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Village to salute one of the great naval heroes

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A portrait by Daniel Gardner of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (Image: National Maritime Museum)
A portrait by Daniel Gardner of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (Image: National Maritime Museum)

ONE of the most momentous days in Milford’s history will take place next Friday with the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Admiral William Cornwallis – one of England’s greatest military heroes who is buried in the village.

Cornwallis thwarted Napoleon’s invasion plans as commander of the Channel fleet, blockading the port of Brest to trap the French fleet in what some rank among the most staggering feats in naval history.

Nelson hailed him as his mentor, attributing his naval might to Cornwallis, saying that but for his inspired tutorship he would never have won so many battles.

Sadly, as the A&T previously revealed, few in England now remember his name – and he lies buried in an unmarked grave in Milford cemetery.

But on Friday July 5th Milford residents will turnout in force to honour their very own hero during a day of celebration, music and entertainment aimed at honouring the man to whom so many owe so much.

The day will be one of the most prestigious events to ever be held in the village starting with commemorative pealing of the church bells from 9am to 12pm.

During the service for the specially invited congregation a new stained glass window honouring Admiral Cornwallis along with Milford’s other famous navy commanders – Admirals John Peyton and Robert Mann – which has just been installed at the church will be blessed.

Following the service the dignitaries and VIPs, including the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, will walk down Church Hill to join the villagers – accompanied by the Poole sea cadets’ band.

A dramatic re-enactment of the moment the news of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar was broken to villagers in Milford is one of the highlights of the events that will take place on the green from 3pm to 5pm.

Chris Hobby with Barry Jolly by Cornwallis grave in Milford
Chris Hobby with Barry Jolly by Cornwallis grave in Milford

A two horse post-chaise with costumed riders will arrive and the message “We have won a great battle and Lord Nelson is dead” will be passed on.

There will be a variety of themed entertainment, live music, along with stalls and refreshments.

Pupils at the village primary school who have been studying life at sea in the Georgian navy and the life and times of Nelson will be putting on a performance based on what they have learnt.

The Total Voice Choir will sing sea shanties including an especially composed song, Billy Blue, which was one of Cornwallis’s nicknames.

The event will conclude with the band playing and the traditional naval ‘Sunset’ ceremony being performed.

During the weekend HMS Trumpeter a P2000 Archer Class patrol ship will be moored in Lymington harbour in tribute to an admiral who is hailed as one of the greatest ever.

Born 20th February 1744 to an aristocratic family, Cornwallis joined the Royal Navy when he was only 12 in 1755 and had made fourth Lieutenant by the age of 17 – four years before he was officially eligible.

He showed his mettle during the Battle of St Kitts in 1782 when he held off the nine-gun French flagship Ville de Paris.

He was appointed Commander of the Channel Fleet in 1801. At the time Napoleon’s plan to invade England involved 167,000 men sailing in 2,400 vessels.

But his plans were thwarted by Cornwallis who for the next five years saw him maintain the blockade of Brest. It may be the fact that there were no big battles, unlike Trafalgar, that meant Cornwallis’ name has not been as revered as Nelson’s.

Friday’s event has been nearly four years in the making after Cornwallis’ grave was found by a member of the Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society by sheer fluke. They had been contacted by the 1805 Association, responsible for maintaining Georgian naval graves, and asked if they could find it.

Early attempts met with failure until one day the society member was leaving by the vestry door when a shaft of light illuminated the faded words on the ledger of a grave, revealing it to be that of John Whitby’s and the last resting place of Cornwallis.

After retiring from the navy Cornwallis had lived out his last years on his Newlands estate in Lymington with Captain Whitby and his wife. After Whitby died in his thirties Cornwallis dictated that he should be buried alongside him when he himself passed away. A modest man, he wanted no mention of his name on the gravestone.

Society chairman Chris Hobby said: “Cornwallis’s name should be celebrated in the country just as Nelson’s is. If it had not been for him we could all be speaking French now and ruled by a foreign power.

“His courage and sheer brilliance as a commander means his name should be immortalised forever.

Speaking of Friday’s event he added: “It will be one of the most important occasions in the village. This is national history and we are at the centre of it.

“We want as many people as possible to come down to the village green to be part of the day. It will be an exciting event and one that will be remembered for years to come.”

As part of the commemoration of Cornwallis there is a special exhibition running until September 1st at St Barbe Museum in Lymington when paintings – some of which have not been seen in public for over 100 years – are on show.

Called Command of the Seas: the New Forest and the Navy against Napoleon, it includes portraits of John Whitby and his wife which are from a private collection. There is also Mrs Whitby’s locket which contains a lock of Whitby’s hair and a line from a poem.

A Turner sketch for his painting of the Battle of Trafalgar, which normally hangs at the Tate in London, is on display and a huge painting of the Battle of the Nile is on loan from the V&A Museum.

Barry Jolly, who is editor-in-chief of Milford’s Historical Society magazine, said of the exhibition: “It includes very rare items that we are very privileged to have been loaned. Some have not been seen for over a century in public. We are very lucky to have them.”

For more details go to www.milfordhistory.org.uk

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