A Napoleonic period naval ships loud hailer or megaphone engraved to HMS Ajax 1801.
This George III piece of naval ship’s equipment is comprised of a cone shaped piece of tin which has been crimped along the join and secured with a nut and screw to the larger end. The brass mouthpiece is brazed to the body and is engraved around the outside with the words:
“HMS Ajax 1801”
Megaphones have been employed on ships and as a way of amplifying voices over distances since classical times although the modern interpretation is considered to have been invented by Samuel Morland and Athanasius Kircher during the seventeenth century.
The ship for which this megaphone bears its inscription, was the second 74 gun third rate naval ship of the line to have born this prestigious name. The first having been built in 1767 and sold off in 1785. The second and more famous descendant was first built by John Randall & Co of Rotherhithe and launched on the Thames in 1798 and initially saw Channel service under Captain John Packenham. In May 1799 and for the following two years, the Ajax was given over to the command of Captain Alexander Cochrane and gained initial success by capturing the French privateer ship, Avantageux in the Channel.
During this period (1798 – 1801), the French under Napoleon Bonaparte had meanwhile launched their campaign in Egypt and Syria in order to weaken Britain’s access and trade links to India. In retaliation, a fleet commanded by Admiral George Elphinstone (1st Viscount Keith) and loaded with British troops was sent to Egypt in support of Ottoman efforts to defeat the French armies.
In 1801, the Ajax under Cochrane formed part of this 70 warship fleet carrying 16,000 troops and took part in the famous landing at Aboukir Bay. Initially hampered by bad weather, the Ajax was heavily involved in the activities, with Cochrane orchestrating a double line of 320 boats to bring the troops under Sir Ralph Abercromby ashore under fire from French batteries. This successful mission culminated in the Battle of Alexandria with the following siege leading to the surrender of the French garrison in September of 1801, Ajax being amongst the first ships to enter the port of Alexandria.
Following the signing of The Treaty of Amiens, Ajax returned to Plymouth in June 1802 with Cochrane transferring to HMS Northumberland in 1803. In April of 1805, the ship was sent to reinforce the fleet off Ferrol and at the end of May, Captain William Brown took command of the ship under Sir Robert Calder’s squadron. In July, the fleet encountered a combined French and Spanish force under Admiral Villneuve and engaged with them under foggy conditions. The battle was indecisive due to the weather but the British were able to capture two Spanish ships and Ajax likely formed part of the escort back as she returned to Plymouth to undergo repairs following the battle.
On the 18th of September 1805, Ajax joined HMS Victory under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson in sailing to Cadiz although Captain Brown was soon recalled to stand witness at the court martial of Sir Robert Calder for his failure to resume the action with the French fleet in July.
As a result of Captain Brown’s absence, First-Lieutenant John Pilford was given temporary command and on the 21st of October it was Pilford who directed the Ajax during the Battle of Trafalgar. During the action, she was placed seventh in line in Nelson’s attack column and fired on both French 74 gun Bucentaure and the Spanish 136 gun Santissima Trinidad. She further assisted HMS Orion in forcing the surrender of the French 74 gun Intrepide and continued to attempt the rescue of British seaman after the infamous storm that followed the battle.
She was sent afterwards, to join the blockade of Cadiz in November and shared in some significant prize money following the capture of the Nemesis.
In 1807 Ajax was under the command of Captain Henry Blackwood and participated in the Dardanelles Operation under Sir John Duckworth’s squadron at Malta. On the 14th of February a fire was discovered aboard Ajax whilst anchoring off Tenedos which resulted in the total loss of the ship. 380 crew were finally rescued but 250 died as a result of the fire including many of the crew that had been present at Trafalgar. A sad ending to such a historic ship.
Presumably, this loud hailer would have been taken as a memento by one of the ship’s crew following the engagement at Aboukir Bay and as a reminder of the difficult procedures that Cochrane and the ship directed during the action. Its normal use on board would have been to direct orders from deck to the crew handling the rigging but given the type of activity undertaken by Cochrane at Aboukir Bay, it could have been used as a means to direct the 320 boats into position that eventually allowed the British troops to land on shore.
A very significant piece of naval history.