The Battle of Trafalgar, fought off the coast of south west Spain on 21st October 1805, is considered to be one of, if not the greatest British military victories. British naval superiority had been steadily growing throughout the 18th century, but victory at Trafalgar resoundingly confirmed British naval dominance - a dominance that was maintained well into the 20th century. A coalition of French and Spanish vessels, including 33 ships of the line, was brilliantly defeated by the outnumbered Royal Navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Of the some 20000 Royal Navy sailors that fought at Trafalgar, some 600 were Welsh by birth. Amongst them was the 12 year old Volunteer 1st Class, William Wynne Eyton of Leeswood Hall. Having enlisted a little over three months earlier. Trafalgar was to be his first notable action in a Naval career that lasted some 27 years and ended with him achieving the rank of Commander.
At Trafalgar, Wynne Eyton served aboard HMS Neptune, a 98 gun second rate ship of the line, under the command of the brilliant Captain Thomas Fremantle. Neptune and young Wynne Eyton were in the very thick of the Battle. It is staggering today, perhaps even then, to think of a 12 year old witnessing such intense carnage, never mind taking an active part in it. Fremantle was extraordinarily aggressive at Trafalgar, engaging the French flagship Bucentaure, firing three broadsides into the ship, before steering towards the enormous Spanish four decker, 130 gun first rate Santisima Trinidad. The Neptune engaged in an hour long battle with the enemy ship resulting in the Santisima striking its colours. Leaving the Spanish ship to be taken into the possession of HMS Prince, Neptune, Wynne Eyton aboard, sailed north to take on the remains of the French and Spanish fleet, engaging the French 74 gun third rate ship of the line, Intrepide. During the Battle, Neptune suffered a considerable amount of damage, with most of her rigging shot away and several holes in her hull. Despite this, and the aggressiveness of her actions, the ship suffered a surprisingly small number of casualties, with 10 men dead and 34 wounded.
HMS Neptune in action at Trafalgar 21st October 1805 - a 12 year old William Wynne Eyton amongst the crew. J Francis Sartorius
What Wynne Eyton made of the Battle is not known, but one imagines him being deeply affected by his experiences at Trafalgar. We should always be careful of imposing our own values and feelings on people of the past - indeed, of thinking that people of the future will feel the same as us. Still, it’s hard to think that young Wynne Eyton was not in some way burnished by his experiences of October 1805. Think of him emerging from the scarred and battered Neptune, blackened by the soot and the smoke, the smell of death and the groans of the wounded about him. I imagine him feeling a long way from Leeswood.
William Wynne Eyton was born in around 1793, probably at Leeswood Hall, the fourth son of the Rev. Hope Wynne Eyton and his wife, Margaret. He was born into an affluent family, but one which had known bankruptcy in its near past. The Wynnes had come into considerable wealth with the discovery of lead on their properties, and for a while the financial rewards were enormous. However, as the amount of ore recovered decreased, the mines exhausted or flooded, the wealth of the family suffered. But suffice to say that by the end of the 18th century the Rev. Hope Wynne Eyton was able to provide for his family in some comfort.
Details are sketchy, but one imagines that young William was confronted with the same concerns that fourth sons of landed families have ever been confronted with - what is there here for me? William’s route to relevance led him to service with the Royal Navy. At the age of 12 can we credit him with such a decision, or was there pressure upon him? Perhaps William was alight with the possibility of patriotic endeavours, afire with the events of the Napoleonic War, burning with pride at the dashing and heroism of Nelson. Perhaps Britain and Empire meant something different to Wynne Eyton than it does to many today. Perhaps he simply craved adventure.
However William was affected by the carnage at Trafalgar, it certainly did not cause him to leave the Navy. We next hear of him in the Mediterranean aboard the 42 gun HMS Seahorse upon which on the 5th July 1808, he went into action against two Turkish frigates, the Alis Fezan and the Badere Zaffer, 78 guns between them. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Seahorse nevertheless not only survived the engagement, but in a feat of stunning seamanship, in the greatest tradition of the Royal Navy, managed to batter the Alis Fezan to flight and capture the Badere Zaffer. There can be doubt that every man upon the Seahorse, throughout the engagement was absolutely spot on. William would be all of 15 years old. It was an extraordinary action, one much celebrated at the time.
HMS Seahorse capturing the Badiri-i-Zaffer, 6 July 1808, Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1842)
In 1813, Wynne Eyton found himself serving onboard HMS Milford (launched at Milford Haven), a 74 gun third rate ship of the line during the Adriatic Campaign of 1807-1814. This was an ongoing campaign, largely commanded by Wynne Eyton’s former captain, now Rear Admiral Fremantle, to initially disrupt the activities of the French and her allies in the Adriatic, and finally to seize control of the area. Milford was engaged in a number of actions through the summer and fall of 1813. On the 3rd July of that year, Milford was part of a British squadron which attacked and successfully captured Fiume (Rijeka in modern Croatia) from the French. Two days later, Milford was part of a squadron that attacked Porto Re (Kraljevica in Croatia), reducing the coastal gun batteries sited there. On the 4th August, Marines from Milford (along with those from HMS Weasel) landed at Ragosniza and crossing the Island through the night, attacked the French defences the next morning, blowing up the fortifications there. On the 5th October, Fremantle, linking up with Austrian forces, began a blockade of Trieste. Milford, with a now 20 year old William aboard, and with 8 years of naval experience behind him, was instrumental in the siege, destroying the French coastal batteries with heavy cannon fire and was present at the surrender of the city. By the end of the Adriatic Campaign in 1814, William Wynne Eyton had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
The end of the War came with the final, decisive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, but Wynne Eyton’s naval career continued. With the end of hostilities, his career became somewhat more peaceful. He served aboard a series of sloops in the English Channel during 1819, and by 1827 was 1st Lieutenant aboard HMS Wolf in the Mediterranean. He served in the same capacity aboard HMS Victory (now the Port Admiral’s flagship in Portsmouth Harbour) in 1829 - one wonders as to his thinking on this post, given his experiences at Trafalgar some 24 years earlier. In November 1830, Wynne Eyton was serving aboard the steamer, HMS Lightning as it conveyed the last Bourbon King of France, Charles X from Lulworth Cove to Leith - a curious experience surely, to have begun his career in the Age of Sail and to come to its end on ships powered by steam. And of course, to have begun his career fighting the French, and to end it escorting the last of the restored line of that Nation to Edinburgh (where Charles X took up residence at Holyrood Palace) must have given him cause to ponder. Lightning was not quite his last post, since it was reported that he was invalided out of the Navy from HMS Asia in 1832. Nevertheless, he was appointed commander in 1852, just five years before his death at Leeswood Hall in 1857.
Stilling the Storm - the memorial in the chancel of Christ Church Pontblyddyn to William Wynne Eyton - RN
Commander William Wynne Eyton was a recipient of the Naval General Service Medal (NGSM), which was awarded retrospectively to surviving claiants of various naval actions during the period 1793-1840. The NGSM was one of the first campaign medals awarded to British service personnel. A clasp was added for every sanctioned action that the veteran had taken part in. William’s NGSM had a very creditable two clasps, recognising his participation at Trafalgar and the capture of the Badere Zaffer in 1808.
He is remembered in a window of the chancel of Christ Church in Pontblyddyn, a depiction of the Stilling of the Storm, an apt remembrance of this man, who left this quiet corner of Wales in 1805 as a child and returned to it some 27 years later, a veteran who witnessed and participated in the rise of Britain to a superpower.