Today Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (September 26, 1748 – March 7, 1810) is largely a forgotten character, hidden beneath the shadow of his friend and contemporary at sea Lord Nelson. But Collingwood played a major part in Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Collingwood was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of a failed trader. He was sent to sea aged 13, on board a frigate Shannon, commanded by Robert Braithwaite, a relative of his mother. His apprenticeship at sea lasted more than 14 years, during which time he had taken part in the amphibious assault on Bunker Hill near Boston which signalled the start of the American War of Independence in 1775. It was during his time in the West Indies that he cemented his friendship with Nelson. When peace came, Collingwood found himself without a vessel and he returned home. During this time he married and, for a while settled down in Morpeth. He is said to have walked the country lanes near his home sowing acorns so that England’s navy should never want for oak trees. He returned to the sea when war broke out against France, subsequently spending long years in the Mediterranean. Then things changed, as Max Adams, author of Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s own hero, explains: “In the summer of 1805 Collingwood pulled off a masterstroke. Blockading the Spanish fleet in Cadiz with just four ships, he found himself one morning confronted with Admiral Villeneuve’s French battle fleet, newly arrived from the Indies having given Nelson the slip. Collingwood managed to convince the French, without firing a shot, that he had waiting just over the horizon a large number of reinforcements and, after what must have been a horribly tense few hours, shepherded them into Cadiz where they remained, cooped up.” Soon after Nelson’s fleet arrived. The scene was therefore set for the morning October 21, 1805. Collingwood led the first column and attacked the rear of the line, and broke through. Nelson sailed directly for the head of the Combined Fleet to dissuade them from doubling back to defend the rear. But before he reached them, he changed course to attack the middle of the line – and French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve’s flagship. Within a few hours it was all over, the French and Spanish were defeated and Nelson was dead. Collingwood was rewarded for his role in the victory becoming Baron Collingwood. Stationed in the Mediterranean, he proved as deft at handling political matters as he did a vessel, becoming virtual Viceroy of the region. As Adams explains: “His conduct in exploiting the Spanish anti-French uprising of May 1808 paved the way for Wellington’s ultimately successful Peninsular campaign. By the time that he died, at sea on March 7th 1810 on his way home from Menorca, he had ensured final British victory at sea against the French not by winning battles, but by preventing them.” This is one of a small cluster of streets named after military figures.
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