One of the region’s greatest naval heroes, who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, has been completely forgotten in the Midland town that became his home, a historian has claimed.

James Eaton served on the iconic HMS Temeraire at the great victory and was the man who went down in history as the first person to pass on Nelson’s famous signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty”.

He now lies in All Saints Church in West Bromwich, where his simple headstone carries the epitaph: “He was a gallant officer and an affectionate husband.”

This week marks the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar which was fought on October 21, 1805 off the Spanish coast.

But Birmingham historian Matthew Ward said that the region’s crucial part in the battle, which cemented British supremacy over the seas for the next century, was largely unknown.

The Post last week revealed that many of Nelson’s sailors were in fact ‘landlubbers’ from the region.

Research from the National Archives and National Maritime Museum showed that at least 124 of the heroes came from Warwickshire, with a further 62 from Staffordshire.

Mr Ward said: “I think that James Eaton has been totally forgotten along with the contribution of people from Birmingham and what became the West Midlands at Trafalgar.

“People think about Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport but lots of people from the Midlands were in Nelson’s fleet.”

Although the life at sea was tough, people often found it to be a better option than staying at their homes.

Mr Ward said: “Someone who was working as a miner or on a farm in Staffordshire or Warwickshire at the time could well have found it a better option.

The grave of Captain James Eaton in All Saints Church in West Bromwich
The grave of Captain James Eaton in All Saints Church in West Bromwich
 

“Life in the Royal Navy could by comparison be seen as pretty good, although it was very hard. There was also the element of adventure – just as young people today from the region join the navy and go off to Afghanistan.”

Mr Ward revealed that Eaton, at the time a signal midshipman, would have been at the heart of the crunch moment of the battle on the Temeraire, which was second in line to Nelson’s HMS Victory.

The British fleet had split into two sections with the aim of breaking the line of French and Spanish ships, which outnumbered them, into more manageable chunks.

Mr Ward said: “Victory and the French Redoutable became quickly locked together and there were lots of men firing at the deck – which killed Nelson.

“The French crew were about to board Victory and at that point there was a real risk that they might have succeeded.

“The fighting Temeraire then came alongside the Redoutable from the other side and fired a broadside which instantly killed about 200.”

At the time, Mr Eaton was a midshipman – known in that day as a ‘snotty.’

Mr Ward said: “It was in fact because of Nelson that all midshipmen from that day – and even now – are known as ‘snotties’.

“Supposedly Nelson caught a midshipman wiping his nose on the sleeve of his uniform, and insisted that buttons were sewn on the cuff to prevent this happening.

“And interestingly those buttons were made by Firmins in Birmingham – which to this day makes buttons for the armed forces.”

The Battle of Trafalgar proved to be a crushing victory for Admiral Lord Nelson – the 27 ships of the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet’s 33 – the French and Spanish losing 22 vessels, while the British lost none.

Eston’s ship was later immortalised by JMW Turner in his painting The Fighting Temeraire.

Trafalgar was not James Eaton’s first battle. He was born in 1783, and joined the navy in 1799, serving aboard the 74-gun Hannibal, which took part in the Battle of Algeciras Bay on July 6 1801 where he was captured after his ship ran aground.

He was repatriated and by 1803 was a midshipman aboard HMS Atalante when she cut out several vessels in Quiberon Bay. He was appointed signal midshipman aboard HMS Temeraire by 1805, and served as such at Trafalgar, being promoted to lieutenant the following year.

He was later wounded while serving aboard HMS Lion when taking a convoy out to China. He served at the capture of Java in 1811, and in 1813 distinguished himself while aboard HMS Beaver when he helped in the rescue of the crew of a Swedish vessel. He finally retired from the navy with the rank of commander in 1842. He was subsequently awarded the Naval General Service Medal with two clasps for the actions he had served in during his naval career.

He settled in West Bromwich in 1837, and died at his home, Hill House, in Dagger Lane, on February 28 1857, aged 71 years.

He is buried at All Saints Church in Charlemont, West Bromwich.

In 2005 as part of the Trafalgar bicentenary celebrations his memorial in All Saints Churchyard was rededicated. Nearby is Eaton Valley Primary School, said to be named after him.