Served at Trafalgar

While researching my family tree, I discovered that my great x5 uncle, William Murley, was at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. He served as a midshipman on the ship ‘HMS Belleisle’, which was one of the first ships to encounter enemy fire during the battle.

‘HMS Belleisle’ started life as a 74 gun ship named ‘Lion’ and was in fact built by the French at Rochfort in France. She was later renamed ‘Marat’ and then ‘Formidable’. She was captured by the British Navy on the 23rd June 1795, but because the Navy already had a ship named ‘Formidable’ she was renamed the ‘Belleisle’.

Her captain was William Hargood and she was one of the first ships engaged in enemy action on that day at Trafalgar, being second in the Lee column of Admiral Collingwood, between the ships ‘Royal Sovereign’ and ‘Mars’.

The ‘Belleisle’ suffered terribly in the conflict and was the only ship that was totally dismasted during the fracas. She lost a quarter of her crew on that day, with 33 men dead and 93 wounded. She was so badly damaged that the other ships in the fleet had to come to her rescue.

Eventually she was towed to Gibraltar for temporary repairs and then returned to England, where more permanent work was undertaken in Plymouth.

The ‘Belleisle’ returned to duty in 1806 and later sailed to America and the West Indies as part of the Channel Fleet, where she saw further action. She was finally broken up in 1814.

Recently a ship’s log from ‘HMS Belleisle’ was sold at auction for £7800. It would have been so nice to have been able to read it and have some sort of insight into the life my ancestor would have lead on such a ship.

There are several well documented accounts of the fierce fighting and terrible loss of life. It’s not hard to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that the men would have endured during the heat of battle, and then to have all the masts blown away by enemy fire and left totally vulnerable to attack must have been petrifying for all those on board.

William Murley was baptised in Merriott, Somerset, in 1788. He was one of ten children born to Thomas and Martha Murley. He married his cousin, Mary Murley and they had seven children.

Sadly Mary was admitted to the Bethlem Hospital in London where she died in 1837, aged 40. William had served time in a debtors’ prison and Mary had been imprisoned too, despite having a young family.

William died in 1870 at the home of his daughter, Martha Bullock Bennett, in Islington, London. The announcement was in several papers and read:-

“The death is announced of Captain William Murley, an old Trafalgar officer who entered the navy in 1801, and died on the anniversary of Trafalgar, aged eighty-two”.

An apt end for one of the many heroes of the greatest sea battle ever fought.

Joan of Archives

© Joan of Archives 2008


The Battle of Trafalgar [21st October 1805]

British Ships at the Battle of Trafalgar


For tracing ancestors who fought in the battle:-

Trafalgar Ancestors: The National Archives

Trafalgar Roll

For general information on the Battle of Trafalgar:-

The Battle of Trafalgar

BBC History Animated Map: Trafalgar