Roamer: Belated roll of honour for our Royal Navy medics, marines, sailors and wrens

Marking the Battle of Trafalgar last Wednesday, this page focussed on the often-forgotten Irishmen who fought with Lord Nelson on October 21, 1805.
Marking the Battle of Trafalgar last Wednesday, this page focussed on the often-forgotten Irishmen who fought with Lord Nelson on October 21, 1805.

Marking the Battle of Trafalgar last Wednesday, this page focussed on the often-forgotten Irishmen who fought with Lord Nelson on October 21, 1805.

Marking the Battle of Trafalgar last Wednesday, this page focussed on the often-forgotten Irishmen who fought with Lord Nelson on October 21, 1805.

A reader’s photograph of a beautiful set of stained-glass windows in Dervock’s Allen Adair Hall vividly illustrated their heroic role in the Battle.

One window depicted family-relative Captain Charles William Adair who died at Trafalgar.

Up to a third of the sailors in Nelson’s fleet were from Ireland, including Londonderry surgeon William Beatty, who tended the dying Nelson on HMS Victory.

During the past week more details of eminent Navy medical-men from Ulster have emerged, thanks to Dean Houston McKelvey, who discovered them in the Ulster Medical Journal.

They are physician Leonard Gillespie from Armagh, who sailed with Nelson on HMS Victory prior to Trafalgar, and Londonderry surgeon William Beatty, mentioned here last Wednesday.

There’ll be much more about Sir Horatio’s two historic medics on Friday’s page.

Meanwhile, Dr McKelvey shared little-told accounts of other local, eminent Navy-men, including two more medics - Belfast surgeon James Patten, who saved Captain Cook’s life on HMS Resolution’s second voyage around the world in 1774, and Co Tyrone’s Sir George Magrath, M.D., yet another of Nelson’s surgeons.

From the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century the Royal Navy was the most powerful navy in the world with a proud, unmatched, globe-embracing history.

But over three years ago Dr McKelvey noted that there were no Rolls of Honour of those from Northern Ireland who served in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, or the WRENS in WWI and WWII.

He and a friend began collating names from websites, books and war memorials, and their draft Roll of Honour for WWI now contains over 2,000 people.

A short write up accompanies each name where information has been obtainable.

Dean McKelvey is conscious that there are more names from both wars which are not in the sources they have examined. He’d greatly appreciate names and information on wartime naval personnel, such as their home addresses, the ships they served in, and what the surviving veterans did after the war.

He can be reached by e-mail at houston.mckelvey@btinternet.com

Hopefully many News Letter readers will be able to help him lengthen his Roll of Honour.

The accounts of two historic Royal Navy medical men that came with his request take us back to Trafalgar and before.

Born in 1748, surgeon James Patten, son of Belfast’s Reverend William Patten, served on the tiny, 460-ton HMS Resolution during Captain Cook’s second voyage of three around the world.

With Patten’s advice and influence, Cook had remarkable success keeping his sailors healthy, and reserved the highest of praise for his Belfast surgeon on the historic and outstandingly successful voyage.

In February 1774, when HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure were cruising near the Juan Fernández Islands in the South Pacific, Cook became very seriously ill with a “bilious colic.”

On the advice of Patten, the ship’s dog, the only ‘fresh meat’ aboard Resolution, was killed and made into soup!

Thus well-nourished, and after several days of Patten’s treatment “the most dangerous symptoms of the disorder were removed.”

Once recovered Captain Cook wrote in his diary “Mr Patten the surgeon was to me not only a skilful physician but an affectionate nurse and I should ill-deserve the care he bestowed on me if I did not make this public acknowledgment.”

Johann Forster, expedition naturalist, also recorded “Mr Patten took the best precautions possible to preserve the health of all on board… by watching over us with unremitting assiduity. I will venture to affirm, that it is to him alone under Providence, that many of us are indebted to our lives.”

“Ship’s surgeons from Northern Ireland form a rich vein in the history of medicine in the Royal Navy,” Dean McKelvey stressed as he introduced Tyrone-man Sir George Magrath, M.D., another of Lord Nelson’s personal surgeons who was awarded no less than four medals – the Order of the Bath, the Royal Guelphic Order, the Naval General Service Order and the Order of Christ.

Sir George Magrath joined HMS Victory in July 1803 to serve Lord Nelson, who described him in a letter “by far the most able medical man I have seen.”

Both were of the same age and both held similar humanitarian views on the health and welfare of the sailors and the evils brought on by rum in particular!

Born in 1775 in Co Tyrone, Sir George began his naval career as an 18-year-old surgeon’s third mate.

Despite losing the sight in one eye after contracting yellow fever, he became a fully-fledged surgeon in his early 20s and sailed to Great Yarmouth with wounded sailors from the Battle of Camperdown, off the Dutch coast, in 1797.

In 1804, when an outbreak of yellow fever swept Gibraltar causing almost 6,000 deaths, Nelson appointed Magrath as Superintendent of the territory’s naval hospital.

Sir George later wrote of his disappointment on leaving HMS Victory and the “additional mortification of not sharing in the glory of the Battle of Trafalgar.”

On Friday’s page there will be extracts from the Ulster Medical Journal’s excellent accounts of two of Nelson’s other surgeons, Leonard Gillespie from Armagh, and William Beatty from Londonderry.