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Robert Cuthbert

Chelsworth's Naval Hero

Robert Cuthbert was the son of John Cuthbert, then spelt 'Cutbert', and his wife Sarah. He was born in 1955 and baptised on 1st September 1955. His father owned property in Nedging and Chelsworth, and was a maltster.

Maltsters make malted barley from barley, the result being used in the beer-brewing process, and so, in a beer-drinking nation such as England, maltsters were usually prosperous, except in times of poor harvests. It may have been the run of poor harvests in southern England in the first half of the 1770s that necessitated Robert Cuthbert seeking a career outside the malting world in c.1775- 76.

At a time when the opening salvoes of the War for American Independence were necessitating a rapid expansion of the British armed forces, a career in either the Royal Navy or the Army may have beckoned Robert Cuthbert. Chelsworth's comparative proximity to the Suffolk ports of Ipswich and Harwich, and those ports' trade in grain, may have given Cuthbert a greater familiarity with ships and the sea than with the doubtful attractions of a scarlet coat and shouldered musket and so it was to the Royal Navy that he turned, probably in 1775 or 1776.

What is known for certain is that he was first rated Able Seaman in the 3rd rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Invincible, commanded by Captain Hyde Parker, later Admiral Sir Hyde Parker (1739-1807), on 9th February 1777. It seems reasonable to assume that he would have taken between one and two years at sea - especially since he was a 'landsman' - to achieve the rate of Able Seaman, which involved being 'fit for the helm and lead, top and yard' - as defined in an Admiralty Committee Report of 20th December 1652.

He spent a year in Invincible, in the English Channel and at Gibraltar, at some point- according to one of his records of service -being rated Midshipman by Captain Parker, before transferring, in February 1778, to HMS Minerva, a 5th rate 32-gun frigate commanded by Captain John Stott: he was rated Midshipman by Captain Stott after three days' service in her.

He served aboard Minerva off the African coast and in the Caribbean until August 1778, when his ship was captured in West Indian waters by the 32-gun French frigate Concorde. Captain Stott had been unaware of the outbreak of war with France and had approached Concorde under the misapprehension that she was a merchantman. The result was a French broadside that began a two and a half hour battle resulting in the dismounting of three of Minerva's guns, the explosion of a quantity of powder, the killing or wounding of eighteen men, including Stott and the First Lieutenant, and the loss of both masts and wheel.

Cuthbert must subsequently have been exchanged or freed from imprisonment in 1779 since one of his records of service indicates that he next served as a supernumerary on two sloop-fireships, HMSs Blast and Salamander, in which he traveled from Jamaica to England and then back to the West Indies to join his next ship, HMS Sandwich, a 2nd rate 90-gun ship-of-the-line commanded by Captain Walter Young and the flagship of Rear Admiral George Rodney, later Lord Rodney (1718-92), commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands.

HMS Sandwich January 1780

He served aboard HMS Sandwich in the Caribbean for over nine months in 1780 and 1781, being rated Able Seaman for seven of those and promoted Midshipman for the last two months; he was present at Rodney's two actions against a French fleet under Admiral de Guichen on 7th April and 19th May 1780. He must have impressed Rodney since, apparently 'by Order of Adml. Rodney', he was transferred on 8th January 1781 as 2nd lieutenant to the 3rd rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Montagu, part of the newly-arrived squadron of reinforcements commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, later Viscount Hood (1724-1816).

While serving on HMS Montagu, a new ship, the first of her name and commanded by the newly-promoted Captain George Bowen - who would end his days as an Admiral of the White Squadron - Cuthbert saw action in Admiral Graves's battle with Admiral de Grasse off the mouth of the Chesapeake on 5th September 1781 and again in Admiral Rodney's more famous Battle of the Saintes, which resulted in De Grasse's defeat, on 12th April 1782. He may well have distinguished himself in one or both battles since he was appointed lieutenant in the 12-gun brig-sloop HMS Lively in July 1782, again as a result of Rodney's direct order.

However, a career that was clearly on the rise was unfortunately cut short by the capture of HMS Lively late in 1782 by some American prisoners she was carrying. These prisoners took over the ship and sailed her into Havana, Cuba - then under the colonial domination of Spain, an ally of America - ultimately freeing their prisoners. Cuthbert returned to England via Antigua in 1783 and, along with many similarly non-commissioned sailors, was paid off at the ending of the war with America.

Although he had served as a lieutenant during the war, this was a local and temporary appointment not equivalent to being formally commissioned as such: he had not fulfilled the qualifying period of six years' 'sea-time' as an Able Seaman or Midshipman that would allow him to apply for a lieutenant's commission. Thus, in 1783 he was, effectively, redundant. His activities between 1783 and 1790 are unknown: he may have returned to Suffolk or he may have joined the naval service of the East India Company - a popular refuge for unemployed Royal Naval seamen.

A brief period of national panic in 1790, when war with Spain threatened over the ownership of a fur-trading station in Nootka Sound - on the west of what is now Vancouver Island, Canada, saw Cuthbert back in a rapidly-mobilised and expanded Royal Navy and enabled him to put in a further four months' 'sea-time' towards his eventual commission. During this brief period, he served in two 5th rate 32-gun frigates, HMSs Juno and Iris, as an Able Seaman, and in the 4th rate 50-gun heavy frigate, HMS Assistance, as a Midshipman.

While serving in HMS Juno for two months, Cuthbert was under the command of Captain Sir Samuel Hood, later Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, baronet (1762-1814) who was a fighting sailor in the 'Hornblower' or 'Jack Aubrey' mould. Hood was to be one of Cuthbert's referees when, eventually, he came before the examination board for his promotion to lieutenant and it is clear that Cuthbert made a memorable impression on him. Hood was also one of two captains under whom Cuthbert served who were to become members of Nelson's 'Band of Brothers' - the Nile captains.

After two and a half years of further naval unemployment, following the ending of the Nootka Sound crisis at the end of 1790, Cuthbert rejoined the Royal Navy in February 1793, as war with Revolutionary France loomed and as, again, Britain mobilised its armed forces in the face of national peril. Needing only a few months' 'sea-time' to qualify for his commission as lieutenant, Cuthbert transferred rapidly from ship to ship throughout the spring and summer of 1793. He was first rated Able Seaman in HMS Camel, an unarmed store ship commanded by Captain Benjamin Hallowell, later Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew GCB (1761-1834) - who would command HMS Swiftsure at the Nile five years later -and then Midshipman in HMS Mentor, a 10-gun armed vessel based at Sheerness, and in HMS Sandwich, a very old 2nd rate 98-gun ship-of-the-line ending her days as a floating battery at the Nore.

Late in July, having amassed his six years' 'sea-time' and armed with an impressive sheaf of references from the captains and lieutenants under whom he had served since 1777, Cuthbert attended the examination board for his commission as lieutenant. Within that six years' of 'sea-time' he had, as required, been rated Midshipman for at least two and was able to attest, with the support of his referees, that he had been 'known for his Sobriety, Diligence and Qualifications as an Able Seaman'. He was examined on 7th August 1793 and commissioned lieutenant on 8th October 1793, being posted to the 14-gun sloop HMS Thorn, in which he served -in the North Sea and Caribbean- until March 1796.

On 7th March 1796, he joined the ship in which he would see his most celebrated action. She was HMS Majestic, a 3M rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line, built at Deptford in 1785. She was commanded in 1796 by a Devonian, Captain George Westcott, who, at forty-three, was only two years older than Cuthbert. Westcott had seen considerable action during the American War for Independence and had most recently served as flag-captain to Rear Admiral Benjamin Caldwell in HMS Impregnable at the battle of 1st June 1794. Westcott was another tradesman's son who had made his way in the Royal Navy by virtue of merit, hard work and resultant patronage, so he and Cuthbert had much in common.

Cuthbert was to remain on Majestic for slightly more than three years - the longest posting that he ever had in one ship - and sailed in her to the Caribbean and back before the ship joined the Channel Fleet as part of the blockade of the French harbour of Brest late in 1796. Majestic was among the ships of Lord Bridport's fleet caught up in the Spithead Mutiny of 1797 but, like the rest of the fleet, was able to put to sea in May 1797 after the resolving of the sailors' grievances over pay, rations, shore leave and medical care; she remained as part of the Channel blockade until late in 1797 when she sailed south to join Lord St Vincent's fleet off Cadiz.

In May 1798, HMS Majestic was sent into the Mediterranean to reinforce Nelson's fleet that, by June that year, consisted of thirteen 74-gun ships-of-the-line and one 50- gun heavy frigate. Nelson's orders were to find and destroy a French fleet representing the naval element of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, an expedition that, if successful, would ultimately threaten Britain's possessions in India.

Ideally, Nelson wanted to catch the French fleet en route to Egypt, when it would have troops on board, and destroy it before those troops could land; this was not to be, however, and the French army landed in Egypt on 1st July 1798, occupying Cairo three weeks later. The search for the French continued until, late on 1st August, Nelson found his prey anchored in Aboukir Bay, a sheltered anchorage west of the mouth of the River Nile.

The French were not expecting Nelson's fleet either to arrive or, more particularly, to attack just as the daylight was failing. The French fleet, consisting of thirteen ships-of-the-line, four of which were larger than anything under Nelson's command, was anchored in a line, bow-to-stern, across the bay and defending the approaches to the lake of Aboukir: they resembled a single line of fortification, bristling with guns.

Nelson and his captains noted that the French ships were anchored only at their bows, in order to allow them to swing with wind, tide and current. This implied that there was enough water inland of the French line to enable the British ships to get between the ships and the land and thus for the French to be attacked on both sides; it also suggested that the apparently impregnable French line could be breached. What could not have been known by Nelson at the beginning of the action was that a large proportion of the French crews were ashore collecting fresh water and therefore that the French ships' guns were only manned on the seaward side.

The British fleet entered the bay at about six o'clock in the evening of 1st August 1798 and manoeuvred into line of battle. The British line was headed by HMS Zealous, commanded by Captain Samuel Hood, Cuthbert's former commanding officer, although Captain Thomas Foley, in HMS Goliath, raced Hood to be first at the French. As the British line, in which HMS Majestic was towards the rear, approached the French line at an oblique angle the French guns opened fire, the British gunners replying with their customary accurate and rapid fire once the range closed.

The British line divided, the first five ships heading for the van, or front, of the French line and crossing its head, each ship raking the leading French ships from stem to stern as it passed them and then anchoring opposite its identified target to engage it on landward side. The rear five ships of the British line turned to engage the centre and rear of the French line, breaching it in three places and dealing devastating raking fire as British broadsides tore the length of the French ships through their undefended bows and sterns.

HMS Majestic identified the 80-gun Tonnant as her target and bore down upon her, intending to engage Tonnant's starboard side with her starboard battery, but matters did not go according to plan. Majestic appears to have experienced problems in anchoring and so, after briefly engaging her, overshot Tonnant, entangling her mizzen rigging with the jib-boom of the next French ship in the line, the 74-gun Heureux. Captain Westcott was shot in the throat by a French marksman, either from Tonnant or from Heureux and died almost at once.

As First Lieutenant, Robert Cuthbert was now in command: his ship was entangled with that of an enemy, his guns could not easily be brought to bear, the light was fading fast and the noise, smoke and destruction of the guns was unceasing. Fortunately, Heureux's jib-boom, the foremost part of her bowsprit, broke and Majestic drifted down alongside Heureux, fighting her gun-to-gun and yard-to-yard as she did so, and eventually anchored between Heureux's stem and the bow of the next ship in the line, the 74-gun Mercure. So devastatingly did Cuthbert bring his ship's guns to bear in raking his two, equally-sized, opponents, that both Heureux and Mercure eventually cut their cables, drifting inshore and running aground: although able to continue fighting, they were effectively out of the action, unable to escape and so could be left to their eventual fate.

Tonnant  with HMS Majestic in background

At this point, Cuthbert directed his ship towards the port quarter of her original target, Tonnant, a ship much more heavily armed than his own, and re- engaged her at very close range with his starboard guns, his port guns continuing to fire upon Heureux and Mercure. Although the two most recent and scholarly accounts of the detailed sequence of the action disagree, we are fortunate not only in having two original copies of Cuthbert's own account among the documents offered here but also in being able to refer to the published Master's log of HMS Majestic. It may thus be appropriate to quote here some of Cuthbert's own words, contained in a letter written on 2nd October 1799, addressed to Evan Nepean (1751-1822), secretary to the Admiralty, and recounting what occurred:

...Captain Westcott of the Majestic having fallen within a few minutes after the commencement of the action, the Ship was continued to be fought by me as first Lieutenant, without intermission until half past three on the morning of the 2nd [August 1798] with an interval of only 10 minutes, which was occasioned by the La Orient [L 'Orient, the French flagship] blowing up at 10 O'Clock on the night of the first [August 1798], after which Time [3.30AM on 2nd August 1798], I beg to observe that none other of His Majs. Ships where [were] engaged (except the Alexander who very gallantly came down to our assistance) until five 0 'Clock in the morning of the second, when we again commenced our fire on the retreating Ships of the Enemy. That in shifting the Berth of the Majestic which I was under the necessity of doing [after having initially engaged the Tonnant], we let go an Anchor athought [athwart] hawse of the La Heureux with her Jib Boom in our Mizen Rigging, where we lay for an hour or more constantly raking her, when they or we cut her Cable, and she was driven on shore, with the La Mercure the ship immediately astern of her. I have also the honor to claim the merit of dismasting the La Tonnant, at half past one in the Morning of the 2d, no other ship but the Majestic having been engaged with her during the Night, by which means she was perfectly secured from making her escape.

In support of this, Majestic's master, Thomas Watson, wrote the following in his log:

(1st August 1798)

...At 6, the ships at anchor hoisted French colours. At 35 minutes after 6, the French began to fire at the head most ships and began the action. At 7, let go the sheet-anchor and brought the ship up by the stern abreast one of the French line-of-battle ships [Tonnant]. At 12 past 7, Captain Westcott was killed. At 8 slipped the sheet cable to prevent our falling athwart hawse of a French ship, and let go the best bower with a spring fast to it out of the gun-room port, and brought the ship up again, and engaged two of the enemy's ships, one on the larboard [port -Mercure] bow and [the other] on the starboard quarter [stem -Heureux]. About Y2 past eleven, one of the line-oi-battle ships [L 'Orient] took fire and blew up. (2nd August 1798)

At 2, the ship on our starboard quarter [Heureux] left us, dismasted. A ship that was engaging us on our larboard beam [Mercure], masts went by the board. At 3, our main and mizen masts went by the board [probably as a result of fire from Tonnant]. Left off firing. Employed cutting away the wreck. At a quarter past four; having got clear of the wreck began the action again. At half-past six, left off firing,' 9 of the French ships having struck, 7 of which were dismasted...

...N.B. Lost in the action a cutter and jolly-boat, and all the other boats shot through. A sheet anchor, weight 67 cwt. a sheet cable, a 22-inch cable,' a spring of 8 inches which was made fast to the sheet anchor for a spring, and -fathom of an 8-inch hawser, which was for a spring on the best bower anchor, having got foul of some of the French ships' anchors. Sails shot away: flying jib, one jib, one fore topmast staysail, one spritsail topsail, one lost when the main and mizzen masts were shot away, main course, one main topsail, one main topgallant sail, one main topgallant royal, one main topgallant studdingsail, one main topmast staysail, one middle staysail, one mizzen staysail, one mizzen topmast staysail, one mizzen, one mizzen topsail, one mizzen topgallant sail, one mizzen topgallant royal sail, one driver. All topmasts and yards shot away except the spritsail yard and the main topgallant yard. N.B. Mustered the ship's company and found the number to be killed in the action to be 50 and wounded 144 -total 194.

...At 4, committed the body of the deceased Captain Westcott to the deep and fired 20 minute guns. Read to the ship's company Admiral Nelson's thanks for their gallant behaviour during the action, and Lieutenant Robert Cuthbert's commission to act as commander after the death of Captain Westcott.

If Cuthbert's account is self-justificatory and Watson's is laconic and methodical, this is to be expected. By 1799, Cuthbert was petitioning for a captain's gold medal for the action -which he never received -and Watson was clearly a professional sailing master to his fingertips, entering in his log just what needed to be recorded and no more. What is clear is that Cuthbert and his ship were very heavily engaged in the battle and that HMS Majestic's gunnery and manoeuvrability enabled her successively, and successfully, to engage three French ships of the line, defeating two of her own size and contributing very significantly to the defeat of the third, the 80- gun Tonnant, whose captain, Du Petit-Thouars, memorably fought her to a dismasted standstill and died on his quarterdeck after losing both his arms and one leg. Tonnant was captured, refitted, renamed HMS Tonnant and was to fight at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Although the celebrations over the destruction of the French fleet were to reverberate through Britain and the countries of her allies for many months after August 1798, its immediate consequences for Lieutenant Robert Cuthbert were as swift as they must have been gratifying: he received the following letter from Nelson:

His Majesty's Ship Vanguard off the Nile 2d August 1798

In consequence of your gallant conduct in fighting His Majesty's Ship Majestic after the death of the brave Captain Westcott you are required and directed to take command of her, until his Lordship's, the Commander in Chiefs, pleasure is known.

Sign'd H. Nelson By command of the Admiral

Sign'd J. Campbell Secy.

The news of the victory at the Nile was probably greeted with as much delight at home in Chelsworth as it was elsewhere in the country but the village's parish records note that the realities of the battle were not forgotten amid the celebrations: a subscription for the relief of Widows &c of the Seamen and Marines killed and wounded at the Battle of the Nile brought in £5. Os. 6d. (£5.2 12p).

While the news of the great victory was on its way home, matters were being put in hand to ensure Cuthbert's promotion. Nelson had sent a copy of his letter to Cuthbert, quoted above, to his superior, Admiral Lord St Vincent (1735-1823), commander-in- chief, Mediterranean, who -in turn -wrote to the Admiralty, notably employing one of his favourite adjectives, 'intrepid':

My Lord,

I have the honor to enclose a copy of the order by which Lieutenant Cuthbert commands the Majestic, so highly honorable to him, and in addition, every Officer in the Squadron, he served so gloriously in, proclaims his conduct to have been equally judicious and intrepid, after the fall of his gallant Captain: I therefore have Encouraged him to hope your Lordship will recommend him to the Board for the rank of Post Captain, a reward, which, I understand, was given to the first Lieutenants of some Ships, after the Action of the 1st of June, under similar circumstances ...

I have the honor to be, with great esteem and regard, your Lordship's very faithful and Obedient Servant, St Vincent.

Rona House, Gibraltar, 22 October 1798.

When sending his battle dispatch to Lord St Vincent -a dispatch destined to appear in the London Gazette on 2nd October 1798 -and once he had briefly described the battle, Nelson specifically mentioned Cuthbert's actions:

...1 have to regret the Loss of Captain Westcott of the Majestic who was killed early in the Action,' but the Ship was continued to be so well fought by her First Lieutenant, Mr Cuthbert, that I have given him an order to command her till your Lordship's Pleasure is known. ...

Others wrote letters home too, most of those from the captains no doubt mentioning the loss of Westcott but few as brutally partisan as that written by Captain Samuel Hood to his cousin, Admiral Viscount Hood, about his protégé, Robert Cuthbert:

...Captain Westcott was killed by a musket ball early in the action, but the loss was not felt,' her first lieutenant, Cuthbert, who was in the Montagu in the West Indies, fought the Majestic most gallantly during the remainder of the action...

Cuthbert's commission as a post-captain was confirmed by a letter to him from Evan Nepean dated 28th November 1798; his commission bore the same date and notionally put him in command of HMS Medea, a very old 6th rate 32 gun frigate, but, in reality, he remained in command of HMS Majestic, until 21 st March 1799 as part of the Mediterranean Fleet.

After leaving HMS Majestic, Cuthbert was unemployed until January 1801. It was during this time that he had leisure to sit for the portrait shown here and which is dated 1799, to obtain the commemorative sword and the dirk also pictured and to enquire whether he might qualify for the captain's gold medal for the battle of the Nile - ultimately unsuccessful enquiries that generated the letter from which quotes are taken above and which exercised him during October 1799.

In January 1801 Cuthbert was posted to command HMS Montagu, the 3rd rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line on which he had served as an Able Seaman and Midshipman during 1781-82. Montagu had been a new ship then but, twenty years later, was reaching the end of her active life, a life whose end was being hastened by regular exposure to bad weather as part of the blockading fleet constantly on station in the Bay of Biscay; her condition was not aided by the need to maintain the blockade since this militated against being able regularly to put into port for repairs and maintenance.

Thus, HMS Montagu was not only old and poorly maintained but also she was rotten. Matters came to a head on 13th February 1801 when, with the weather worsening, spars began to go overboard and sails began to split; these were replaced from the ship's stores but as the weather deteriorated further so the shroud bolts that secured the standing rigging bracing the masts began to be pulled through the ship's rotten sides. Eventually, on 15th February, she lost her entire main and mizzen masts and her fore topmast: this reduced her to a wallowing hulk in danger of capsizing and with the tangled wreckage of two of her masts and their rigging dragging her into a dangerous list to port. Cuthbert took what action he could, as he recorded in his log:

...the ship rolling heavy, obliged to cut all away and bear up, to preserve the foremast, and get clear of the wreck [age of the lost masts]. Fired several guns as signals of distress. 1/2past 6 none of the squadron in sight...

Eventually, Montagu was found by a frigate and able to reach the estuary of the River Tagus to refit but she was not able to sail to rejoin the Inshore Squadron, as the blockading fleet was called, until 31st March 1801. Cuthbert left her in July 1801 and was without a ship until November that year, on the 25th of which he joined HMS Orion, a 3rd rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line also on station in the Bay of Biscay.

Orion had been commanded by Captain James Saumarez, later Lord de Saumarez GCB (1757-1836) at the battle off Cape St Vincent in 1797 and at the battle of the Nile. At the Nile she had been in the van that had raked the head of the French line; she had also sunk one inshore French frigate and disabled two others before engaging the French line-of-battle directly. Commanded by Captain Edward Codrington, later Admiral Sir Edward Codrington GCB GCMG (1770-1851), she would fight at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Cuthbert remained in command of HMS Orion until July 1802, mid-way through the Peace of Amiens with France, when he was paid off. He was not re-employed once war recommenced in 1803 and so spent the years left to him on a captain's retired half-pay.

By 1802, Cuthbert had experienced most things in the quarter century since he had first gone to sea: several memorable battles, mutiny, capture and near-wreck. He was in his late forties and clearly felt that it was time to settle down. Accordingly, he found himself a wife, Elizabeth Willock, the daughter of Alexander Willock of Bedford Square in London, and married her at St. George's, Hanover Square, on 7th July 1803. It is not known how or where Captain and Mrs Cuthbert chose to live but it is known that the marriage produced three children, Robert Alexander, Eliza Roberta and Charlotte Arthurina. By the time of Robert Cuthbert's death, on 8th January 1821, the family was living at 12 Great Bedford Street, Bath, from which Cuthbert's body was taken for burial to the parish church of Weston, one and a half miles north-west of the city centre. His life at sea may have done well for Robert Cuthbert: he was able to leave his wife ten thousand pounds while bequeathing a thousand to his son and six hundred to each of his daughters (National Archives: PROB 11/1639).

Among the effects left at Cuthbert's death are the items that were put for auction with Peter Finer in 2005, although none are specifically mentioned in his will. That they have remained together for so long is remarkable and each has a story to tell.

The battle of the Nile was commemorated in ways that were unprecedented. Nelson was showered with honours, internationally as well as nationally, The battle was re- enacted within the limitations of the London stage. Commemorative ceramics of all types and qualities were produced. Music was written and performed; paintings were executed and exhibited. Numerous commemorative medals were struck and tWo types were awarded to survivors of the battle: the King's gold medal, given to all the surviving captains, and Alexander Davison's medal, struck at the Birmingham Mint in a variety of metals and presented far more lavishly by Davison, who had been appointed Prize Agent by Nelson after the battle and who could thus easily afford such largesse. Not until Trafalgar, when celebrations of the victory were tempered by sadness at the loss of Nelson, would Britain be so transported for so long by a naval victory.

Significant among the iconography used to commemorate the battle was the crocodile: a creature alien to British imagination and known to be ferociously dangerous, it was a motif employed as much to represent the revolutionary rapacity of France as the exotic East. To scholars of the Classical period, the crocodile was coming to be recognised as part of the pantheon of Ancient Egyptian deities. Sobek was an ancient god of crocodiles, first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts; his worship lasted until-Roman times, the people of Egypt either worshipping him to gain his protection and strength or reviling him and killing the crocodiles of the area because of the evil that they could do. Depicted either as a crocodile-headed man or as a full crocodile, Sobek was shown wearing a plumed headdress with a homed sun disc or-- the ate! crown. In his hands he was depicted carrying a was sceptre and the ankh sign of life. Ancient Egyptians kept crocodiles in pools and temples, ornamenting the crocodiles with jewels in honour of Sobek. In Britain, the crocodile motif appeared in jewellery, on clothing and in caricature and an almost immediate passion for Egypt and things Egyptian, known as Egyptomania, swept the country: this was only increased by the expulsion of French forces from Egypt during the land campaigns of 1799-1801.

A major contributory factor to Egyptomania would have been the return home of officers and men who had been present at the battle of the Nile and it is probable that the establishment, by Nelson's 'Nile captains', of an 'Egyptian Club' became rapidly and widely known, in the Navy and at home.

The 'Egyptian Club' was founded by the surviving captains on board HMS Orion during the evening of 3rd August 1798, among its first acts being to commission a sword for, and a portrait of, Nelson. Nelson's sword was commissioned from Rundell & Bridge of Ludgate Hill, London, by Alexander Davison: the grip of its gold hilt was formed as a crocodile couchant. Nelson's sword's hilt was subsequently dismounted from its blade and the hilt was stolen from the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London in early December 1900, but it is known, from two surviving examples that can be directly associated with Nile captains and two that are associated with Alexander Davison, that the members of the Egyptian Club had swords with similar hilts made for their own use.

The collections of the National Maritime Museum contain three examples of the Egyptian Club sword, one of which can be definitely linked to Captain Samuel Hood of HMS Zealous (Acc. No. WPNI550), one of which can probably be connected with Alexander Davison (Acc. No. WPN 1093) and the other of which (Acc. No. WPN 1094) cannot be connected with an identified individual, although- interestingly and perhaps significantly - its spadroon blade is very similar indeed to that on our sword. A fourth example of the Egyptian Club sword is known, that belonging to Captain James Saumarez (exhibited as item no. 143 in the exhibition Rule Britannia! A loan exhibition of Marine Works of Art, at Sotheby's, London in .January 1986). Notably, the two Egyptian Club swords that can be associated with Nile captains -Hood's and Saumarez's -have similar, saber-blades. The second of Davison's swords was sold at Sotheby's, London, in 2002 (The Alexander Davison collection, 21 October 2002, lot 13); another sword purportedly associated with the Egyptian Club is recorded as also having been sold by Sotheby's, London, in 1919 (22na December1919,1ot 185).

As we have seen, the surviving captains from the battle of the Nile all received the King's gold medal; they seem also to have advertised their status as 'Nile captains' by wearing crocodile-hilted swords available only to the members of the exclusive Egyptian Club the fact that they, too, had been present at this Famous Victory? They were probably given one of Mr. Davison's unofficial medals but had no other way of visibly proclaiming themselves as Nile veterans. Everyone who survived the battle would have received Prize Money eventually. This was distributed proportionately according to rank -, the higher the rank, the greater the amount - Nelson's share being one per cent of the estimated total of £177, 440: £1,774. Cuthbert's share of the Nile Prize Money is unknown but it would certainly have sufficed to pay for having his portrait painted and to allow him to buy a suitable sword and dirk. He hoped to receive the medal that Captain Westcott would have received had he lived but this was denied him. He was not eligible for the Egyptian Club for the same reason: he had not been, at the time of the battle, a post-captain.

Cuthbert was far from unique in being a returned Nile veteran with an event to commemorate and money to spend. Just as textile and ceramic manufacturers capitalised in 'Nile fever' by producing fabrics and commemorative pottery to sell, so did the numerous sword cutlers - as the plethora of 'Nile' naval dirks, each with a crocodile somewhere on its hilt or scabbard, demonstrates. Such weapons, worn at the time by sailors Without distinction of rank - although probably less by ordinary seamen than by officers, exist today in great quantity and in very variable quality: almost all have curved blades and none resemble Cuthbert's dirk. No other example of a dirk similar to Cuthbert's, Nile-related or not, is recorded in the literature or known in any major collection: its design, like that of Cuthbert's 'Nile' sword, may be unique to the workshop of the innovative and entrepreneurial Mr. Prosser, sword- cutler, of Charing Cross. Only two 'Nile' swords like ours are known, one of which is Robert Cuthbert's -its provenance clearly established by its presence in his portrait- and the other of which is in the collections of the Dorset Military Museum, Dorchester (Acc. No. 1961/507): both were retailed by John Prosser {c.1769-1837).

By 1798, Prosser had been established for three years as the successor to the Royal sword cutlers, James, Thomas and Mary Cullum, at 9 Charing Cross. His shop's situation, close to the Admiralty and the Horse Guards, the Board of Ordnance offices and the premises of numerous naval and military agents, would have attracted clients who would regularly have passed it on their way to appointments some would have left those appointments with bank drafts in their pockets or promises of advancement ringing in their ears and, as such, be ready to spend money on an appropriate new sword or dirk.

Prosser had held a Royal warrant as sword-cutler and belt-maker to King George III sincel795: he regularly supplied weapons to the War Office as well as being an innovator in the design of sword hilts and influential in changing the patterns of sword laid down for officers of both the Royal-Navy and Army. It is, therefore, no surprise at all that he was clearly offering 'Nile" swords for sale fu1799 or that the critical element of his 'Nile "swords the crocodile, was almost identical to that present on the Egyptian Club swords worn by the Nile captains. Although Rundell and Bridge supplied the Egyptian Club swords, they would have sub- contracted their design as well as their manufacture: the former was not a secret and it is conceivable that Prosser, or his workshop, undertook the latter.

The existence of a blade in Cuthbert's Nile sword, as well as in the Dorset Military Museum sword, that is very similar indeed to one of the National Maritime Museum's examples {Acc. No. WPN 1094) - the only one of the three that can be positively identified as having been supplied by Rundell & Bridge - implies that Prosser may well have been involved in some element of the design and manufacture of some of the Egyptian Club swords. Whatever is the case, it is evident that Robert Cuthbert bought both his 'Nile' sword - one as similar in design to the Egyptian Club swords as could be worn safely by an officer not admitted to that exclusive circle - and his dirk from John Prosser, probably both at the same time since the scabbard mounts of the two weapons are strikingly similar.

The period of British naval history now conveniently known as that of " Nelson's navy" is one in which men like Robert Cuthbert were absolutely typical and representative of the type of men who, through diligence, talent, patronage and not a little luck, elevated themselves from the rank of tradesman to that of officer and gentleman. The Royal Navy was a meritocracy: this was what helped it survive and what gave it the edge over its competitors; only the embryonic navy of the United States of America ran it close - with results that are well recorded in the naval annals of both nations.

The meritocrats, and aristocrats, of the Royal Navy contributed significantly to Britain's ability to resist invasion and to make war successfully throughout the globe at a time when Britain was long on enemies and short on allies. Robert Cuthbert's experiences in two world wars and one international skirmish would have been shared by many of his peers, some of who advanced to flag rank, to knighthoods and to peerages. As far as is known, though, he was one of only two officers whose experience at the battle of the Nile led him not only to purchase the sword but also to have his portrait painted wearing it: this is what makes him, and the collection of important items, in this bicentenary year of Trafalgar, unique.


Sotheby's, 13th May 1975.


Clowes, W.L., The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present (London, 1899 et seq.), 7 vols., Vols. III, pp. 454-462 and 482-500; Vol. IV, pp. 18- 19,357-371 and 381.

Exhibition catalogue: 'Rule Britannia!' A Loan Exhibition of Marine Works of Art. Sotheby's, London, January 1986, p. 108, no. 143.

Gardiner,R., (ed.), Nelson against Napoleon: from the Nile to Copenhagen, 1798- 1801, (London, 2001), pp. 20-41.

Gates, W.G., Ships of the British Navy (portsmouth, 1905),2 vols., Vol. II, pp. 74-75.

Jackson, T.S. (ed.), Great Sea Fights 1794-1805, (Navy Records Society, Vol. XVIII, 1900), pp. 63-66.

Lavery, B., Nelson and the Nile: The Naval War against Bonaparte, (London, 1998), pp. 182-183, 192-198,201,203-209 and 217.

Lincoln, M. (ed.), Nelson and Napoleon, (London, 2005), pp. 65-101 and 101-122. Lyon, D., The Sailing Navy List, (London, 1993), various references.

May, W.E., and Annis, P.G. W., Swords for Sea Service, (London, 1970),2 vols., Vol.

I, pp. 55-58.

Russell, J., Nelson and the Hamiltons, (London, pb., 1972), p. 69.

Southwick, L., London silver-hilted swords: their makers, suppliers and allied

traders, with directory, (Leeds, 2001), pp. 199-201, entry for Prosser.

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