On Thursday 21 October Arbory School celebrated the life of Captain John Quilliam at Arbory Parish Church. The service was held to celebrate John Quilliam's role on board the flagship Victory, at the battle of Trafalgar. The children in Year 6 dressed in costumes from the period and welcomed friends and members of the community. We were pleased to welcome Sir Lawrence and Lady New to the celebration. During the service children in Year 6 acted out tableaus to tell the story of the battle and read extracts telling the story of his life
John was born on 29th September 1771 in the Parish of Marown in the Isle of Man.
His parents were farmers and they both wanted him to carry on the farming business. John’s inclination however was always to support his country in battles at sea and he quickly found himself serving on ships as a deck hand and then in charge of the masts.
On reaching the age of 24 he was promoted from the Merchant Navy to the Royal Navy and he began to sail with famous captains in battles against the French and Spanish fleets. He was taught well and gained experience as a loyal and hard working sailor and gradually worked his way up the ranks of petty officers, reaching the rank of Midshipman at the Battle of Camperdown when he was all but 26 years old.
One year later he was promoted to Acting Lieutenant. It was during this year in 1798 that he was involved in a battle with a Spanish Treasure ship, the Thetis. John’s naval ship, Ethalion captured this ship and he took his share of the treasures; almost £5,000.00. He was now a wealthy man!
Despite his new wealth however, he was still determined to sail the world and serve his country at sea. The French ruler Napoleon seemed to desire more and more land. It was no secret that he wanted the whole of Europe to become united under his leadership. Spain had joined forces with France and England had to prevent the advancing forces of France and Spain invading British territory and John Quilliam was determined to help this cause. There were never any thoughts of fear and longing to back home on the Isle of Man. His life was at sea.
On reaching the age of 30 he found myself involved in a terrible battle serving under the almighty Captain Horatio Nelson. This was the Battle of Copenhagen. Quilliam and his men had to break the strong forces of the French allies, Denmark, Russia, Prussia and Sweden. Their ship, the Amazon came under heavy fire from the enemy and all the senior officers were killed. There was nothing else for John to do except take command. For his bravery and leadership, Nelson asked John to serve on his own Flagship, HMS Victory and he promoted him to 1st Lieutenant.
Four years later came the sudden news that Napoleon’s commander of the seas, Admiral Villeneuve was leading the Spanish and French fleet to invade England. Together with Nelson and other senior officers they spent day after day searching for this fleet in high and dangerous seas in terrible weather. Eventually on 21st October 1805, 197 years ago today, they sighted the enemy fleet off Cape Trafalgar, the southern tip of Spain. They had 33 ships, and Nelson had 29. How could they possibly defeat the enemy when they were outnumbered?
Nelson had a plan and what a brilliant one it turned out to be. He decided to form two columns of ships and attack in two lines at the centre and the rear leaving the front ships stranded and unable to turn around quickly enough. At 11.50 am the attack began.
This plan worked superbly but at a cost. The Victory was hit several times by enemy fire. Nelson was himself seriously wounded and had to be taken below deck. Despite his injuries he sent a message to his signal Lieutenant which was a series of flags flown. The signal was; “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Unfortunately, The Victory’s tiller had been blasted away and unable to steer the ship away from enemy fire.
The Victory was in a very dangerous position and was heading straight for an enemy ship. It seemed like they were doomed. There was no way they could steer out of danger. John Quilliam quickly ran down to the gun room below deck and somehow rigged up the tiller with a rope so that the ship could be steered.
He had no idea at the time whether this worked because he was down below and had no way of seeing what was happening. It seemed he was down there for hours not knowing whether he was steering the ship away from enemy fire or making the situation worse. Eventually a message was received to say that the enemy ships had surrendered. They had conquered the enemy!
After the conquest at Trafalgar,thoughts were quickly turned to Nelson. Had he managed to survive the gun fire in his spine? In desperation John Quilliam made his way to his cabin only to find that Nelson had passed away. The great commander, the National hero was dead.
Due to John Quilliam’s quick thinking and ingenuity, the Battle of Trafalgar was a success for England. He was quickly promoted to Captain and he became known as the man who steered the Victory at Trafalgar, the hero from the Isle of Man.
After the wars with France, Captain Quilliam returned to the Island and he married a member of the Stevenson family of Balladoole, Arbory, and lived at Ballakeighen. He became involved in Island life as an MHK and in improving boat design for the Peel herring fleet. He died at the age of 58 and is buried in Arbory Churchyard.