Nelson’s Navy in 100 Objects










Nelson’s Navy in 100 Objects

Published by Pen & Sword Books July 2021

Born at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk on 29 September 1758, Horatio Nelson was the sixth child of a village clergyman, but despite his humble beginnings he rose to become perhaps the most famous sailor of all time. He was sent to sea on a ship commanded by Maurice Suckling, his maternal uncle at the age of only twelve, but he survived his rough and ready apprenticeship and was the Captain of a vessel by the time he was twenty.

His small weak frame did not augur well for Nelson’s longevity at sea, but he survived serving a spell amongst the pestilential islands of the West Indies, the graveyard of many a British serviceman, and even returned home with Frances Nisbet whom he had married on the Island of Nevis in 1787. His return was however to be a frustrating one, with Britain at peace, he took his wife to his father’s house in Burnham and was forced to remain there on half pay, vainly hoping for a new command.

In 1793, his fortunes changed, with Britain joining a wide alliance of European monarchies against Revolutionary France, who had recently escorted King Louis XVI to the guillotine, a British invention which had been adapted by the French[1]. Nelson was soon given a command in the Mediterranean, where he helped organise the capture of Corsica, although whilst in the trenches as they besieged the fortress of Calvi, a cannonball drove stone dust into his right eye, the first of a number of injuries he was to suffer in his short life. Nelson did not lose his eye, but the retina had been damaged and he could only differentiate between light and dark through it. Despite popular mythology, Nelson never wore a patch over the eye, but he did arrange a sort of peak to his bicorn, which shaded the eye, as it was susceptible to harsh sunlight.

Whilst leading an armed boat attack at Santa Cruz at Tenerife in 1797, he was again severely wounded, this time he was shot in the right arm and the surgeons amputated it. However he was soon mended, learnt how to scrawl like a spider with his left hand and was back at sea that autumn to take a prominent part in the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Having run his ship alongside the Spanish San Nicolas of 80 guns and captured her by boarding, he soon discovered that a larger Spanish warship, the San Josef of 112 guns was also alongside. As he prepared to board this second ship, she promptly surrendered. His exploit in capturing two larger enemy ships was proclaimed throughout the country as ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge’ astounding the British public. From this point on, Nelson was a superstar and was feted wherever he went.

The following year found Nelson’s squadron desperately seeking out the French Toulon fleet, which had broken out of their blockaded port during severe weather. It was known that the French fleet was carrying an army commanded by an up and coming general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte, but he had no certain knowledge of where they were heading. Initially guessing that Egypt was their destination, he rushed there to find no sign of the French fleet and then fearing that they might have left the Mediterranean as part of an invasion of Britain, he sped back across the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, only to be informed that the French fleet had not passed through the Straits. Having been reinforced, Nelson sailed east again to Egypt only to find that the French had arrived after a far more leisurely crossing, with a stop off to capture Malta on route and the French army was now safely ashore. However, sailing along the Egyptian coast, Nelson suddenly discovered the French fleet at anchor close in shore. Without a moment’s hesitation, Nelson ordered his fleet to attack, and quickly realised that the French ships were only at single anchor. They therefore had to be far enough from the shore to avoid grounding as the tides turned the ships, that was far enough to allow his ships to pass both sides of the French line, doubling up on each enemy ship. The gamble paid off spectacularly with almost the entire French fleet being destroyed or captured. The Battle of the Nile was to be the first of Nelson’s three stunning victories. He was again wounded, being struck in the forehead leaving a skin flap dropping over his good eye, Nelson momentarily feared that he was mortally wounded but was eventually relieved to discover that it was a superficial wound.

Recuperating in Sicily following his glorious success, Nelson fell hopelessly in love with the young wife of the English Ambassador, the septuagenarian Sir William Hamilton and they began a clandestine affair.

Three years later, having returned to England with the Hamilton’s, Nelson was appointed second in command of a fleet sent into the Baltic, to break up a dangerous new alliance of Baltic states, known as the ‘League of Armed Neutrality’. Arriving off Copenhagen, Sir Hyde Parker gave Nelson a large squadron with which to attack the Danish defensive line. The Danes fought heroically, but were eventually overcome by the British gunnery and the Danish Reserve fleet was decimated. The Danes remained defiant, with their main fleet still safe within the harbour and tricky negotiations, led by Nelson himself, only succeeded with the fortuitous arrival of the untimely death of Tsar Paul and the immediate collapse of the league. Nelson had won another great victory, against strong opposition and he was again the darling of the nation.

The following few years, saw Nelson commanding a flotilla of coastal craft which had been prepared to counter the threat of a French invasion across the English Channel and fathering a daughter, named Horatia with Lady Hamilton.

The year 1805 found Nelson in the Mediterranean again and as before the Toulon fleet under the command of Admiral Villeneuve escaped during bad weather. Guessing that they were headed for Egypt again, Nelson sped there with his ships only to find Alexandria quiet, returning, he soon discovered that the French fleet had indeed sailed out of the Mediterranean towards the West Indies. Fearing that such a large fleet would cause havoc amongst Britain’s sugar islands he pursued them as fast as he could. The Franco/Spanish fleet had achieved little in the West Indies, being anxious that Nelson might appear, so they sailed for Europe again with the intention of picking up the other French and Spanish squadrons as they passed northwards so as to arrive in the English Channel with superior numbers, giving Napoleon’s Army the window of opportunity to launch their invasion of Britain.

Messages sent home by Nelson had forewarned the Admiralty, therefore Villeneuve’s fleet found itself facing another British squadron blocking their way under the command of Vice Admiral Calder and following a confused battle in thick mist, Villeneuve ordered his ships to Cadiz for repairs and a resupply of provisions. The invasion scare was over, with Napoleon ordering his Army of England to march against Austria.

After a brief spell in England, Nelson was soon back with his fleet off Cadiz, waiting and hoping that Villeneuve’s fleet would come out. Admiral Villeneuve heard the news that Napoleon had sent Admiral Rosily to relieve him of his command, but before he could arrive overland, Villeneuve sailed, intending to return to the Mediterranean. On 21 October, Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships of the line met the Franco Spanish fleet of 33 of the line off Cape Trafalgar and destroyed them, Villeneuve losing 22 vessels in all. The victory did not save Britain from invasion, but it probably saved the Mediterranean sea from becoming a French lake, but that was at the loss of their commander from a musket ball thought to have been fired from the tops of the French Redoutable, although who fired the shot will never be known. Having been mortally wounded, Nelson was taken below where he survived long enough to hear that he had gained a complete victory. Having died, he was not buried at sea as normal, but was transported home in a vat of brandy to help preserve him. The Royal Navy were never threatened again by a large-scale enemy fleet, their dominance of the sea remaining essentially unchallenged for over a century.

The news of the victory was received in England with raptures of delight, but it was also tinged with real sadness for the loss of their greatest admiral. Nelson was given a state funeral, being escorted by hundreds of river boats from Greenwich to St Paul’s where he was buried with great pomp at exactly the centre of the great dome.

Nelson had already become a huge war hero in Britain, but his death at the moment of his greatest victory, as the ‘ideal romantic death’ confirmed his place as Britain’s greatest naval war hero. His unorthodox tactics and style of command became an inspiration for generations of Royal Navy officers and remains so to this day. A number of massive monuments, including the famous column in Trafalgar Square helped to further perpetuate his renown.

However, Nelson was not alone. Numerous other naval officers were imbued with a spirit of daring and a determination to succeed against any odds and a refusal to ever contemplate failure. The Royal Navy of this period was littered with many such men, all epitomising what was to become known as the ‘Nelson spirit’. Men such as Hoste, Cochrane, Collingwood, Pellew continued his legacy, often achieving almost impossible things, refusing to give up and getting the best out of their subordinate commanders by bringing them into their plans, just like Nelson’s captains, the original  ‘Band of Brothers’.  Nelson’s legacy was also very simple, ‘duty’ before all else, finesse in the battle plan was far less important than the simple premise of ‘close with your enemy and defeat him’. Nelson augured in the era of spectacular naval battles where the capture of a handful of enemy ships was seen as useless, total annihilation was the only acceptable result.

The Royal Navy that Nelson knew, was a huge and surprisingly efficient organisation, numerous Parliamentary Enquiries into the running of every aspect of this giant operation having eradicated much of the waste, embezzlement and the stiflingly over-bureaucratic systems. It is however, difficult to visualize just how large an organisation the Royal Navy was at this time, at its peak it neared having one thousand warships at sea, including well over one hundred ships of the line and employing not only nearly one hundred and forty thousand sailors and thirty thousand Marines, but also tens of thousands more in building and repairing the ships, providing their armament, gunpowder and every other conceivable item needed to equip a warship at sea. But even beyond that, thousands more farmers supplied the beef, pork and wheat and thousands more prepared this food for ready consumption or for long term storage as salt provisions and ships biscuit. Other produced barrels to store the provisions in at sea, whilst others brewed millions of gallons of ale for the men to drink each day. Hundreds of clerks kept huge ledgers of accounts, listing the expenditure of every farthing spent and paying this horde their wages regularly. Others were sent out to continuously recruit volunteers to fill the posts vacated by death, disease accident and old age and when volunteers were in short supply, to round them up forcibly with the ‘press gangs’. It was in fact the largest single organisation in the world at that time and the complexities of running such a huge and complex operation in every corner of the world in an age of wind propulsion and paper communications is little short of astounding.

The Navy was for much of this period, the last line of defence standing between Britain being overrun from the continent. Therefore, every sinew was strained to maintain it at the peak of its power, often to the detriment of the Army which only rose to fame in the final decade of the wars under Wellington, when the Navy had already banished any lingering fear of invasion following their success in destroying their enemy’s fleets. The character Jolly Jack Tar, who was the epitome of a ‘devil may care’ attitude to danger, fiercely loyal and patriotic, became the very embodiment of the general public’s view of the men manning their fleets.

However, the public were very guilty of viewing life at sea through very thick rose-tinted glasses, as life in the Royal Navy of King George III was very hard, dangerous and also very strictly disciplined, with very harsh punishments meted out routinely.

This book, is not about Nelson, but using a vast variety of images of contemporary items, it aims to explain the complex organisation, the ships, the bureaucracy, the men and their achievements; but more than anything else, to convey the systems and  the routines, the challenges, the trials and tribulations of every-day life of a sailor in the Navy of King George. To give a feel for the real essence of what it was like to serve in ‘Nelson’s Navy’.








The Battle of Trafalgar 1805

[1] The infamous Halifax gibbet is only one example of earlier machines which closely resembled the guillotine, including the Edinburgh Maiden and another recorded to have been in use in Ireland as early as 1307.