"The avenger of Nelson"
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Summary information from "The Men who fought with Nelson in HMS Victory"At Trafalgar Pollard was stationed on the poop as Signal Midshipman. He was one of the first to be wounded in the action, being struck by a splinter on the right arm. Then a musket ball passed through the shell of his spy glass within inches of his hand holding it, and another shattered the watch in his pocket. With the French 74 gun ship REDOUBTABLE close aboard to starboard the men around Pollard were falling fast under a devastating fusillade from the soldiers crouching in her mizzen top. He immediately seized a musket and, with Yeoman of Signals John King supplying him with ball cartridges from a couple of barrels kept at the after end of the poop for the use of the marines, he kept up a continuous fire at the soldiers every time they rose chest high in the top until he could not see one. King fell dead beside him with a shot through his forehead. Midshipman Edward Collingwood came to join Pollard for a while but returned to his station on the quarter deck before the end of the action by which time Pollard found that he was the only man left alive on the poop. He was summoned to the wardroom where Captain Hardy and the officers congratulated him for avenging Nelson's death, for it was believed that the fatal ball which struck him had been fired from the mizzen top of the REDOUBTABLE.
A detailed examination by D Bonner Smith, published in the Mariner's Mirror
In the Naval Chronicle, for December 1805 , there is an extract from " the Supplement to the Gibraltar Chronicle for Saturday, November 2, 1805", giving details of the death of Nelson and stating: "The Frenchman by whose hand this matchless Hero fell, was soon afterwards shot by Mr Pollard, Midshipman of the Victory, and was seen to fall out of the mizen-top." In his Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson (pp. 58-9), [Sir] William Beatty wrote:
There were only two Frenchmen left alive in the mizen-top of the Redoutable at the time of his Lordship's being wounded, and by the hands of one of these he fell. These men continued firing at Captains Hardy and Adair, Lieutenant Rotely of the Marines, and some of the Midshipmen on the Victory's poop, for some time afterwards. At length one of them was killed by a musket ball; and on the other's then attempting to make his escape from the top down the rigging, Mr Pollard (Midshipman) fired his musket at him, and shot him in the back; when he fell dead from the shrouds, on the Redoutable's poop.
This giving the sole credit to Pollard must have been queried quite early, and certainly before 18 13, the year in which Southey's Life of Nelson appeared. Southey merely made a literary narrative out of the various lives of Nelson published up to date; in general, his authorities are easily traced, but it would be interesting to trace the source of the new material he works up with Beatty's narrative. The passage (II, 264) reads:
It was not long before there were only two Frenchmen left alive in the mizen-top of the Redoutable. One of them was the man who had given the fatal wound: he did not live to boast of what he had done. An old quarter-master had seen him fire; and easily recognized him, because he wore a glazed cocked hat and a white frock. This quarter-master, and two midshipmen, Mr Collingwood and Mr Pollard, were the only persons left on the Victory's poop; - the two midshipmen kept firing at the top, and he supplied them with cartridges. One of the Frenchmen attempting to make his escape down the rigging, was shot by Mr Pollard, and fell on the poop. But the old quarter-master, as he cried out "That's he, that's he", and poInted at the other, who was cornIng forward to fire agaIn, receIved a shot in his mouth, and fell dead. Both the midshipmen then fired, at the same time, and the fellow dropped in the top. When they took possession of the prize, they went into the mizen-top and found him dead; with one ball through his head and another through his breast.
Thus, in the lifetime of the officers concerned, the credit of being the "Avenger of Nelson" was given jointly to John Pollard and Francis Edward Collingwood. Collingwood was promoted Lieutenant 22 January 1806, and Pollard 14 Novem ber 1806. Collingwood became a Commander in 1828, and in Marshall's notice it is stated that he was at Trafalgar with Nelson "whose death he avenged by shooting the French rifleman who had . . . mortally wounded that illustrious hero". Commander Collingwood was alive when Marshall's volume was published in 1835, but he died in the same year. Pollard was still a Lieutenant; after being invalided in 1814 whilst the war was still on, he remained on half-pay till 1828 when he received a three-year appointment in Chatham dockyard; and after another five years' half-pay, he was appointed a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard in 1836. Sending O'Byrne a statement of his services, he says:
I joined the Victory from the Canopus on promotion and was Sigl Midn in that ship in the ever memorable battle of Trafalgar. I was stationed on the poop in the action and was the first officer there struck by a splinter on the right arm occasioned by a cannon shot, when the spy glass I there held dropped on the deck. Captn Pascoe, who was then the Signal Lieut., standing next to me, observed it and asked if I was wounded - being stunned at the time from the contusion I felt my arm and found the bone not broken, I answered "No Sir". I then took up the glass. Some short time afterwards a musket ball passed through the shell of the same glass about a foot above my hand. I also had my watch shattered to pieces by another Musket Ball which passed in an oblique direction. It was a hunting watch: the glass was broken inside which slightly scarred the skin. In going into action we passed close under the Santisima Trinidad's stern a four deck'd Spanish ship. After raking her for some time with our larboard broadside a raking shot came in and cut the turns of the tiller ropes from the barrel of the Wheel, which occasioned the Victory to fall alongside of the Redoutable, a French 84- gun ship (the next ship to the Santisima Trinidad) where we lay during the action engaging both enemy's ships at the same time. After being engaged with the Redoutalle for some time, I observed the officers and men falling very fast, both on the poop and quarter deck, when my attention was arrested by seeing in the tops of the Redoutable a number of soldiers in a crouching position loading and directing their destructive fire on the poop and quarter deck of the Victory. The Signal Quarter-Master call'd King, was standing by me at the time. I pointed them out to him, and there being a number of spare muskets on the Signal Chest for the use of the marines, I took up one - King supplying me with the Ball cartridges from 2 Barrels kept on the after part of the poop for the use of the marines. Captain Adair of the Marines and the small party he had left (the others being either killed or wounded) was firing from the starboard gangway of the Victory into the Redoutables's deck when Captain Adair was killed. The two Lieutenants of Marines were previously wounded by musket balls. As often as I saw the French soldiers rise breast high in the Tops to fire on the Victory's deck, I continued firing, until there was not one to be seen. King, the Quarter-Master, in the act of giving me the last parcel of Ball cartridges, was shot through the forehead and fell dead before me; this event gave my feelings a great shock. I was the only officer left alive on the poop after the action ceased (that was stationed there), the others being either killed or wounded. Thus originated the belief that I was the Person who shot the Man that killed Lord Nelson.
Pollard has accepted the Quarter-Master in Southey's narrative and even given us his name. John King, Quarter-Master, was in fact killed at Trafalgar. But Pollard ignores Collingwood's presence completely. His statement appeared, paraphrased, in O'Byrne's Naval Biographical Dictionary (1849 ). Meanwhile, in 1846, he had sent in his official return of services to the Admiralty (Public Record Office, Admiralty Records, Ad. 9/49, fo. 3232) in which he stated: "On the 21st October  was signal midshipman stationed on the poop in the action of Trafalgar. Recd a slight scar from my watch being shattered by a musket ball, and a bruize on the right arm from a splinter. Also had the honour of being the Person who shot the man that deprived Lord Nelson of life, as was published in the Gibraltar Gazette." He adds, for "Letters or reports of superior officers ", "strong certificates from Sir Tho. Hardy and Capt. Pascoe for my conduct on the 21st October 1805".
It will thus be seen that Pollard relies on the Gibraltar Gazette as his authority for being the "avenger of Nelson". He calls the newspaper the Gibraltar Gazette, though the Naval Chronicle had stated that the account appeared in the Gibraltar Chronicle. The correspondent who sent the account to the Naval Chronicle did, however, preface the extract with the remark that he 'had "had an opportunity of seeing a Gibraltar Gazette, which is peculiarly interesting"; he is using "Gazette" in the general sense of "Newspaper".
In January 1853 Pollard was appointed to Greenwich Hospital as one of the Lieutenants on the staff. He was then sixty-five and Trafalgar had been fought nearly fifty years since. Ten years later, he was seventy-five and still a Lieutenant when there was published a letter in The Times, 6 May 1863. The writer, who signed himself "R.N.", stated that he was in London about one of the Christ's Hospital Travers Foundation presentations for which only the sons of Lieutenants in the navy were eligible, and he spoke to a stranger whose son had just been admitted. Narrating the conversation, the writer says :
make no apology", said I, "'for introducing myself to you, as you must
be a Lieutenant in the navy. If you are going to Hertford, will you
take charge of my boy as well as your own ?" He readily assented. I
then requested to know to whom I was indebted for this act of courtesy.
" My name", said he, "is Pollard."
"Are you related ", said I, "to the Pollard mentioned in Southey's Life of Nelson as having shot the man by whose unerring aim Nelson fell" "I am the Pollard", said he, "then a mate in the Victory, that you allude to."
I never saw him before or since, but I see by the navy List he is still a Iieutenant, and in Greenwich Hospital. He, at any rate, is not ruined by promotion, though 58 years have nearly passed away since, in the execution of his duty, he performed an act which has entitled his name to be handed down to posterity in association with our great naval chief.
This letter started a correspondence in The Times on " Who Shot the Man that killed Nelson ?" One correspondent quoted the various biographies and stated:
By this account it will be seen that Mr Pollard shares divided honours with Mr Collingwood in this achievement, and as a brave man I am sure it would be contrary to any wish of his to exclude his brother hero from any portion of the laurels that must ever belong to it.
This last letter brought a reply from Lieutenant Pollard, which was published in The Times on 13 May 18 63 :
Having seen several letters in The Times lately with reference to my name, I feel at length called on to come forward to state a few particulars, which differ materially from your correspondent's statements of yesterday.
It is true my oId shipmate Collingwood, who has now been dead some years, did come on the poop for a short time. I had discovered the men crouching in the tops of the Redoutable, and pointed them out to him, when he took up a musket and fired once; he then left the poop, I conclude, to return to his station on the quarter-deck.
I remained firing till there was not a man to be seen in the top; the last one I saw coming down the mizen rigging and he fell from my fire also.
King, the quarter-master, was killed while in the act of handing me a parcel of ball cartridge, long after Collingwood had left the poop. I remained there till some time after the action was concluded, assisting in rigging the jurymast; then I was ushered into the ward-room, where Sir Thomas Hardy and other officers were assembled, and complimented by them as the person who avenged Lord Nelson's death which fact was afterwards gazetted.
Far from wishing to disparage my oId friend Collingwood, I only wish he had received the honours due to him for having shared in that great naval action.
The statement that the "fact" that Pollard was the person who avenged Nelson "was afterwards gazetted" is misleading. To the ordinary reader the word "gazetted" means the appearance of something in the London Gazette and thus something "official". By stages, a statement in the Gibraltar Chronicle becomes a statement in the Gibraltar Gazette, and finally Pollard calls it being "gazetted ". Pollard got the rank of Commander on the retired list in 1864; he died at Greenwich Hospital in April 1868.
It is, of course, claimed on the French side that the man who shot Nelson was Sergeant Robert Guillemard who survived the battle. The authenticity of Guillemard's narrative is, however, doubted (Fraser, The Enemy at Trafalgar, 1906, Chapter 12). The revived interest in Pollard to-day arises out of the relics that from time to time come into the sale room: at Christie's on 28 February 1933 the Pollard items included "A telescope, by K. McCulloch, London, inscribed Presented to Mid. John Po//ard, R.N., by the Officers of H.M.S. Victory, for service rendered, 1805"; whilst at Willis's Rooms, on 20 May 1936, the Pollard items included " A watch in metal case, inscribed Lieut. John Pollard, R.N., From Cuthbert Collingwood, R.N.,for service rendered, Oct. 1805" and "Lieut. Pollard's naval watch, presented by the Admiralty for services rendered, Oct. 21st, 1805". An interesting person, Pollard, and equally interesting his relics.
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