HMS Bellerophon was a 74 gun 3rd rate ship of the line. It was launched to the accompaniment of storms and high seas on 6th October 1786 at Frindsbury on the River Medway at the shipyard of Edward Greaves.
It seems the locals of Frindsbury, as well as the seamen who served on her, couldn’t get their tongues around the name Bellerophon and so she became affectionately known as ‘Billy Ruffian’.
The ship first saw action at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where she lost 4 men and 27 were wounded. Her next engagement was the Battle of the Nile where 49 were killed and 148 wounded.
At the Battle of Trafalgar Bellerophon’s commander was Captain John Cooke. When the signal came across from Nelson that “England expects that every man will do his duty”, Cooke visited each deck of his ship to relay the message to his crew. They soon came under heavy fire from the French ship L’Aigle. Captain Cooke remained on deck during the action despite being reminded by his First Lieutenant Cumby that he was wearing his epaulettes. This made the Captain stand out as a target to the snipers in the topsails of the enemy ship. He ignored Cumbys advice saying that it was too late to remove them. Captain John Cooke paid the price by taking two musket balls in his breast just a few minutes later. He refused to be moved down below and his last words were to Lieutenant Cumby telling him not to strike his colours.
Bellerophons last claim to glory was on 15 July 1815 when Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland aboard the ship and was subsequently transported to Torbay. The orders from the Admiralty was no boats, traders or otherwise were to be allowed near the Bellerophon while Bonaparte was aboard. Such was their fears that he may escape capture despite the surrender.
There is a story that a boat with a baker on board went out to the ship but was warned away, but a sailor threw a bottle from the Bellerophon containing the message that Bonaparte was on board. So the news got out.
The Admiralty then told Maitland to proceed to Plymouth where Napoleon Bonaparte was transferred to HMS Northumberland and transported to St Helena and exile.
Having discharged Napoleon, Bellerophon sailed to Sheerness, and anchored there on 2 September. There she was paid off for the last time, and stripped of her guns and masts. With no further need for many ships following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Bellerophon joined a number of ships laid up in this manner. A report on 16 October 1815 advised moving a number of convicts previously housed aboard the former HMS Portland into more suitable accommodation. The report suggested that “The class of ship, which I take the liberty of observing as most suitable for this service, would be a seventy-four of about the same dimensions as the Bellerophon in the river Medway, being of easy draft of water and lofty between decks.” The report was approved and the suggestion acted upon. Bellerophon was taken into Sheerness dockyard in December 1815 and spent nine months fitting out as a prison hulk.
After HMS Bellerophon was hulked she became a prison ship for children up to the age of 14 awaiting transportation to Australia. This lasted until 12 January 1836 when she was sold and broken up.
Such a sad conclusion to what was a magnificent ship.