Cuthbert Collingwood was born on 26 September 1748 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the eldest son of a respectable but poor tradesman. His personal merits would help take him from these modest beginning to the position of Vice-Admiral of the Red and eventually to raise him to the peerage as 1st Baron Collingwood.
Hoping for a better life for their children, Collingwood’s parents used their family connections to secure the 13 year old Cuthbert and his 11 year old brother Wilfred places as midshipmen in the Royal Navy. Their mother’s cousin, Captain Robert Braithwaite, was the commander of a 28-gun frigate, the HMS Shannon, and he generously took the boys under his wing in 1761. Both Collingwood brothers would prove to be great assets to the Royal Navy.
From the very beginning, Cuthbert Collingwood’s journals reveal him to have been a superb sailor as well as “compassionate and deeply humane” and “zealous for the honour of the navy and the King.” However, there were more good men waiting to advance than there were good places for them to advance into, so Collingwood would have to wait several years before he moved upward from midshipman to Lieutenant. He was finally promoted on 17 June 1175 after his first military engagement with the British naval brigade at the battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.
(Jane Austen fans will remember the similar struggle for Fanny Price’s brother William to become a Lieutenant in Austen’s 3rd published novel, Mansfield Park.)
Collingwood first met the man who would become one of his dearest friends, Horatio Nelson, in 1777 and from that time onward, their careers were as intertwined as their interests and their comradery:
[They] served together under Sir Peter Parker on the West Indies station in 1778 [where] Nelson had achieved the rank of Post-Captain at the unusually young age of 20. Collingwood, now 30, was suffering as a lieutenant under a tyrannical and ineffective commander called Robert Haswell in the 14-gun sloop Hornet. Nelson persuaded Parker to bring Collingwood under his command, first as lieutenant in the frigate HMS Lowestoffe, then as Commander in the brig HMS Badger, and then as Post-Captain in HMS Hinchinbrook. Because of the ladder system of seniority in the Royal Navy, Nelson would retain a few crucial months’ seniority over his friend up until his death at Trafalgar 25 years later.
Collingwood was given the command of another small frigate, the HMS Pelican, which was unfortunately one of the many ships wrecked by a hurricane in 1781. Happily, Collingwood had served with such distinction he was given another command, a 64 gun ship of the line called the HMS Sampson, in spite of a glut of officers and a shortage of ships.
In 1783 he was given the HMS Mediator and was posted to the West Indies the following year, together with his brother, fellow Captain Wilfred Collingwood, and their friend Nelson. There the Collingwood brothers and Nelson became good friends with the navy’s commissioner in Antigua, John Moutray and his devoted wife, Mary. They were united in a strong desire to put and end to smuggling between American ships and British holdings in the West Indies, and they would all remain close friends for the rest of their lives.
A peacetime reduction of naval posts meant that Collingwood was temporarily released from duty at half pay and returned home to Newcastle in 1786. While this could be thought of as a well-deserved break from the rigors of naval life, in actuality he was eager to get to sea once more. Sadly, only a year after leaving the West Indies he received a letter from his friend Nelson bearing the terrible news that Wilfred had died of a sudden illness. Having made his fortune and thinking about the future of the Collingwood family after his brother’s death, Cuthbert turned his thoughts toward settling down.
On 16 June 1791, Collingwood married Sarah Blackett, a daughter of Newcastle’s mayor, John Erasmus Blackett. They couple went to live in Morpeth on the banks of the River Wansbeck. Their home, Collingwood House, is still there and on “Trafalgar Day (21st October) each year, the Mayor and Town Councilors of Morpeth drink a glass of grog to the memory of Admiral Lord Collingwood on the steps”.
Collingwood and his wife had two daughters, Sarah (called Sally) and Mary Patience. He was a good husband and an affectionate father. His surviving letters reveal a deep and abiding love for his wife, little girls, and his home in Morpeth. He also loved the landscape and people of Northumberland, and was known for long rambles throughout the countryside with his beloved dog, Bounce, always by his side.
Collingwood was also a forward-thinking man, and profoundly patriotic. On his walks he:
always started off with a handful of acorns in his pockets, and as he walked he would press an acorn into the soil whenever he saw a good place for an oak tree to grow. Some of the oaks he planted are probably still growing more than a century and a half later ready to be cut to build ships of the line at a time when nuclear submarines are patrolling the seas, because Collingwood’s purpose was to make sure that the Navy would never want for oaks to build the fighting ships upon which the country’s safety depended.”
In 1793 Collingwood was offered captaincy of another ship, the HMS Barfleur, Rear Admiral George Bowyer’s flagship in the Channel Fleet. From then on he would only be able to return home during his periods of leave. He loved the sea, but couldn’t help but pine for his family, claiming that “whenever I think how I am to be happy again, my thoughts carry me back to Morpeth.”
Collingwood was able to take at least one member of his family with him to sea – his dog Bounce. Sailors about Collingwood’s ships quickly became aware that wherever their captain went, there Bounce went also. If Bounce became overly upset by gunfire, Collingwood would sing his pup to sleep in his own cot with Shakespearean sonnets he had adapted to fit “canine sensibilities”.
It wasn’t just his dog who loved him. Collingwood’s gentle and caring disposition won his crew over as well. He was adamantly against impressment and to flogging, vigilant in protecting his men, concerned for their health and welfare, and would openly weep at the death of a crewmate. Common sailors were so enthralled with their benevolent captain that they referred to Collingwood as “father” more often than his official title. They did not try to press any advantage just because he was kind, however. He had excellent discipline aboard his ship, using hard looks and a searing wit against any man not performing to his standards. The Admiralty learned that they could send ‘troublemakers’ to Collingwood’s command to be reformed into model sailors. Robert Hay, who served aboard one of Collingwood’s ships, wrote that:
“He and his dog Bounce were known to every member of the crew. How attentive he was to the health and comfort and happiness of his crew! A man who could not be happy under him, could have been happy nowhere; a look of displeasure from him was as bad as a dozen at the gangway from another man … a better seaman, a better friend to seamen – a more zealous defender of the country’s rights and honour, never trod the quarterdeck.”
While captain of the Barfleur, which was a 98 gun ship of the line with more than 800 crewmen, Collingwood fought in the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, the first and largest fleet action of the French Revolutionary Wars. Collingwood and the Barfleur engaged the French ship Indomptable and won, with a total loss of 9 killed and 25 wounded.
Collingwood, now a seasoned wartime commander, was transferred to the hotly contested Mediterranean theater and given a smaller, faster 74 gun ship of the line, the HMS Excellent. He served alongside Nelson in Sir John Jervis’s 15 ship squadron given the mission to create a permanent blockade of the French and Spanish fleets between Cadiz and Toulon. During his three years in the Mediterranean, Collingwood earned lasting acclaim and admiration by training his crews to fire “an extraordinary three broadsides in three and a half minutes — a rate never bettered in the age of sail.” The Royal Navy’s school of gunnery at Fareham is named HMS Collingwood in honor of his accomplishment.
He also saved his friend Nelson’s bacon in 1797 at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Nelson, with more bravery than forethought, led the British attack against a Spanish fleet of 25 ships but got too far ahead of himself and became surrounded by enemy vessels. As Nelson prepared to take as many Spaniards with him as possible to Davy Jones’s locker, Collingwood and the Excellent came to the rescue. The Excellent and destroyed four enemy ships, saved Nelson, and helped finished off the British victory. Collingwood won two medals for his valor, as well as becoming famous and cementing his position of Nelson’s right hand.
Collingwood continued to pummel the French and Spanish fleet, and for his efforts he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the White on 14 February 1799 and Rear-Admiral of the Red on 1 January 1801. He was given his own flagship, the HMS Triumph, continued to harass the enemy in the Mediterranean until the peace of Amiens in 1802 allowed him to return home to his family. When war broke out again in 1803, Collingswood would once more head to the Mediterranean, unaware that he would never see his family or England again.
He spent the first two years of resumed warfare stationed off the cost of France at Brest. While there he received another promotion, this time to Vice-Admiral of the Blue on 23 April 1804. He also pulled off one of the biggest bluffs in naval history.
While Collingwood was blockading the Spanish fleet in Cadiz with just four ships, Admiral Villeneuve and the entire French fleet arrived at the port. Collingwood, doubtlessly with Bounce in tow, convinced Villeneuve that there were dozens of British ships just over the horizon who were bearing down on them and would be there at any minute. He stuck by his story for hours, using false signals to pretend to communicate to the mythical reinforcements, until Villeneuve’s nerve broke and he allowed Collingwood to ushered the French fleet into Cadiz. Once the fleet was in the harbor, Collingwood reformed his blockade and kept them there until Nelson, who wanted to take on the combined French and Spanish fleet in a decisive engagement, asked him to let them out on 20 October 1805.
The next day the Battle of Trafalgar began. Villeneuve ordered his fleet to make a crescent formation and the British fleet attacked in two flanks, “one led by Nelson in the Victory, and the other by Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign.” The Royal Sovereign was faster than the Victory, and hit the enemy first:
The Royal Sovereign closed with the Spanish admiral’s ship and fired her broadsides with such rapidity and precision at the Santa Ana that the Spanish ship was on the verge of sinking almost before another British ship had fired a gun. Several other vessels came to Santa Ana’s assistance and hemmed in the Royal Sovereign on all sides; the latter, after being severely damaged, was relieved by the arrival of the rest of the British squadron, but was left unable to manoeuvre. Not long afterwards the Santa Ana struck her colours. On the death of Nelson, Collingwood assumed the command-in-chief, transferring his flag to the frigate Euryalus. Knowing that a severe storm was in the offing, Nelson had intended that the fleet should anchor after the battle, but Collingwood chose not to issue such an order: many of the British ships and prizes were so damaged that they were unable to anchor, and Collingwood concentrated efforts on taking damaged vessels in tow. In the ensuing gale, many of the prizes were wrecked on the rocky shore and others were destroyed to prevent their recapture, though no British ship was lost.
Although Nelson was immortalized after Trafalgar, Collingwood was given covered in a significant amount of glory as well. On 9 November 1805 he was awarded a third gold medal, made Vice-Admiral of the Red and Baron Collingwood, and awarded a lifetime pension of £2000 per annum. He was also appointed as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet. The one thing he wasn’t given was permission to come home and retire, as he had requested. Unfortunly, the cancer that was beginning to eat away at Collingwood’s body refused to obey the crown. By 1809 his health had worsened to the point where he could no longer perform his duties, and he was granted permission to return to England, where he had not set foot in seven long years. Lamentably, he died on 7 March 1810, before he ever reached home to say a final goodbye to his family.
His remains were interred beside Nelson’s in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.