Britain’s greatest maritime victory was won not only by men who grew up with sea air in their lungs – but men born in the Midlands, new research has revealed.

The investigation by the National Archives and National Maritime Museum, revealed that one in seven of Nelson’s sailors at the Battle of Trafalgar came from counties which were completely landlocked.

The research, which identified the birthplaces of all British and Irish-born sailors, showed that at least 124 of the heroes came from Warwickshire, with a further 62 from Staffordshire.

The fascinating study also revealed the international flavour of the crews, with one in ten coming from overseas.

Dr Quintin Colville, curator of naval history at the museum, explained that the sea conflict in Napoleonic times came close to ‘total war’, where those at home were just as affected as those on the front line.

He said: “You haven’t just got the usual suspects serving. You have a really wide distribution of men serving, including those from far inland.

“Until 1914, this was as close to total war as you got. It placed immense strain across Britain and shows how involved the entire nation was. This was a really international, global crew.”

He said many foreigners could have joined the fleet from merchant ships, where conditions were often worse.

In the Royal Navy historians have said that food tended to be more wholesome, medical facilities were provided and the work conditions were better – although there was the risk of violent death in combat.             

The monument to Lord Nelson in Birmingham's Bullring
The monument to Lord Nelson in Birmingham's Bullring



The Battle of Trafalgar on October 21 in 1805 was fought by the Royal Navy against the combined fleets of France and Spain.

It proved to be completely decisive.

Admiral Lord Nelson’s 27 ships of the line defeated the enemy’s 33 – the French and Spanish losing 22 vessels, while the British lost none.

But when news of the great victory reached Britain on November 6, it was not greeted with joy.

The death of national hero Nelson who had been shot with a musket ball, directing the battle from the deck of flagship HMS Victory, somewhat overshadowed any celebrations.

Although Britain’s command of the sea was now unchallenged, and would be so for the next century or so, the nation was united in mourning one of the greatest warriors in its history.

The Times captured the mood of the nation: “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant Nelson is no more.”

The admiral’s absence was immediately felt after the battle. A terrible storm hit the badly damaged ships – Nelson’s last order had been to anchor the fleet and captured vessels to avoid any losses.

But that command was not followed with the captured Redoutable sinking on October 22, and the French flagship Bucentaure, captured by the British and recaptured by the French, sinking off Cadiz when it struck a rock.

In the end only four ships of the 19 taken by the British made it to Gibraltar as prizes.

During the battle, the Royal Navy saw 449 men killed and 1,217 wounded. French and Spanish losses were 4,408 dead, 2,545 wounded and some 20,000 taken prisoner.

There were around 18,000 men in the 33 British ships at the battle and the birthplaces of about 13,000 of those has been revealed by the National Maritime Museum  and National Archives research. Analysis of the records revealed that at least 1,260 were born outside Britain or Ireland, from at least 20 European countries – including 54 Frenchmen and 24 Spaniards fighting against their countrymen.

In total, around 55 per cent came from English counties, 25 per cent Irish, seven per cent Scottish and three per cent Welsh. There were also dozens from the Isle of Man, Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands.

The strain placed by the war on Britain’s manpower reserves is indicated by an analysis of the ranks involved at Trafalgar. This shows that almost a quarter were “landsmen”, the rank given to recruits with less than a year’s experience at sea.

Bruno Pappalardo, naval expert at the National Archives, said that the results, including those showing how ‘landlubbers’ from the Midlands were in the fleet revealed important information about the people who made up Nelson’s sailors. He said: “Not only was the fleet very cosmopolitan, it also wasn’t as highly skilled as is perceived. That has been part of the Nelson myth, that this was a crack fleet.”

The research is part of an ongoing project to extract information from various sources including muster lists, certificates of service and biographical works held in the National Archives.

The latest findings are to feature in the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery which opens on October 21, the 208th anniversary of the battle.