The Tom May Collection -British Singles


Lot 2006    Session 7 (11.30am Wednesday)    The Tom May Collection -British Singles

Estimate $6,000
SOLD $9,000

NAVAL GENERAL SERVICE MEDAL 1793-1840, - clasp - Trafalgar. Richd Petty. Impressed. Good very fine.

Richard Petty born at Bethnal Green, Middlesex, England; rating, Boy; Ship's pay book no. (B3C, no.24). Confirmed on roll as Richard Petty, Trafalgar 0/547, Boy 3rd Class Bellerophon. At the Battle of Trafalgar HMS Bellerophon or 'Billy Ruffian' as she was known among the lower deck, sailed in the lee division. Inspired by Nelson's signal that 'England expects every man will do his duty', her gun crews chalked on the ship's gun barrels, 'Bellerophon: Death or Glory'. Nelson formed his fleet into two divisions; the weather column would attack to the north under his direct command and the lee column would operate to the south under the command of Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign. The Bellerophon under command of Captain John Cooke was stationed fifth in Collingwood's line, and so was one of the first ships engaged in action with the combined fleet. Cooke had reportedly been extremely concerned for his safety prior to the battle, and took the unusual step of informing his first lieutenant, William Pryce Cumby, and his master, Edward Overton, of Nelson's orders, in case he should be killed. Bellerophon was soon closely engaged with the French, breaking through the enemy line and closing with Aigle. As with the other French ships in the fleet, Aigle's rigging and mastheads were occupied by musketeers and grenadiers, who kept up a steady fire on Bellerophon and took a heavy toll of sailors exposed on the British ship's deck. Much of the fire was directed at the quarterdeck, where Cooke, Cumby and Overton stood. Cumby noted with surprise that Cooke was still wearing his uniform coat, which sported epaulettes that marked him out as the ship's captain to French snipers. Cooke had forgotten to remove the epaulettes and recognised the danger they represented, but replied 'It is too late to take them off. I see my situation, but I will die like a man.' As the action continued, the captain of Aigle ordered his crew to board and seize Bellerophon, hoping to use their superiority of numbers to overwhelm the British crew. Cooke sent Cumby below to make sure that the lower deck guns continued to fire into the French ship as the battle continued overhead, and threw himself at the French sailors pouring onto Bellerophon's quarterdeck, shooting an enemy officer dead and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the men behind him. Within minutes Cumby had returned to the deck with reinforcements from below, passing the mortally wounded Overton on the ladder. The badly wounded ship's quartermaster was also present, and he informed Cumby that Cooke had fallen in the melee. Cumby's charge cleared the French from the deck of Bellerophon, and he found Captain Cooke dead on the quarterdeck, two musket balls lodged in his chest. Cooke's last words had been 'Let me lie quietly a minute. Tell Lieutenant Cumby never to strike.' Cumby took charge of the battered Bellerophon, directing her fire into Aigle and ultimately forcing the French ship's surrender after the arrival of other British vessels. Bellerophon had suffered grievously, losing 27 dead and 127 wounded. Although Aigle was lost in the chaotic storm which followed the battle, Bellerophon survived, primarily due to Cumby's leadership. He was later promoted to captain for his services in the action. Cooke's body was buried at sea the day after the battle with the other fatal casualties from Bellerophon. Ex Tom May Collection, previously Glendinings Feb 1902, Sotheby March 1988.

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