Monday, May 09, 2005


Extraordinary life of 'ordinary seaman'


May 6, 2005

HIS adventures on the high seas, tales of shipwrecks and battles were an inspiration for one of Britain's great novelists.

In this bicentenary year of Lord Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar, the Great Yarmouth Mercury delves into the life of James Sharman, a Thurlton man who served with the famous sea commander at the decisive battle.

When he died in 1867, he was thought to be the last surviving crew member of the Victory who saw service at Trafalgar.Such was his fame afterwards that Charles Dickens sought out Mr Sharman during one of his visits to the town in 1848, and immortalised some of his life in the book David Copperfield. The shipwreck in the novel is based on the wreck of HMS Weazle off Gibraltar, with Mr Sharman on board.

Mr Sharman began his life at sea after being press-ganged into the Navy in 1799, aged 14, when he was working as a pot boy at the Wrestlers Inn in Yarmouth.After being shipwrecked, he was transferred to HMS Victory, which in 1803 was Nelson's flagship during the blockading of Toulon.

In 1805, he was still serving on board the Victory when Nelson set sail to take over command of the blockading of Cadiz, and then in October faced the enemy fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar. He appears on the Victory's muster roll as "an ordinary seaman aged 19 from Great Yarmouth".

He is listed as having received a £4 12s 6d government grant, and £1 17s 6d prize money as a result of the battle.

Mr Sharman is reputed to have assisted in the task of carrying the wounded Nelson from the lower deck to the cockpit, where he died.

After the battle, he served on several other ships before being discharged from the Navy in 1817 because of ill health.

When the Nelson Monument was finished in 1819, Mr Sharman was appointed a keeper of the monument on the recommendation of his old company commander from the Victory, Captain Thomas Masterman.

But despite being retired from the Navy, Mr Sharman's adventures were far from over. A report from a newspaper in 1829 tells how he waded into the sea during a storm to rescue a sailor from a stricken vessel.

In David Copperfield, Dickens used the dramatic rescue of the seaman as the basis for Ham Peggotty's rescue attempt in chapter 55, Tempest.

When he died, the Mercury's forerunner, the Yarmouth Independent, carried his obituary after he had been buried in St Nicholas Churchyard. It said: "About a fortnight ago, the old man's usual health failed and he gradually became worse until Wednesday week when he breathed his last, having attained the ripe age of 82 years."

The report states that, although having served with Nelson, what should have been a big funeral, was kept to just a family affair.

The article added: "He retained his faculties almost unimpaired to the last. As one of the few relics of Nelson's last and most famous engagement — the last we believe of the Victory's crew — Sharman would, it might be supposed, have been entitled as an "old salt" to a sailor's funeral, but although the resources were at hand to pay due honour to his memory, owing to some inadvertance on the part of his relatives, his last remains were on Sunday borne to the parish church, followed only by the members of his family."

A series of one-off talks, called Sea Britain, are taking place in the borough's libraries to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson.

The county's library service will also use the sea as the subject of its annual poetry competition, to be launched on May 31.

The events in Great Yarmouth are:Famous Women, including Emma Hamilton, a talk by Peter Ransome at Great Yarmouth Library, June 7 starting at 2.30pm, telephone 01493 844551,Horatio Nelson — from Norfolk to Trafalgar, a talk by Peter Ransome at Gorleston Library, October 6 starting at 2.30pm, call 01493 662156.


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