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William Rollan: HMS Leviathan

by Sandra Kerkvliet © 2016


HMS Leviathan, the floating prison hulk on which William served time before his transportation to Australia on theStrathfieldsaye, was an example of both resourcefulness and thrift by the British Navy. Built too late to join in the American War of Independence (1775–1783), Leviathan was launched as a ‘full-rigged gunship’ in 1790. Built by the Chatham Royal Dockyard, the Courageux-model vessel was deployed to various parts of the world including Jamaica.[1]

HMS Leviathan served with distinction in several fierce sea battles, most notably under the supreme command of Admiral Lord Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Captain Henry William Bayntun led the Leviathan crew to capture the Spanish vessel San Augustin during the Battle, helping to firmly establish Britain’s naval superiority over other seafaring nations.[2]


Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 [i]

In 1816, an ‘old and tired’ Leviathan was remodelled as a prison hulk and permanently anchored at Portsmouth alongside many other floating prisons. Living on board, William will have experienced the creaking and groaning of the old vessel as she slowly decayed after long years of service. After 30 years as a floating prison, Leviathan was retired, becoming a gunnery target before being sold for scrap in 1848, an ignominious end for a proud warship that had served with such distinction.[3]

HMS Leviathan’s history does not end there, however. In 2015, the British flag reputedly flown from a mast on the Leviathan during the Battle of Trafalgar was put up for auction by its owner. Having recently been found stored in a cupboard, the flag was valued between £50,000 and £250,000 (roughly AUD$100,000-$490,000), although newspaper reports of the flag's value varied considerably; similar flags from the same period had sold for far greater sums.

How the flag came to be hoisted on the Leviathan during the Battle of Trafalgar is a story in itself. Flying the Union Jack during the Battle of Trafalgar was an example of Admiral Lord Nelson’s superiority as a naval commander. Although the British Royal Navy had abandoned flying such flags decades earlier, Admiral Nelson ordered that the flags be flown on British vessels during the Battle to avoid damage by ‘friendly fire’.[4]


HMS Leviathan’s war service took place some 13 years before William’s birth, but was written and spoken about long after the event.


Consequently, conversations between William and other convicts on board the prison hulk would have been peppered with the details of Britain's glorious victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and HMS Leviathan's fiercesome reputation.


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Credits and References

[i] [The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Victory of Lord Nelson over the Combined French and Spanish Fleets, October 21, 1805 (Sketch, 1833)], by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield - Tate Britain, online. Last modified October 22, 2015. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved June 11, 2016.


[1] Wikipedia. ‘American Revolutionary War’. Last modified June 10, 2016. Retrieved June 12, 2016.; Wikipedia. ‘HMS Leviathan (1790)’. Last modified March 15, 2016. Retrieved June 12, 2016.; ‘HMS Leviathan (1790 – 1848)’. Kent History Forum. Retrieved June 11, 2016.

[2] Storey, Tony, ‘Nelson’s Third Rate Ships of the Line’, Soul Search, August 2006. Retrieved June 12, 2016.; Hunter, Isabel, ‘”Lost” Union flag flown at the Battle of Trafalgar is up for sale for £250,000 after it was unearthed by descendant of a sailor who won it as part of a bet’, Daily Mail Australia, December 8, 2015. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

[3] ‘HMS Leviathan (1790 – 1848)’. Kent History Forum.

[4] ‘”Lost” Union flag’, Daily Mail Australia; Knights, Emma, ‘Union Jack flown at the Battle of Trafalgar set to go under the hammer’, Eastern Daily Press, December 16, 2015. Retrieved June 12, 2016.