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Nelson in the News

Who Was Nelson?


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Copyright Vicki Hassona 2013


Here you will find details of all the ships that Nelson served in,including the dates he served in them, their commanders and key moments in their careers (with and without Nelson).  I've also included ships which he didn't serve in, but in which he was a passenger (Alexander, Dolphin, Kite, Lion).  I've put the names of their commanders in brackets at the end of each point.

They are laid out below in the order in which Nelson served in them.  Click on the name to be taken to a page with more information.

At the bottom of the page you will find explanations of the ship classifications.

Raisonnable Midshipman, January - May 1771
Triumph Captain's Servant, then Midshipman, May 1771 - May 1773

Carcass Captain's coxswain, June - Sept 1773

Seahorse (1748) Able Seaman, then Midshipman, Oct 1773 - March 1776

Dolphin Passenger, March - May 1776

Worcester Acting Lieutenant, Sept 1776 - April 1777

Lowestoffe 2nd Lieutenant, April - Dec 1777

Little Lucy Commander, Dec 1777 - July 1778

Bristol 3rd Lieutenant, July-Sept 1778
1st Lieutenant, Sept-Dec 1778

Badger Commander, Dec 1778 - June 1779

Hinchinbrook Post-Captain, June 1779 - March 1780

Janus Captain, March - Sept 1780

Lion Passenger, Sept - Oct 1780
Albemarle Captain, Oct 1781 - July 1783

Boreas Captain, March 1784 - Dec 1787

Agamemnon Captain, then Commodore, Jan 1793 - June 1796

Captain Commodore, June-Sept 1796
13-14 Feb 1797
March-May 1797

Diadem Commodore, Sept 1796

Minerve Commodore, Dec 1796 - 13th Feb 1797

Irresistible Commodore, 15th Feb - March 1797

Theseus Rear-Admiral, May - Aug 1797

Seahorse (1794) Passenger, Aug-Sept 1797

Vanguard Rear-Admiral, March 1798 - June 1799

Foudroyant Rear-Admiral, June 1799 - July 1800

Alexander Passenger, July 1800

San Josef Vice-Admiral, Jan - Feb 1801

St George Vice-Admiral, Feb - 28th March 1801
3rd April - June 1801

Elephant Vice-Admiral, 29th March - 2nd April 1801

Kite Passenger, June 1801

Unité Vice-Admiral, 27th - 29th July 1801

Medusa Vice-Admiral, Aug 1801

Amazon Vice-Admiral, Sept - Oct 1801

Amphion Vice-Admiral, May - July 1803

Victory Vice-Admiral, July 1803 - 21st Oct 1805

Types and Classes of Ships

Bomb Vessel

These ships were specifically designed (or converted) to be able to bombard (hence the name) enemy towns and ports, and carried mortars capable of firing explosive shells a long distance.  No other type of ship in the navy carried explosive shells.  Because of the powerful recoil of the mortars, the hulls of bombs were heavily reinforced, and for that reason they were used for arctic expeditions (as was the Carcass) because they were better able to push through the ice.  Bombs were often named after volcanoes or had some other suggestion of fire or explosion, like the Vesuvius and Meteor (but there was also one at the Battle of Copenhagen called the Zebra, which doesn't really fit the pattern!).

Bombs at Copenhagen

The Batttle of Copenhagen by Nicolas Pocock.  Bomb vessels can be seen in the bottom left, firing over the lines of British and Danish ships to hit the city in the background.



Cutters, brigs, and schooners with under 20 guns all fit under the term sloop-of-war.  Technically, bombs were also unrated, but their specialist design made them distinct.

Cutters were the smallest commissioned vessels of the Royal Navy.  They had one mast, and the design of their rigging meant they were extremely quick and manoeuvrable.  They usually had around 10 guns and would be commanded by a lieutenant, used for patrols and carrying urgent despatches.

Brigs had two square-rigged masts and 10-18 guns.  They were fast and easy to manoeuvre, and were often used as cargo or merchant ships.  Schooners were a similar size but had fore-and-aft sails, and two or more gaff-rigged masts.


HMS Pickle, a schooner.  By Geoff Hunt


Frigates (5th and 6th rate)

Frigates were versatile small warships with many important functions.  They had 3 square-rigged masts and 20-44 guns on a single gun-deck.  They were small enough to be quick and manoeuvrable, but could hold enough stores that they could be at sea for months at a time, and packed enough firepower to intimidate merchant vessels. 

6th rates were the smallest rated ships in the Royal Navy, with 20-26 guns, and were often used as convoy escorts or in blockades.  They weren't formally recognised by the Admiralty as frigates, but because they were actually rated, they were commanded by post captains, unlike the unrated brigs, cutters and schooners, which had lieutenants or commanders.  

5th rates were bigger, with 28-44 guns, and were commanded by captains.  They operated alone or in small groups, and because of their combination of speed and firepower would hunt enemy frigates or smaller vessels, often cruising along the coast, and it wasn't at all unheard of for a pair or more frigates to take on a lone ship of the line.  There were often frigates present during fleet battles but they wouldn't take part in the fighting and would instead be used to relay signals.  Ships of the line wouldn't open fire on a frigate unless provoked. 

Frigates were also exceptionally useful for reconaissance.  Nelson called frigates his 'eyes' and grew frustrated when he felt he didn't have enough.  He blamed lack of frigates for not being able to find the French fleet prior to the Battle of the Nile, but he was able to use them to great effect pre-Trafalgar. 

The position of frigate captain was seen as glamorous, and some, such as Edward Pellew, became famous for their daring, and earned a lot of money from the prizes they captured.  Some chose to remain in frigates rather than transfer to a ship of the line, preferring the glory and independence of a frigate command over the prestige of a larger ship. 


HMS Seahorse, a 38-gun frigate


Ships of the Line

The largest and most heavily-armed ships of the Age of Sail, of between 64 and 120 guns.  The standard naval tactics of the time for a fleet action were for the fleet to form a 'line of battle' - hence the name.  The lines would form up parallel to each other, and exchange broadsides (shots from all the guns along the side of the ship) until one side surrendered.  So ships of the line were built like floating fortresses.

The smallest ship generally considered suitable for a line of battle had 64 guns, though the Leander, at the Battle of the Nile, had 50 and did pretty well.  But all ships of the line had to have at least two gundecks.  They were ranked as first, second, third or fourth rates. 

4th Rates weren't very common by Nelson's time.  They were two-decked with 50 or 60 guns, and considered too small to be ships of the line, but too large to be frigates.  They were often used for patrols or in small squadrons.


HMS Leander (by Geoff Hunt), a 50-gun 4th rate that fought at the Battle of the Nile

64-gun 3rd rates weren't much liked.  They were relatively cheap to produce, but didn't have the firepower or even the sailing qualities of a 74, and no more were built after the American War of Independence.  Nonetheless, Nelson was very fond of his ship Agamemnon, a 64, and was quite successful with her.  Agamemnon saw a fair amount of fleet action, and at Trafalgar her small size proved to be an advantage as the shots of four larger enemy ships which had surrounded her, mostly passed over her.

HMS Agamemnon by Geoff Hunt

74-gun two-decker 3rd rates were by far the most common and most versatile ships of the line.  Their proportions meant that they sailed quite well, and they had enough guns to pack a real punch.  They were also a compromise on cost, being less expensive in time and money to produce, compared to the first rates.  They became the standard ship of the line.

HMS Captain (a 74) by Geoff Hunt

2nd rates were an odd and not popular class.  They had three decks and carried between 80 and 98 guns.  Their design meant that they didn't sail well and weren't as useful as a 74 despite having more guns.  They were more expensive to produce than 74s, and they were not enough of an improvement to justify the extra cost when compared to a first rate.  However, they served well as flagships.

HMS Temeraire, 98-gun 2nd rate.  By Geoff Hunt

1st rates were the largest ships in the Navy, with three decks and 100 to 120 guns.  They were incredibly expensive to produce, maintain, and man.  There weren't very many of them, with perhaps only one or two in a large fleet.  Being so large and heavy, they were difficult to manoeuvre and sailed slowly, though Victory was known to be a better sailer than others of her size.  Though they were immense powerhouses of firepower and able to withstand a lot of damage, in practice their most significant role was as the Admiral's flagship.  Being the largest ship in the fleet, they were able to provide large accommodations for an admiral and his staff.  Their magnificence and splendour emphasised the rank of the admiral and were an imposing sight to the enemy. 

HMS Victory by Geoff Hunt

The Spanish behemoth Santisima Trinidad was the largest ship of her time,  and with an immense four decks and 140 guns, she was a class of her own.  But she was exceedingly difficult to handle, and in fact proved to not be very effective in battle.  Due to her size, she was a much sought-after prize by British officers.


Santisima Trinidad by Geoff Hunt