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1805: Pilfold's Trafalgar brilliance minute-by-minute

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

An impression of HMS Ajax breaking through the line at Trafalgar

Captain John Pilfold lived in Cuckfield High Street in Marshalls from 1806 until 1813 when he moved to Lindfield. On arrival in the village he would have been hailed as a national hero. What they were probably not aware of was the full story of his terrifying ordeal that was the Battle of Trafalgar, which we can reveal below.

The battle is well documented and, better still, the ship’s log for HMS Ajax gives us a blow by blow account of this famous naval engagement. It gives an eye witness account of how Pilfold steered his crew through the enemy’s battle line, while wreaking havoc on the French and Spanish fleets. Through skill and with luck on his side he also minimised the casualties on his own ship.

John Pilfold joined the Navy in 1781 at the age of 12, his mother had died two years before. He started as an able seaman. Within four years he was a midshipman - a captain's assistant - the route often taken by youngsters if they might have officer potential. It took him seven years to reach the rank of lieutenant and it took 17 before serving in Nelson’s fleet.

Captain John Pilfold

His opportunity for fame came when just before the Battle of Trafalgar his commanding officer, Captain William Brown, was called back to England to act as witness at the court martial of Sir Robert Calder (although the outcome was in fact a reprimand). Pilfold was instructed to take command of the Ajax as acting Captain in what was to become the most famous and decisive British naval battle in history.

Nelson's briefing

Pilfold is extreme right background, almost out of picture

Pilfold attended the battle briefing given by Nelson. Although he had received sealed orders from Captain Brown he learned at the briefing the nature of Nelson’s audacious battle plan which was characteristically audacious.

Naval actions are normally fought by parallel lines of warships firing broadsides at each other. Building on a tactic first used by Rodney, Nelson intended to cut through the enemy line, shattering stern and prow as he, and those following him, passed through the enemy line and then turn to attack its rear, leaving Villeneuve’s van [the French commander of the Franco-Spanish enemy fleet] to tack back as best they could.

Nelson said, ‘Rodney broke the line in one point, I shall break it in two’. This high risk strategy would win the battle but cost him his life.

Preparing for battle

In the approach to battle, a marine in the Ajax described her sailors as admirably calm, preparing as if for a parade, with some sharpening cutlasses and others dancing a hornpipe. They worked feverishly jettisoned items overboard in preparation included six wooden ladders, ten cot frames, six stanchions, a grinding stone, a set of screens for berths, four weather sails and 30 feet of copper funnelling from the galley stove.

The battle formation placed HMS Ajax seventh in line, behind HMS Victory, in the crucial and hazardous manoeuvre of ‘crossing the line’ - this involved the British line of ships cutting through the enemy’s formation.

Pilfold held fire on his approach but then opened up all 75 guns from both sides relatively earl.y With such a daring manoeuvre at such a close range they knew there would be many deaths and serious injuries on both sides.

The battle's progress

In the ship’s log her Master, David Donaldson, recorded the day’s events. Ajax opened fire shortly after 1pm, cutting the line a few minutes later:

Oct 21 At daylight, saw the enemy's fleet bearing east.

8am light winds and variable. Extremity of the enemy’s fleet bore from E by S to SE, all sails set, going large in two divisions.

8:30 beat to quarters and prepared for action.

10:15 the enemy's fleet in two divisions closed again to the number of 33 sail of the line, 5 frigates and 2 brigs. [British] Fleet steering ESE with all sails set, in two divisions towards the van of the enemy’s fleet, distant about 3 or 4 miles. At noon, light airs, all sails set.

12:13 the rear of the enemy commenced firing on the lee division, returned by the Royal Sovereign.

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12:18 answered general signal No 16 [for closer action]. The Royal Sovereign breaks through the enemy’s line between the centre and rear.

12:32 general signal No 16 repeated. The Victory commenced her fire on the enemy.

1.10 the main top-mast was shot through.

1:12 began to engage the enemy, firing from both sides as we broke through the line.

First Ajax took on French 74 gun Intrépide which lost half her crew and was scuttled two days later by the British.

Then they turned their attention on the 80 gun Spanish Argonauta which received such a pounding from the highly trained and skilled British gunners that it would lose 60 dead and 148 wounded in the ensuing battle with Ajax. The ship would sink in a storm shortly afterwards.

1:55 observed several of the enemy’s ships had struck [surrendered], one Spanish three-decker totally dismasted [this would have been Argonauta].

3:26 bore away a little to engage part of the enemy’s van, which was attempting to escape to leeward.

4pm a Spanish ship bearing a Rear-Admiral’s flag struck. Kept up a raking fire on the enemy’s ships running to leeward.

When the action ceased one of the enemy vessels was on fire, and those that were not disabled were in full flight, leaving 20 ships of the line for the British to take in tow as prizes, or to sink or burn after their crews had been taken off as prisoners.

10pm Ajax took the Intrépide in tow; her foremast had gone by the board. An officer from Ajax with a party of men had gone on board to take charge and cut away the wreck.

Painter Nicholas Pocock's visualisation of the situation at 1300hrs, as HMS Ajax joined the fray

the aftermath

The Ajax sustained casualties and damage. Ten men had been wounded and two killed, the rigging was hanging free in a sorry state it had been raked by shrapnel and grapeshot and the sails severely damaged. The gangway netting and hammocks were completely shot to pieces and all the ship’s boats were holed.

The ‘jolly boat’ towing astern was sunk and had to be cut adrift. Even so, Ajax had suffered much less than the vessels in line ahead of her, which had totally disabled the enemy.

Ajax’s casualties were 2% of the ship’s complement - but they were among the lightest of the British fleet, while the highest toll was on board HMS Victory at 20%, including Vice Admiral Nelson himself.

Lord Nelson’s 27 ships of the line defeated 33 French and Spanish ships. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost 22 ships, without a single British vessel being lost.

Return home

Marshalls Manor, the drawing room overlooking the High Street

Full details below

Pilfold returned home to a hero’s welcome. The nation recognised his bravery 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 plus a large financial reward.

There is a record of Pilfold sitting on the board of the court martial in judgement on Captain John Okes Hardy off Cadiz in September 1806 (not of ‘Kiss me Hardy’ fame). He could either have been a witness at an incident at sea - or remotely possible that he had been called in from home as an impartial officer.

So Pilfold may have been on Ajax for a year after Trafalgar, but he never served at sea again. Financially he could now afford to settle down. He had had 18 years at sea, and, just perhaps, was suffering from what we know now as PTSD after his horrendous final battle.

There is much more to read about Pilfold’s naval experiences, and his ties to Sussex which are told so well in Desmond Hawkins book, and there is also a permanent display at Horsham Museum. But Cuckfield must have been so proud that Pilfold had decided to rejoin civilian life in their village.

Note the spelling varies at the time: Pilfold is sometimes Pilford


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

Wikipedia article on John Pilfold:

The HMS Ajax battle source picture is from National Maritime Museum, Public domain image, the final image was embellished by the author.

Pilfold’s sword: The Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund £100 Trafalgar Sword awarded to John Pilfold Esq Captain Of HMS Ajax, 21st October 1805. The box is inscribed: “From the Patriotic Fund at Lloyds to John Pilford Esq Captain Of HMS Ajax for his Meritorius Services In Contributing to the signal victory obtained over the combined fleets of France and Spain of Cape Trafalgar on the 21st of October 1805”

There is a secondary inscription on scabbard throat reads, “Presented to Movis D’Omer Jac Aberle Prop Tivoli Theatre March 1st 1878”. This sword was no doubt used as a theatre prop in Victorian times.

This sword was recently on sale for £185,000. Check out the link below:

Lindfield History Project Group’s account:

Marshalls Manor interior photograph, courtesy Jackson-Stops.

Painter Nicholas Pocock's visualisation of the situation at 1300h A public domain image from Royal Museums Greenwich.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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