (mostly biblical quotation) addressed to the King, on the unlawfulness of war.
Under Lapenotiere's command, the anti-smuggling patrols continued, but on a new beat in the Bristol Channel. Then after a refit in September, she was off to the Mediterranean carrying despatches to Sir Richard Bickerton's squadron off Sardinia, with visits to Naples, Malta, Cartagena and Gibraltar, returning to Falmouth only in February 1803.
She recommissioned in early May 1803, a week before the resumption of war after the half-time intermission that was the Peace of Amiens. The month of May was hectic, pressing seamen from homeward-bound British ships - this was a period of a furiously 'Hot Press', bitterly resented by seafaring men and communities. When she tried to send a boat ashore at Mevagissey the Log notes “a great number of men being assembled, thought it not prudent to land”.
Then in June 1803 she joined the fleet off Ushant, for the close blockade of the French naval base at Brest, and it was on the 6th of June that HM Schooner PICKLE suffered her only fatal casualty of her entire naval service, Ordinary Seaman James Staner, lost overboard.
The Brest Blockade was the PICKLE's station for the next year and a half, with occasional diversions carrying despatches to the squadrons off Ferrol, Corunna and Rochfort. The PICKLE, as one of Admiral Comwallis' s fleet's smallest vessels, was usually given the dogsbody jobs, and was generally ‘behind the door’ when the fleet resupplied, or the independent cruises were handed out. In fact she was horribly hard worked. She had been built for speed, and for the Caribbean, not for inshore, all-weather work in whatever the English Channel could throw at her, but I must say that it doesn't appear that Lt Lapenotiere' s seamanship, or his leadership, were all that they could have been - this may be controversial, but there are indications in the records that I'm not entirely wrong here.
During Lapenotiere' s 41 months in command of the PICKLE she lost or sprung her bowsprit or jibboom seven times, as well as losing or damaging other spars, including her main boom three times. On three occasions he had to heave some of the schooner's guns overboard to save the ship. None of her other commanding officers ever managed to suffer damage or loss at anything like that rate.
Her desertion rate under his command was about 20 men every year - half her nominal complement - and the number of floggings ordered by Lapenotiere is unreasonably high for such a small vessel, where discipline would normally be more consensual. In fact, none of her other commanding officers seem to have 'let the cat out of the bag' or rigged a grating for punishment. There were, no doubt, some hard cases on board, but it's clear that the PICKLE under Lapenotiere was not a happy ship. In October 1803 the bosun’s mate, one of the schooner's few senior rates, was recaptured after deserting with a number of other men, and accused of mutiny and conspiring to take over the vessel. That charge was dismissed, but despite his plea that 'we are discontented and very wet in the PICKLE', he was flogged round the fleet for desertion. Some months later another conspiracy was discovered; three of the PICKLE’s Isish seamen were accused of having taken an oath to desert to the French and to ‘aid and assist Bonaparte with all [their] power and might on every occasion’. The book they were said to have sworn on had the title 'The Rights of Ireland' - that part of the charge was dismissed, but all three were imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison. The cafard of constant blockade could get to people in other ways - in September 1804 John Boucher got a dozen lashes for ‘drunkenness, and throwing his clothes overboard’.
Some of the PICKLE's disciplinary trouble may have been due to the sheer amount of time she spent at sea. Between May 1803 and December 1804 she was at sea nearly 70% at the time, and when not at sea was usually under refit or repair, at anchor in Plymouth Sound, or sheltering from winter storms with the rest of Cornwallis’ fleet in Torbay.
Her work with the blockading fleet was a mix of the very mundane and of the raw material of adventure fiction. She was regularly sent round the fleet to ‘collect the Weekly Accounts’, or to carry despatches to the Rochfort, Ferrol and Corunna squadrons - something of a respite usually (though not in January 1804, when a heavy sea in the Bay stove in some bulwark timbers and dislodged the bowsprit from its step). She was just as regularly sent into very jaws of Brest harbour to count the French line-of-battle ships at their moorings, and on one occasion landed a party to destroy the telegraph on Pointe St Matthieu - C S Forester used that one in a Hornblower story. When the 74 HMS MAGNIFICENT was wrecked on the Pierre Noir reef in March 1804, the PICKLE and her boats assisted in the rescue her entire crew.
In all this weary time on blockade or running the Fleet's errands, she took only a handful of prizes: an American vessel carrying contraband French goods and three small French coasters - one with a cargo of wine and brandy. A small and welcome bonus, but not to be compared with the schooner FELIX’s stroke of luck in capturing a coaster with 62,000 dollars hidden amongst her cargo of corn.
The PICKLE was sent to the West Indies over the winter of 1804/05, returning to Plymouth for a long refit in May 1805. Between July and the pt October she shuttled between Plymouth, Sir Robert Calder's fleet off Finisterre and Lord Nelson's off Cadiz, carrying despatches, narrowly avoiding capture by Spanish gunboats on one occasion. In early October she was off Cadiz, and she was still there with Henry Blackwood's Advanced Squadron of frigates when the Combined Fleet at last came out early on the 19th. During the battle of Trafalgar, two days later, PICKLE's station was to windward of Nelson's column during the opening manoeuvres; once battle was joined her task was keep out from under foot the liners, to act as 'safety boat’, rescuing swimmers, and doing what good she could where she could. (The frigates, brigs, schooners and cutters of both opposing fleets did not take an active, shooting, role in a fleet action between line-of-battle ships.) Most notably she and her boats together with the boats of the other unengaged ships, saved many men, and of course one woman, Jeanne Caunant, from the sea when the French ship ACHILLE caught fire and blew up. By the time the fighting was over, the PICKLE had somehow managed to find room for 160 French prisoners, all survivors of the ACHILLE, on board. Only one was badly wounded enough to require surgery by the PICKLE's medic, Assistant Surgeon Simon Britton, went on board the VICTORY to assist Surgeon Beatty over the next three days
With the storm that followed the battle finally passed, and all her prisoners packed off to bigger ships - there were later stories that they plotted to take over the schooner (which seems ungrateful) - Lt Lapenotiere was summoned on board HMS EURYALUS, Admiral Collingwood's temporary flagship, on the 26th, to be given the prize job of taking news of the victory - and of Nelson's death - home to the Admiralty
For Lapenotiere this was the career defining moment. He was 35 years old, and although he had a command, it was only a schooner - for years he had been the fleet's SLJO ('silly' little jobs officer) and without a lucky break he could expect no further promotion, or much future employment. Now, whoever carried this news home was sure of promotion to Commander and a sloop to command; he could also look forward to a sizeable cash reward - £500 was the going rate for bringing news of a victory in a fleet action. He would also be a little famous at least for a while (he's managed 200 years so far). Normally, this sort of plum would have gone to a frigate Captain, in this instance probably Blackwood of the EURYALUS, but Collingwood needed every ship of force by him in case of another attempt by the survivors of the Combined Fleet to break out. So it was either PICKLE or the cutter ENTREPRENANT, the Fleet's other dispensable ‘gofer’, and since the ENTREPRENANT was still detached inshore engaged in rescue work among the drifting and dismasted prizes, it was the PICKLE who got the job.
At noon on the 26th, with ‘fresh breezes and a heavy swell’ from the West South West the PICKLE shaped her course for England. She made slow time - never more than four knots - for the first couple of days, until she came onto a more favourable point of sail after rounding Cape St. Vincent. And then, on the 29th, with Cape St Vincent still in sight over the starboard quarter, all Lapenotiere's dreams turned to ashes, as HM Sloop NAUTILUS came in sight, then joined company. Her captain, Commander John Sykes, came on board, learned the news, and rather officiously (but certainly correctly) offered to share the burden of carrying it - being the senior officer. The NAUTILUS first put in toward Lisbon, where she passed a copy via a pilot boat to the Consul at Lisbon - Collingwood's duplicate despatch was already on its way there by the ENTREPRENANT. NAUTILUS then set a course for Plymouth, and being the bigger vessel, square rigged and a better sea-boat in that following wind and swell than the PICKLE, within a couple of days had, caught her, overhauled her, and passed out of sight over the horizon. It was all going horribly wrong for the PICKLE and Lt Lapenotiere, and they must have thought the race was already lost. But never say die.
On the 2nd the NAUTILUS was very nearly intercepted by a French squadron out of Lorient bound for Africa to raid British possessions there. For four hours the NAUTILUS had to reverse course to avoid them (the 86-gun REGULUS accompanied by the heavy frigates PRESIDENT and CYBELE and the brig SURVEILLANT), though they made no effort to chase. The PICKLE, from being far behind - she never even sighted the French squadron's topsails - was now over the horizon and far ahead. Next day she passed the news of the battle to the 74-gun HMS SUPERB, whose Captain Richard Keats had been the first man to whom Nelson had told his battle plan, months before in the garden at Merton Place. At 10 in the morning of 4th November, after a couple of days of light and baffling winds in the Western Approaches, Lapenotiere went ashore at Fish Strand Quay Falmouth, announced the news to the few spectators - there are always spectators on a quayside - and hired a post chaise to take him the 266 miles to London. This was a huge gamble, and a huge investment - the cost to hire a four horse shay from Falmouth to London was half a Lieutenant’s annual pay, and he had no guarantee the Admiralty's travel budget would reimburse him. But the normal coach service would have taken a week or so, Collingwood's despatches contained the most important news in a generation - and he still didn't know whether he was running second to Sykes of the NAUTILUS.
In fact the NAUTILUS was half a day behind, and heading for Plymouth, forty miles further East. Sykes landed at Plymouth late in the evening of the 4th, and then he too took a post chaise up to London, but Lapenotiere was still ahead - after Honiton, where their routes would have converged, Sykes would have known how he stood, but the unofficial race continued. The news they brought spread through the countryside from every posting inn, as each relay of horses and postillions was changed - as Thomas Hardy put it in 'The Trumpet Major' "the stage coaches on the highway through Wessex to London were chalked with the words 'Great Victory! Glorious Triumph!' and so on; and all the country people were wild to know particulars." Lapenotiere eventually reached the Admiralty, 19 changes of horses and 37 hours after leaving Falmouth, the chaise at a walking pace for the past couple of hours due to thick fog, not long before midnight on 6th November. The Secretary of the Admiralty, William Marsden, had been working late (as usual), and met Lapenotiere in the Boardroom “Sir, we have gained a great victory, but we have lost Lord Nelson”. The First Lord, Lord Barham, and his domestic staff had turned in, and it took Marsden some time to find him. When he shook him awake, Barham's first words were “What news, Mr. M?” Then the two men set to to compose the letters to spread the news to the Cabinet, the King, and the Lord Mayor of London, and to prepare Collingwood’s despatches for publication, first in the London Gazette, the official Government journal, then for the public presses. While this was going on, Sykes's post chaise pulled in to the Yard of the Admiralty - just about an hour too late.
In the morning, after a wash and brush up, Lapenotiere was taken to Windsor where he explained the progress of the battle to King George using the breakfast cutlery to show the movements of the opposing fleets - Nelson's flagship HMS VICTORY was represented by a silver muffmiere. Now the King was in remission from the porphyria that so affected his behaviour at times, but in an act of charming eccentricity, he insisted on presenting the muffmiere to Lapenotiere. What a muffmiere is, I'm not at all sure - according to whichever antiques market source you choose, it can either be a kind of sugar caster, a sort of cake stand, or one of these articles, which looks to be some sort of tabletop muffin heater - a Georgian pop-up toaster. In addition to this, and perhaps more significantly to him, Lapenotiere was promoted to Commander, received a sword worth 100 guineas from the Patriotic Fund, plus his share of the prize money from the battle, and eventually, but only after three petitioning letters, the £500 customary for the bearer of news of a victory. And he had his expenses chit honoured. He was eventually promoted to Post Captain in 1811. Commander Sykes didn't miss out entirely, as he was promoted to Captain in January 1806.
The PICKLE, under her new commanding officer, Lt Daniel Callaway, rejoined Collingwood in December, again as despatch vessel. In the spring of 1806 she returned to patrol and examination duties off Devon and Cornwall, with occasional missions with despatches - to Barbados in August/ September 1806, but more often to the fleet off Ushant.
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