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Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre


Account of the Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805 by Robert Sands, Boy 3rd. Class

Purchased at auction at Bonhamís, New Bond Street, London in the bicentennial year of Trafalgar, 5 July 2005

The document was purchased by Medway Council with contributions from Brian Kingsley Smith NP of Upchurch, Colin Mackinlay of Rainham, North West Kent Family History Society and two anonymous donors.


Robert Sands was born in St. Margaretís Parish, Rochester c.1787/1788 (National Archives, ADM36/15851), probably in what is now either St. Margaretís Street, Rochester or Borstal. He was apprenticed to Matthew Lock of Chatham as a fisherman and dredgerman on 23 February 1803, as recorded in the Rochester City Archives (RCA/O2/19). His apprenticeship clearly didnít fare well as by the time he joined HMS Temeraire aged 15 on 1 September 1803 he had already served in the harbour ships HMS Zealand and HMS Imperieuse. If Sands is indeed the author of the account he must have received a basic education, possibly in the Medway Towns. At least one nonconformist British School existed in the Medway Towns, Troy Town British School, Rochester, founded in 1774.

He was one of at least 99 men from the Medway Towns and surrounding villages who served at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. He received prize money of £1 17s 8d after the battle, presumably in connection with Redoutable and Fougueux (p.2, lines 17-18)

Sandsí part in the Battle of Trafalgar

Sands served in HMS Temeraire, a second rate of 98 guns, which had a complement of 738 men under Captain Elias Harvey at the battle and was one of four Chatham built ships at Trafalgar, the others being Victory, Revenge and Leviathan. Bellerophon also present was built at Frindsbury. The ship is clearly identified as the authorís own in several places throughout the account ( p.1 line 43 and p.2 lines 7 and 10.)

Sands' account is important to naval historians partly because his ship was immediately astern of HMS Victory in the windward line of attack and was therefore in the thick of the action and partly because ordinary sailorsí accounts of the battle are extremely rare.

Temeraire was signalled into her position by Nelson at the same moment he famously ordered the fleet to engage the enemy more closely. This signal is alluded to by Sands on p.1, lines 34-37.

A separate reference in Sandsí account may be to Nelsonís ordering Temeraire to drop back as she had begun to overtake Victory, p.1, lines 44-45.

In his account he describes himself as a powder boy belonging to no.9 gun on the main or upper gun deck of Temeraire in the battle (p.2, lines 24-25). He was accustomed to collecting his powder from the after magazine until it exploded, thereafter using the forward magazine (p.2, lines 29-33). The guns on the main or upper gun deck were 18 pounders.

Guns were numbered forward to aft, odds on the starboard side evens on the larboard or port side. Sands thus served the fifth gun on the starboard side, which later in the battle engaged the French 74 gun ship Fougueux, referred to in Sandsí account as another enemy ship (p.2, lines 8-9). Thus Sandsí gun was probably engaged against Fougueux for part of the battle, for five hours and ten minutes according to his own account (p.2, lines 15-16)

It would be fair to say Sands was in the thick of the action. Temeraire first engaged Neptune (84 guns) and Bucentaure (74 guns), possibly referred to by Sands at p.2, lines 1-5. Then Temeraire manoeuvred to assist Victory by engaging Redoutable's starboard side, locking masts with her and later with Fougueux and engaging both at point blank range, her first broadside against Redoutable killing or wounding 200 French sailors. Subsequently Temeraire boarded Redoutable.

Fougueux joined the fray in order to assist Redoutable but instead fouled Temeraireís rigging. Temeraire remained foul of Fougueux until 7.00 PM when Redoutable was towed off by Swiftsure. Temeraire lost two of her topmasts, two lower yards, her helm and rudder.

Temeraire was singled out for praise by Lord Collingwood in his victory despatch. Unlike Nelson Collingwood survived the battle and it was upon his shoulders that responsibility for writing the victory despatch fell. His reference to Temeraire is worth quoting in full as it is unique in the despatch as a reference to a British shipís performance in the battle.

A Circumstance occurred during the Action, which so strongly marks the invincible Spirit of British Seamen, when engaging the Enemies of their Country, that I cannot resist the Pleasure I have in making it known to their Lordships; the Temeraire was boarded by Accident, or by Design, by a French ship on one side, and a Spaniard on the other; the Contest was vigorous, but in the End, the combined Ensigns were torn from the Poop, and the British hoisted in their Places (published in The London Gazette Extraordinary 6 November 1805.)

Collingwood may have been in error about the Spanish ship lying alongside Temeraire. Temeraire also participated in the isolating of Bucentaure and SantŪsima Trinidad. It is possibly these ships to which Collingwood referred although boarding attempts were more likely associated with Redoutable and Fougueux.

A final incident referred to by Sands in p.2, lines 18-23, 28 and 44-45 may be an incident described by Captain Lucas of the French Redoutable in his report thus towards three o'clock some of the ships of our van squadron which were to windward on the starboard tack and apparently about to draw off from the battle, without having been perceptibly damaged, fired several shots at our group, but from a long range. Several of their cannon balls fell on board the Redoutable, and one of the English officers * had his thigh shattered and died in a few moments (* a reference to Temeraire's boarding party).

Temeraire suffered the highest number of killed (3 officers, 1 petty officer, 35 seamen, and 8 marines) after Victory (48) and the sixth highest number of wounded (3 officers, 2 petty officers, 58 seamen, and 12 marines) in the fleet. That Temeraire suffered fewer wounded than five other ships but suffered the second highest number of killed may indicate that assistance to the wounded was limited by the proximity of the enemy, the length of the engagement and the severity of the fighting, leading to a higher death rate among the wounded (p.2, lines 8-16).

After the battle Temeraire had to be towed into Gibraltar and it was over two weeks before temporary repairs enabled her to sail for England on the 19 November 1805. In 1813 she was hulked at Plymouth, Devon but was later moved to Sheerness, Kent where she served as a receiving ship. Eventually she was broken up at Rotherhithe, Surrey in 1838, her last journey along the River Thames being recorded by William Turner in his famous painting The Fighting Temeraire which hangs at the National Gallery, London.

Sandsí account should be compared with that of Captain Jean Jacques Etienne Lucas (as referred to above), captain of the Redoutable and to which there is a link below.


Sandsí account has been influenced by printed accounts of the battle. The most obvious of these is Collingwoodís victory despatch, published on 6 November 1805. One phrase obviously repeating from this source is every alternate ship was about a Cableís Length to Windward of her Second a-head and a-stern (p.1, column 2, para 1) which is repeated verbatim in Sandsí account at p.1, lines 14-16.

Sandsí account may also draw on Nelsonís memorandum of 9 October 1805 in which he issued tactical instructions (p.1, lines 35-37). However his account of Nelsonís famous signal England expects that every man will do his duty, rendered as he said that he oped that Everey man would doo his Duty this day for old Englands sake for it would be A gloureus day for them that Lived to see the End of it (p.1, lines 47-50) suggests recollection of actual events at firsthand by the verbal relaying of the message to the men below decks throughout the fleet. This may be a unique record of how sailors in the fleet heard and reacted to the signal.

The prose is highly idiosyncratic, idiomatic and phonetic. With punctuation supplied editorially however, the prose flows reasonably well and indicates a thoughtful and articulate construction, although the introductory lines are separated by a digression from the main narrative of the battle. One phrase is almost flighty and seems original: the wind never Impelled Along the oshon to more galent armamints (p.1, lines 9-10).

Overall, the account contains some valid and unique personal observations on the famous battle. It is perhaps a sign of an informed writer of above average intelligence that he should have wanted to give added authority to his reminiscences by drawing on official or other published accounts. Indeed, in quoting Collingwood, Sands could hardly be accused of drawing on a dubious source (though Collingwood's information was sketchy), suggesting a concept of and concern for accuracy. Informed readers or listeners would also have been immediately aware of any such use of prominent sources by the writer thus avoiding any suggestion of plagiarism.

The dating and purpose of the document are uncertain and the provenance completely unknown. The hand suggests the first half of the nineteenth century, perhaps nearer 1805 than 1850 although in any case the account is clearly retrospective. Bonhamís have suggested a date of 1820 or later. The hand is fairly strong, suggesting the account was written no later than about 1835-1840 i.e. before infirmity had set in.

The account may have been written for public speaking engagements or at the behest of acquaintances who felt he should preserve his recollections. It is unlikely he wrote the account for relations as his introduction of himself assumes the ignorance of his audience on this point (p.2, line 25) The document was imported for sale at Bonhamís possibly hinting that the author or a descendant may have emigrated.

If the document was not recorded for private or family use it may be presumed to fall into folk genre and more specifically may have been prepared for folk recitation. For the listener, the main impression formed would have been of inspiring words spoken by one who was there, establishing a living link with the battle.

There follow a literal transcription of the document and a version with modernised spelling and punctuation. The modernised version attempts to preserve the character of the original composition as much as possible by retaining the syntax and colloquial use of verb tenses.

Literal transcription

Page 1

Line 1 [lacuna]bout A Quarter past 12 we began this soraful seen Lord
Line 2 nelson opned his fire from his batrey and soon we
Line 3 folowed and A seene it was before it was don Lord
Line 4 nelson had 27 sail of Line Abatle ships and velenaw the frensh
Line 5 Admerel had 33 sail of Line abatle ships and 7 frigates the
Line 6 Combine fleet of france and spain sailed from Cados in
Line 7 the memerable 17 of oCtober 1805 and on the morning of the
Line 8 21 thay Came in site of the English fleet of Cape Trafalgar
Line 9 the wind never Impelled Along the oshon to more galent
Line 10 Armamints velenew the frensh Admerel ad 4000 troops in his fleet
Line 11 besides his ushal Crews maney of wom was Exelent Rifelmen
Line 12 ware stashoned in thair tops Velenew shoed no Inkilnason (i)
Line 13 to shun the Eventfull ACtion his disposhishon was singler
Line 14 and Engenous his fleet formed A double Line Each Alterna[lacuna] (ii)
Line 15 ship being About A Cabels lenth to winderd of hur
Line 16 second Ahead and A stern and thus the Arrangement
Line 17 Represented the Chekers of A draft bord and semed to
Line 18 gard Against the oparation of Cuting the Line but
Line 19 Nelson had determined to praCtise the meneuver in A
Line 20 maner As oregnail as the mode of defense Adopted by
Line 21 Velenew his order for saling was in 2 lines (iii) and
Line 22 This was Also the order for batle an Advanse
Line 23 squadron of Eight of the fastest saling Tow deCkers was
Line 24 To Cut of three or four of the Enemys Line A head
Line 25 head (iv) of thair Center (v) the 2 in Comand Admerell
Line 26 Colingwood was to brake threw in upon Enemey
Line 27 About the 12 ship from the reair and nelson
Line 28 Himself determened to bair down on the Center (vi) the
Line 29 EffeCt of these menuvers must of Corse be A Clost
Line 30 and Jenerail Action for the rest Nelson new he Could
Line 31 trust to the determination of his ofisers and semen to
Line 32 his Admirels and ofisers he Explained in Jenreal that
Line 33 his obeJeCt was A Clost and decisive ACtion and
Line 34 that if in the Confushon and smoke of batle
Line 35 Signails should be made not be Visabel the Captain
Line 36 would never do wrong who Laid his ship Alongside of the
Line 37 Enemey
Line 38 with sutCh disposishon on Eather side the 2 galent
Line 39 fleets met on the menerable 21 of oCtober Admeral
Line 40 Colingwood wo Led the van went down on the
Line 41 Enemy with All his sails set and disdaned to furl
Line 42 them and we did the same About fifteen minets befor
Line 43 the Exshan Comensed Lord nelson haled our ship Temeraire
Line 44 A hoi sir was the Cry baCk your mison topsail and
Line 45 Leet me forge A head Lord nelson was on the Quarter
Line 46 deCk with his full uneform on as the ship ViCtorey
Line 47 forged a head he said that he oped that Everey man
Line 48 would doo his Duty this day for old Englands sake for
Line 49 it would be A gloureus day for them that Lived to
Line 50 see the End of it we said wat shall we doo with
Line 51 our stunasails he said Cut away taks halyards and
Line 52 sheets the frensh man will taik (vii) in your topmast
Line 53 and top galent stunasails for you he said dont
Line 54 you open fire till [lacuna] then thay was
Line 55 A firing on Lord Colin[lacuna] the free Line

Page 2

Line 1 by this time thay began to fire on us so w[lacuna]
Line 2 did not Comense till we had them under our th[---] (viii)
Line 3 thum then we began our fore yard was shot Away
Line 4 before that we fired A shot but wen we did begin
Line 5 we gave it too them Rite and Leeft Lord Nelson
Line 6 Run his ship the ViCtorey on bord the frensh ship
Line 7 Redoutable the Temeraire A second B (ix) ship feel on bord
Line 8 the same ship on the other side Another Enemey
Line 9 ship came on the other side of our ship the
Line 10 Temeraire then we had 2 won on Each side and
Line 11 so we fought them thay Laid so Clost that we
Line 12 Could not use our wooden Ramers and worms
Line 13 we had to use our Rope wons thay keept
Line 14 the wooden worms to haul the frenshman
Line 15 throu the ports with in this state we Lay 5 hours
Line 16 and 10 minets and then we made them strike
Line 17 thair Colars so After that we had made prises
Line 18 of theese 2 ships thair Came 4 more Abel
Line 19 ships frenshmen (x) under topgalent sails bound
Line 20 of thay Came up on the starbourd side and
Line 21 we dropt the starbourd ship (xi) our prise Astern
Line 22 so to get our forod guns to bare on them as thay
Line 23 pased us thay gave us thair broad sides as thay pased by
Line 24 us I was A pouder boy belonging to the 9 (xii) gun on the main
Line 25 deCk Robert Sands was my name we had to Leave
Line 26 our Quarters 2 to (xiii) get breth the smoke sofeCated us
Line 27 All most it was Calm and still as tho we had been
Line 28 in som plesant harbour the 4 ships went of
Line 29 our After magesene skreens took fire and burnt
Line 30 the Leftanant of mereans badley I had Jest left thair
Line 31 wen the Exploshon took plase the men Inside the
Line 32 skreens was burnt to deth so thay told me then
Line 33 I had to go to the fore magesene for my pouder
Line 34 wilst the ViCtorey Engaged the Redoutable on the starbourd
Line 35 side she mantaned from hur Larbourd guns unCesant fire
Line 36 on the Bucentar and Santemise Trinedad A vesel of 4 deCks
Line 37 the Example of the Admerel was universeley folowed by
Line 38 the British Captains thay broke into the Enemeys
Line 39 Line on Everey Side Engaged 2 ore three ships at A
Line 40 time and mantained the batle at the verey musels
Line 41 of the Canon the British naval superioretty was soon
Line 42 made manefest 19 ships of the Line were Captured
Line 43 2 were first Rate vesels non were under 74 guns
Line 44 them 4 ships witCh went of was taken by sir RiChard
Line 45 strawan with an equal forse of 4 ships of the Line 7 out
Line 46 of those that suCeded in Rechen Cados was good for n (xiv)
Line 47 nothing the fleets of franse and spain were in
Line 48 faCt Annihalated yet g[lacuna] and gloreous as was the
Line 49 triump to us Briton[lacuna]as Dearley bout for Lord
Line 50 nelson fell mortley [lacuna] Earley in the ACtion


(i) The l (i.e. fifth letter) of Inkilnason is crossed as in the l of Lines in line 21
(ii) At this point it becomes obvious the right hand edge has been trimmed. The horizontal of the second t of alternate is part present at the extreme edge of the page and is quite separate from the horizontal of the first t. Alternate is confirmed by Collingwoodís despatch.
(iii) Concerning the crossing of the letter l, see note (i) above
(iv) Tautology
(v-vi) The spelling has been altered in the writerís own hand. Center appears to be the spelling intended. In each case a superfluous terminal e seems to have been overscored by the letter r.
(vii) The i is undotted. See also the second i of disposhishon p.1, line 13
(viii) Illegible except for first two letters th but possibly a tautology (p.2, lines 2-3).
(ix) The letter appears closest to a capital B as in British, p.2 line 41 but the writerís capital Rs are inconsistent e.g. Redoutable p.2, line 34 and Rate p.2, line 43. It is likely an R is intended as the initial letter and abbreviation of Rate in p.2, line 43.
(x) The French Rear Division under Rear Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley.
(xi) This is the Fougueux.
(xii) It appears the figure 9 is intended. From this it can be deduced the guns on each deck had a unique operational number. There were no 9 pounders on board Temeraire and the guns on Sandsí deck comprised 30 18 pounders. In common with dates given at p.1, lines 7-8 and 39, the suffix st or th is dropped.
(xiii) Apparent tautology and correction at this point.
(xiv) This may be an n or an a and is superfluous. It is presumably the n of nothing at the beginning of the following line, its discontinuation intended to prevent a tautology.

Modernised transcription

Page 1

Line 1 About a quarter past twelve we began this sorrowful scene. Lord
Line 2 Nelson opened his fire from his battery and soon we
Line 3 followed, and a scene it was before it was done. Lord
Line 4 Nelson had twenty-seven sail of line a battle ships and Villeneuve the French
Line 5 Admiral had thirty-three sail of line a battle ships and seven frigates. The
Line 6 combined fleet of France and Spain sailed from Cadiz in
Line 7 the memorable 17th of October 1805 and on the morning of the
Line 8 21st they came in sight of the English fleet off Cape Trafalgar.
Line 9 The wind never impelled along the ocean two more gallant
Line 10 armaments. Villeneuve the French Admiral had four thousand troops in his fleet
Line 11 besides his usual crews, many of whom was excellent riflemen,
Line 12 were stationed in their tops. Villeneuve showed no inclination
Line 13 to shun the eventful action. His disposition was singular
Line 14 and ingenious. His fleet formed a double line, each alternate
Line 15 ship being about a cableís length to windward of her
Line 16 second a-head and a-stern, and thus the arrangement
Line 17 represented the chequers of a draught board and seemed to
Line 18 guard against the operation of cutting the line but
Line 19 Nelson had determined to practise the manoeuvre in a
Line 20 manner as original as the mode of defence adopted by
Line 21 Villeneuve. His order for sailing was in two lines and
Line 22 this was also the order for battle. An advance
Line 23 squadron of eight of the fastest sailing two deckers was
Line 24 to cut off three or four of the enemyís line a-head
Line 25 of their centre. The second in command admiral
Line 26 Collingwood was to break through in upon enemy
Line 27 about the twelfth ship from the rear and Nelson
Line 28 himself determined to bear down on the centre. The
Line 29 effect of these manoeuvres must of course be a close
Line 30 and general action. For the rest, Nelson knew he could
Line 31 trust to the determination of his officers and seamen. To
Line 32 his admirals and officers he explained in general that
Line 33 his object was a close and decisive action and
Line 34 that if in the confusion and smoke of battle
Line 35 signals should be made not be visible, the captain
Line 36 would never do wrong who laid his ship alongside of the
Line 37 enemy.
Line 38 With such disposition on either side the two gallant
Line 39 fleets met on the memorable 21st of October. Admiral
Line 40 Collingwood who led the van went down on the
Line 41 enemy with all his sails set and disdained to furl
Line 42 them and we did the same. About fifteen minutes before
Line 43 the action commenced Lord Nelson hailed our ship Temeraire.
Line 44 A hoi sir! was the cry. Back your mizzen topsail and
Line 45 let me forge a-head. Lord Nelson was on the quarter
Line 46 deck with his full uniform on. As the ship Victory
Line 47 forged a-head he said that he hoped that every man
Line 48 would do his duty this day for old Englandís sake, for
Line 49 it would be a glorious day for them that lived to
Line 50 see the end of it. We said what shall we do with
Line 51 our studding sails? He said cut away tacks, halyards and
Line 52 sheets, the Frenchman will take in your topmast
Line 53 and top-gallant studding sails for you. He said donít
Line 54 you open fire till [I say?] Then they was
Line 55 a firing on Lord Collingwood [and ?] the free line.

Page 2

Line 1 By this time they began to fire on us so w[e]
Line 2 did not commence till we had them under our
Line 3 thumb, then we began. Our fore yard was shot away
Line 4 before that we fired a shot, but when we did begin
Line 5 we gave it too them right and left. Lord Nelson
Line 6 run his ship the Victory on board the French ship
Line 7 Redoutable. The Temeraire a second rate ship fell on board
Line 8 the same ship on the other side. Another enemy
Line 9 ship came on the other side of our ship the
Line 10 Temeraire then we had two, one on each side and
Line 11 so we fought them. They laid so close that we
Line 12 could not use our wooden rammers and worms,
Line 13 we had to use our rope ones. They kept
Line 14 the wooden worms to haul the Frenchmen
Line 15 through the ports. With in this state we lay five hours
Line 16 and ten minutes and then we made them strike
Line 17 their colours. So after that we had made prizes
Line 18 of these 2 ships. There came 4 more able
Line 19 ships, Frenchmen under top-gallant sails bound
Line 20 off. They came up on the starboard side and
Line 21 we dropped the starboard ship, our prize, astern,
Line 22 so to get our forward guns to bear on them. As they
Line 23 passed us they gave us their broadsides as they passed by
Line 24 us. I was a powder boy belonging to the nine gun on the main
Line 25 deck, Robert Sands was my name. We had to leave
Line 26 our quarters to get breath. The smoke suffocated us
Line 27 almost. It was calm and still as though we had been
Line 28 in some pleasant harbour. The four ships went off.
Line 29 Our after magazine screens took fire and burnt
Line 30 the lieutenant of marines badly. I had just left there
Line 31 when the explosion took place. The men inside the
Line 32 screens was burnt to death so they told me then
Line 33 I had to go to the fore magazine for my powder.
Line 34 Whilst the Victory engaged the Redoutable on the starboard
Line 35 side, she maintained from her larboard guns incessant fire
Line 36 on the Bucentaure and Santissima Trinidad, a vessel of four decks.
Line 37 The example of the admiral was universally followed by
Line 38 the British captains. They broke into the enemy's
Line 39 line on every side, engaged two or three ships at a
Line 40 time and maintained the battle at the very muzzles
Line 41 of the cannon. The British naval superiority was soon
Line 42 made manifest. Nineteen ships of the line were captured.
Line 43 Two were first Rate vessels, none were under seventy-four guns.
Line 44 Them four ships which went off was taken by Sir Richard
Line 45 Strachan with an equal force of four ships of the line. Seven out
Line 46 of those that succeeded in reaching Cadiz was good for
Line 47 nothing. The fleets of France and Spain were in
Line 48 fact annihilated. Yet great and glorious as was the
Line 49 triumph to us Britons, it was dearly bought, for Lord
Line 50 Nelson fell mortally wounded early in the action.

Further reading

Archival sources at Medway Archives and Studies Centre pertaining to the Battle of Trafalgar and contemporary naval, military and maritime history

Burial entry for Walter Burke, Purser on board HMS Victory at the battle and in whose arms Nelson died, from the burial register of Wouldham 1815

Burial entry for Charles John Moore Mansfield, captain of HMS Minotaur in the weather column at the Battle of Trafalgar. He won a gold medal, the thanks of Parliament and a sword of honour from the Patriotic Fund. From the burial register of St. Margaret's Church, Rochester 1813 click here

Chatham Chest smart ticket issued to Andrew Forbes of HMS Conqueror, injured at the Battle of Trafalgar (DE192/2)

Timber survey of Crown lands in Gillingham. The woodland in Gillingham included the Hoath forest many of whose elm or oak trees were used in the building of HMS Victory 1759-1765 click here

The William Pinn scrapbook (DE284)

Talk given by Borough Archivist to Rochester Rotary Club Trafalgar Day 21 October 2005 click here

Archival sources elsewhere

British Library, London Nelsonís draft memorandum

British Library, London Nelson's memorandum

Report by Captain Lucas of Redoutable

Web sites

The official HMS Victory web site, showing an elevation of the upper gun deck, starboard side, similar to that of HMS Temeraire

Auguste Mayer's painting of Temeraire (right) engaging Redoutable click here, courtesy Wikipedia

Turnerís painting The Fighting Temeraire courtesy of The National Gallery, London, click here Trafalgar pages

Broadside click here

Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Trafalgar

Collingwoodís Despatch via the National Archives, Kew click here

The Trafalgar Project page on HMS Temeraire


Fort Nelson, Hampshire (Royal Armouries)
Explosion: Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport, Hampshire (Hampshire County Council)
HMS Victory tour office, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire
Kent Family History Society
Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Borough Archivist 15 November 2005

File updated by Borough Archivist 13 January 2007

Date: c.1805 x c.1850
Quantity: 1p.
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