Post Written by Roger Paine

Nelson in Kent

Although neither a true ‘Kentish Man’ nor a ‘Man of Kent’, Admiral Lord Nelson had a long and distinguished association with the county. Often thought of as belonging to Hampshire, especially the city of Portsmouth which is the permanent home of Nelson’s famous flagship the Victory, on which he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, it is worth recalling that he spent the majority of his life, when in this country at the end of the eighteenth century, in Kent.

Born at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk on September 29th 1758, he was one of eight children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson whose father had also been a country clergyman. There was nothing therefore particularly remarkable about his parentage on his father’s side. But his mother, Catherine, who died when he was nine years old, could trace descendants from Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and one of her brothers, Captain Maurice Suckling, was a successful naval officer.


The Commissioner’s House


Main Entrance to Historic Dockyard Chatham

At the age of twelve, and still at school in North Walsham, young Horatio heard that his Uncle Maurice had been appointed to command the Raisonnable fitting out for overseas service. Excited by this news he begged his father to write and ask if he could go with him. Captain Suckling agreed writing back, “What has poor Horace done, who is so weak that he, above all the rest, should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come and the first time we go into action a cannon-ball may knock off his head and provide for him at once”.

Undeterred by this reply he went with his father in early 1771 by stage coach to London. From there he took the Brompton stage to Chatham which stopped outside the Main Gate to the Dockyard. This building with the coat of arms of George III above the entrance, to what is now known as The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, remains unchanged to this day. The naval career of Mr Midshipman Nelson, and his lifelong association with the county of Kent, had begun.


HMS Nelson – WWII battleship, courtesy NMRN

His introduction to the navy, however, was inauspicious for no one knew where his uncle’s ship, the Raisonnable, was berthed. It was not until a kindly former naval officer took pity on the young man that he found his way to the ship. At that time ships which had just left the dockyard were moored in the River Medway opposite Upnor Castle. This required Nelson to walk through the dockyard to what was known as Princes Bridge and from there get a boat out to his ship. In doing so, he would almost certainly have walked past the dock where his future flagship, the Victory, was being fitted out. This famous ship had been ordered by the Admiralty in the year of his birth and the keel laid down in Chatham a year later. It is not hard to imagine how thrilled the young midshipman must have been on seeing his very first warship. The same ship that thirty four years later was, by uncanny coincidence, destined to be the scene of his greatest triumph and heroic death.

However, as the Raisonnable was subsequently not required for service overseas, Captain Suckling was given command of the Triumph, a guardship in the River Medway. It was from this ship that young Nelson piloted the ship’s sailing cutter and learned to navigate the shoals and tides of the rivers Thames, Medway and Swale. The confidence he gained in such restricted waters was to stand him in good stead for the remainder of his career.

Chatham in the latter half of the eighteenth century was Britain’s premier naval dockyard and many of the buildings from that period have survived to this day. Between 1700 and the end of the Napoleonic wars Chatham dockyard built over 100 ships for the Royal Navy. Repairs and maintenance of other ships provided work for nearly 1,500 men throughout this period. The Victory took six years to build at a cost of £63,176, equivalent to around £9,000,000 in today’s money. Construction required the wood of 6,000 trees, mainly oak, plus elm, pine and fir, 27 miles of rope for the rigging and 4 acres of canvas for the sails.

Because of Chatham’s distance from the open sea it could sometimes take twelve weeks for large vessels to sail down the River Medway. This led to the establishment of a naval dockyard in Sheerness. It was also close to the important anchorage of the Nore, the name given to the waters off the north Kent coast across the mouth of the Thames to Essex.

On April 9th 1777 when Nelson had completed six years sea service he received his commission as Second Lieutenant of the frigate Lowestoffe which he joined at Sheerness. The ship did not sail immediately so he took the opportunity to visit London and have his portrait painted by Francis Rigaud. This is now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. But because the painting was not finished until 1780, it was altered to show him as a proud twenty one year old captain in the West Indies. His features, however, remain those of the fresh faced young man he was when the painting was started.

Nelson returned to Sheerness in 1787 as captain of the Boreas after his second period of service in the Caribbean. During this time he had married a widow, Frances Nisbet, on the island of Nevis. The future King William IV, then Captain William Henry, was at Nelson’s side and gave away the bride. In Sheerness, Nelson’s ship was used as the receiving ship for men recruited by the press gangs which were then operating in many Kentish towns. Shortly afterwards hostilities with France came to an end and as there was no employment for Nelson he returned home to Norfolk for five years. There he lived the life of a country gentleman but yearning to get back to sea.

It was not until war clouds were again gathering that Nelson returned to Kent. This time to take command of his first ship-of-the-line, the Agamemnon, fitting out at Chatham. The circumstances were very different from his first visit. He was now an experienced captain, married and with a midshipman stepson, Josiah, who joined the ship with him. On February 7th 1793 he called on the Resident Commissioner of the Dockyard in the magnificent house which still exists. It is the oldest British naval building to survive intact. Captain Nelson in full dress uniform, cocked hat and sword then walked the few hundred yards down to what is now known as Thunderbolt Pier to be rowed out to his new command.

His ship did not go down river until mid-March and although he visited his wife on a number of occasions he did not ask her to join him at Sheerness where the “Three Tuns” was acclaimed by naval officers, with a sort of perverted pride, as The Worst Inn in the World. In a month at the port he never slept ashore and his cabin in the Agamemnon, in which he was to see continuous service at sea in the Mediterranean for the next three years, was his home. It was during these years that he first met Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William, the British ambassador in Naples.

It was also during this time the infamous mutinies took place onboard ships anchored at the Nore. This was especially frightening for those in the dockyards at Chatham and Sheerness who feared the Revolution then sweeping France might spread to the entire British fleet. On June 30th 1797 the ringleader of the mutineers, Richard Parker, was hanged onboard his ship the Sandwich anchored at the mouth of the Medway. Twenty nine of his fellows suffered the same fate in the following weeks

Nelson did not return to England until September 1797. By then he had lost the sight of his right eye at Calvi in Corsica and his right arm at Santa Cruz in Tenerife. Although hailed as a hero after his legendary exploits at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and promoted to Rear Admiral, his victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Copenhagen were yet to come.

When he finally returned home in 1801 from these these famous engagements it was natural he would be first choice to take charge of the naval forces being assembled to repel the threat of invasion by Napoleon which had become very real. Arriving once more in Kent, Nelson went on board his flagship the Unite at Sheerness. The country was on war alert, particularly in the coastal towns of Margate, Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone where the citizens were making plans for evacuation.

On July 28th 1801 Nelson issued orders to the ships under his new command, some of which had appropriate names – Defender, Conflict, Attack, Gallant – and by the next day was ready to leave, by post chaise, for Deal. His arrival in Faversham attracted large cheering crowds and he inspected the reservists who looked “with wild but affectionate amazement at him who was once more going to step forward in defence of his country”.

Deal was important to the navy as it was the port for the Downs, the protected anchorage in the lee of the Goodwin Sands, where as many as 300 ships could lie safely offshore. There was also a walled dockyard which built small sailing vessels, carried out ship repairs and supplied stores, provisions and fresh water to the anchored ships. It covered a large area of the town with the main entrance adjacent to “The Port Arms” public house and the Time Ball Tower, which both still exist. In August 1801, with invasion likely from France just twenty two miles away, Deal was a scene of frantic activity.

Nelson took the opportunity to not only command his ships from there but also to have a brief family holiday by the sea.
Lady Nelson, as well as Sir William and Lady Hamilton, arrived in Deal to stay at the “Three Kings” (now “The Royal Hotel”) where Nelson booked rooms with a gallery overlooking the beach. A bathing machine was hired for the ladies. During this time they made excursions to Ramsgate, Dover Castle and Walmer. This was an unusual “menage a quatre” as Nelson had also become the father of a daughter, Horatia, born to Emma Hamilton earlier the same year.

Using knowledge gleaned from local smugglers who brought back information as well as brandy and tobacco, Nelson planned to attack the enemy flotilla in Boulogne harbour with ships and flat bottomed barges loaded with explosives. The expedition however was a failure with 44 men killed and 128 wounded. Captain Edward Parker one of Nelson’s most promising young officers was severely wounded and the admiral took lodgings for him at 73 Middle Street in Deal so he could recover. This narrow street of Georgian houses still exists largely unchanged. However, the young man died and is buried in the churchyard of St Georges’s Church. Nelson attended the funeral as chief mourner and was seen leaning on an oak tree weeping bitterly.

During the so called ‘experimental peace’ with France that followed it seems likely Nelson visited Sheerness again and with Lady Hamilton stayed at Church House in nearby Queenborough. It is believed they worshiped together in Holy Trinity Church. He was then sent to command the Mediterranean fleet in the Victory which between 1800 and 1803 had been completely refitted in Chatham dockyard at a cost greater than building the ship there forty years earlier.

He joined Victory at Portsmouth on May 20th 1803 and sailed immediately for the Mediterranean where he was to spend the next two years. The time was spent blockading French and Spanish ports and attempting to get the French to come out and fight. But the French, under Admiral Villeneuve, did manage to break out and Nelson pursued them right across the Atlantic to the West Indies and back without making contact. He arrived back in Portsmouth in August 1805 and after a few weeks leave he re-embarked in Victory on September 15th before sailing for south west Spain to join up with the rest of the fleet off Cadiz. It was here that he defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st 1805.

Nelson’s final return to Kent was when his battle scarred flagship Victory, under makeshift masts and sails, anchored off Deal on December 19th 1805. This time the flags in the dockyard and the town were at half mast. Delayed by two days of gales the ship eventually sailed round to the Nore where the surgeon Sir William Beatty performed an autopsy on the admiral’s body, preserved after the battle in a cask of brandy (not rum as legend relates) and extracted the fatal musket bullet. It entered his right shoulder and the round ball – now in the National Maritime Museum – still has a piece of gold epaulette and blue uniform attached. It was extracted from his left shoulder having passed though his body and broken his back.

Nelson was in his forty eight year. His body was transferred to a coffin which he had had made especially for himself from the wood of the main mast of the L’Orient, a captured French ship at the Battle of the Nile. A state funeral was held in London in January 1806. The procession was so long it stretched from Whitehall to St Pauls where he is buried. Before the coffin, which had been draped with flags from the Victory, was carried into the cathedral sailors from his ship which had accompanied his coffin rushed forward and tore off a large pieces of the ship’s battle ensign and held the fragments to their chests.

Kent’s adopted ‘Man of Kent’ had come home for the last time. The nation was in mourning but Nelson’s legacy and his very real connection with the county lives on.

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