The Trafalgar Way

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The Trafalgar Way is the name given to the historic route used to carry dispatches with the news of the Battle of Trafalgar overland from Falmouth to the Admiralty in London. The first messenger in November 1805 was Lieutenant Lapenotiere, of HMS Pickle, who reached Falmouth on 4 November after a hard voyage in bad weather. He then raced to London bearing the dispatches containing the momentous news of Lord Nelson's victory and death in the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

Following the death in action of the Commander in Chief, Admiral Lord Nelson, his deputy, Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, took command of the British Fleet. Because his ship, the Royal Sovereign, had been dismasted, Collingwood transferred to the undamaged frigate HMS Euryalus to control operations. Shortly after the battle a severe storm blew up and lasted for several days. Collingwood was faced with the challenge of ensuring the safety and survival of his own and the captured ships: at the same time he needed to report the outcome of the battle to the Admiralty in London as soon as possible.

First news of the battle[edit]

The first dispatch. Collingwood entrusted the safe delivery of his first reports of the battle to the captain of H M Schooner Pickle, Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere, but could not spare him at once owing to the storm. On Saturday 26 October, the Pickle was finally detached: Lapenotiere carried Collingwood’s first dispatch, written on 22 October, containing his initial report of the battle, and a second, written on 24th, describing the effects of the storm on the ships that had survived. He also carried copies of two General Orders addressed to the Fleet. The Pickle reached Falmouth on Monday 4 November and Lapenotiere then travelled overland to London. He rode “express in a post chaise and four.” Edited versions of Collingwood’s four documents that Lapenotiere delivered were published in The London Gazette on 6 November and subsequently in most papers. The first report contained the words “I fear the numbers that have fallen will be found very great, when the returns come to me; but it having blown a gale of wind ever since the action, I have not yet had it in my power to collect any reports from the ships”. This news triggered understandable anxiety, particularly amongst the families of the 18,465 men who had been with Nelson at Trafalgar, to learn the details of the casualty lists, or “butcher’s bill” as they were commonly known.

Lapenotiere made 21 stops to change horses on the way from Falmouth to London and his “account of expenses”, which was carefully saved for posterity in Admiralty records, shows his route, where he changed horses and his costs. The route he took was the main Falmouth to London coaching road of 1805 and the expenses involved for each leg were:-

Falmouth to Truro, £ 1 : 2 : 6 ........continued To Blandford £ 2 : 10 : 6
To the Blue Anchor £ 2 : 17 : To Woodyates £ 2 : 5 :
To Bodmin £ 1 : 19 : To Salisbury £ 1 : 17 : 6
To Launceston £ 3 : 6 : 6 To Andover £ 2 : 15 :
To Oakhampton £ 3 : 4 : To Overton £ 1 : 13 :
To Crockernwell £ 1 : 16 : 6 To Basingstoke £ 1 : 14 :
To Exeter £ 1 : 17 : 6 To Hertford-bridge £ 1 : 15 : 6
To Honiton £ 2 : 14 : To Bagshot £ 1 : 12 :
To Axminster £ 1 : 11 : 7 To Staines £ 1 : 17 : 6
To Bridport £ 1 : 16 : 6 To Hounslow £ 1 : 14 : 6
To Dorchester £ 2 : 14 : 6 To Admiralty £ 2 : 5 :
Total £46  : 19 : 1

To date no record has been found to show exactly where he obtained fresh horses, although in some of the smaller places there was probably only one stable or coaching inn available.

The "race". Commander John Sykes of the 18-gun sloop HMS Nautilus had been ordered by Nelson to patrol off Cape St. Vincent in southwest Portugal. He met the Pickle as she sped homewards on 28 October and, having heard Lapenotiere’s news of the battle, he appears to have elected to abandon his ordered station and escort the Pickle for her safety, but they lost sight of each other in very heavy weather. When Nautilus made Plymouth late on 4 November Sykes reported to Admiral Young, who feared that Pickle might be missing.

As a precaution the Admiral therefore ordered Sykes to travel to the Admiralty to report the sketchy details of the battle that he had learnt from Lapenotiere at sea. As he reached Exeter, neither Lapenotiere nor Sykes were aware that they were now only a few miles apart on the same road in an involuntary race for London. Sykes reached the Admiralty at 2 a.m. on Wednesday 6 November, about an hour behind Lapenotiere.

Subsequent dispatches[edit]

The second dispatch. By 28 October Collingwood had transferred his flag to Euryalus and was able to send a second dispatch containing this information from some of the ships. Lieutenant Robert Benjamin Young, commanding the cutter Entreprenante (the smallest vessel present at the Battle of Trafalgar) took this dispatch to Faro on the Portuguese Algarve where it was handed to the British consul who delivered it to the British Embassy in Lisbon. From there it sailed on the 4th November aboard the next routine packet vessel, the Lord Walsingham which reached Falmouth on 13 November.

The mails she carried were taken by special carriage over the route followed by Lapenotiere and reached the Admiralty in London on Friday 15th. The casualty lists appeared in The Times on Monday 18th, thus ending the eleven days of anxiety for the families of the men of the Royal Sovereign, Mars, Dreadnought, Bellerophon, Minotaur, Ajax, Defiance, Leviathan, Defence and Revenge.

The third dispatch. By 4 November, order was being restored to the damaged British ships and Collingwood had shifted his flag from the frigate Euryalus to the Queen, a ship of the line of the Mediterranean squadron that had rejoined Collingwood after the battle. Considerable progress was also being made with the task of repatriating the Spanish prisoners to Spain. He was now able to dispatch the Euryalus to England with his third dispatch, and she sailed from off Cape Trafalgar on 7th with the captured French Commander in Chief, Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, on board. On Sunday 24 November, it was reported from Falmouth that “ The hon. Capt. Blackwood landed here this evening, from his majesty's ship Euryalus, which he left off the Lizard this morning, and came up in his 8-oared cutter; he went off express for London immediately”.

Blackwood followed in the steps of Lapenotiere, reaching London late on 26th, and The Times of Thursday 28th carried Collingwood’s assessment of the condition and whereabouts of the ships of the defeated French and Spanish fleets, the prize list. The same dispatch also contained further casualty lists which now included first details from the Victory, Britannia, Temeraire, Prince, Neptune, Agamemnon, Spartiate, Africa, Bellisle, Colossus, Achille, Polyphemus and Swiftsure. The prize list reported that during the battle four French ships had “hauled to the Southward and escaped”, and their whereabouts were still unknown to Collingwood as he wrote his third dispatch.

More dispatches. The Admiralty, however, was not concerned because it had already received very satisfactory reports of the whereabouts of the escaped French ships from another messenger who rode into London from the West Country. On Saturday 9 November, the frigate Aeolus had sailed into Plymouth with the news that they had been taken as prizes by Captain Sir Richard Strachan off Cape Ortegal on Monday 4th.

The captain of the Aeolus, Lord Fitzroy, “set off with dispatches at 10 A.M. for the Admiralty, (the horses decorated with laurels) in a post-chaise and four”. The following day Captain Baker of the Phoenix arrived in Plymouth and took another chaise to London with further details of the Ortegal action, including the British casualty lists. The details carried by these officers were published in London on 11 and 12 November.

Although both Lord Fitzroy and Captain Baker travelled from Plymouth, they joined The Trafalgar Way at Exeter and followed it to London.

Collingwood’s fourth dispatch. The final news from Trafalgar contained the casualty list from the Tonnant which was published in London on 4 December. It had not reached Collingwood until 9 November, when the Queen anchored off Cape Spartel after the departure of the Euryalus. The dispatch containing this report was sent to Lisbon and from there by the routine packet Townshend arriving at Falmouth on Friday 29 November. The mails she carried were taken up the same well-worn route to the Admiralty.

The Bicentenary[edit]

A typical plaque erected at a location where fresh horses were obtained

Lt Lapenotiere's 37-hour journey by post chaise and those of the other messengers that followed were commemorated by the inauguration of The Trafalgar Way and by the New Trafalgar Dispatch celebrations in 2005. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal unveiled a plaque at Falmouth on 4 August 2005 to launch a series of events along the Way.

The Trafalgar Way is now marked by a series of commemorative plaques giving details of his journey and commemorating local people who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. They can be seen at Falmouth, Penryn, Truro, Fraddon, Bodmin, Launceston, Lifton, Bridestowe Okehampton, Sticklepath, Crockernwell, Tedburn St Mary, Nadderwater, Exeter, Clyst Honiton, Honiton, Wilmington, Kilmington, Axminster, Bridport, Dorchester, Blandford Forum, Woodyates, Salisbury, Andover, Overton, Basingstoke, Hartfordbridge, Camberley, Bagshot, Egham, Staines, Hounslow, Hammersmith, Kensington and finally on the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall.

The locations shown above in bold type are where he changed horses, and plaques like that at Crockernwell (left) have been erected. Other communities on the route have erected similar plaques to record the passing of the messengers with their sensational news and to commemorate their local men who fought alongside Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar.

The Ordnance Survey produced a special commemorative map, showing the route.

External links[edit]