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Spratt, James (1771–1853), naval officer, a descendant of the Revd Devereux Spratt (d. 1688) of Mitchelstown, co. Cork, where the family settled, was born at Harrel's Cross, co. Dublin, on 3 May 1771. After several years in the merchant navy he entered the Royal Navy as a volunteer in 1796, served on the coast of Guinea and in the West Indies, was rated a midshipman on the Bellona, and was present at the battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. In 1803 he was rated master's mate on the Defiance with Captain Philip Durham, taking part in the action off Cape Finisterre on 22 July 1805 and in the battle of Trafalgar on 21 October. The Defiance had been for some time engaged with the French Aigle (74 guns), whose fire had almost ceased, and Durham wished to board her. However, the wind failed, and Spratt, who had volunteered to lead the boarders but was unable to do so from the ship, and finding that all the boats were disabled, called to his men to follow him, dashed overboard, and, with his cutlass between his teeth, swam to the Aigle. His men had not heard or not understood, and when Spratt arrived alongside the Aigle he found himself alone. He would not, however, turn back; climbing up the rudder chains, he got in through a gunroom stern-port and succeeded in getting onto the poop. Here he was attacked by three men with fixed bayonets. He disabled two of them and threw the third from the poop onto the quarter-deck, where he broke his neck. Spratt, however, fell with him and found himself in the thick of the fight, the Defiance having succeeded in throwing her men on board. By the time the Aigle's colours were struck, Spratt's right leg was shattered by a musket bullet, and, swinging himself back on board the Defiance, he was carried down to the cockpit. He would not allow his leg to be amputated, and was afterwards sent to hospital at Gibraltar, where, after he had suffered excruciating pain, his wound was cured to the point that he was able to be sent home.

Spratt was promoted lieutenant on 24 December 1805, but as his right leg was now 3 inches shorter than the left, and his general health enfeebled, he was appointed to the charge of the signal station at Teignmouth, Devon, where he remained until 1813. On 4 April 1809 he married Jane, daughter of Thomas Brimage, yeoman, of East Teignmouth. They had three sons and six daughters, of whom was the eldest son. In May 1809 James Spratt was awarded the silver medal of the Society of Arts for his invention of the ‘homograph’ system of signalling with a handkerchief, which formed the basis of the semaphore afterwards adopted in England. After his duties at Teignmouth he served for a year on the Albion on the North American station; but his wound still caused him acute pain, and he was compelled to invalid. During the early part of 1815 he commanded the prison ship Ganges at Plymouth, and in January 1817 he retired on his half pay and a pension of £91 5s. a year. On 17 July 1838 his scanty means were increased by his promotion to commander, and he settled in the neighbourhood of Teignmouth. Even in his last years he was a remarkable swimmer; during his service afloat he had saved, at different times, nine men from drowning and when nearly sixty he is said to have swum more than 14 miles for a small wager. His bravery at Trafalgar would have been of more service to his career had he not been so severely wounded. He died at Teignmouth on 15 June 1853.

J. K. Laughton, rev. Andrew Lambert


M. Deacon, Vice-Admiral T. A. B. Spratt and the development of oceanography in the Mediterranean, 1841–1873 (1978) · O'Byrne, Naval biog. dict. · Army and Navy Gazette (11 March 1893) · GM, 2nd ser., 40 (1853), 311


watercolour, NMM