The “Billy Ruffian”

October 14, 2019

HMS Bellerophon was affectionately known by the sailors who served on her as the “Billy Ruffian.” She was a 74-gun ship of the line launched in 1786, one of a class of forty third-rates built in the 1770s and 80s to modernise the Royal Navy. These ships would go on to form the backbone of the battle fleet throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and few ships would see more action than Bellerophon.

 

She was commissioned at the very start of the war and joined the Channel Fleet, where she gained a reputation for being unusually fast for a ship of the line. This resulted in her use as a scout ahead of the main fleet, and as a result it was Bellerophon that led the fleet into action for the first big naval battle of the war, the Glorious First of June in 1794. Having outrun any support, she found herself fighting the much larger 110-gun French ship Révolutionnaire alone, an action that might have been her last had the rest of the fleet not arrived just in time. There followed a running battle across the Atlantic which lasted for several days, with the Bellerophon often at the heart of the action. As a result she was badly damaged, and her commander lost his leg to a French cannon ball. Also serving onboard the British ship at this time was the young Mathew Flinders, who would later become the first man to chart the whole of Australia.

 

Repaired, she was soon back in action, and once more facing possible defeat. The Bellerophon was part of a squadron under the command of by Vice-Admiral Cornwallis patrolling off Ushant. Having captured an enemy convoy of eight ships, they ran into a much larger French fleet under Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse. Heavily outnumbered, Cornwallis retreated hastily with the enemy in pursuit. Just as the French were drawing close, the topsails of a British convoy came into view. Cornwallis decided to pretend that this was the rest of the Channel Fleet. He signalled to them, and then turned about as if ordered to offer battle. Taken in by the ruse, the French now retreated, and the Bellerophon and her consorts survived to fight another day.

 

That day came in 1798, when she was part of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile. The action was a complete success, with the Bellerophon once again heavily engaged. At the high-point of the battle she found herself fighting the huge 120 gun French flagship L’Orient, again without any support, for over an hour. The poor Billy Ruffian was beaten into a dismasted wreck with over two hundred casualties, including her captain and all bar one of her lieutenants.

 

Repaired, again, she had a period of active service in the West Indies, including the capture of a French 74, the Duquesne, before returning to Europe for one more great sea battle. In 1805 she was transferred to join the fleet blockading Cadiz, just in time for the Battle of Trafalgar. The Bellerophon was the fifth ship in Collingwood's lee column, and once more found herself where the action was fiercest. Fighting off several opponents, she was again badly damaged, losing both her main and mizzen masts, and suffering over a hundred and fifty casualties, including her captain, John Cooke, who was shot twice in the chest.

 

The remainder of the war was busy for the battered veteran. With the French and Spanish fleets defeated there were to be no more fleet actions for the Billy Ruffian, but there was still plenty for her to do. She served in the North Sea, the Baltic and in North American waters during the war of 1812. She was involved in a number of smaller actions, including the storming of costal batteries, and the capture of various French privateers. As the war entered its final year in 1815, the Bellerophon had one last contribution to make, under her last captain, Frederick Maitland.

 

Having fired the opening shots in the first major fleet action of the war, it was appropriate that Bellerophon should have been there at the end of the twenty-two year conflict. Defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon fled briefly to Paris, and then vanished into the French countryside. It was strongly suspected that he would try to escape to the United States, where his older brother Joseph lived. In response the Royal Navy tightened its blockade on the coast of France. It was a squadron led by Maitland that ran the former emperor to ground on the little island of Aix, in the Bay of Biscay. After protracted negotiations, Napoleon surrendered himself on the quarterdeck of the Bellerophon, and was taken to Plymouth in that ship. Huge crowds gathered to see the great man, but he was destined never to come ashore. Instead he was sent to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he died in exile in 1821.

 

With the captured of Napoleon, the Billy Ruffian’s war was finally over. Her reward was to be converted into a prison hulk, until she was broken up in 1836. But a little of the old ship still exists today. George Bellamy, who served as her surgeon at the Battle of the Nile, had some of her timbers used in the construction of his cottage near Plymouth, and Captain Maitland bought her figurehead. It can now be seen at the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth.

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