Nail The Colours to The Mast

June 24, 2010 by Marine1  
Published in Beauty

Jack Crawford and the origin of a phrase.



JACK Crawford, who put a phrase into the English language, was born on March 22, 1775 at Sandywell Bank, now Pottery Bank at the East End of Sunderland.  His was a keelman on the River Wear, who took Jack on board at an early age as a pee dee or cabin boy.  Jack however left the keels in 1786 to be apprenticed on the Peggy which sailed out of South Shields.


When he finished his apprenticeship, the Royal Navy was at war, short of men and the Press Gangs were busy.  He was impressed aboard HMS Venerable, the flagship of Admiral Duncan.


Duncan’s fleet was blockading the Dutch Fleet to prevent it joining the French Navy in an attempt to invade Ireland.  Fierce storms forced Duncan to withdraw, leaving a small flotilla to maintain the watch.  Frigates carried the news that the Dutch had broken out.  Duncan returned and placed his fleet landward of the Dutch both to prevent them from returning to port and to force a battle.  The Battle of Camperdown in 1787 had began.  Venerable’s battle ensign was shot away six times.  A seventh broadside carried away part of the mast.  The pressed man came into his own.  Crawford was seen climbing the mast with the tattered ensign.  He nailed it to the mast, giving birth to the expression “nailing your colours to the mast.”  Camperdown was a total defeat for the Dutch Navy.  Sunderland presented a silver medal to Crawford and he was feted in London.  He was presented to George III who awarded him an annual pension of £30.


Crawford retained his northern bluntness .  One royal who asked if he needed anything received the stark answer.  “Buy me a keel an’ let me gan doon to th’ North Country.”


He wore his metal with pride in the funeral procession of Nelson.  There was little chance of advancement or promotion for Crawford due to his illiteracy and he left the Royal Navy shortly afterwards.  One theatre owner offered him £100 a week to portray his brave act on the London stage, an offer which Crawford declined with the words.  “No! I will never disgrace the real act of a sailor to act like a play fool.”


Crawford returned to the River Wear and the keels.  Ever generous to a fault, he always shared his pension with his shipmates.  He was forced later pawn his medal, which he was enable to redeem during his lifetime.


Cholera hit Sunderland and he become the town’s second victim on November 10, 1831.  Despite the risks of infection, Crawford’s body lay in state for two days.  This brave, simple, generous man was buried in an unmarked grave in Sunderland Churchyard.  A headstone was finally erected on August 6, 1888.


Jack Crawford’s gallantry was recognised in 1890 when a monument depicting his act was erected in Mowbray Park by public subscription.


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