Rob Jerrard's Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews

Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Billy Ruffian

The Bellerophon And The Downfall Of Napoleon

Edition: PB

Author: David Cordingly

ISBN: 0747565449

Publishers: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Price: £6.99

Publication Date: 2004

This book is the biography of the Royal Navy 74 gun ship Bellerophon.  The complete life story of the ship from planning to breaking is presented in a way, which is interesting, entertaining and at times exciting.

The story follows the ship and all those whose lives she touched. England’s trees including the mighty oak were felled and transported to the Medway for use in shipbuilding.  Small ship building yards tendered for contracts to construct the hulls.  The completed hulls were launched with much ceremony and then anchored off until they were seasoned.  When the wood was deemed to be seasoned or they were required for service they were taken to Chatham and fitted out as ships of the line.  The Royal Dockyards come alive in this book with the descriptions of men using blocks and tackles, ropes and lines to fit masts and sails, load hundreds of tons of shingle for ballast, haul great cannons into place between decks and carry out all the other tasks required to make a warship seaworthy.  The work of the Press Gang is fascinating with accounts of the treatment endured by men taken into service by force to serve the country.  The intricacy of ship design and build at the time is presented with detailed descriptions and sketches.

Having been introduced to the political climate of the era and to the traditions of shipbuilding, seafarers and the Royal Navy the book takes us through the adventures and experiences of Bellerophon and her crew.  Her battle honours included The Glorious First of June 1794, Cadiz 1797, The Nile 1798 and Trafalgar 1805.  The Bellerophon was engaged in patrol and blockade duties against the French and Spanish fleets ensuring free passage for British Merchant shipping whilst excluding enemy warships from access to British coastal waters and approaches.  In company with other ships of the line, her crew exercised the seamanship and gunnery, which would give them superiority in battle, whilst enduring the harsh conditions and Atlantic weather.  She was a guard ship in the West Indies patrolling as far North as Halifax, Nova Scotia maintaining the Royal Navy’s presence in defending the remaining British interests in North America. 

Being sent to the West Indies in the days of sail was regarded as tantamount to a death sentence as disease and infection were rife among the crews in that climate.  Accounts are given of great numbers of ships companies succumbing to these conditions.  Bellerophon played a key role in the battle of Trafalgar and in the preceding events, which led to Nelson’s great triumph.  These events and the battle itself are described in fascinating and exciting detail.  The actions of the ships and men are brought to life by the author’s style. 

Following the Battle of Trafalgar and during the Napoleonic war in Europe the greatest threat was perceived to be from invasion by France.  Bellerophon was employed along with much of the navy during this time in patrolling and taking action to ensure the security of Britain.  Following Napoleon’s defeat, capturing him was paramount to the British Government.  Bellerophon was the ship to which Napoleon eventually surrendered himself and it was her and her crew who transported him to England.  Once it was decided that he would be exiled to St Helena however, he was transferred to the ship Northumberland as Bellerophon was deemed too aged to undertake the journey.

Having served her country and achieved heroic status in action the once ‘Flying Bellerophon’ was converted into a prison hulk on the Medway.  She later became a boy’s prison ship for convicts under 16 and spent her final 10 years stationed as a prison hulk at Devonport.  In 1836, she was sold to a breakers yard and broken up.

This book presents the reader with life in the Royal Navy and the associated countries and ports during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  It tells a lively tale of the Bellerophon and her crew.  Containing some beautiful illustrations and paintings from the period it gives a real feel for the era when the Royal Navy truly ruled the waves and its men boasted hearts of oak.

John Shaw