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Villagers discover grave of naval hero who inspired Nelson to win Battle of Trafalgar

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Milford Historical Record Society members with New Forest District Council chair Cllr Mel Kendal (centre)
Milford Historical Record Society members with New Forest District Council chair Cllr Mel Kendal (centre)

IN an unmarked grave in a corner of All Saints Church in Milford lies a man worshipped by Nelson as his greatest mentor, life-saver and inspiration to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

One of England’s forgotten heroes, Admiral William Cornwallis thwarted Napoleon’s invasion plans and, as commander of the Channel fleet, blockaded the port of Brest in what some rank among the most staggering feats in naval history.

During nearly 40 years at sea, it could be argued that his achievement at keeping the French forces at bay should stand against Sir Francis Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain in World War Two.

Yet few people have heard of Cornwallis and, unlike Nelson, there is no national memorial to him in the heart of London.

In fact, without a band of Milford historians even the whereabouts of his grave would still be a mystery.

The grave of Cornwallis in Milford
The grave of Cornwallis in Milford

It was only four years ago that the 1805 organisation – who look after Georgian naval graves – asked the Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society (MOSHRC) if they could find where Cornwallis was buried.

The group knew he had been laid to rest with his great friend Captain John Whitby who served on many of his ships, but even a plan of the burial sites proved unhelpful.

It was by sheer fluke it was found. A member of the Milford society was leaving by the vestry door when a beam of sunshine fell on the ledger of a grave just outside it.

The inscription revealed it was John Whitby’s and further investigation uncovered that it was in fact Cornwallis’s grave too – unloved and unseen next to a church drainpipe.

Now there are plans for Cornwallis to be honoured on 5th July with a national commemoration day in the village to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.

The event will be attended by local dignitaries, navy VIPs and relatives of Cornwallis. A service of re-dedication for the grave will be held at the church by the Bishop of Basingstoke.

Cllr Mel Kendall was so impressed by the group’s plans that he handed them £450 from his council grant allowance. He is pictured with members of the historical society.

Chris Hobby, chairman of MOSHRC, 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. But few people even know about him – it’s a tragedy.”

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)

The society are hoping to raise the profile of Cornwallis, who bought the Newlands Estate in Milford in 1800, nationwide during the 200th anniversary.

Mr Hobby said: “Unlike Nelson he was not a showman. He refused many honours saying he did not deserve them.

“Nelson, on the other hand, had a huge ego. But the one person he revered was Cornwallis. He emulated many of Cornwallis’s military tactics, like taking the fight to the enemy and being proactive.”

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

By 1762 he was a commander and promoted to captain in 1765. The first years of his command were spent on the west coast of Africa.

Barry Jolly, who is editor-in-chief of the historical society’s magazine, said: “He was a brilliant seaman with immense courage and popular with his men. Their loyalty to him was such that when he changed ship, his crew would ask to go with him.

“They also gave him a nickname, a sign of respect. Cornwallis’s was Billy Blue because whenever he sailed back to Britain, he would run up the Blue Peter flag to signal his immediate return to the sea.”

His bravery during the Battle of St Kitts in 1782 saw Cornwallis hailed a hero for holding off the 90-gun French flagship Ville de Paris.

It was while in the Caribbean that Cornwallis saved Nelson’s life after he became ill with a fever. Doctors said he would die but Cornwallis set off with Nelson for England on his ship Lion, personally nursing his friend during the voyage.

Nelson later wrote to him, saying: “I never, never shall forget that to you I probably owe my life, and I feel that I imbibed from you certain sentiments which have greatly assisted me in my naval career – that we could always beat a Frenchman if we fought him long enough.”

In 1787 Cornwallis was appointed Colonel of Marines; in 1796 rear admiral of Great Britain becoming rear admiral of the United Kingdom after the Act of Union in 1801; and in 1814 vice-admiral of the UK.

A highlight of his career was on 16th June 1795 when he was in command of a small squadron that sighted a much larger French fleet. The ensuing action became famous as “Cornwallis’s Retreat”.

He was cruising near Brest with five ships of the line and two frigates when they came across a vastly superior French fleet of 12 ships of the line and 14 large frigates.

Realising he was completely outgunned, master tactician Cornwallis turned his ship back towards the French and pretended to signal over the horizon to non-existent support.

The French fell for it and promptly withdrew. His actions were later described as being one of the “finest displays of united courage and coolness to be found in our naval history”.

He was appointed to commander of the Channel Fleet in 1801 and was in such a rush to leave, he left his baggage for collection in Lymington and raced to Torbay to join his ship.

At the time, Napoleon’s plan to invade England involved 167,000 men sailing in 2,400 vessels. But first he had to move his French navy fleet out of Brest to spearhead the invasion.

He confidently stated: “Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.”

But Napoleon had reckoned without Cornwallis’s remarkable perseverance which even in horrendous weather conditions saw him maintain the blockade of Brest until 1806.

Newspapers in England marvelled at Cornwallis’s feat at keeping the French at bay for so long. There were no big battles, just one man’s steely determination that the enemy would not get through.

Cornwallis’s blockade is recognised by historians as equal to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in preventing Napoleon’s invasion.

His role in Brest came to an end when William Pitt the Younger died in 1806. The political scene changed and Cornwallis found himself pushed aside. After leaving the navy, he returned to live at Newlands with his great friend John Whitby, his wife and daughter.

Cornwallis was heartbroken when John died at the age of 38.

Historical society chairman Chris Hobby said: “He lived a very quiet life with his beloved parrots he had brought back from his ship.”

Cornwallis died on 5th July 1819. In his original will he had asked to be buried at sea like a “common sailor” but later instructed that he should be buried alongside his friend John at All Saints.

Many years later John’s daughter erected a grand memorial inside the church paying tribute to Cornwallis and her parents.

Milford bears many memories of the men such as Cornwallis Road and Whitby Road. But there have been calls for more national recognition for the man who helped save England from the French, such as a plaque to his memory at St Paul’s Cathedral where Nelson is buried.

Mr Jolly said: “That would at least be something for a man who did so much for his country.”

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