Towards the end of his life Horatio Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar, lived at Merton Place, an elegant country house set in 160 acres of landscaped grounds in what is now the London Borough of Merton in South London in an area more commonly known as South Wimbledon, where I live.
Nelson had gathered many honours for services to his country during his career. Horatio Nelson was known as 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte KB. The KB is the term for Knight of the Bath, which is a high-ranking knighthood. Knighthoods came and still come in different categories. Nelson’s knighthood was the top rank.
Nelson was born into a prosperous family in Norfolk on the 29th September 1758. His uncle, Maurice Suckling, encouraged him to join the Navy. His talent was recognised at an early age because he served with the leading naval officers of the time and he rose rapidly through the ranks. He obtained his first command in 1778 at the age of twenty. His reputation grew because of his courage and valour in battle and his ability to gather a firm grasp of naval tactics very quickly. Nelson was a sickly individual and often had periods of illness. After The Wars of American Independence he was laid off and was without a ship for a while.
With the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, Nelson was called back into service to serve primarily in the Mediterranean theatre of war. He fought in various minor battles just off Toulon, at the Capture of Corsica, and then was given diplomatic duties with the Italian States. On 12 September 1793, he first met Lady Hamilton. At the time, Nelson was a 35-year-old post captain and she was the 28-year-old wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples. Emma was famous as a great beauty and a performer of ”Attitudes”, based on Ancient Greek statuary. She wore diaphanous floating materials for these poses but some , which left nothing to the imagination. (What an old buffer like Sir William Hamilton was doing with a party girl, as a wife is another story!)
In 1797, Nelson came to prominence again as captain of HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Soon after he took part in the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in which he was badly wounded and lost his right arm. He was forced to return to England to recuperate.
It is interesting to note, in the Georgian navy any badly damaged limb was always amputated. This was the only way they could prevent disease setting into the wounds. If ever you have the chance to visit HMS Victory at Portsmouth you can see the surgeon’s instruments laid out on the deal-operating table below decks. The surgeon had two assistant surgeons and used the help of the seaman’s mates to hold him down. They experimented with alcohol as an anaesthetic but discovered that getting the injured sailor drunk made the blood thin and it wouldn’t clot. The only thing they could do at that time was to strap him down and give him a piece of leather to grip between his teeth. A scalpel paired back the skin and flesh. A caffater was used to drain the blood. The arteries were severed and then a saw was used to cut quickly through the bone. A file was used to smooth the end of the bone. The arteries were tied. The flap of skin was sewn over the stump. The stump was dipped in tar and then and only then, the man was given rum, lots of it, to get drunk. All done and dusted in 90 seconds.
In 1798 Nelson returned to action and beat Napoleons navy at the battle of The Nile. One of Nelson’s greatest achievements. He remained in the Mediterranean to support the State of Naples against a French invasion. In 1801 Nelson was ordered to go to the Baltic and this time he defeated the Danes at The Battle of Copenhagen. The Danes to this day don’t like Nelson. The Danish fleet was in port and by attacking the fleet in port a lot of the bombardment also hit the city of Copenhagen and destroyed much of the city, killing many ordinary citizens.
After this encounter in the north Nelson took over the blockade of the French and Spanish fleets in Toulon. They escaped and Nelson chased them to the West Indies and back without bringing them to battle. He now began the blockade of the French and Spanish in Cadiz. The end game was approaching although nobody knew that at the time. He returned to England and Merton Place for some respite with his family that had become Lady Hamilton, her husband Sir William (who was living with them), Nelson and Emma’s daughter, Horatia. It was a scandalous arrangement for the time, but Sir William Hamilton appeared to be comfortable with the situation. That tells another story.
In October 1805, Nelson returned to action off Cadiz. He was a great national hero by this time, and he journeyed in triumph from Merton Place, cheered by villagers as he made his way to Portsmouth. Normally a sea captain or admiral would have been rowed by longboat to his ship waiting at sea from the hard at Portsmouth, which is next to the dockyard entrance.
However, massive crowds had gathered to see Nelson leave for Cadiz. Worried about safety, he asked to leave from Southsea beach, about three quarters of a mile east of Portsmouth. So it was Southsea he was rowed from, to a waiting ship that took him to HMS Victory off Cadiz harbour. A famous painting portrays Nelson’s departure from Southsea beach.
People talk about “the Nelson touch,” and the superiority of the British Navy. The British navy like the British army was and is a family. Officers knew each other personally and socialised together. Nelson was going to Cadiz to meet friends, the other naval officers commanding the ships under his overall command. They knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and Nelson played to these. He knew who could do what, exactly. It was a, “well oiled machine.” Also British gun crews trained continuously in the using and firing of their guns. They were trained thoroughly. The whole fleet worked as a well-run unit.
The fact that the French and Spanish were a combined fleet made up of two navies had an inbuilt fault. Their gun crews were not so efficient. There were two languages to contend with and there was a matter of pride on each side that caused friction. The French and Spanish commanders did not know their men and captains as well as the officers in the British navy knew theirs. The British fleet was smaller but a much more efficient group. Nelson also utilised unconventional tactics. Because of the superior numbers of the opposing fleet Nelson decided not to go for a broadside attack where the two fleets would have passed each other firing side by side until one side gave in. He was outnumbered and this would not have faired well for the British fleet. Nelson decided to form his fleet into two parts, each forming a line, which sailed into the French and Spanish fleets, like two arrows fired perpendicularly to the line of French and Spanish ships.
This split the opposing force into three parts. Nelson’s fleet dealt with each part separately. The Spanish and French fleet was taken unawares with this tactic and many of their ships were not able to engage the British at first. This gave time for the British to pick off the enemy, slowly destroying them almost, one by one. Nelson was victorious. A sniper high in the rigging of the mizzenmast of the French ship Redoubtable picked out Nelson and Captain Hardy standing on the poop deck of the Victory and shot Nelson. The bullet passed through his shoulder, through his lungs and severed his spine. The ships surgeon later did an autopsy to find the cause of Nelson’s death and extent of his injuries. A marine called John Pollard revenged Nelsons death by shooting the French sniper dead. He was seen falling from the mizzenmast into the shrouds hanging from the Redoubtable.
To illustrate Nelson’s shear courage and perhaps bravado, minutes before he himself was shot, an officer standing next to him had been severed in half by a cannon ball from the French ship and the blood and body parts of this unfortunate had only just been cleared away when Nelson himself was struck.
Most injuries and deaths in a battle of this sort were from flying splinters of wood. Victory was made from 6000 trees, 90% of which were oak but some elm, pine and fir were used. When you see the Victory and some of the massive wooden elbows, struts and planks used in it’s construction you can imagine how great sharp pieces of wood could go flying about when hit by a cannon ball going at the speed of sound. The majority of fatalities were from splinters to the head.
Nelson was not the nicest of personalities. He was proud, vain, and authoritarian but he was also extremely brave, astute and a brilliant tactician. He was loved and admired by his men and the whole of the British nation.
If you go to The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich you can see the admirals coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot. The bullet hole is visible in the shoulder and the expensive white silk lining is heavily blood stained.
Nelson did not want a sea burial. He had the right to ask for a land burial. It would be months before The Victory would return to Portsmouth so the ships surgeon suggested they place Nelson’s body in a large cask of rum. They did this and the body remained in relatively good condition until Nelson’s state funeral and burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. There is rather a gruesome story following Nelson’s funeral. The crew of HMS Victory are reputed to have drunk the rum Nelson’s body had been preserved in.
So, Nelson’s final journey to super stardom and the gratitude of an adoring nation started from Merton Place in South Wimbledon.
Merton Place no longer exists and the 160 acres of land Nelson owned around Merton Place have long been sold off and used for housing over various generations.
Roads of Victorian, Edwardian and more modern flats and housing now covers what was once Nelson’s idyllic estate of Merton. There is much evidence still existing though, if you take the time to look.
By 1801 Nelson had separated from his wife Fanny. He wanted to find a home where he could entertain his friends. Lady Hamilton found Merton Place situated next to the picturesque Wandle River and Nelson paid £9000 for it.
Nelson paid for the house’s development. Great changes to it took place in 1805. Nelson employed the architect Thomas Chawner to create a new layout. It became a double fronted house with a grand drive leading up to it.
Also a tributary from the Wandle River was dug leading up to the house. This was named The Nile, after Nelson’s famous victory. If you go to the site of Merton place to day there is a housing estate; houses and flats built in the 1960’s.
On the very site of, “Merton Place,” is a block of flats called, “Merton Place.” On the site of the entrance to the grand drive that lead up to the house from the London Road is a pub called, The Nelson Arms.
It is a spectacular Edwardian edifice with large tiled pictures of Nelson’s portrait and HMS Victory.
A few hundred yards form The Nelson Arms are some housing and flats that are on the site of a building that was called, The Gatehouse. The owner was a friend of Nelson’s, James Halfhide. Nelson often visited James in The Gatehouse. A little further along the London Road, leading into Tooting, is Wandle Park, the site of Wandle Park House. Lady Hamilton and Nelson are known to have visited the owner James Perry the editor and owner of the Morning Chronicle, the most successful London Newspaper in Georgian times.
A mile west of Merton Place is the church of St Mary the Virgin, where Nelson worshipped regularly on a Sunday. The pew he used is still there.
Not far from here is a newer church called St John the Divine. Built in 1914, it was designed by the architect C. Cage to mark the anniversary of the death of Nelson. The church was built on what was part of the western extension of Nelson’s lands as a memorial to Nelson, and was financed by funds collected from local people.
It has a stained glass window designed by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones and was made at the William Morris works situated next to the Wandle River near Merton Place. The high altar is made from a piece of timber from HMS Victory.
Next to the church is a small park with a granite monument that has an inscription recalling Nelson. This stone is flanked by two cannons which stood at the entrance to the doorway into Merton Place.
A mile and a half south of Merton Place at Mitcham, is Mitcham Cricket club, which still exists today. Some excellent pubs surround the cricket green at Mitcham and it is very relaxing to sit out in front of one of the pubs on a balmy summers day, drinking a pint of local Youngs beer, watching white flannelled cricketers hitting leather on willow. It is one of the most famous and oldest local, amateur cricket clubs in England. Nelson watched cricket here.
Going west from Mitcham Cricket club back towards Merton is Mordern Lodge. It is set back from the road and set within some beautiful grounds. It is a private residence surrounded by lawns, shrubs and trees and can be just glimpsed from the road. Here lived in the 19th century Abraham Goldsmid, an eminent Jewish banker of Anglo Dutch decent. He was a senior partner in one of the Capitals most powerful brokerage firms, Goldsmid. He had friends in high places – The Prince Regent, Sheridan, the playwright William Pitt, and the prime minister were friends, and Nelson himself was a personal, close friend. They lived virtually next to each other.
After Nelson’s death, Abraham and a group of fellow trustees gave Emma Hamilton £3,700 to save her from spiralling debt.
A mile and a bit north of Merton Place are Wimbledon Village and Wimbledon Common. There is a very elegant and unusually designed house called Eagle House in the village, once owned by the Reverend Thomas Lancaster. Nelson visited when it was a school for young noblemen and gentlemen. After Nelson’s visit it was renamed “Nelson House School.”
Wimbledon and South London do not look the same as in Nelson’s day but he would recognise some of it. Wimbledon Common and much of the village has not changed much since his day. He would certainly recognise some buildings, but Merton Place, the house and grounds he loved so much, no longer exist. He would think he was in some alien landscape.
Written by Jane Austen’s World contributor, Tony Grant, London Calling.
More on the topic
- The Life of Horatio Nelson, includes a video and extensive images
- Nelson, Trafalgar: National Archives
- Navy Surgeons’ Stories
- Tria Juncta in Uno, The Nelson Society
- Nelson Trail, Merton Council
- St. Mary the Virgin, Merton
- Rowlandson’s caricature of Lady Emma Hamilton and her attitudes