This painting has been immensely popular with the ignorant, unlettered and uncultured members of the British public, as well as the rest, ever since it was first displayed in 1839. The artist, Turner would have altogether have approved of this. He called the painting, “my darling”, and only once, having loaned it for an exhibition, never did so again, and kept it safe in his own possession, until the day he died, when he bequeathed it to the nation in 1851. Turner gave it a longer title, few of us remember; “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838”. Although the word “tugged” is still in use today, we would normally say “towed” about a vessel. The name, “Temeraire” is French and means, “Reckless or rash”.


(i) Popularity

In 2005 it was voted the nation’s favourite painting, in a poll organised by the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme. Despite being reproduced on biscuit tins, chocolate boxes, postcards, and prints, the painting is treasured, because everyone knows these commercial mementoes are but a pale shade of the real thing. Many people might find it difficult to put into words the reasons why they find the painting so appealing. This is because it draws on deep and emotional popular feelings for the history and culture of Britain. Turner was in a long line of artists who had depicted the exploits of British seagoing men (2). The illustration below, (2) was one of many incidents in the Napoleonic wars. The “Nymph” is the nearer ship, and “La Cleopatra” is a French ship, now flying British colours after its capture.

“The Fighting Temeraire” painting speaks to us about the long and proud maritime history of the nation. It calls to mind, “England’s Darling”, Admiral Nelson, and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 against the maritime forces of the Napoleonic dictator. It recollects the sheer beauty of the square rigged sailing ship, as an example of the marine technology of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It also mourns the passing of an era, when beautiful sailing ships, dependent upon unreliable winds, were beginning to be replaced by dirty, noisy, ugly but more reliable steam vessels.

(ii) Turner’s Style

When Turner painted the picture, he was one of the nation’s best known artists having been an exhibitor at the Royal Academy for over forty years. Some have called him “the first Impressionist” in relation to the late nineteenth century artistic movement in France, because many of his paintings are distinctly “atmospheric”, or “impressionistic”. They sometimes create a ghostly or ethereal scene, from what might otherwise be a simple literal record of a rural landscape, or an historic building. One of the best examples of this is his painting of Norham Castle, in Northumberland, just one of many studies he made of it. (3)

“He spent much of his life near the River Thames and did many paintings of ships and waterside scenes, both in watercolour and in oils. Turner frequently made small sketches and then worked them into finished paintings in the studio. He almost certainly did not witness the actual towing of “Temeraire”, and used considerable licence in the painting which had a symbolic meaning for him, that his first audience immediately appreciated.” (Ref C, quoting Judy Egerton of the National Gallery, London,)

(iii) Composition and Symbolism

A detailed appreciation appears below, drawing on quotes from two experts in the field; Erica Langmuir who wrote the National Gallery Guide, and Andrew Wilton, author of a book, “J M W Turner: His Art and Life”. (Ref C)

“The composition of this painting is unusual in that the most significant object, the old warship, is positioned well to the left of the painting, where it rises in stately splendour (4) and almost ghostlike colours against a triangle of blue sky and rising mist that throws it into relief. The beauty of the old ship is in stark contrast to the dirty blackened tugboat with its tall smokestack, which scurries across the still surface of the river.

Turner has used the triangle of blue to frame a second triangle of masted ships, (5) which progressively decrease in size as they become more distant. “Temeraire” and tugboat have passed a small river craft with its gaff rigged sail (a) barely catching a breeze. Beyond this a square-rigger drifts (b), with every bit of sail extended. Another small craft (c) shows as a patch of white farther down the river.

In the far distance, beyond the second tugboat (d) which makes its way towards them, a three-masted ship (e) rides at anchor. The becalmed sailing vessels show the obsolescence of sail. On the opposite side of the painting to “Temeraire”, and exactly the same distance from the frame as the ship’s main mast, the sun sets above the estuary, its rays extending into the clouds above it, and across the surface of the water.

The flaming red of the clouds is reflected in the river. It exactly repeats the colour of the smoke which pours from the funnel of the tugboat. The sun setting symbolises the end of an epoch in the history of the British Royal Navy. Behind “Temeraire”, a gleaming sliver of the waxing moon (6) casts a silvery beam across the river, symbolising the commencement of the new, industrial era. [Langmuir]

The demise of heroic strength is the subject of the painting, and it has been suggested that the ship stands for the artist himself, with an accomplished and glorious past but now contemplating his mortality. Turner called the work his “darling”, which may have been due to its beauty, or his identification with the subject. [Wilton] (Ref C)”

(iv) A Sheer Hulk

Three experts discussed the painting, in 2016, on a BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”, chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Several interesting ideas emerged. Firstly, the “Temeraire” is depicted with masts and yards, which give it that beautiful quality of its life as a sailing ship. In reality, the yards (poles carrying the sails) would have been taken down, and the masts would have been unstepped, or removed from their housings. Everything of any possible use to the Royal Navy would have been removed before handing the hull of the ship to the breakers.

It was what was called in naval parlance, “a sheer hulk”. A popular ballad of the late 18 and 19 centuries was, “Tom Bowling”, written by Charles Dibdin, (1745-1814) a composer of patriotic and sentimental sea songs during the period of the wars against Napoleon. It is filled with naval expressions. The opening stanza is,

“Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,

The darling of our crew,

No more he’ll hear the tempest howling

For death has broached him to.”

A “sheer hulk” was clearly a dead body with no further life in it. When a ship is “broached to” it lies immobile, and helpless, with its sides to the wind and weather.

(v) The tugboat

It was pointed out that Turner has placed the tall funnel (7) of the tugboat too far forward. In reality it would be in the stern of the boat directly over the coal-fired furnace. The reason, for this change of position, is so the funnel does not obscure the bows and upper works of the “Temeraire”. Also there were two tugboats towing the “Temeraire”, but for Turner’s purposes, one was enough.

(vi) The Sunset

The general trend of the River Thames, downstream from the centre of London, is easterly, in the opposite direction to the setting sun. The “Temeraire” is being towed upstream from the naval base at Sheerness, to a breakers’ yard in Rotherhithe, so it would be heading into the sunset. Turner was not trying to provide a documentary record of this event, but a work of art, so that the licence he took with the facts is necessary to the symbolism.


(i) The real HMS “Temeraire”

Despite her later reputation, the early history of HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) “Temeraire” turns out to be rather mundane, as this quote from Reference D indicates,

“HMS Temeraire
was a 98-gun second-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. Launched in 1798, she served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, mostly on blockades or convoy escort duties. She fought only one fleet action, the Battle of Trafalgar, but became so well known for her actions and her subsequent depictions in art and literature that she has been remembered as ‘The Fighting Temeraire.’ Built at Chatham Dockyard, “Temeraire” entered service on the Brest blockade with the Channel Fleet.”
(Ref D)

(ii) A Second-Rate Ship?

By way of explanation, the Royal Navy had a system of classifying warships in terms of the number of heavy guns they carried, ranging from “First Rate” to “Sixth Rate”. When the author of Ref D refers to “HMS Temeraire as,second-rate”, it is not a criticism or denigration of the vessel, but a simple statement of fact. It was big, but not in the biggest category. The phrase “second-rate” has passed into the language meaning “inferior” or “not good enough”. Like a lot of nautical terms appropriated by landlubbers, its true meaning has been lost.

The other phrase used in Ref D is “ship of the line”. The Navy has always used a wide variety of vessels for carrying out its purposes. Frigates, sloops and ketches were small, fast-moving sailing ships capable of carrying detailed messages, or officers, from the captain of one large ship to another. These would be called warships, because they were part of the Royal Navy, but they were not “ships of the line”, because they were too small. The biggest warships were the battleships, and the first three rates were “ships of the line”, because they formed a line of battle in a major naval confrontation. “Temeraire” was one of these. (Ref E)

(iii) Naval Battle Tactics

Most of the heavy guns were in the sides of the battleships, and when firing all together created a “broadside”. The common battle tactic, of the 18C, was for opposing fleets to sail “in line ahead”, (one after the other) and to pound each other with broadsides, but “this led to the almost complete sterility of battle, and very rarely was any wooden ship sunk by gunfire.” (Ref E)

This stalemate called for radical new thinking, and “It was discovered at the at the ‘Battle of Saintes’ in 1782 that an enemy’s fleet could be demoralised and his line of battle thrown into confusion, by sailing through the gaps between his ships, a tactic known as “breaking the line”. (Ref E) This was a dangerous manoeuvre, calling for courage and coolness under fire. A ship approaching the gap in the enemy’s line was subjected to broadside fire without being able to reply and risked being badly damaged.

However, once in the gap, the raider could fire broadsides to left and right, into the weakest parts of the enemy ships – their bows and sterns, without risk to the raider. If several raiders attacked different parts of the enemy line, it caused great damage and confusion, with the chance of a total defeat of the enemy. The topic of “Breaking the Line” is hotly contested by naval historians, and it is claimed that there were earlier examples than the Battle of Saintes’ and interested readers should follow this up in Ref F.

Contemporary illustrations of naval battles are never easy for non-specialists to understand, and illustration 10 is no exception. A “flagship” is the vessel in which the overall commander is sailing, because it “wears” the Admiral’s personal flag. The outcome of the engagement in illustration 10 was indecisive, but later on, after the French flagship had become separated from any support, the British battleship, HMS “Barfleur” damaged it so badly that it “struck its colours” (hauled down its French flag) in token of surrender.

The map of the battle (11) makes more sense to non-specialists. At 8.30 am the British fleet was sailing north in line ahead, as the French fleet sailed south, also in line ahead. They appeared to be expecting an exchange of broadsides. By 9.20 the British had broken the French line in three places.

(iv) The Need for Initiative

This discussion on naval battle tactics has a direct bearing on the reputation of HMS “Temeraire”. As explained earlier, the ship was primarily engaged in the rather tedious work, of escort duties, and blockading the French ports, particularly Brest. It was vital, but unexciting work, and it gave little chance for ambitious captains to prove themselves in war. The newer tactical ideas on “breaking the line” required captains to be more alert, and to seize the initiative when conditions merited it. Simply “keeping station” (maintaining the correct distance from the ship ahead) in the line, would not be enough.

Significantly, the lessons of “The Saintes” had not been lost on Horatio Nelson, who was a famous “fighting admiral”, keen always to attack, and keep the enemy on the hop. He encouraged the use of initiative by his captains. By contrast, Admiral Rodney, the victor of “The Saintes” was severely criticised by many, for his failure to pursue and capture the fleeing French vessels. Some estimated that at least twenty ships could have been rounded up.

(v) Peace, Mutiny and the Press Gang

In 1801 negotiations had begun in the French city of Amiens and “With the end of the war imminent, “Temeraire” was taken off blockade duty and sent to Bantry Bay (Ireland) to await the arrival of a convoy, which she would then escort to the West Indies. Many of the crew had been serving continuously in the Navy since the start of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793, (nine years) and had looked forward to returning to England, now that peace seemed imminent. On hearing rumours that they were to be sent to the West Indies instead, mutiny broke out.” (Ref D)

It has to be remembered that not all the seamen on the British warships were volunteers, but “pressed men”, captured (quite legally) by a “press gang” (13) in the streets of British ports, and compelled to serve aboard ship for as long as the authorities chose. The result of the mutiny was that twelve mutineers were hanged, four aboard the “Temeraire” and the other eight around various other ships in Portsmouth harbour, as an example to other discontented men. Fuller details are given in Ref D.

There was much public indignation over “impressment” but even the contemporary illustrators were inaccurate. The gangs were not interested in well-dressed gentlemen (unused to hard physical work, and perhaps with friends in high places) or ordinary landsmen (unskilled and taking too long to train).

What they sought were mariners, like fishermen, ferrymen, and merchant seamen, who were used to the sea, and boat-handling. A recently published historical research study by J Ross Dancy, “The Myth of the Press Gang” demolishes the idea that in the “Temeraire‘s” time most of the Royal Navy crews were pressed men. He found at the height of the manpower crisis only 30% were pressed men, and it was normally very much lower than this.

During her time in the West Indies, it is possible that local black men were either recruited voluntarily, or pressed into service aboard British ships. Recent historical research, into ship’s logs, has revealed a significant number of black sailors serving in the Royal Navy at that time, including some aboard HMS “Victory”, Nelson’s flagship. This fact was recognised as early as 1849 when the four bronze relief plaques were carved, for the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. A black sailor carrying a rifle is to be seen on the south-facing relief. (14)

(vi) The Fragile Peace

Early in 1802, the Treaty of Amiens was signed and, and “Temeraire” was ordered back to Britain, from the West Indies. She arrived at Plymouth on 28 September, and as a result of the peace, “Temeraire” was laid up for the next eighteen months. The peace did not last long; just thirteen months. Growing commercial conflicts between Britain and France, rather than military ones, led to the break in April 1803. By May, the British laid an embargo on all French shipping, to seize their vessels, goods and crews, in response to French attempts to prevent British ships and goods entering any port in continental Europe. On the 18 May 1803 Britain declared war on Napoleonic France.

(vii) Napoleon’s Invasion Plans

The French were unable to stop British trade with European ports, because they did not have enough ships for such a mammoth task, but the Royal Navy was quite capable of blockading the French ports. By June 1803, Napoleon went to Boulogne to inspect his fleet of small,-flat bottomed boats, designed to carry French troops over the Channel in an invasion of England. The illustration (15) below shows the advanced preparations, over a year later.

Although the British were worried about the risk of invasion, and made careful preparations along the south-eastern coasts of England, the scheme was a foolhardy one. Given the British Royal Navy was the most effective maritime fighting force in the world at that time, the risk of a total disaster was high. Even mildly rough weather would be enough to capsize flat bottomed boats filled with armed troops. Napoleon may have been a supreme strategist in land battles, but amphibious operations are very risky. “Napoleon’s plans depended on a brief command of the Channel which he never achieved.” (Ref G)

Even the ordinary British public could see the weakness of the plan, and British cartoonists (16) were well aware of how much irritation they caused Napoleon. The bandbox was an item from a ladies’ millinery shop, containing ribbons, and hence particularly insulting. In France, the press was tightly controlled by the state so that balanced criticism, let alone lampooning of Napoleon was impossible.

We can look back, with amusement, at Napoleon’s plan for invading England, with the benefit of hindsight, but let no one forget that he was in deadly earnest.

Only six years before, Napoleon had identified Britain as the major stumbling block to his plans for European, if not world domination. In 1797, Napoleon said to the French Directory that, “France must destroy the English monarchy, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders…Let us concentrate all our efforts on the navy and annihilate England. That done, Europe is at our feet.” (Ref I)

In 1803 Napoleon turned his attention to invading England once more, saying: “All my thoughts are directed towards England. I want only for a favourable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London“. (Ref I)
“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and

we are masters of the world.”
(Ref H)

It comes as no surprise that people with some forms of mental illness think that they are Napoleon; they recognise a fellow sufferer. Looking at the gorgeous costumes in the painting of the coronation (17); the ultimate in megalomania, did anyone then, or indeed anyone now, recognise it as the act of lunatic?


(i) “Temeraire” returns to service

It was clear that, in the new situation, every ship was needed, and after a long period of neglect, “Temeraire” was put back into service, but she needed a thorough re-fit. She was finally made ready for sea in February 1804, under the command of Captain Eliab Harvey, when (surprise!) she was assigned to blockade duties off the French port of Brest. At this point, it is worth trying to see exactly how “Temeraire” fitted into to the overall naval strategies of both Britain and France.

(ii) The French “Game Plan”

The British blockade of French, and other European ports had serious economic consequences for France. To counter this, the French had a five-stage game plan: (a) force the break-out of a French fleet, which would then (b) head for the West Indies, the source of the lucrative British sugar trade. This was a feint, to (c) compel the British to raise the blockade, and send warships to defend the West Indies. Once the blockade had been lifted, (d) all the French warships would leave port and rendezvous with the returning “West Indies” fleet to (e) protect the invasion craft making for England, or defeat the British Navy at sea, or perhaps even both.

Of course, the British Admiralty was well aware of this Napoleonic “grand design”, and was quite confident in being able to comprehensively defeat it. To the probable risk of a major naval sea battle, their attitude, in modern parlance would be, “bring it on!”

(iii) A “Dress Rehearsal” for the French Game Plan

“This plan, to invade Britain, was typical of Napoleon in its dash, and reliance on fast movement and surprise, but such a style was more suited to land than to sea warfare, with the vagaries of tide and wind and the effective British blockade making it ever more impractical and unlikely to succeed as more and more time passed.

Only the Toulon force eventually broke out (on 29 March 1805) and, though it managed to cross the Atlantic, it did not find the Brest fleet at the rendezvous and so sailed back to Europe alone, where it was met by the force blockading Rochefort, in France, and Ferrol, in Spain, (where invasion vessels had been prepared), and was defeated at the Battle of Cape Finisterre and forced back into port.” (Ref D) The “Temeraire
was present at the battle and its
crew acquitted itself well.

(iv) The Invasion of England is called off

“Therefore, on 27 August 1805 Napoleon used the invasion army as the core of the new Grande Armée and had it break camp and march eastwards to begin the Ulm Campaign (in Germany). Thus, by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21 October, the invasion had already been called off, and so this battle further guaranteed British control of the Channel rather than preventing the invasion.” (Ref D)

(v) The Run-up to Trafalgar

With the failure of the “Toulon breakout”, the overall commander of the French naval forces, Admiral Villeneuve, was also prevented from joining up with the French fleet in Brest, so he sailed south to Ferrol and on to Cadiz in the very south of Spain.

“When news of the Franco-Spanish fleet’s location reached the Admiralty, they appointed Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson to take command of the blockading force at Cadiz, commanded by Vice-Admiral Collingwood. Nelson was told to pick whichever ships he liked to serve under him, and one of those he specifically chose was Captain Harvey’s HMS “Temeraire.”

Readers will recall Section (ix) “Naval Battle Tactics”, and the idea of “breaking the line”. Nelson “spent the next few weeks forming his plan of attack, in preparation for the expected sortie of the Franco-Spanish fleet. It called for two divisions of ships to attack at right angles to the enemy line, (20) severing its van (leader) from the centre and rear. A third advance squadron would be deployed as a reserve, with the ability to join one of the lines as the course of the battle dictated. Nelson placed the largest and most powerful ships at the heads of the lines, with Temeraire assigned to lead Nelson’s own column into battle.” (Ref D)

It was one thing, for a battle line of warships to be penetrated, almost as a matter of chance, as at “The Saintes”, (ix) but quite different when the whole plan was to do exactly that. Normally, ships were required to sail by “keeping station”, or the correct distance between each other, to avoid collisions. It must have been terrifying to see a force of ships heading, at right angles, straight towards one’s own line. It was quite clear they were not making for any chance spaces, but were going to smash through anything in the way.

This would be barely evident at the approach, but as they came nearer, and within range, cannon fire from the threatened line tried to hold off the attackers. When they finally broke the line, the terrible triple gun decks would fire devastating broadsides to either side as they passed between the enemy ships. Coming right behind, was the next ship, which would fire its broadsides within a few minutes of the last one.

The sides of Nelson’s ships were painted in a characteristic, black and white, “Nelson Chequer” pattern (21), to enable the British ships to tell friend from foe, in the confusion of battle. In those days, the gunpowder, used to fire the canons, created a great deal of smoke, which could be slow to disperse, even at sea.


(i) The Fall of Nelson

The British fleet was patrolling outside Cadiz, blockading the combined French and Spanish fleet inside their naval base. Nelson had ordered his ships to keep a considerable distance from the Spanish coast, to tempt the enemy into making a break into the open sea, and this is precisely what happened.

“The combined Franco-Spanish fleet put to sea on 19 October 1805, and by 21 October was in sight of the British ships. Nelson formed up his lines and the British began to converge on their distant opponents. Contrary to his original instructions, Nelson took the lead of the column in HMS “Victory” instead of Captain Harvey in HMS “Temeraire” Nelson’s senior staff officers were worried about his safety, as he insisted on wearing his ceremonial uniform and decorations, while directing the battle. He had already lost an arm, and an eye in two earlier sea battles.

Readers can find fuller details of the various attempts to persuade Nelson to reduce the risks he ran, in Reference D. The French were known to employ “tirailleurs” or snipers, posted in the “fighting tops” of the various sections of the masts, with the intention of shooting down senior officers, identifiable by their clothing. The worries of the senior staff were proved correct when Nelson’s flagship “Victory” closed with the French vessel, “Redoubtable“. One of the French snipers hit Nelson with a bullet, which entered the top of his shoulders and lodged in his spine, causing a mortal wound, of which he died some hours later.

In the painting, the naval officers are wearing C shaped hats, and the men in red jackets are Royal Marines, originally stationed aboard warships to protect the naval officers from possible mutiny by the seaman, many of whom were “pressed men”.

At this point I include a couple of personal recollections. As a boy of about ten, I was taken to the National Maritime Museum (24), on the Greenwich waterfront. I remember seeing the uniform jacket which Nelson was wearing when he was shot. It had been washed and cleaned, so there were no bloodstains. I was struck by the fact that it was so small; Nelson was a small man, around 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m). The entry hole of the fatal musket ball was clearly visible, high up on the front shoulder of the jacket.

Much later, as an old man, I visited Nelson’s flagship, HMS “Victory”, in Portsmouth Dockyard.(25) Technically, it is still a Royal Navy ship, and consequently is staffed by serving officers and men. Among other things, the sailors provide tourists with information, when they come aboard on a visit. We were shown the place, marked by a brass plaque, where Nelson fell, close to one of the masts. The young sailor, in his uniform, crouched down beside the plaque. In a gesture of respect, with a swift movement, he removed his white cap with its Navy blue band, and its HMS “Victory” lettering. He tucked it under his arm before explaining to the watching group of tourists the details of the death of Horatio Nelson.

(ii) The Risks of Warfare

It seems ironic that naval officers could be at more risk than army officers in a battle. On land, the two armies might be two or three hundred yards apart, (200-300 m) so that the directing generals were well outside the range of small arms fire. At sea, in a battle, once the ships came close together, the directing officers might be no more than 40 feet (12 m) from small arms or cannon fire.

During the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, an artillery officer reported that Napoleon could be seen reviewing his Guarde, and he was well within the range of British guns, so he asked the Duke of Wellington, for permission to open fire. The Duke dismissed the idea with a lordly wave, saying that opposing generals “had better things to do than taking pot shots at each other”. This was very “public school, and fair play, just not cricket,” but the artillery captain had a point. If Emperor Napoleon had been killed by cannon-fire before the battle even began, his whole preposterous house of cards would have collapsed, and the lives of many soldiers, both French and Allies, would have been saved.

(iii) HMS “Temeraire” versus Redoutable”

Returning to the role of HMS “Temeraire” at Trafalgar, under the command of Captain Harvey; she was following HMS “Victory” as she passed through the Franco-Spanish line across the bows of the French flagship “Bucentaure“. The Temeraire” then attacked
the enormous 140-gun Spanish ship “Santísima Trinidad” (Most Holy Trinity)
and engaged her for twenty minutes. At the same time, Temeraire” was taking fire from two French ships, the 80-gun “Neptune” and the 74-gun “Redoutable”, and was seriously damaged.

“Redoutable‘s” broadside carried away “Temeraire‘s” mizzen topmast, and another broadside from “Neptune” brought down “Temeraire‘s” fore-yard and main topmast, and damaged her foremast and bowsprit. To assist the reader with these technicalities, an intact square rigged sailing ship is illustrated (26), and below it a ship damaged like the “Temeraire”, but it would not be so tidy. Broken masts would carry down sails and rigging in a tangle. This would make it impossible to sail the ship, unless it was all cut away with axes,

Despite the damage to the “Temeraire”, she slipped round the stern of the “Redoutable” and discharged a broadside into her. The captain of “Redoutable”, Jean Jacques Étienne Lucas, commented later, after the battle, that the “Temeraire”, “overwhelmed us with the point-blank fire of all her guns. It would be impossible to describe the horrible carnage produced by the murderous broadside of this ship. More than two hundred of our brave lads were killed or wounded by it.” Fighting continued between the two ships for some time, until the “Temeraire” suffered heavy damage when “Redoutable‘s” main mast fell across her decks. Finally Captain Lucas surrendered his ship to Captain Harvey, because she was in danger of sinking altogether.

(iv) HMS “Temeraire” versus Fougueux

After this, the Temeraire” then exchanged gunfire with the French warship, “Fougueux” (impetuous) until the two vessels were entangled with each other, by their damaged masts and rigging. Consequently, Captain Harvey dispatched a boarding party, which gradually overcame the resistance of the remaining French crew. When Louis Alexis Baudoin, the acting commander of the “Fougueux” realised that not only was his captain dead, and nearly all the officers, were dead or wounded, he surrendered his ship to the British boarding party,

By now the “Temeraire” was so badly damaged that she could hardly sail or steer, and 47 of the crew had been killed, and 76 were wounded. Captain Harvey signalled for a frigate to tow his damaged ship out of the line, and HMS “Sirius” came up to assist. Before Sirius could make contact, Temeraire came under fire from a counter-attack by the as-yet undamaged French ships.
Harvey ordered the few effective guns to be fired in response, and the attack was eventually beaten off by fresh British ships arriving on the scene.

The story, of one part of the Battle of Trafalgar, shows why HMS “Temeraire”
was given the nickname, “The Fighting Temeraire” by the British public of the time. This account is a very much shortened version of what appears in Reference C, which is based on the work of professional naval historians.


(i) Home to Portsmouth for repairs

After the battle, HMS “Temeraire”
returned to Britain, along with HMS “Victory” and they put into Portsmouth Dockyard for repairs. Visitors were allowed on board both ships, and they rapidly became a major tourist attraction of the times. Following a long two-year refit, at Portsmouth, HMS “Temeraire” was sent, in 1807, to blockade the French naval base
of Toulon in the south of France, (see map 27).

In 1809 she was transferred to the Baltic on blockade duty again. The British had captured most of the Danish Navy two years earlier, ostensibly to prevent it falling into the hands of Napoleonic forces. The Baltic duty lasted only from May to November of 1809. The ship returned to Portsmouth for extensive repairs, and was ready for sea again in January 1810.

(ii) The Peninsula Campaign

At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, Spain was an ally of Napoleonic France, and the British had defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. This alliance was short-lived and Napoleon sent French forces to attempt a conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (both Spain and Portugal), so this struggle came to be called, “the Peninsular War”. Spain was offered British military support, while Portugal had already been a British ally since medieval times.

The principal British army commander was Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo in 1815. As the Iberian Peninsula had hundreds of miles of coastline, the Royal Navy was able to provide supplies, and military support, for the British forces.

In this context HMS “Temeraire” was sent to Cadiz, where the exiled Spanish government was under siege from the French invaders. She provided men from her sailor and marine complement to crew batteries and gunboats in the successful defence of Cadiz. This was from February to July, 1810, when she was transferred to Mahon, (28) the principal town of Minorca, in the Balearic Islands, which was at that time a British colonial possession. The small fleet at Mahon was involved in the blockade of Toulon.

(iii) Yellow Fever

This tour of duty, for HMS “Temeraire”, was brought to a sudden end at the close of 1811, with an outbreak of yellow fever, which killed around a hundred men. This disease is caused by a virus, injected by the bite of a mosquito. The symptoms are sudden high fever, jaundice (liver damage), and yellow skin colour. In severe cases there is vomiting of black matter, and anuria, (the suppression of urine secretion). It is normally an illness of tropical and sub-tropical regions. (Ref L)

Apparently, (Ref M) this disease of tropical Africa, South America, and SE Asia, is relatively mild, so that most patients recover within a few days. It seems incredible that around a hundred of “Temeraire’s”, crew
died of the disease, and that they caught it in the north-western Mediterranean, which is about 2, 500 miles (4, 000 Km) from tropical West Africa.
Although, all HM ships would have carried a surgeon on board, given the primitive state of scientific medicine in those days, one wonders if the cause of the fatal illness was mis-diagnosed.

(iv) Redundancy

Consequently, HMS “Temeraire”, was ordered to return to Britain, and arrived in Plymouth Dockyard in February 1812. At the time, it was not realised by the captain or the crew, this was to be her final voyage as a warship of the Royal Navy. Weeks later, a technical survey in Plymouth Dockyard, reported that she was “A well built and strong ship, but apparently much decay’d”. It was also clear that although it was only 14 years since her launch, she was now obsolete, as warship design had moved on, during the wars against Napoleon.

Sadly, “Temeraire” was considered redundant for front-line service. While laid up, it was decided to convert her into a prison ship, to ease overcrowding caused by the large influx of French prisoners from Peninsular War campaigns. She became a prison hulk on the River Tamar, (29) between Devon and Cornwall. Although this was a come-down for such a distinguished warship, it lasted for only seven years.

The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and his banishment to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena. The “Temeraire‘s” service as a prison ship lasted until 1819, which is surprising, assuming that four years was enough time to return all French prisoners-of-war to France.

(v) Sea Training

A new and better role was in store for the “Temeraire” when she was refitted at Plymouth between September 1819 and June 1820 as a “receiving ship” or temporary berth for naval recruits until they received their postings to ships. She had this role for eight years, until becoming a victualling depot in 1829. This means that she held food and stores, to be collected by ships on active service.

Her final role was as a guard ship at Sheerness (30), and she held the splendid title of “Captain-Superintendent’s ship of the Fleet Reserve in the Medway”. This final position, as flagship of the Medway Reserve, involved her being repainted, rearmed, and used to train boys for sea service, a far more fitting role for the Fighting “Temeraire“. Happily for the boys, from 1836 to 1838, her commander was Captain Thomas Kennedy, who had beenTemeraire‘s” first-lieutenant at the Battle of Trafalgar.

(vi) Her Final Voyage

She fired her guns for the last time on 28 June 1838, in celebration of the Coronation of the young Queen Victoria. Then work began on dismantling her, before “Temeraire” was put up for sale, with twelve other ships. Her masts, stores and guns were all removed, and she was sold by auction in August 1838 to John Beatson, a ship-breaker based at Rotherhithe on the South London waterfront. He hired two steam tugs, and employed the pilot, William Scott and twenty five men to sail her up the Thames (31), from Sheerness to Rotherhithe, within the Bermondsey district of South London.

The tugs took the hulk of the “Temeraire” in tow at 7:30 am on 5 September, and they had reached Greenhithe by 1:30 pm, where they anchored overnight. They resumed the journey at 8:30 am the following day, passing Woolwich, and then Greenwich at noon. They passed Limehouse Reach shortly afterwards, and brought her safely to Beatson’s Wharf in Rotherhithe, at 2 pm.

She was hauled up onto the mud (32), where she lay as she was slowly broken up. The final voyage was announced in the newspapers, and thousands of spectators came to see her towed up the Thames, or laid up at Rotherhithe. Perhaps, among the spectators was the artist, JMW Turner?

(vii) Rotherhithe and Bermondsey

With the passage of 200 years, Beatson’s Wharf has disappeared into the mists of history. The post-war map of Rotherhithe (33) shows a large collection of docks, part of the Surrey Commercial Docks system. These docks were excavated from the soft London Clay, in the late 19 and early 20 centuries, well over 50 years after the breakup of the “Temeraire”. At this time, Rotherhithe was one of the poor, inner city parts of London, with sub-standard housing for the families of dock-workers.

With the development of containerisation, and a revolution in the international marine transport of goods, the docks were closed, as uneconomic, in the 1980s. The dock basins were filled in, and the old housing was demolished. The whole area underwent “gentrification” as it was redeveloped, with parks, lakes, marinas, art galleries, Bacon’s College, and a range of up-market housing. A few relics of the area’s former history remain, like St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe. It has also acquired a surprising and brand-new artificial mound, called Stave Hill, in what is a totally flat region of former marshland, in the flood plain of the River Thames.

After the ship-breaking, the timbers of the “Temeraire” were mostly sold to house builders and shipyard owners, in the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey area, though some were retained for working into specialist commemorative furniture. Items of this kind are held at Balmoral Castle, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, (Communion Table, and Bishop’s Chairs) Watermen’s Hall, London, and the Whanganui Regional Museum, Whanganui, New Zealand. Much fuller details are given in Reference C. I was greatly curious to discover exactly how the citizens of Whanganui came to possess relic of the “Temeraire” but without success.


(i) The Thames Paddle-Steamers

I am going to conclude this appreciation of Turner’s great painting with a personal recollection which has some resonances with the painting. As a boy of ten or twelve, I was taken on a family day-trip down the Thames, on a paddle-steamer, from the centre of London to one of the seaside resorts on the Thames Estuary. I cannot now remember whether it was Southend, or Clacton in Essex, or Margate in Kent.

In those days, the late 1940s, only well-to-do people could afford holidays abroad, and a sea trip on a steamer was excitement enough for most of us. There were sea breezes, and the regular pitch and roll of the vessel, to stimulate most passengers. These boats were driven by two large paddle wheels amidships, one on each side, and the churn created a continual smell of the sea. The poster (36), with small children in the foreground, gives an impression of great size, more like a trans-Atlantic liner, than a humble pleasure steamer.

The current “Wikipedia” article on “Paddle steamers” describes the activities of these vessels on the Rivers Clyde and Mersey, without much indication that they might also have plied from the capital, down the Thames Estuary. Similarly, a BBC documentary on the same topic is almost completely dedicated to the Clyde vessels, with a nod in the direction of the Mersey steamers.

At the time of my cruise, there were, I think, two Thames paddle-wheel steamers, the “Royal Daffodil” and the “Royal Eagle”. My internet searches reveal that I must have travelled on the “Royal Eagle”, which had ceased operating by 1950, and was scrapped in 1953.

Londoners were very proud of their paddle steamers, not only because they provided a healthy escape from the grime and polluted air of the city, but because they had rendered distinguished service, during the Second World War. In the times I am describing, the war had ended only five years previously, or less, and was green in everyone’s memory.

(i) The Paddle steamers at Dunkirk

On 10 May 1940 the German Army began an invasion of France, and Belgium and their successful drive south, left the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) dangerously exposed, and they began a fighting withdrawal towards the French Channel ports, principally Dunkirk. The evacuation of Dunkirk began on the 26 May, only a fortnight after the German invasion. (Ref O)

A large contingent of civilian ships gathered off Dunkirk, protected by warships of the Royal Navy, to embark soldiers of the BEF. The paddle steamers from other parts of Britain, like the Mersey and Clyde were part of the civilian rescue fleet. The “Royal Eagle” made three trips to Dunkirk and rescued many hundreds of soldiers. Small vessels like cabin cruisers, motorboats and launches went close inshore to the sandy beaches of Dunkirk and ferried the troops (38) on to the much larger vessels, waiting in deeper water.

The amusing irony, of returning home on a pleasure steamer, was not lost on the troops, as if they had only been away on a French summer holiday.

(iii) Steam Power in the Forties

The great steam engines, which drove the paddle steamers, were below decks, but accessible to the public, behind wire mesh screens. The great crankshaft could be seen in steady rotation, driven by several sets of shining connecting-rods from the pistons below. In those days almost all trains were hauled by steam locomotives, and many factories were still powered by steam engines.

Consequently, there were many men, on the pleasure cruise in the Thames Estuary, who were perfectly familiar with steam engines, because they had worked with them most of their lives. They went below decks to admire the old steam engines which drove the paddle-boat, and they were able to explain, with great enthusiasm, all the workings to their wide-eyed children.

The paddle wheel steam engine illustrated (39) may not be of the type on the “Royal Eagle” because I could find no photographs or information on the scrapped vessel. Readers wanting further information on paddle steamers are urged to visit the website in Ref P, which is one of the most detailed, best organised, and most convenient to use, of any I have seen recently.

(iv) Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs

Towards the end of the return journey of our cruise, we left the wide seas of the estuary and began heading up the narrower reaches of the tidal river, beginning at Woolwich. From here the river bends around in a great meander, seen on all maps of the capital; the U-shape which encloses the Isle of Dogs on the northern shore, with Greenwich on the south bank. Just west of Greenwich is Rotherhithe, where the “Temeraire’s” last journey ended at the breakers yards on the waterfront.

(v) A “Temeraire” Sunset

It was around eight or nine of a summer evening, and the sun was beginning to set in the west, over the line of buildings on the horizon. The weather had been good all day with blue skies. Now, with a scattering of small clouds, the whole sky was lit up in a glorious crimson colour. We had an excellent view of the sunset, because, being on a boat in the centre of the river, we had almost a 180 degree arc of sky, from horizon to horizon, and a 360 circle around us. Every time I see Turner’s Temeraire I am reminded of that crimson summer evening of childhood.

Nowadays, that glorious sunset would have been captured, in colour, by hundreds of mobile phones, but in the late forties, although many families had cameras with black and white film, only the professionals, or dedicated amateurs, had colour film. In the modern illustration, (40) the sun has gone, whereas my memory is of a still bright sky, filled with crimson clouds.

(vi) Tower Bridge

We sailed up Limehouse Reach towards Tower Bridge, and as children were familiar with the Bridge, from the front seats, on the top deck of the red buses (41). Sometimes we saw the lights flash, the road barriers come down, to halt the traffic, and the roadway in front of us rose up, steeper and steeper. Once the ship had passed, the bascules of the bridge were lowered, and the barriers lifted, so the traffic moved ahead. We felt the exciting double bump as the bus crossed over the junction between the two tips of the bascules.

Now, on the paddle-wheeler we were about to see Tower Bridge from the mariner’s point of view, and as we approached the bridge, in the Pool of London, the pilot sounded the vessel’s siren. He had taken station in the centre of the fairway, and, as he saw the bascules rise (42), he stood in towards the bridge. Passing under, we looked up to the walkway of the Bridge high above. The sky was still red all over, but the light was diminishing as the sun sank lower. The old paddle-wheeler touched Tower Pier, next to the Tower of London, with a barely perceptible bump, and the crew made fast to the bollards on the quayside.

This rather long essay on Turner’s painting, “The Fighting Temeraire” concludes with another painting, of these types of warships, in their glory days, under full press of sail and undamaged by battle.


A. “British Adventure” edited by W J Turner, Collins, 1946

B. “Turner – History and Techniques of the Great Masters”, William Hardy, Eagle, 2002

C. “The Fighting Temeraire” (Wikipedia article on the painting)

D. “H M S Temeraire (1798)” (Wikipedia article on the real ship)

E. “Encyclopaedia of Ships and Seafaring”, Editor Lt Cmdr Peter Kemp, Stanford Maritime, 1980

F. “Battle of Saintes” (Wikipedia article)

G. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History (from 1500 on), Hamlyn, 1965

H. “Napoleon’s planned invasion of the United Kingdom” (Wikipedia article)

I. “British anti-invasion preparations of 1803–05” (Wikipedia article)

J. “Napoleon – Master of Europe – 1805-1807” by Alistair Horne, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1979

K. “The Pictorial Encyclopaedia” Sampson Low, Marston, 1952

L. “Nurses’ Dictionary”, edited by Nancy Roper, Churchill Livingstone, 1978

M. Geographers’ London Atlas, 1964

N. AA Concise Road Atlas of Britain, 2015

O. “To lose a Battle”, by Alistair Horne, Macmillan, 1969

P. Internet, “paddlesteamers.info


1. “The Fighting Temeraire” (Google image)

2. Battle between “Nymph” and “Cleopatra” 18 June, 1793, coloured engraving William Lane (Ref A)

3. “Norham Castle, Sunrise” by J M W Turner, c. 1835-40 (Ref B)

4. Detail of the “Temeraire” (Google image)

5. The other ships in Turner’s painting of the “Temeraire” (Google image)

6. The waxing moon to the left of the masts of the “Temeraire” (Google image)

7. The tugboat funnel in the painting, top, and where it should be, below (Google image)

8. Sunset alignment on the Thames (Author)

9. “HMS Resolution” a third-rate ship of the line, 1669 (Ref E)

10. “Battle of Saintes” 1782, near Jamaica, West Indies. In the centre, the British flagship “Formidable” is exchanging broadsides with the French flagship, “Ville de Paris” (Google image)

11. Battle plan of “The Saintes” (modified from Ref F)

12. Horatio Nelson, “England’s Darling” (1758 – 1805) (Portrait by John Hoppner)

13. A Victorian artist’s impression of the “Press Gang” pursued by a protesting crowd (Google image)

14. The black seaman from the South Relief, at the base of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London (Google image)

15. Napoleon’s inspection of French invasion troops in Boulogne, 15 August 1804 (Ref H)

16. A cartoonist’s view of Napoleon’s plan for the invasion of England (Ref H)

17. Napoleon, having crowned himself Emperor of the French, now crowns Josephine as his Empress (Ref J)

18. The North Atlantic Sphere of Operations (Author)

19. Naval Bases during the Napoleonic Wars and the break out from Toulon (Author)

20. Nelson’s Battle Plan for Trafalgar, with added arrows in red, Temeraire is ringed (Ref D)

21. A contemporary painting of HMS “Victory” in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Google image)

22. Admiral Nelson in full dress uniform – a painting by Francis Abbot (Google image)

23. “The Fall of Nelson”- detail from a painting by Denis Dighton, c. 1825 (Google image)

24. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Google image)

25. Nelson’s flagship, HMS “Victory” in Portsmouth (Google image)

26. An intact square rigged sailing ship, top, and below, extent of damage to HMS “Temeraire” at Trafalgar (Author, loosely based on an illustration in Ref K)

27. The Western Mediterranean during the Peninsular War (Author)

28. The harbour of Mahon, Minorca (Google image)

29. Saltash, on the River Tamar (Google image)

30. Sheerness harbour, Kent (Alamy, Google image)

31. Route of the final voyage
of the “Temeraire”

32. The “Temeraire” on the beach at Rotherhithe (Ref D)

33. The Surrey Commercial Docks and Rotherhithe in the 1960s (Ref M)

34. The “Gentrification” of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey (Ref N)

35. Panorama of Wanganui from Durie Hill, New Zealand (Google image)

36. Advertising Thames cruises (Google image)

37. German Mk III Panzer tanks advancing into France in 1940 (Ref O)

38. Small craft ferrying the troops from Dunkirk beach to a waiting ship at left (Google image)

39. Edgar Westbury diagonal paddle wheel steam engine (Ref P)

40. A late sunset over Westminster, with the Houses of Parliament still in session (Google image)

41. Tower Bridge, with the Tower of London, on the left, across the river (Google image)

42. Tower Bridge, from the river, with bascules raised (Google image)

43. Three-decker ships of the line at Trafalgar 1805 (Google image)

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