Collingwood Society: Thomas Hardy

This month’s Collingwood Society talk was about another underrated character of the age, possibly even more in Nelson’s shadow – famously Nelson’s flag captain at the time of Trafalgar, and as the talk put it, one of the few men famous for a conversation.

He was born in 1769, the same year as two even more famous characters of the age – Wellington and Napoleon – but making him 10 years younger than Nelson and 20 years younger than Collingwood, and came from a family which had already produced four admirals.

He was briefly at school in Crewkerne before starting his naval career as a captain’s servant – one of the usual designations for young boys there to learn about the life – on Helena, under the command of Francis Roberts, known as a survivor of the explosion of the Quebec, and for a scrap with the Spanish while taking dispatches through the blockade to Gibraltar. A letter written from Helena mentions a dog called Bounce, a nice coincidence, and also talks about him being sent back to school, which happened a year or two later – his name appears on the books on the Carnatic for part of this time, but he probably wasn’t there.

From 1785 to 1789 his name vanishes from the naval records, and he may have been in the merchant service, possibly because of financial troubles in the family. In 1790 he reappears as a midshipman on Hebe, becoming a master’s mate by the end of the year, and after another couple of transfers he became a lieutenant in 1793 on Meleager, in Nelson’s squadron – a squadron lucky with prize money – and then on Minerve, which Nelson joined as commodore.

While serving on board a prize, Santa Sabina, in December 1798, Hardy was captured and briefly held as a prisoner at Cartagena, but he was soon exchanged. Another adventure saw him setting out in a small boat to rescue a sailor who had fallen overboard while the ship was under pursuit – when Nelson shortened sail to retrieve the boat this confused the pursuing Spanish enough that they did the same, allowing Minerve and all concerned to get away safely.

In May 1797 Hardy was appointed Master and Commander of the brig Mutine, which he had captured in a cutting out expedition, and went on to command her at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, becoming captain of Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, after the battle when Edward Berry was sent home with dispatches. He transferred with Nelson to Foudroyant, but returned to England after Berry’s return, arriving home on Christmas Eve 1799. A year later he was back with Nelson on St George with the Baltic fleet, although the ship took no active part in the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson having transferred to Elephant for the battle.

He was lucky enough, or well connected enough, to be employed through the Peace of Amiens as the captain of Isis, carrying out diplomatic missions including taking the Duke of Kent to Gibraltar and Lord Robert Fitzgerald to Lisbon. By late 1802 he was back with Nelson, on board Victory, and in spring 1805 Victory led a chase of a French and Spanish fleet to the West Indies and back. The combined fleet slipped back into Cadiz, under blockade by Collingwood’s fleet, and Hardy and Nelson returned briefly to England, where Hardy was summoned to tell the royal family about Nelson’s actions, and in September sailed to join the fleet off Cadiz, setting the scene for Trafalgar.

Hardy and Nelson were together for the first part of the battle, walking together on deck, where Nelson observed that it was ‘too warm work to last long’, and Hardy visited Nelson after he had been shot, where the famous request was made – also Nelson’s observation that he had hoped for 20 captured enemy ships, and a request that his body not be thrown overboard.

Here we had a digression on ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ and the Victorian suggestion that what was actually said was ‘Kismet, Hardy’ – unlikely both because the word ‘kismet’ isn’t recorded in English until 1849, and because Hardy did kiss Nelson, to Nelson’s apparent satisfaction, but which hung around for long enough to provoke furious debate in the Mariner’s Mirror in 1925.

Victory was badly damaged in the battle and was towed to Gibraltar by Neptune, returning to Portsmouth 5 weeks later with Nelson’s body aboard, and Hardy took part in Nelson’s funeral procession in January 1806. In February he was made a baronet for his part in the battle, and awarded the naval gold medal – he was also left £100 and all Nelson’s telescopes.

Hardy’s next appointment was as captain of Triumph, first with Strachan in the Atlantic and then with Berkeley in North America, and while in America he married Berkeley’s daughter Louisa. He then went to Portugal as his father-in-law’s flag captain in Barfleur, supporting Wellington’s operations there. In 1812 Berkeley retired and returned to England, and Hardy went back to North America, where the United States were once again at war with Britain, on Ramillies, and was attacked by a submarine which fortunately failed to attach an explosive to the ship.

By now Hardy had three daughters, and he spent some time in London as captain of the Royal Yacht at Deptford, becoming involved in an odd affair where he first won a libel case against the Morning Herald, who had alleged that his wife had run off with the Marquess of Abercorn, and then fought a duel with Lord Buckingham, who he believed had been writing anonymous letters about his wife.

In 1818 he was made Commander in Chief for South America, a mainly diplomatic post – his letters home are greatly concerned with his daughters, another similarity with Collingwood. In 1825 he became a Rear Admiral, and ended up in command of an experimental squadron in the Channel, advising on ship construction and recommending the building of heavier ships. In 1830 he became First Naval Lord, encouraging the introduction of steam warships, resigning in 1834 to become Governor of Greenwich Hospital, where he died in 1839, having become a Vice Admiral in 1837.

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