Nelson & His World

John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain
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Author:  GeoDia [ Thu Sep 24, 2020 4:25 pm ]
Post subject:  John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

I write an occasional blog for Newton Abbot Museum. In searching for interesting stories I came across the wedding of John Pringle (or Pringell), in 1851 to a Sarah Clarke in Highweek, Newton Abbot, Devon. The regional Newspaper was present and apart from questioning the marriage, they reported that the Groom was a Coxwain to Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar. He was very close to Nelson and apparently Lady Hamilton put a good word in for him after one of his escapades. This story was picked up by at least 15 Newspapers throughout the Country. It was repeated on his death at 103, in 1863, when many more Newspapers reported the news of his death, partly because of his great age, but mainly for being Nelson’s Coxwain. Other stories included that he gathered the Swords of the French and Spanish Captains at Trafalgar.
I checked Navy records, and found one John Pringle receiving a pension in 1802, but listed as a Cook, whose last ship was broken up many years before Nelson’s battles.
His story has been related a number of times over the years, but are all based on the earlier Newspaper reports.
My initial thoughts were that John Pringle was a Walter Mitty character, but not so sure and I don’t want to besmirch his character, if it was all true.
Can anybody advise if John was Nelson’s Coxwain?

Author:  Phil [ Fri Sep 25, 2020 12:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

An interesting enquiry.

I have checked the National Archives database which has the records of those that fought at Trafalgar and which is based on the information recorded in the ships muster books. Two John Pringles are listed:

John Pringle Able seaman age 24 born in N.York served on HMS Euryalus

John Pringle Volunteer 1st Class age 14 born in Dunbar Scotland served on HMS Defiance

The Forces War Records database also has these two men listed on the Trafalgar Medal Roll.

So no confirmation of your coxswain John Pringle with Nelson on the Victory at Trafalgar.

However a Google search brought up a site which has pages from a book called The Records of the Pringles (a book that appears to have been published in 1933). In this it mentions a John Pringle ( page 328), born in Fife, who joined the Royal Navy when he was 21 and in 1784 became coxswain to Nelson who then commanded the frigate HMS Boreas in the West Indies.

It goes on to say that he took part in other celebrated naval battles including Trafalgar and the Nile but unfortunately doesn't give any hard information as to the ships he served on, or if he still served with Nelson at all after his West Indies posting.

So there appears to be some truth in the story but like many of these tales, the facts and timelines get easily blurred.

I hope this information is helpful and good luck with your future research.


Author:  GeoDia [ Fri Sep 25, 2020 6:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

Thanks Phil, I picked up the 1933 Reference, but not clear where this info came from. All the Newspaper references all originate from an article in the Western Morning News and Mercury, probably told by John himself. In Census records he records he was a Mariner, or a Cook. The Navy Pension records in 1802, lists a John Pringle Cook. One reference I found, refers to a Mr Southey who knew Pringle, but can’t find any other info.
A story I thought suspicious was that he collected the surrender swords after Trafalgar. Would a Coxwain be charged with such an honour.
He was born in Fife in 1760.
Thanks again Phil. Best wishes.

Author:  Phil [ Sat Sep 26, 2020 1:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

The Mr Southey you mention could probably refer to Robert Southey, the writer and poet who published his biography 'The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson' in 1813. I have a copy of this (there have been many editions published in the last 200 years), and quickly checked the chapters relating to Nelson in the West Indies and at Trafalgar but John Pringle is not mentioned.

However a further Google search came up with a site which features a very short comment printed 23 March 2013 from a newspaper titled The Herald, (not clear if its a Devon or Scottish paper). Under the title 'A Veteran Tar', it includes this comment "and is mentioned by Southey as the man who gathered the surrendered swords of the French & Spanish captains at Trafalgar "up under his arm like a bundle of faggots". No further clue though to the origin or truth of this remark.

Perhaps a cox'n, midshipman, petty or warrant officer could have been ordered to take charge of surrendered officers swords but in this instance, its not clear from the records if John P was even at Trafalgar.

If the HMS Boreas connection is correct and he was cox'n in the West Indies, this ship was paid off in 1787 and Nelson did not command another vessel until 1793 with the outbreak of war with France. Also HMS Victory did not become his flagship until 1803. With a John Sykes acting as Nelson's cox'n in 1797 and probably for longer, its a long time for John P. to pick up where he left off. Perhaps he did have a career change and take up the post of cook in those intervening years and your 1802 John Pringle could still be your man.

Author:  GeoDia [ Sat Sep 26, 2020 9:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

Hi Phil, The Pressreader article appears to source its info from the newspaper articles of the time of his marriage.
I have checked the Navy Pension, Muster and Allotment records and found a few John Pringles, all are described as Able Seamen, no reference to Coxwain, or any of Nelson’s Ships.
According to John Pringle‘s account, he was close to Nelson, knew Lady Hamilton, collected the swords at the surrender, was a bit of a Lad, but Nelson forgave him. All of this, but not one single confirmed record, not mentioned in Southey's Book and a suggestion that he was just a Cook.
I think I will report what I have found, with your kind help, and entitle it
John Pringle - Newton Abbot Notable or Nonentity.
Thanks again.
Best wishes
George Hampshire.

Author:  Phil [ Sun Sep 27, 2020 10:50 am ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

Hi George

I think your suggested title for your report is perfect given the many unanswered questions that John Pringle's life has raised.

One final thought, are you familiar with The Nelson Society? I expect you may already have come across them in your research. If not, it may be worth running your inquiry past them. They are on facebook and also have a website and deal with questions of this nature. One of their in-house experts or enthusiasts may be able to come up with the answers to JP's career.

Please let us know when your piece is published. I will look forward to reading it.

Kind Regards


Author:  GeoDia [ Sun Sep 27, 2020 4:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

Thanks Phil, Really appreciate your help. Best wishes George

Author:  GeoDia [ Wed Sep 30, 2020 11:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: John Pringle Nelson’s Coxwain

I’ll send it to you, before I publish. Regards George

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