Easter Day. St Michaels Church Heighington a sweet hillside village near Darlington,co Durham. As we approach the rail for the muted climax of the Christian year my heart soars. For there is a fully fledged memorial to one of Nelson’s Captains. William Cumby whose house in the village is suitably named Trafalgar.
And his story is as glorious as any. For as the battle started he was first lieutenant on the Bellerophon. A 74 gunner that had distinguished itself at the Battle of the Nile five years earlier. But on October 21 it was sailing number five in Collingwoods Division. No ship would suffer more casualties.
As Collingwood and the leading ships smashed through the French line the others poured though the gaps to take on the French and Spanish with their superior fire rates. With the allied fleet all over the place anything could happen. Nelson had planned on a “pell mell” in which the superior British ships would triumph in one to one combat. But for the Bellerophon the worst possible happened, for far too long she was fighting five allied ships. One surrendered but with the L’Aigle their masts and rigging entwined in a macabre dance there was a life and death struggle. While French sharp shooters raked the British ship the British guns thundered away. The British lost 150 among them Captain Cooke . Before the battle he had shown his trusted lieutenant Nelsons order for the day and his last words as he succumbed to his injuries were “Tell Lieutenant Cumby never to strike(the colours)”. Cumby stepped up, managed to thwart boarding parties and the rest and in the course of the battle picked up a sizzling grenade and threw it overboard. One such grenade had caused a powder keg to blow and kill 25.
Also on the ship was the young midshipman John Franklin later to famous for eating his shoes in an attempt to find the NW passage. Franklin wrote that as the French tried to board “their hands received severe blows.. in this way hundreds of Frenchman fell between the ships and drowned.” Despite losing its masts and suffering almost the worst casualties in Nelsons fleet Cumby’s ship had lived up to its nick name “The Billy Ruffian”. The ship went onto to be where Napoleon surrendered and was eventually retired as a convict ship.
After the battle Cumby was promoted to captain and went onto serve with distinction in the West Indies. He was made a Companion of the Bath in 1831 and ended up Superindent of the Pembroke Dockyard. Where he died in 1837. The same year as the Bellerophon was broken up.
On the church memorial it states “He nobly maintained the unequal contest, displaying in this critical position a skill and valour worthy of the eventful day, and animating by his example the victorious efforts of his gallant crew”
Three cheers for Cumby! Immortal Memory.