Collingwood Society: Lt Quilliam


This month’s Collingwood Society talk was about John Quilliam, the First Lieutenant on Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar – there being, apparently, a Quilliam Society in the Isle of Man.

His background seems to have been quite colourful – he was born in 1771 on a farm at Marown on the Isle of Man, and was eventually one of six or seven children. His parents had been up before the church court for witchcraft – telling the future by ‘turning the sieve’, and putting a curse on a neighbour – and his mother was later up again for fornication, accused of having a child that wasn’t her husband’s. She said that it was his, and punishment was set aside until it could be proved or otherwise – although by that time he seemed to have taken a second wife anyway.

The first record of Quilliam in the Navy is as a supernumerary – carried only for his food, and not officially even part of the Navy – on board Lion in 1791. By 1794 he had been rated an able seaman on board Triumph, and was soon a quartermaster’s mate – a rise that suggests he may have already had some seafaring experience. In 1797, as a master’s mate, he was present at the Battle of Camperdown, and was made an acting lieutenant, and shortly afterwards, having served for 6 years aboard navy ships, he sat and passed his lieutenant’s exam and became third Lieutenant on Ethalion, where he gained prize money of more than £5000 for his part in the capture of the Spanish treasure ship Thetis, making him a rich man by the standards of the time.

On of the themes of the talk was the various major events with which Quilliam was involved – he can be known to have been present at the mutiny at Spithead, for example, because Triumph was one of the ships from which representatives put their names to a message to the mutineers at the Nore, asking them not to use violence. After Camperdown, the next major event at which he was present was the Battle of Copenhagen, where he served as first lieutenant on Amazon, and took command after the captain was killed, having withdrawn and put the ship in the line of heavy fire in response to the signal which Nelson didn’t see – ironically, as it was apparently made to allow the ships to withdraw out of danger if necessary.

A story of how he attracted Nelson’s attention by replying ‘middling’ when asked by an unknown voice how he was getting on in the badly damaged ship during the battle is sadly apocryphal, but they may have met after the battle when Nelson is known to have visited one of the other damaged ships – in any case, they did meet, and his next posting was as first lieutenant on Victory, where he was involved during the Battle of Trafalgar in steering Victory after the wheel was shot away, and another story is told that when the admiral’s flag was lowered after Nelson’s death he raised it again, saying that he didn’t want either to encourage the enemy or discourage their own men by letting them know what had happened.

After the battle he was briefly made commander into a bomb, and by the spring of 1806 he had been made post into the San Ildefonso, one of the Spanish ships taken at Trafalgar – an order signed by Collingwood. He was then flag captain to Admiral Stopford in Spencer, before being appointed to the frigate Crescent – with the speaker interestingly seeing frigate command as a step up from his previous postings, as being more independent. As a captain he’s known to have been interested in both the welfare of his men and the science of sailing ships, and two letters were read out reflecting this, one about improvements he wanted to have made to his ship.

At the end of the war he retired and went back to the Isle of Man, where he had already bought property – asked if he had married, the speaker said cautiously that he had ‘had a woman in tow’!

The stained glass window at the top of the post was unveiled last year in the church where Quilliam was buried – we had a bit of a discussion about whether it showed *the* famous flag hoist, but it definitely does.

I’m always interested into finding out about new people – and seeing the very different backgrounds they came from – so I really enjoyed that. Plus I got to see my first sunshine for a week, since Edinburgh had been sitting under solid cloud and rain – and I’m always glad to see the Tyne.

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