The hero from Pottery Bank
The celebrities of Sunderland whose names have come down to us primarily belonged to the professional and business class. It is refreshing therefore to recall one celebrity who was just an ordinary working man. This is Jack Crawford, the hero of Camperdown.
Jack was born on the 22nd March 1775 in the east end of Sunderland in a house situated a few doors down on the left hand side of Thornhill's Bank, better known as Pottery Bank. His father was a keelman and Jack went with him at an early age to work with him. It is doubtful whether he ever had any education, as there were few facilities for lads of his class at that time.
About the age of 12 Jack was apprenticed as a sailor to a shipowner in South Shields serving on the Peggy and, on finishing his time, he joined the Royal Navy. Whether he joined voluntary, or was pressed, is not definitely known. Life in the navy at that time was a very hard one. Wages were low, food was often bad and accommodation poor. Men had to serve long spells away from home, often years. Discipline was very strict and often brutal floggings were inflicted. Little wonder that there was a lack of recruits and men had to be forced to serve by means of the Press Gang. Places like Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth were often visited. The Press Gang would often surround a public house and round up all inside. Old men and cripples would be allowed to go, but all young, able men would be taken on board a naval vessel. If any resisted they would be knocked senseless, and would wake up to find themselves in the navy. Often riots rook place and the Press Gang was baulked of its prey. The surprising thing is that in the face of the enemy these men fought like demons and England seldom lost an action at sea.
In the year 1797, Jack Crawford, now aged 22, was serving on board The Venerable, the flagship of Admiral Duncan. This was a very dangerous year for England. The French were victorious everywhere on land. They had conquered Holland and forced the Spaniards to join them in the war. There were now three strong navies to contend with and, if these could be joined together, England might well lose command of the sea. Trouble was brewing in Ireland and a rebellion there was imminent. The French were planning to join up with the three navies, clear the Channel and throw an army into Ireland. Once that was in their hands, invasion of England would follow. English fleets were therefore blockading every port where enemy ships lay and Admiral Duncan had the task of watching the Dutch fleet in the Texel.
When the Dutch fleet came out of the harbour a terrific fight ensued. The Dutch were good fighters and splendid sailors and for a long period the issue was in doubt.
In those days, ships came to close quarters and decks were raked with small arm fire. In the heat of the engagement, a shell broke the top part of The Venerable's mast and the Admiral's flag fell to the deck. This could have had drastic consequences. The lowering of the Admiral's flag was an indication to the rest of the fleet to cease fire and withdraw from action.
Admiral Duncan called for a volunteer to replace the flag. At once a young sailor darted out, seized a marline spike, climbed like lightning up the rigging and nailed the flag to the mast. Shells were flying everywhere and the air was thick with bullets. While Jack was in the process of nailing the flag a splinter from a shot struck the top-gallant mast and a splinter from passed through his cheek, but apart from that he slid down the mast otherwise unscathed. That young sailor was Jack Crawford of Sunderland, and by his intrepid action he had saved the day for England. The Dutch fleet was annihilated, all its ships being either sunk or captured. The battle was fought a few miles from the Dutch coast near a village called Camperdown.
After the battle Jack had to be fed through a quill for six weeks, his wound having caused lock-jaw.
After the peace, Jack was sent on board the America before he returned to Sunderland.
When the news of the victory reached England, there were celebrations all over the country and, when the full story was told, Jack Crawford was acclaimed a national hero; his name was on everybody's lips. He was feted in London, received an audience with the king, George III and granted a pension of £30 a year. This might not seem much now, but it represented a considerable amount to a working man of those days.
The people of Sunderland were naturally proud of their local hero and to show their appreciation he was presented with a large silver medal, engraved, ‘The town of Sunderland to Jack Crawford, for gallant services, the 11th October 1797.'
On Jack's discharge from the navy he returned to Sunderland where he spent the rest of his life working as a keelman. It is reported that he attended the funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson, walking in the procession with his medal on his breast.
Jack was a heavy drinker and, in spite of his pension, he was always hard up. He died on 10th November 1831, a victim of the cholera epidemic which was then sweeping the town, and was buried in Sunderland churchyard.
His medal had long been in pawn, but after Jack's death, his son redeemed it; but it was afterwards sold by the widow for £5. It passed into several hands until it was acquired by the Earl of Camperdown, descendant of Admiral Duncan, and it was eventually presented to the Sunderland Museum, where it can be seen to this day.
For 50 years, Jack's grave remained without any mark of who it contained. His family was too poor to put up a headstone. In 1887, a movement was started in the town to erect a gravestone. This was accomplished the next year, when the stone, suitably inscribed, was unveiled in the presence of a large gathering. The actual flag which Jack nailed to the mast, supplied by the Earl of Camperdown, was used for the ceremony.
Two years later, in 1890, the statue in Mowbray Park was erected. It shows, as everyone in Sunderland knows, Jack Crawford in the act of nailing the flag to the mast. Sunderland Churchyard has now been cleared of tombstones but the memorial to Jack has been allowed to remain, as a reminder to Sunderland people of their naval hero.