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Have we really forgotten our own Trafalgar hero?

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 24, 2013

  • Left: Turner's painting of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar

  • Right: Eaton's grave in West Bromwich, with an inscription that ensures all will know who he was, and his part in that defining moment in British history

  • A rare portrait of James Eaton, from a miniature made shortly after the Battle of Tragalgar

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A BIRMINGHAM historian caused quite a stir recently when he claimed that West Midlanders, and those from West Bromwich in particular, had forgotten one of their own townsmen and his part in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Captain James Eaton, as regular Bugle readers will know, was a West Bromwich man who is recorded as having been the first person to pass on Nelson's famous battle signal 'England expects that every man will do his duty', from HMS Temeraire, which was second in line to Nelson's flagship, the Victory.

But following in the wake of recent revelations that a disproportinate number of Nelson's sailors came from the landlocked centre of the country, historian Matthew Ward was quoted, in the Birmingham Post, as saying:

"I think that James Eaton has been totally forgotten, along with the contribution of people from Birmingham and what became the West Midlands at Trafalgar."

One of Eaton's descendants, Sue Clarke, refuted the suggestion a week later, pointing out that she, as his great, great great granddaughter, had spent two decades researching him, and that he was officially remembered at a 200th anniversary Trafalgar Day in 2005, with his grave at All Saints Church rededicated in front of a large audience including Eaton relatives, the Mayor of West Bromwich, and members of the town's Royal Naval Association. There have been further celebrations of Eaton's life in the intervening years.

Now, the former head of West Bromwich Library, Robin Pearson, has joined the debate. He recalls:

"In the run up to the 2005 celebrations there was much misinformation about James Eaton's role, which the Bugle helped to correct. There was an impression that somehow Eaton was on the Victory to relay Nelson's signal when in fact he was aboard the Temeraire – the ship that was later the subject of Turner's iconic painting.

"In October 2005 the Bugle published a whole series on the Black Country connections with Trafalgar with contributions from readers. I think all those people would happily refute Mr Ward's suggestion that we don't know about our history.

"One Bugle edition (27th October 2005) featured a roll of honour compiled by Mark Barratt of West Bromwich. That list includes two Royal Marines – one from Darlaston and the other from Wolverhampton – also serving with Eaton on the Temeraire. Men from Bilston and Cradley were on the Victory.

"The Bugle's publication of the Roll of Honour apparently drew a great deal of response which followed in November – once again proving that Black Country people love their history and certainly don't forget their heroes."

Do you think we do enough to remember our most notable citizens? Share your thoughts: write to us, phone us, pay us a visit or send an email to gjones@black countrybugle.co.uk.

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