FAVOURITE OF FORTUNE: CAPTAIN JOHN QUILLIAM, TRAFALGAR HERO

Reviewed by: DAVID CHILDS

Captain John Quilliam is big in the Isle of Man even having a set of beautifully designed postage stamps issued to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth which falls this year.  But does he deserve his name to be better known elsewhere?  This is a question which this book, subliminally, asks.

Professor Lambert states about the subject stated that, In the age of Nelson the Royal Navy had many heroes, but only a select few were hand-picked by the great man: among them was John Quilliam, Manxman, world traveller, and a veteran of many battles, a man of skill and dedication, who exemplified the finest traditions of the service.”  All true but does that make him the hero that the title of this well-researched book indicates.

A junior officer, unless he performs a deed of note, is destined just to be a name on a ship’s record.  So it was with Quilliam, a junior officer for a long time, who, while being present at both the battles of Camperdown and Copenhagen, seems principally employed as the officer responsible for repairing battle damage – an essential task that he fulfilled with great skill.

Quilliam’s moment of luck came in 1799 when, as Ethalion’s third Lieutenant, he received prize money of £5,090 (£340,000 today) for his part in the capture of two Spanish ships Thetis and Santa Brigida, who together were carrying over 85 tons of silver and gold worth over £51 million in today’s money.  That gave him access to both property and society in his native Isle of Man.

His move to Victory in 1803, at the behest of Nelson, and as first lieutenant to Captain Hardy, would give him the opportunity to shine in action.  But his claim to fame, as recorded on his memorial tablet in Arbory, Man, that: “He steered the Victory into action at the Battle of Trafalgar”, may even be based on inexact accounts and, even so, it scarcely makes him a hero of that engagement.  Certainly, there is nothing in his laconic and most modest log book to indicate otherwise.

Two weeks after Trafalgar, Quilliam was appointed to his first command, the appropriately named Bomb, Aetna. He was to have numerous further commands including the Trafalgar prize Ildefonso and HM Ships Spencer, as flag captain, Alexandria, and Crescent.  In these he was to see service in the Mediterranean, the Baltic, off Newfoundland and in the West Indies.  In all these stations and in all his commands, he performed excellently in a largely incident free career.  The highlight was when both he and his First Lieutenant initiated Court Martial proceedings against each other:  both were unsuccessful.  That’s the sort of anti-climax this book features. Your reviewer feels that had it not been for the involvement of the illustrious Professor Lambert, the detailed research undertaken by his co-authors would not have been converted into a book.