Favourite of Fortune: Captain Thomas Quilliam, Trafalgar Hero
Andrew Bond, Frank Cowin, Andrew Lambert
Seaforth Publishing (2021), hardback
Many people will only have come across John Quilliam because he was the First Lieutenant onboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Biographies of some of Nelson’s captains have been published before but readers might be forgiven for wondering what new insights this book could give. The answer of course is there is a lot more to Quilliam than Trafalgar. His path to First lieutenant was unconventional and in this we gain a great insight into the Royal Navy’s commissioning of officers.
Quilliam was born in the Isle of Man in 1771/1772 and became a lieutenant in 1798 i.e., at the age of 27 and a captain in 1805 at the age of 34, somewhat later than his contemporaries. The reason for this is one of the most fascinating parts of this book. Quilliam joined the Royal Navy in 1785 as an Able-bodied seaman and became a member of the Portsmouth Dockyard staff. In 1792, as an able-bodied seaman, he joined the Lion as part of the Macartney expedition to China. In 1795 he was appointed a quarter master’s mate and then master’s mate. Master’s mates could apply to sit the examination for lieutenant and this he passed successfully in 1798. By this stage he had already participated in two of his four fleet engagements: Bridport’s action at the Isle de Croix in 1795, and Duncan’s at Camperdown in 1797.
As lieutenant on a frigate, we are taken through Quilliam’s career as he played a part in seizing privateers, trading vessels and a Spanish frigate containing an immense sum of gold and silver. Quilliam’s share of the prize money was the equivalent today of £340,000. Service under Captain Riou at Copenhagen then followed where Quilliam met Nelson who later asked for him to be First lieutenant on the Victory.
After Trafalgar Quilliam was promoted to captain and made a career as frigate captain in the Baltic, Newfoundland, and the West Indies. Throughout his career he seems to have been valued by his commanders, including Nelson, as much for his ability in getting a fighting ship ready for war in a record time as for his fighting ability.
The book is well produced, the illustrations well-chosen, and the maps splendid, particularly those relating to the Baltic, Newfoundland, and the voyage to China, which assist the reader greatly in following the narrative. The book is evidently a labour of love. Two of the authors claim descent from Quilliam and his wife. The third is the renowned historian Professor Andrew Lambert who having lectured on Quilliam’s service after Trafalgar was approached to write a biography but insisted on it being a tripartite venture. A generous decision which one can only hope is followed by more leading historians. A splendid read with a particularly useful glossary. Highly recommended.