Jack Crawford, the Hero of Camperdown

Jack Craford

The heroism of Sunderland sailors has more than once received ample illustration. Hardy sons of the North, enjoying the excellent physical development peculiar to the inhabitants of this severe locality, trained to battle with the elements in peaceful times, they were ever valuable for intrepidity, skill, and daring, when “wild war’s deadly blast” called men from industrial occupations. Their valour has not passed without recognition in well informed and influential quarters. A committee of the House of Commons, in the year 1820, paid the sailors employed in the coal trade the following high compliment by resolution : “That the number of men obtained in the course of the war, from Newcastle and Sunderland, does not indeed bear a great proportion to the whole of the men employed and raised in the same time for the navy; but their value is not altogether to be estimated by their number. The difficulties of the navigation in the coal trade are admitted to give the seamen derived from it, in point of skill and experience, patience of fatigue and hardship, an incontestable superiority over those drawn from other maritime trades of the kingdom. During the late war, our naval officers gave a decided preference to sailors bred up in the coal trade.”


Jack Crawford, the hero of Camperdown, was born in what is now called the Pottery Bank, Sunderland, in the spring of 1775. His father was a keelman on the Wear. The boy was fond of the sea, and served a regular apprenticeship in the Peggy, of South Shields. A difference in his family occurring about 1796, Jack left Sunderland, and entered on board a man-of-war. In the following year he became famous by the daring deed which he performed on board Admiral Duncan’s flag-ship, the Venerable.


The Battle of Camperdown

The battle of Camperdown, one of the famous naval victories won by British sailors when “wooden walls”, were in their glory, was fought between the English and Dutch fleets on the 11th October, 1797. The fleets were commanded, on the English side by Admiral Duncan, and on the Dutch side by the famous De Winter. Duncan had been blockading the Dutch coast for months, and he found it necessary to proceed to Yarmouth to refit, leaving only a small squadron of observation under the command of Captain Trollope. Scarcely had the Admiral reached the Roads when a vessel at the back of the sands gave the spirit-stirring signal that the enemy was at sea. Not a moment was lost in getting under sail, and early on the morning of the 11th he was in sight of Captain Trollope’s squadron, with a signal flying for an enemy to leeward. He instantly bore up, made signal for a general chase, and soon came in sight of the enemy, meanwhile forming in line on the larboard tack, between Camperdown and Egmont, the land being about nine miles to leeward. Each fleet consisted of sixteen sail of the line, exclusive of frigates, brigs, and other craft. As they approached each other, the British Admiral gave orders to his fleet to break the enemy’s line and engage to leeward, each ship to choose its opponent. The signal was promptly obeyed, and, getting between the enemy and the land, the action commenced about half-past twelve, and, by one, was general along the whole line. The Monarch was the first to break through. The Venerable, Admiral Duncan’s ship, failed in an attempt to pass astern of De Winter’s flag-ship, the Vryheid. As the Venerable came up, the States-General, another vessel of the enemy, filled the gap through which Duncan had intended to pass. The Venerable, although the original intention failed in execution, was not to be denied, and, immediately pouring a destructive broadside into the States-General, compelled that vessel to abandon the line. Admiral Duncan then engaged the Vryheid, and a terrible conflict ensued between the two commanders-in-chief. But it was not a single-handed fight. The Dutch vessels, Leyden, Mars, and Brutus, in conjunction with the Vryheid, poured broadside after broadside into the Venerable till Duncan deemed it expedient to give ground a little, although he did not retreat. Meanwhile, the Triumph came to the Venerable’s assistance, when the two vessels gave a final blow to the gallantly-defended Vryheid, a terrific broadside bringing the masts by the board, and reducing the ship to an unmanageable hulk. De Winter struggled a little while longer on what was left of his gallant craft; but further opposition was fruitless, and, it is said, he pulled his flag down with his own hands, remarking, when he presented it to Admiral Duncan, that he was himself the only man left unwounded on the quarter-deck of the Vryheid. Throughout the rest of the line the contest was not less fiercely sustained. But with the surrender of the Dutch flag-ship hostilities ceased: nine vessels were captured by the English; and De Winter was brought on board the Venerable a prisoner of war. Shortly after the States-General had received the fire of the Venerable, she escaped from the action, and, along with two others, was carried into the Texel. The carnage on board the two admirals’ ships was fearful. Not fewer than 250 men were killed and wounded in each. The total loss of the British was 191 killed and 560 wounded, while the loss of the enemy was computed to have been twice as great. At the conclusion of the battle the English fleet was within five miles off the shore, where many thousand of the Dutch witnessed the defeat and destruction of their fleet. Admiral Duncan was created a peer of Great Britain by the title of Viscount Duncan of Camperdown and Baron Duncan of Lundie, to which estate he had succeeded by the death of his brother. A pension of £2,000 a year was granted his lordship for himself and the two next heirs of the peerage. The thanks of both Houses of Parliament were unanimously voted to the fleet, and Lord Duncan was presented with the freedom of the city of London and a sword valued at 200 guineas. Gold medals were struck in commemoration of the victory, and presented to the admirals and captains of the fleet. People wore “Camperdown” ties, hats, and ribands, and the story of the battle was on the lips of all.


Jack Crawford Illustration

When the Venerable was hard pressed in the unequal combat, with four vessels concentrating their energies for her destruction, an incident occurred which was dwelt upon with just pride by chroniclers of the engagement, which called forth the most enthusiastic popular applause, and which in itself was a proud illustration of the bravery of the British tar. The fiercest cannonade rattled through the shrouds and rigging of the vessel. It came from all sides, slashing and tearing, bearing death and destruction on its wings of fire, and sadly crippling the gallant seventy-four which carried Admiral Duncan’s flag. Several times had the colours been shot away, and as often had their place been promptly supplied. At last, part of the mast which bore them came crashing down on deck with the “red rag” still clinging to the broken spar. The Admiral was near when the accident occurred. Coolly stooping down, he tore the flag from its fastenings, and, looking round, sought for some one who would once more replace the ensign. It could no longer be run up in the usual way, since the necessary part of the mast had succumbed to the enemy’s fire. He called for some one to mount the rigging and nail the colours to the broken mast. It was a dangerous duty, and he who dared it look his life in his hand. A pause ensued before a volunteer appeared, but the pause was short, and there stood before the Admiral one whom he had learned to trust, and whose townsmen he had come to respect for their resolute bravery and skill. “Here, John,” he said, handing the colours to the sailor, “nail them up, and save further orders about them.” Armed with a marling-pike as hammer, “John” climbed the rigging, ropes and rattlings dangling uselessly, and bullets cutting those that remained of service to shreds before him. Up, up he went, bearing as it seemed a charmed life, for the shot went harmlessly past him as the battle raged fiercely down below. Clinging to the broken timber, he literally nailed the colours to the mast, nimbly slid down the topmast backstay, and jumped on deck amid the cheers of his comrades and the approbation of his commander. The sailor was Jack Crawford, of Sunderland. Sir John Hamilton, who was in command of the Active, which acted as tender to the Venerable, saw Crawford go aloft, and then understood the reason of Duncan’s partiality for North-Country seamen. Jack had not escaped scatheless. He was shot through the cheek, the missile inflicting a wound which proved rather troublesome to heal. But he had done his duty, and vindicated the honour of England.


There is a different account of the daring act from the one we have just given. We have assumed that Admiral Duncan gave the order to nail the flag to the mast; but some local accounts agree in saying that Jack Crawford performed the act of heroism on his own account. In the sketch of Jack’s life written by the late Captain Robinson it is stated that Duncan gave the order, but the circumstance is thus referred to in Richardson’s Local History and in the Percy Anecdotes: “In the memorable engagement which Admiral Lord Duncan had with the Dutch fleet on the 11th of October, 17U7, the flag of the Venerable, Lord Duncan’s ship, was shot away by the Dutch Admiral De Winter. John Crawford, a sailor belonging to Sunderland, then on board the Venerable, upon observing this, immediately ran up the shrouds (amidst the fire of the enemy) with a marling-spike in his hand, and, with the greatest coolness and intrepidity, nailed the Venerable’s flag to the topgallant mast-head.” Whichever account be the correct, one, enough of glory remains to stamp the act as one of the boldest which a man could dare to do.


If the news of the victory at Camperdown was received with great enthusiasm throughout the country, the sensation created by the intelligence in Sunderland seems to have been more intense than could have been generally prevalent. At that time the post arrived in the town at eleven o’clock in the forenoon. The news arrived on Sunday, when the good folks of Sunderland were at worship. A loyal citizen, elated with tlie joyful intelligence, in passing St. John’s Church, opened the north door and shouted at the top of his voice, “Admiral Duncan’s defeated the Dutch fleet at Camperdown!” The congregation were at prayers at the time, when Mr. Haswell, the organist, immediately struck up the national air of “Rule Britannia.” and the congregation responded to heir organist’s enthusiasm by trising while tho spirit-stirring air was performed. Prayer was then quietly resumed.


These demonstrations of joy were made in utter ignorance of the gallant exploit of the Sunderland sailor, and further satisfaction was in store for the inhabitants when they learned what Jack Crawford had done. Ordinary expressions of delight failed to satisfy the public appreciation of the sailor’s bravery, and in March of 1798, the year after the battle, an elegant silver medal was presented to Crawford, at the expense of the town. On the one side was engraved a view of two ships in action, with a scroll on the top bearing the emblem “Duncan and Glory.” The reverse bore coat-of-arms, quadrant, and on the shield appeared the motto “Orbis est Die,” while below was engraved, “The town of Sunderland to John Crawford, for gallant services, the 11th of October, 1797.” Crawford received many other marks of honour. So far down as July, 1802, we find it recorded that at a dinner given by the friends of Mr. Rowland Burdon, M.P. for the county of Durham, at the Gray’s Inn Coffee House, London, Sir Frederick Merton Eden, Bart., in the chair, among the toasts given was the following, which received an enthusiastic response: “Jack Crawford, the Sunderland sailor who nailed the British colours to the mast-head in the action off Camperdown.” When the great National Demonstration was observed in London, soon after the battle, to commemorate the victory of Camperdown, Jack Crawford was not forgotten. It was arranged that there should be an open carriage in the procession with a sailor bearing the Union Jack, and this sailor was to have been the gallant Crawford; but he could not be found when wanted, having, as Robinson puts it, gone “on the spree with his Poll.” As the carriage passed through tho streets it was one of the most interesting features of the procession. The crowd showered into it money of all kinds, and the sailor reaped a rich harvest. This was but a too true illustration of the carelessness of his own interests which Jack, with sailor-like thought-lessness, practised during his life. He had no ambition. He did his duty like a man and a British sailor, and he was not solicitous to reap material advantage. It is said that when in London a member of the Royal Family asked what he could do for him Jack requested, in reply, that a keel should be bought for him, and that he should be allowed to go and ply it in his native North.



When Jack left the navy he received a pension of £30 a year. He returned to Sunderland, and there followed the avocation of a keelman. Generous and sociable, his company was courted, and he often yielded to temptations which surround men of his quality who have done something to win the admiration of their fellows. His habits often left him in hard straits for money, and eventually he pledged his medal, which lay for 29 years at a Mrs. Dunn’s before it was redeemed. Speaking of the medal, Jack’s son, a keelman on the Tyne, said to his father’s biographer: “I ought to have had that now; after my father died, I had it for a few months, but my mother said she had more right to it than me, and that I should have it at her death, which happened about six years after my father. I never saw it ny more. I was told that Mr. Robert Burdon Cay, the attorney, gave my mother £5 for it; from Mr. Cay it became the property of the late Mr. John Moore; from Mr. Moore it passed into the hands of another gentleman of the name of Moore, a relative, I believe, of Mr. Moore, and by whom, I have been told, it was given to the Earl of Camperdown, in whose possession it now is. I should like to have kept it in the family, but I am too poor a man ever to think of being able to purchase it from its wealthy possessor.” The medal really passed into the hands of the Duncan family, by whom it is retained, together with the colours that Crawford nailed to the stump of the mast head, and the colours which the Dutch admiral presented to the English commander. Jack was present at the burial of Nelson, and walked in the procession with his medal on his breast, before hard times had obliged him to part with this mark of his townsmen’s honour and esteem. It is stated that when Vauxhall was in its glory one of the exhibitions consisted of a representation of the battle of Camperdown. Crawford was offered £100 per week to exhibit nightly in the act of nailing the colours to the mast, but he replied, “No, I will never disgrace the real act of a sailor by acting like a play fool!” and the enterprise of the managers could not tempt him aside.


Jack was married at St. Paul’s Church, London, in 1808. His wife’s maiden name was Longstaff, daughter of a shipbuilder of that name in Sunderland. He had a family of several sons, and at least one daughter, who married in Sunderland. The eldest son became a keelman on the Tyne, and other two, who were sailors, left Sunderland many years ago. It is supposed they went to Australia. Jack Crawford died at Sunderland in 1831. In that year the cholera broke out on the coast, and the hero of Camperdown was the second victim. He lived in a locality of the town and amid surroundings calculated to invite the pestilence, and he succumbed to the fell disease. As the first visitation of cholera to this country took place in that year, and as Sunderland was one of the towns first attacked, Crawford was among the first Englishmen who died at home of the pestilence. It is supposed that his remains lie near the grave of the late Rev. Robert Gray, rector of Sunderland. No stone marks the spot. Poor Jack had to struggle with poverty in the decline of life. He was a great bird fancier, and spent much of his time in catching the feathered warblers. Some years ago a movement was commenced in Sunderland to erect a monument to his memory. Subscriptions were promised or received, but the proposal fell through. A lithograph representation of Jack nailing the colours to the broken mast of the Venerable was published in Newcastle soon after the event.


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