England Expects - On The Trail Of Admiral Lord Nelson

By Graham Spicer | 03 August 2005
Shows a photo of a dummy of a man dressed as Admiral Nelson in full naval regalia

Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain's most celebrated naval commander. Photo courtesy Royal Naval Museum

It's not just the number of pubs in the UK celebrating Nelson and his deeds that keep him firmly lodged in the British public imagination. As Graham Spicer discovered, the UK is also awash with monuments, museums, collections and heritage sites that keep the memory of one of our undisputed national heroes very much alive.

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most celebrated naval commander, died leading his fleet to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. As part of Sea Britain 2005 the Trafalgar 200 Festival will see events running across the country, climaxing in the Trafalgar Weekend on October 21-23 2005.

As well as the one-off events being staged, there are many places throughout the UK where you can learn more about Lord Nelson’s life and battles. This trail runs through both the major exhibitions and some lesser-known places to visit that reveal the life and exploits of our greatest seafaring commander.

Horatio Nelson was born in 1758 at the parsonage in the village of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, where his father was rector of the Church of All Saints. Starting a trend that was to spread the length and breadth of Britain, The Lord Nelson Pub, formerly the Plough Inn, was renamed in honour of its most famous patron.

Shows a painting of a wounded Admiral Nelson.

Nelson Wounded at the Nile, attributed to Guy Head. He lost the sight of his right eye earlier at Calvi, Corsica, but never wore an eyepatch. © National Maritime Museum, London

Nelson was first educated at the Norwich School, situated in the cathedral cloisters of the city. Today one of the school houses is named after its most famous pupil and a statue can be seen in the cloister grounds.

The young Nelson continued his land-based education at Paston Grammar School in North Walsham, before leaving at the age of 12 to continue his education as a young rating in the navy. Now Paston Sixth Form College, the school still has many items of Nelson memorabilia. Its Nelson Room is open to visitors until September 2005, after which an appointment is needed - phone 01692 402334 for more details.

The Norfolk connection remains important in the early life of Nelson but Norwich’s Guildhall houses a relic from his later heroic deeds - the sword he received from the defeated Spanish admiral after the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.

For more information about Nelson’s links with Norfolk go to the website of The Eastern Daily Press

shows a statue of Lord Nelson in his naval uniform

Nelson's time at Norwich School is commemorated with a statue in Cathedral Close. © 24 Hour Museum/Richard Moss.

Nelson soon rose through the ranks of the navy and became a captain at 20 and when Britain became embroiled in the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 he was given command of HMS Agamemnon, which was to become his favourite ship.

He served with her in the Mediterranean, losing the sight of his right eye at Calvi, Corsica, and his arm in the Battle of Tenerife. In a remarkable ascendancy Nelson effectively destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was this victory that led to him being bestowed with the title 'Baron Nelson of The Nile and Burnham Thorpe'.

Although he died in 1805 from a sniper’s bullet during his greatest victory at Cape Trafalgar, off Spain’s southern coast, his fleet’s actions had successfully foiled the threat of French invasion.

His leadership helped to establish British Naval supremacy and provide stable conditions for the British Empire to prosper - a fact reflected in the numerous monuments to the man and his deeds that can be found in a number of locations around the UK.

Shows a photo of the top of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, which has a corinthian capital with the statue of Lord Nelson on top who is wearing a tricorn hat and leaning on a sword.

Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square may be the best-known monument to the admiral, but it was not the first. © 24 Hour Museum/Richard Moss

Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, was begun in 1840 and completed in 1843. 185 feet high, the column is made from granite and features acanthus leaves, cast from British cannons at the top. At the base are four bronze relief panels cast from armaments captured from the French and depicting Nelson's four great victories.

This prominent London landmark may be the most famous of the monuments erected in his honour (another earlier monument resides in the Guildhall in London), but there are many others across the country, some with interesting tales of their own.

As could be expected, Norfolk has marked its appreciation for the man, with memorials in Cathedral Close, Norwich and in Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth’s monument was erected in 1819, stands an impressive 144-feet high and features the figure of Britannia atop it.

Local legend recalls how the architect leapt to his death from the top of it, although this story is untrue, the town surveyor did collapse and die while inspecting it in 1819 and in 1863 an acrobat fell and died while climbing the monument.

Shows a photo of a white octagonal tower in a field with some trees nearby

The Nelson Tower at Forres in Moray, Scotland - Britain's most northerly Nelson monument. Courtesy Moray Museums Service

The maritime city of Liverpool has two monuments to Nelson. One, in Springfield Park is a sandstone Nelson obelisk erected by a local sugar refiner, Mr Downward. He built the monument in the grounds of his now-demolished house, Springfield, where today visitors will find a park.

In the area known as Exchange Flags a grand and dramatic monument featuring serpents and skeletons can be seen. At the Walker Art Gallery Nelson's death is commemorated by two famous and typically grandiose oil paintings; both titled The Death of Nelson. The first, by Benjamin West, was painted within months of Trafalgar while the other, by Daniel Maclise, was done between 1859 and 1864.

There is another Merseyside connection with the great man, via his mistress Lady Hamilton. Emma Hamilton started life as Emma Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith in Neston, Wirral.

Her rise through the echelons of society is perfectly captured in another painting in the Walker Art Gallery, Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, by Louise-Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

shows a photo of a painting of Emma, Lady Hamilton.

Lady Hamilton as Bacchante © National Museums Liverpool.

In Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy, there is another Nelson monument at Portsdown Hill just outside the town centre - at the junction of Portsdown Hill Road, Monument Lane and Nelson Lane. The monument was created as a result of subscriptions raised by the officers and men who served under Nelson at Trafalgar with the foundation stone being laid in 1805.

Not all of our Nelson monuments are in towns and cities however, and one of the most picturesque settings is in the hills at Birchen Edge in the Peak District. The gritstone column with a ball on top of it was erected in 1810 by a local businessman. Three nearby boulders have been carved with the names of three of Nelson's ships - Victory, Defiant and Sovereign.

Scotland’s best-known Nelson structure is an impressive neo-gothic column on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. A climb of 143 steps affords spectacular views of the Fife and Forth, the Forth Bridges and the Moorfoot Hills.

Shows a photograph of HMS Victory. Taken from the side it shows the ships gun doors open and the yellow and black markings of the Napoleonic Royal Navy.

Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, The Victory, where he was killed by a French musket ball. © 24hourmuseum

Over in Glasgow the monument on Glasgow Green was erected in 1806 and locals still think of it as the first Nelson monument to be fully finished in the UK. However this crowning achievement was negated in 1810 when it was struck by lightning - causing the top 20 feet of masonry to come crashing to the ground. The damage can still be seen and it was later fitted with a lightning conductor to prevent a repeat occurrence.

There is a further claim in Scotland to the title of 'first Nelson monument'. Built from local granite, the Nelson monument in Taynuilt, near Oban, is dated on its base as 1805!

Moving yet further north another less well-known monument to the admiral can be found at Forres in Moray, Scotland. Built in 1812, this most northerly of the Nelson monuments features an impressive octagonal tower and visitors who climb it are treated to panoramic views of the Moray Firth and an exhibition of Nelson memorabilia.

Moving briefly beyond the British Isles, Nelson was also commemorated in Ireland with a statue erected in Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 1808. Famously blown up by IRA sympathisers in 1966, the head of the broken statue was subsequently stolen by art students and featured in a range of stunts, including an appearance on stage during a Dubliners concert, before being returned. It can now be seen in the Civic Museum in Dublin.

Shows a collage of what looks like a river or coastal scene with naval ephemera around it

The Back From Trafalgar Exhibition at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, uses unique artworks to illustrate Nelson's life. © Susan Amos

Aside from the various columns, towers and monuments, there are of course many museums and galleries with exhibitions exploring the admiral’s deeds.

Close to his birthplace, the Norfolk Nelson Museum in Great Yarmouth is housing a special exhibition of Nelson portraiture until October 2005. The museum also boasts an important permanent collection of nearly 1,000 items.

Nelson's connection to Norfolk is tangible: throughout the county there are numerous family connections and sites of interest. In Norwich there is a display of Nelson memorabilia at Norwich Castle Museum and at Kings Lynn, an important and busy port during Nelson's time, the Lynn Museum (currently closed for refurbishment) houses a display.

Quite apart from being his birthplace, the admiral retained a fondness for the county and famously docked at Great Yarmouth after returning from the Battle of the Nile and prior to the Battle of Copenhagen.

Shows a film still of a historical reconstruction of a gundeck of a 19th century warship with a man and a boy shouting

Life on board was tough, but Nelson commanded fierce loyalty from his men. The Trafalgar Experience at the Royal Naval Museum illustrates the realities of battle. Photo courtesy Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.

Monmouth, on the Welsh border, may not be on the coast but thanks to a bequest from Lady Llangattock the was founded there in 1924. It includes a large collection of his letters, his fighting sword and, intriguingly, a forgery of his glass eye.

Definitely not a forgery and arguably the best place to get to the heart of the legend that is Nelson is his flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory. Now resting at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyards, a visit to this remarkable vessel shows what life was like for the officers and crew. You can even stand on the spot where Nelson fell and inspect the place below decks where he died.

The dockyards are also home to the Royal Naval Museum where the Trafalgar Experience recreates this great sea battle and traces the story of the Victory from its launch in 1759 to the present day. Horatio Nelson: The Hero and the Man sheds light on lesser-known facets of this famous leader and you can also find out if any of your ancestors were at the battle.

Visitors can also see the Trafalgar Sail displayed there until October 30 2005, the only surviving sail from HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. This foretopsail is pockmarked by some 90 shot holes and was the second largest sail on board, measuring 80ft wide at its base.

Shows a film still of a historical reconstruction of an operating table on a 19th century warship with three men in naval uniform around a patient

In the days before anaesthetic, onboard operations were brutal. Courtesy Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.

The Royal Naval Museum is also showing The Nelson Touch from September 10 – October 23 2005. This exhibition of contemporary art explores the ‘Nelson phenomena’ and his relevance to society today.

The Victory was built and launched in 1765 at the Historic Dockyard at Chatham, Kent, which is staging In the Footsteps of Nelson tours throughout 2005. This exhibition allows visitors to see the site where she was built and learn about the links between Nelson and these Georgian shipyards. Chatham also houses The Road To Trafalgar exhibition, which traces the dockyard’s 18th century role as the nation’s principal shipbuilding and repair yard.

Throughout August 2005 the Historic Dockyards also hosts Back From Trafalgar, an exhibition using a combination of collage, watercolour and photographic material to vividly illustrate Nelson's life.

Just along the coast the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson in Fareham, Hampshire is also organising special events to commemorate Trafalgar and has daily performances recounting the story of the battle.

Trafalgar was not won by one man alone, however, and a plaque in Newcastle, unveiled in September 2005, honours Admiral Lord Collingwood, second in command to Nelson. He took control of the fleet as Nelson lay dying and helped ensure that none of the British ships were lost during the battle.

Shows a photo of a man in period 18th century naval officer's costume with a tricorn hat and a walking cane

Visitors can see where The Victory was built at the Historic Dockyards, Chatham. © Historic Dockyards Chatham

Collingwood was born near the corner of Milburn House where the plaque is sited, and was educated at Newcastle’s Royal Free Grammar School.

Over on the Channel Islands, Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery’s Hearts of Oak: Saumarez, Nelson, the Ships, the Men and Trafalgar runs until December 31 2005 and looks at the parallel careers of two great sailors - Guernseyman Admiral James Saumarez and Lord Horatio Nelson. It explores their careers aboard the ships of the time and traces the Guernsey men who served with Saumarez and at Trafalgar.

North of the border, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is presenting The Battle of Trafalgar and the Death of Nelson 1805-2005 until the end of January 2006. Drawing on the Gallery's own collection, this display features portraits of some of those who most significantly influenced Britain's naval fortunes during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

An early version of Lemuel Francis Abbott's famous portrait of the great naval commander forms the centrepiece of the display, depicting Nelson in 1797 wearing the star of the Order of Bath, convalescing following his arm’s amputation. The picture captured the charisma of Nelson and helped to bolster his heroic status.

In the West Country, National Maritime Museum Cornwall recounts the race to return the first dispatch with the news of the British victory at Trafalgar. Trafalgar – The Race Home, runs until October 30 2005, telling the story of Lieutenant Lapenotiere who landed in Falmouth with the message.

Shows a photo of Nelson's breeches, which are well-preserved but tatty.

Breeches worn by Nelson at Trafalgar. They were cut down the front so the surgeon could remove them from Nelson without hurting him. © National Maritime Museum, London.

Although Lapenotiere headed off post haste to the Admiralty in London, Falmouth was the first location in the UK to hear the news of Nelson’s historic achievement and death, and a portrait of the Lieutenant forms the centrepiece of the exhibition.

Plymouth’s Guildhall has a record of this dispatch and in Penzance, a notice in the Union Hotel on Chapel Street records the first public announcement of the victory.

London’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the largest maritime museum in the world, has a Nelson and Napoleon exhibition, which runs until November 2005 and explores the lives of the adversaries. The museum also contains more than 700 Nelson objects ranging from letters to the breeches he wore at Trafalgar.

Although fatalities at sea were customarily sent to the ocean’s depths, Nelson had asked to be returned to England and his body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the voyage home.

Legend has it that crewmen took draughts from the barrel in the hope that some of the hero’s redoubtable character would rub off on them, but like many of the stories surrounding the man, this is almost certainly untrue.

Shows a painting by JMW Turner entitled The Battle of Trafalgar. It depicts a large naval vessel, in front of which - in the shore - people are massed.

Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner, 1822. Turner was buried near to Nelson in St Paul's. © National Maritime Museum, London.

Although his well-publicised affair with Lady Hamilton, with whom he had an illegitimate child, ruffled feathers in the establishment, Nelson was truly popular with his men. His rallying cry at Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, inspired them and caught the imagination of the British public.

On Christmas Eve 1805, Nelson’s body was brought to London and laid out at a room in Greenwich Hospital. It is estimated that between 30-90,000 mourners came to pay their respects. The complex of buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873 and its Nelson Room now hosts an exhibition about the events.

Nelson’s final resting place is St Paul’s Cathedral in London. His body lies in the crypt in a lead-lined sarcophogus, contained within a wood coffin made from the planks of a French warship. The coffin's position is said to be directly under the cathedral's great dome.

Nearby are some of his brother officers who served at Trafalgar as well as other great English names, such as the painter Turner and the explorer Scott (of the Antarctic). It is said that Nelson occupies the central postion in the crypt - neatly confirming his continued status in the English consciousness - as our most popular military hero.

For more information about the commemorations of the Battle of Trafalgar and the Sea Britain 2005 festival, visit www.seabritain2005.com.

For another nautical adventure try our Master and Commander Trail, which further explores the world of the Napoleonic period navy - and the novels of Patrick O'Brien - through heritage sites and museums in the UK.

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