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THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR.

(A SHEERNESS  POWDER MONKEYS STORY.)

( From the newspaper of 1889 13th April )

 

Joseph Sunderland who was in 1805 a powder monkey on board his Majesty’s cruiser Beaulieu – which claims to have brought to England the first news of the great naval  victory at Trafalgar- celebrated his one hundredth birthday at Milton-next- Sittingbourne last Wednesday April 3rd  1889.  Such an antique occasion brought together a good many of the centenarian’s friends , and to them he recited some of his experiences of his early years.

Although complaining that , after a lapse of more than eighty years,  names and dates were apt to get a little “ higgle-de- piggledy” the old man nevertheless was able to give a fairly clear account of some of his adventures at a most exciting period of English  Naval History..

 

He was born on April 3rd 1789 at Sheerness , Sutherland stated that when only 12 years old he entered the Royal Navy as a first class boy .He joined the Kingfisher a sloop of ten guns which was sent out to the West Indies  on a roving commission .The sloop was commanded by Captain Cripp , of whom Sutherland spoke with  a respect  amounting almost to veneration . “ Ah! “ he said as his memory ran back over the long vista of years , “ He was a nice feller “ .Captain Cripp , it seems ,was very considerate towards his men and boys in days when the lash  was pretty fairly used in the Navy.  Sutherland , however had tasted the “ cat “ .His back had not been “pickled “ like some sailors backs which he had seen, but he owned up to six strokes , and spoke of the castigation in such a way as to suggest at the time it was not ill-deserved .

 

The old man proceeded to recall several skirmishes with the French when the Kingfisher was off the West Indies , and particularly one occasion off Jamaica , when before the British ships , which had been “ cleaning up “ , could get to work , the Frenchmen  “topped their boom “ and left them. Then he described the long chase – a long chase because it was a stern chase – which ensued before the “ darned  mounseers “ were overhauled and the fight began.

Then our men stripped to the waist for action  , took farewells to each other , and one heard a comrade addressed in terms such as this “ Tom, if I am done for , let ‘em know at home .” Then Sutherland pictured his own work as a humble powder- monkey how, divested almost of clothing , for the hot climate was trying in the extreme , he “ handed up the powder from  the magazine below” ,  how it was his duty to keep one particular gun well supplied , and how elaborate the precautions taken by the erection of “ fearnought “ screens between the magazine and the hatchways , and by the prohibition of the use of shoes , to prevent the risk of explosion while the powder was being handed about. All this , as told from the centenarians lips , sounded rather like a chapter from some popular naval history , so difficult did it seem to believe that Sutherland himself could have taken a share in the transaction which he related.

 

It was not given to Sutherland to take part in Englands greatest naval history – that of Trafalgar – but the old man claims  that the cruiser Beaulieu  ,( called by him with a supreme disregard for French pronunciation  ,the “ Bowley “) then on the way home from the West India Station , was the first to take the news of Lord Nelsons  dying victory to England. The Beaulieu , to which Sutherland had bee transferred , fell in with the British Fleet after the battle and had learnt by signal of the glorious triumph of the great Admiral and of his unfortunate death on board the Victory. The centenarian described the battered condition of many of the ships , how they were riddled with shot , how some had lost their topmast, and others had had their yards shot away, and how the hurricane , which even then had not wasted all its fury, and prevented all communication except by signal between the Beaulieu and other ships , had resulted in the loss of a great many prizes . The Beaulieu took the news with all speed to either Portsmouth or PlymouthSutherland was not quite sure which- where she arrived in the early days of November. The old man remembers the popular rejoicings , mingled with a touch of deep national sorrow , with which the news of  Nelson’s grand victory was received in England but , he adds significantly , ”We  were not then allowed to go ashore as they are now-a days.” Sutherland stated he had himself seen the English naval commander .  Before the Kingfisher left for the West Indies she was inspected by Nelson, who was described by Sutherland as “ a poor little diminutive feller , but full of pluck and beloved by the whole fleet “.

 

Soon after the battle of Trafalgar and when Englands naval supremacy was assured , Sutherland , then between the ages of sixteen and seventeen , left the Royal Navy and entered as an apprentice in Sheerness Dockyard .  Here he served  his country in the work of ship construction for a long period , and retired thirty years ago upon a pension .which keeps him in comparative comfort. In his short service at sea  he was twice wounded by pistol shots ,but not seriously , and his good luck continued in after life, when he was on one occasion  knocked overboard , and on another got adrift in a small boat off the Nore on a very stormy night. Though now a hundred years ago , Sutherland  is as active as many men of three score and ten . He stands over six feet in height , walks about the house and gardens ,and was able to rig up a couple of flags on his birthday . He finds a comfort in clay pipes , and confesses to having been a smoker all his life .” I used to chew   he observed  “ but I gave that up “ . His only stimulant is a little whisky, which he prefers to the orthodox naval drink , rum. His friends predict that he has several more years of life before him , but the centenarian says , philosophically ,as he shakes his head,  “No, I hope not ,I have had quiet enough of it .” He, however  still seems to enjoy life and seems fairly comfortable at 91 Charlotte Street Milton.  In the locality he is very popular , and the school children brought many gifts of flowers on the occasion of his birthday.

 

Like many old sailors ,Sutherland is wedded to the “ wooden walls  “of old England  and has supreme contempt for the ironclads of today .” I would sooner, “ he says, “ tie a shot round my neck and jump overboard than go to sea in one of them .“ He predicts that when we have a large naval battle we shall find out that we have made a mistake .” In our wooden ships, “ he says “ if a shot came through our sides we had plugs , and could plug the hole. Nowadays , if a shot strikes an armour plate , the damage spreads , the iron splits in all directions , and you can do nothing. As to the seamen he thinks they are as plucky as ever “ pluckier than they were , because there isn’t the tyranny aboard ship that there used to be. All this shows the centenarian still keeps an eye upon current affairs , but that eye begins to show signs of feebleness , for it can no longer read the newspapers , and no spectacles seem to strengthen its power. Old Sutherland spends most of his time in his armchair by the fireside , and sometimes dreaming of his early days , he finds himself humming his favourite  “shanty “ ending up with “ Haul away , my boys , haul away “

 

 A correspondent informs me that Mr. Sutherland was entered in Sheerness Dockyard as a first class shipwright on July 3rd 1815 , and was rated as a leading man of shipwrights on December 22nd 1845. He was superannuated  on June 22nd 1860 . Among those who went to offer their congratulations to the veteran on attaining his century was Mr. W.H Beal of 5 Marine Terraces Sheerness. The East Kent Gazette says that the hundredth birthday of Mr. Sutherland was regarded as an event in the locality. Presents were made by various friends , one gift consisting of a cake which was studied with one hundred almonds to represent the number of years he had lived The school children presented him with flowers and afterwards joined in singing “Aukl Lang Syne