Chapter 3

A Sailor's Life in Nelson's Navy

As stated in Chapter 2, no christening record has been found for this son of William and Martha, so how do we know of his existence and how can we be sure that we are tracing the same man?

We would know nothing about Joseph if it were not for two documents which were handed down via Joseph's brother William and his wife Mary (nee Bate - see Chapter 2) through one of their granddaughters, Eliza Jane Webb (see Chapter 7). The two documents are Joseph's Indenture as a papermaker and a Prize Money document stating that he served on H.M.S. Audacious.
On the back someone has written that he served for a time on Nelson's flagship H.M.S. Victory.

Redditch historian William Avery evidently knew of these documents, but he elaborates to state that Joseph was actually at the battle of Trafalgar as a valet to Lord Nelson. Was Avery exaggerating for dramatic effect or had he access to further information which has since been lost? The piecing together of this story and the task of separating fact from fiction has proved fascinating.

Firstly, the Indenture click here for transcription

shows that Joseph was the son of William Webb of Beoley and that he was apprenticed as a papermaker to James Holyoake of Tardebigge for the usual period of seven years. The Indenture is dated 1785 but does not state Joseph's age at that time - only from later information has it been established that he was about ten years old. An Indenture was so called as is was originally a two-part document which was split or cut with a serrated edge to give a copy to each party i.e. the father of the apprentice and the employer. It is worth studying the conditions of employment as they give some insight into the life of an apprentice in the reign of George III (Ref 1)

Whoever wrote the note on the back of the Prize Money document

assumed that Joseph broke his apprenticeship to join the Navy and it might be thought that he was press-ganged into joining up. A further suggestion is that he was one of the 'quota men' called up to defend the country at the time of the threat from Napoleon (Ref 2). Research undertaken by James Derriman into the naval records held at the PRO at Kew shows that this was not the case. Following the lead that Joseph had served on HMS Audacious, Derriman found that he joined that ship on May 3rd 1795 as a Landsman, that is, a totally inexperienced sailor whose pay would be £1-2s-6d a month. He gave his age as 20 years and his birthplace as Worcester(shire). This means that he had served out his apprenticeship as a papermaker (which would have been completed by the year 1792) and that he joined before the call to arms of 1796. He had evidently grown tired of life as a papermaker and was aware of the growing French threat and the opportunities for young men in His Majesty's Navy. It may also be relevant that a brother of his mother Martha (back in Cambridgeshire) was noted as being in His Majesty's Service - if this was the Navy, Joseph was perhaps following a family precedent. Indeed, Joseph may have already left Worcestershire and returned to his mother's part of the country.

When he joined HMS Audacious, Joseph was technically a Volunteer and entitled to the King's Bounty. Joseph remained with HMS Audacious until 1801, having been promoted to Ordinary Seaman in October 1797.

During his time with that ship, various captures were made and he was later able to claim his share of the Prize Money (Ref 3).

In January 1801 Joseph moved to HMS San Josef which had been captured in 1797 and was being refitted to be Nelson's flagship, Nelson having been promoted to Vice Admiral. The muster rolls show that Joseph was now aged 26, which is consistent with what he had previously stated, but gives his birthplace as Oxford(shire). His parents certainly spent a few years at Eynsham before the move to Beoley, though it is doubtful whether they returned there in 1775, especially as that was the year his sister was christened at Beoley. I think we can safely say that Joseph was a bit vague about these details (unless he had deliberately lied for some reason).

In February 1801, Nelson changed his plans and moved to HMS St George, a 98-gun vessel. Joseph moved with him and remained on the St George until June 18th of that year. Joseph therefore saw action at the Battle of Copenhagen on April 2nd and he may later have been entitled to a Service Medal (these were awarded in the 1840s, but we do not know whether Joseph was still alive then). Just before the battle Nelson moved yet again, this time to HMS Elephant which had a lesser draught.

Not only was Ordinary Seaman Joseph Webb on the same vessel as Lord Nelson on more than one occasion, he became closely involved with the great man. After the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson returned to HMS St George and then to the smaller HMS Kite, sailing into Yarmouth on June 30th. The muster roll of HMS Kite shows Joseph Webb listed as a servant, along with a steward, a valet and a cook. Somehow Joseph must have come to Nelson's attention and was retained as a member of his personal staff. Family tradition has, therefore, been shown to be true, but did Joseph ever serve on HMS Victory?

On his arrival at Yarmouth, Joseph transferred immediately (June 30th) to HMS Medusa (a 32-gun frigate) as part of the Admiral's retinue. Nelson joined the ship after a period of shore-leave but then moved his flag to HMS Amazon, a 38-gun frigate which Joseph joined on August 27th. Joseph's career seems to come to an abrupt end on November 28th 1801 when he was discharged as a domestic in Nelson's service. Joseph, along with a James Bell, were both described as being "unserviceable" - did this mean unfit through injury, perhaps incurred in battle?

Nelson did not take over HMS Victory until 1803 and the battle of Trafalgar was not until 1805, so did Joseph recover and rejoin to serve as a member of Nelson's personal staff, or was his discharge in 1801 the end of Joseph's naval career which he, or others, later embellished for effect? He is not listed as a crew-member on the Victory at the battle of Trafalgar but could possibly have been part of Nelson's personal retinue. Whatever might be discovered in the future, we at least know that Joseph Webb was personally acquainted with Admiral Lord Nelson and that he saw action at the Battle of Copenhagen.

We can glimpse what life was like for the Ordinary Seaman during the dispute with France, which culminated in the decisive battle of Trafalgar, from contemporary accounts (Ref 4).

What was life like back in England for the family Joseph had left behind in Beoley? The mood of the nation at the start of the 19th century can be compared to that of 1940 - the threat of invasion by sea was very real. In 1940 Hitler's threat only lasted for that summer but Napoleon's bid lasted from 1797-1805 (apart from the short-lived Peace of Amiens). During these years the general population was arming itself, much in the way of the later "Dad's Army", with pitchforks and other implements. They drilled on village greens and patrolled the coastline in fishing boats. Naughty children were threatened with the thought that "Boney" would get them. Everyone was in fear of the possibility of Frenchmen lurking in the darkness. In 1940 Hitler's invasion by sea did not come to pass because he lost control over the skies at the Battle of Britain; Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade after the Battle of Trafalgar.

We do not know what became of Joseph, but his family must have been proud to relate that he had personally known the hero of the hour, Admiral Lord Nelson.