I grew up in South Somerset, with my grandparents living just across the border in Sherborne. Dorset, and as such the name Digby was heard frequently.
We would go for walks as young children on the Digby Estate, encompassing Sherborne Castle. Sherborne Castle of course being the previous home of Sir Walter Raleigh. At that time I was unaware of the significance of the Digby family, but recently whilst looking in to a specific aspect of the Battle of Trafalgar I came across the name. I looked in to this some more, and realised it was the same family of Digby’s as those living in Dorset.
The nephew of the first Earl Digby, Sir Henry Digby, is perhaps one of the lesser known captains at Trafalgar, but nevertheless an interesting character. Henry spent much of his childhood with his Uncle in Minterne Magna, Dorset, Admiral Robert Digby, the naval instructor of Prince William Henry, who later went on to become William IV. This is where Digby’s interest in a naval career began.
He most notably commanded HMS Africa during the Battle of Trafalgar and was one of the three Dorset captains serving under Nelson within the British fleet.
April 1783: Henry Digby joined HMS Janus as captain’s servant.April 1784: Henry moves to HMS Royal Charlotte and then the Europa, still as captain’s servant. Whilst on board the Europa, he was promoted to Midshipman, spending most of his time in the West Indies.
July 1787: He returned to England, once more to serve on HMS Janus. Later that year he moved to HMS Salisbury and served on the North America Station.
December 1788: He returns to England and joins the sloop HMS Racehorse as ‘Master’s Mate’. He served on board the Racehorse, predominantly off the coast of Scotland and in the North Sea, trying to stop smugglers.
September 1789: He moves to Sherborne and spends the best part of a year there, and also on the Minterne Estate with his Uncle.
August 1790: He joins one of the most famous Royal Navy ships in history, the Bellerophon, otherwise known as the ‘Billy Ruffian’. Whilst on board, he was promoted to Lieutenant.
March 1794: Henry joins HMS Pallas. Whilst serving on HMS Pallas in 1795, he saved a vast number of the crew of HMS Boyne at Spithead, when the vessel accidentally caught fire. Whilst he commanded one of his ships jolly boats, picking up survivors, they had to avoid the cannons on the Boyne where the heat was causing them to fire.
May 1794: He joined HMS Dictator and was promoted to Commander.
October 1796: Digby was to be sent on a secret expedition with troops. However, this was cancelled at the decision of a Council of War on board HMS Venerable. In December 1796, Digby was given his commission and became Post Captain on HMS Aurora, under the command of Lord St VIncent.
He captured and sank 8 privateers. and over 48 merchant ships in this time.
September 1798: Digby takes command of HMS Leviathan, where he helped take part in the capture of Minorca. After this he was moved briefly to HMS Alcmene, before returning to the Leviathan as Flag Captain and then once more to the Alcmene. Whilst on the Alcmene for this second period, he took around 20 French and Spanish ships as prizes.
July 1805: Digby joins HMS Africa, a ship which played a very unique part in the Battle of Trafalgar. She was the smallest ship on either side in the line of battle.
HMS Africa at the Battle of Trafalgar
On the night of October 20th, the British gathered off Cape Trafalgar, under Horatio Nelson. They were moving towards the Franco-Spanish fleet, and a battle was inevitable.
During the night HMS Africa lost sight of the British ships and because of this, ended up joining the fleet in her own line, on a heading for HMS Victory, in the closest column. Nelson signalled the Africa to ‘make all possible sail with safety to the masts’. Digby did not take note, taking it to mean that he was to make all sail and join the battle, going on to fire broadsides on a number of the Franco Spanish fleet, before Nelson, realising Digby was set on becoming involved, signalled Digby to ‘engage more closely’.
On this signal, Digby did the unexpected, and the Africa, the smallest ship in the fighting lines, took on the Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship, bringing down her foremast. Amusingly, Digby had thought the Santissima Trinidad was surrendering, they boarded her and reached the quarterdeck, before realising that the ship was still fighting. The Spanish Admiral let Digby return to his ship.
The Africa suffered extensive damage to her masts and hull after engaging the enemy as detailed for around 6 hours.
Digby was mentioned in despatches for his actions at Trafalgar. He feared after the battle that Nelson was displeased with him for directly disobeying orders, but Hardy wrote to him, informing him that Nelson ‘expressed great satisfaction at the gallant manner in which [he] passed the enemy’s line’.
1815: He inherited the estate at Minterne from his Uncle, Admiral Robert Digby.
1841: He was promoted to Admiral of the Blue and passed away the next year. He is buried within the church at Minterne, Dorset and you can visit this and see his headstone, complete with story about his part in the Battle of Trafalgar.