Fake News. John Emm was the bosun on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar

The death of Nelson on HMS Victory. Coloured engraving by J. Heath, 1811. Wiki Commons

Following the tragic death of Susanna Emm, 89, in a house fire at 14 Minerva Street, Hackney, the Shoreditch Observer 8 June 1878 reported she was ‘the widow of the boatswain on board the Victory when Nelson received the fatal shot.’   Wow!  A distant relative of mine, John Emm (1786-29 February 1872) was at the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805. Firstly, I emailed my Emm relatives; secondly I checked facts.

The bosun of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar was William Wilmet, famous for firing the portside 68 pounder gun into the side of the French ship Bucentaure killing 197 men including the French Captain and injuring 85 more.

I searched  www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/trafalgarancestors/advanced_search.asp   to find my John Emm. Not a dicky bird.  But John Brimm, same age, from the same town in Hampshire was on HMS Dreadnought and it wouldn’t be the first mis-transcribed Emm so I toddled down to Kew to view the original records. John Brimm was definitely John Brimm.

It’s a lot easier to double check facts today; after all, there was no internet and no National Archives. If  I’d been the unnamed 1878 journalist, I’d have been cock-a-hoop to find a former real-life hero (albeit a dead one) on my patch.

There were over 110,000 men in the 1805 British Navy although only 18,000 of them were employed at the Battle of Trafalgar (see the link above to find your ancestor).   Perhaps John was in the navy but not at the battle.  I finally found a resettlement order where Bethnal Green’s Poor Law Guardians were trying to return my impoverished John Emm to Hampshire. His statement said he had been pressed into the Royal Navy when he was a youth.

It just goes to show that fake news has been around a long time…

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