1805: Trafalgar hero living in the High Street

Updated: Apr 7


Captain John Pilfold and Marshall's Manor

For about seven years a national naval hero, Captain John Pilfold, lived in Cuckfield High Street and regularly welcomed one of the country's leading poets to stay in his home.


Captain Pilfold was a Sussex man, born in Warnham, nr Horsham. He was baptised in 1769 as the son of Charles and Bethia Pilfold. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 and spent the next 24 years learning his seamanship skills on a number of warships before being commissioned as an officer.


Pilfold distinguished himself in the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, and was specially recommended by his dying captain, John Harvey of HMS Brunswick, for his bravery and competence. This brought him to the attention of Admiral Howe, who summoned him to his flagship, HMS Queen Charlotte, and was duly promoted to Lieutenant.


Trafalgar

Nine years later Lieutenant Pilfold, through accident, found himself in the interim position of acting Captain of his ship, HMS Ajax, before the decisive Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. As an integral part of Nelson’s daring masterplan, he steered his ship through the enemy fleet firing all 75 guns into the enemy’s warships. This inflicted heavy damage, death and injury while on his own ship, HMS Ajax, the human toll was lighter with two crew killed and 10 wounded.



HMS Ajax

The battle was decisive and the Franco-Spanish fleet lost 22 ships while the British lost none. The victory confirmed Britain’s naval supremacy. Famously Admiral Lord Nelson was shot by a sniper and would die shortly before the battle ended.


In a future article we will bring more details of Pilfold’s experiences in this the most famous of the British naval history with minute-by-minute details recorded in the ship's log.


A hero rewarded

John returned home to a rapturous welcome and the nation recognised his valour by promoting him to Captain. He received the thanks of Parliament, a gold medal, a sword of honour from the Patriotic Fund, an augmentation to his coat of arms and was honoured with a Companion of the Bath.


Pilfold never served at sea again. Two years before the Battle he had married Mary Ann Horner South, who hailed from Donhead in Wiltshire, in the church at Warnham. And, most probably, it was soon after Trafalgar, the battle was fought 21 October 1805 and so most likely early 1806, that Pilfold decided he wanted to settle down to newly married life and to find a property to match his new status in society.


So, at the age of 36, he signed a 10 year lease to rent Marshalls in Cuckfield High Street for £42 12s a year from wealthy landowner Col Warden Sergison who was an officer in the Royal Horse Guards. It’s likely that Pilfold would have enjoyed his company. Warden was socially active in the village and had been High Sheriff of Sussex so he would have been well connected.


Deception of the worst kind

When Warden died in 1811 the new landlord was younger brother, Captain Francis Sergison, who was described as ‘a disreputable character’ and had spent time in a Dublin’s debtors prison. There he had met and fallen in love with a woman, also in debt, and they duly married. To satisfy her husband’s desire for children she later managed to pass off a newly born baby girl from an unmarried mother as their own. Although Captain Francis died within a year - the widow taking over Cuckfield Park’s estate affairs did not go down well and is likely to have hastened Pilfold’s departure from Cuckfield.


Pilfold had hankered for a property of his own and so bought a 79 acre farm called Townlands, in Lindfield in 1813, and also Lunces Farm, Wivelsfield. But in 1824, perhaps because his wife was yearning to return to the West Country, the family left Lindfield bound for new homes in Plymouth and Wales.


He divided his time between farming, minor shore-based naval appointments and funding the lifestyle of his nephew, the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelly. His wife Mary, in Warnham died in 1832. John had a stroke which left him mentally impaired and dependent on care. He died on 12 July 1834 at Stonehouse in Devon, and was buried at St George's Church in Plymouth. The church was to be flattened by the Luftwaffe in 1942 and his grave no longer exists, but a memorial can be found in Warnham church.


Lindfield, Horsham and Cuckfield all can lay claim to their temporary resident and national hero and can be proud to do so. For accounts suggest, that despite the necessity of keeping strict discipline on board ship, that by nature John Pilfold was a likeable, considerate and generous individual.


But his decline in his retirement matched his slow burn to greatness. But we can be thankful that a few hours of immense bravery made such a significant difference to our nation's standing in the world.


We will also be publishing articles about Pilfold’s Trafalgar and another on his relationship with Shelley.

Sources

We strongly recommend the following very well researched book which gives a comprehensive overview of Pilfold’s life and can be bought from Horsham Museum:


‘The life and times of Captain John Pilfold, CB, RN born at Horsham and baptised there 1769’ by Desmond Hawkins, Horsham Museum Society 1998.'


Note: Pilfold's name is sometimes spelled Pilford.


Wikipedia article on John Pilfold https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Pilfold


The HMS Ajax picture is from National Maritime Museum, Public domain image.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.