The Wrestlers Inn, the termination point for the `Flying Coach on Steel Springs’ run by Job Smith between Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich, was a well established hostelry. It had the reputation as “the most considerable hostelry in the town” by the time James Sharman was born in 1785. The Inn’s popularity continued to grow to a point when Lord Nelson, having landed in Great Yarmouth on, 6th November 1800 from his victory at the Battle of the Nile stayed at the Wrestlers Inn; he was accompanied by a small party which included Lady Hamilton.
It is said that, standing at an open window of the Inn, Nelson addressed an excited crowd “I myself am a Norfolk man, and I glory in being so”. On his departure, Mrs Suckling the Inn’s proprietor asked Nelson if he would allow her to call the Inn the “Nelsons Arms” in future. “That would be absurd” said the hero “seeing as I have but one”. As a result of this remark, the Wrestler Inn became the “Nelson Hotel ” and remained so for the next 20 years, reverting to its previous name around 1820 – one year after its 1799 ‘pressed’ waiter became ‘Keeper’ of Yarmouth’s Nelson Monument on the South Denes.
John Suckling, Licensee of the Wrestler Inn since 1791, took young Sharman into his employ as a ‘waiter’ – let us just say, for a matter of convenience not fact, that this would have been in early 1799 when James Sharman was 14 years old. Sometime later that year this young lad, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Had this unfortunate incident not occured when it did then the young Sharman might well have served on Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson during his visit to the Inn on 6th November 1800. Unfortunately it did happen, Sharman was press ganged and the probability was that he was not the only one being grabbed for naval service. Almost certainly, the Press Gang would have targeted other ‘strong healthy-looking persons’ in Yarmouth. The only concession probably offered to Sharman would have been a choice between voluntary or forced servitude.
Sharman had been forced into service by a Crown practice that did allow for the navy to take British subjects into service. There were, of course, certain restrictions laid down by the Government on this practice but anything that stood in the way of ‘a result’ was often ignored; the Royal Navy had a constant need for able bodied seamen to man its fleet. The groups of men that made up the Press Gangs came from amongst sailors, or civilians hired for the purpose. They would roam the countryside, concentrating on areas near the naval ports and the coastal counties, searching for men to compel into the service. If no man-of-war sailor was available, fishermen and merchant sailors were preferred, but any strong healthy-looking person might be taken. Norfolk was not excempt from the practice.
One of the ‘escape clauses’ available to those taken by a press gang was to have access to ‘prominent associates’ ashore and, importantly, the means by which to contact them before the ship sailed. On the basis of such help, the individual would be released. Other means by which release would be granted was if the men taken had communicable diseases or too infirm to serve. The rest would be given a choice between voluntary or forced servitude. Records indicate that the Royal Navy in the 18th Century consisted of 47% volunteers, 24% impressed men and another list of 29% volunteers. The last probably included those who volunteered for service after being forced on board, although no one can be certain about this.
It would be pure supposition to say that Sharman must have ‘volunteered’ at some early point, but he did go on to record a lengthy period of service before being invalided out some years later; he also appeared to have modestly risen in rank. However, at the outset of his new career and, on the basis of his age, he must have been classed as a “ship’s boy” when he joined his first ship. As things turned out that was HMS Weazle, a new 214 tonne sloop-of-war sailing ship with a size of 77 x 26 ft. It had been built by the firm of King in Dover in 1799 and she had 16 cannons. It is not known at what point in the ship’s five year life he actually joined the Weazle but on the 1st March 1804, the ship was wrecked off Cabritta Point near Gibraltar. At the time she was under the command of Lieutenant William Layman (acting) when, during a storm, it ran aground and was smashed to pieces with the loss of one man out of a crew of 70.
By a twist of fate, Sharman then found himself amongst the motley crew of HMS Victory, as proved by his entry in the surviving Ship’s Muster. He was be under the command of Captain Thomas Hardy and, allegedly, given the rank of ‘Able Seaman’. This rank was certainly a leg up from first being a ship’s boy, landsman and then ordinary seaman; it is a further indication that Sharman had established himself as a willing ‘volunteer’ in His Majesty’s Navy and no longer a ‘pressed man’. As an ‘able seaman’ he must have demonstrated to the ship’s satisfaction that he could perform several skilled tasks on the ship. As a result, he would have been paid a bit more than an ordinary seaman and, if possible, assigned to a position consistent with his skills. There were 212 experienced ‘able seamen’ amongst a total motley crew of 821 from mixed nationalities who made up HMS Victory’s manpower at the Battle of Trafalgar.
It has been said that Able Seaman, James Sharman, survived Trafalgar largely unscathed by the experience, leaving the ship’s employ sometime after it had returned to Portsmouth. He took away with him the seeds of what would, in time, become a common belief that it was he who helped carry the fatally wounded Horatio Nelson below decks to the cockpit during the battle. Be that as it may, Sharman went on to have three more ship postings before eventually being discharged through illness and entering the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen. Understandably, he was not happy and on the recommendation of his former Captain Hardy, Sharman was to be appointed “Keeper of the Pillar” in 1817. This post was created to look after a proposed edifice in honour of Horatio Nelson which was to be built on the South Denes on the outskirts of Yarmouth.
During the course from conception through to planning and fundraising, the proposed ‘Pillar’ went through more than one name change. An original suggestion was for something along the lines of ‘Norfolk Naval Pillar’ before opting for ‘The Norfolk Column’ – to think that nowadays, it is referred to as the ‘Britannia Monument’ following restoration in 2005. But back in the early 19th Century, the South Denes on which this pillar/column/monument would be built was still an open, grassy area between the sea beach and the River Yare. This was where fishermen hung out their nets to dry, cattle grazed and public hangings took place. It was also used by the East Norfolk Militia for its military manoeuvres, and also where its officers laid down a proper race course for themselves. The site also became a popular venue for assembled “fashionable personages” to be seen! Maybe it was not envisaged at that time but a few years after Nelson’s death, a Royal Naval Hospital was built on the Denes and, later still, incorporated into a large military barracks.
The idea of raising a monument of sorts to Norfolk’s Nelson was first put forward in the late 1790s after Nelson’s great victory at Aboukir Bay or, in other words Battle of the Nile in 1798. However, this suggestion was not carried through at the time, but was certainly revived after his death at his greatest triumph, the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. We are told that a first proposal was not to have a monument in Yarmouth at all, but on Castle Hill in Norwich, which would not have pleased those in Yarmouth. In fact, it was in 1814 when a group of Norfolk businessmen, with Yarmouth interests, finally set up a committee to collect money for the project, having decided that the open spaces of Yarmouth’s South Denes would be the most appropriate setting – right in the centre of the race course.
It was an area well known to Nelson, rich in military and naval connections and an excellent site for a physical beacon “to guide future generations of navigators towards the harbour mouth” they would say. It would be built in the centre of the recently-established officers’ race course, as soon as subscriptions had reached £7000. That was when the committee in charge finally met in Thetford to choose from 44 different proposals, from which they opted for the Doric design put forward by the prominent London architect William Wilkins. Wilkins was a native of Norfolk and an architect who had designed the Shire Hall in Norwich, London’s National Gallery and Downing College, Cambridge.
The foundation stone of the Nelson’s Monument – aka Norfolk Pillar, the Norfolk Naval Pillar and Britannia Monument – was laid on 15 August, 1817. It was a moment when there “were great huzzahs and goings-on” – 12 years after the death of Norfolk’s favourite son and Britain’s greatest naval hero. During the next two years the column rose to its full height of 144 foot (44 metres), standing clear on the South Denes beach but slightly shorter than the 169 foot (52 metre) memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square which, incidentally, followed some 20 years later. Yarmouth’s monument was in the style of a Doric column topped by six caryatid figures that supported a statue of Britannia proudly atop a globe inscribed with the motto from Nelson’s coat of arms ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’, translating as ‘Let him who has merited it take the palm’. Britannia holds an olive branch in her outstretched right hand, a trident in her left, and looks inland, some say, towards Burnham Thorpe in North Norfolk, Nelson’s birthplace. At its base are inscriptions commemorating Nelson’s victories at St Vincent in 1797, Aboukir on the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. On the western front a Latin inscription reads:
‘This great man Norfolk boasts her own, not only as born there of a respectable family, and as there having received his early education, but her own also in talents, manners and mind’.
The work was completed in 1819 when a fully recovered James Sharman, commenced his duties as “Keeper of the Pillar” – but not before the opening ceremony was out of the way. That affair, marked by “an elegant ball” for three hundred and fifty persons of rank and respectability”. One can assume that ‘common seamen’, including Sharman maybe, would not have been amongst its guests? Be that as it may, we do know that from his first day in charge, Sharman was to remain Keeper for nearly 50 years, living in a cottage nearby that had been built for him. Then in 1827, some ten years after being appointed, Sharman undertook a brave rescue of several sailors from the Brigantine Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his cottage. It was the famous author, Charles Dickens, who read a newspaper report of this exploit whilst writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth. He must have been clearly intrigued because he made the effort to visit Sharman in his cottage and, from this experience, Dickens was said to have based the book’s character, Ham Peggotty, on Sharman. Also, during his visit and talks with the old sea-dog, Dickens was to hear Sharman’s account of his collecting wood from shipwrecks and building a shelter for himself. As the driftwood from wrecked boats tended to be curved, the shelter resembled an upturned boat – again, reminiscent of Peggotty’s boat house in David Copperfield.
But, Sharman was reputed to be something of a ‘colourful character’. Apparently and throughout his life in Yarmouth, he never tired of recounting the exploits of his hero, Nelson, and telling yarns of his own adventures. Who’s to say, he did not spin a tale or two when speaking to Dickens, Similarly, was it Sharman who gave birth to the claim that it was he who carried Nelson down to HMS Victory’s cockpit during Trafalgar! Surely, no one could possibly put it past him, particularly when trying to encourage extra tips from those ‘regaled’ visitors to ‘his’ Monument.
But one event that Sharman could not have made up and must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below.
James Sharman died in 1867 at the age of 82 years. He was entitled to a Royal Naval funeral and funds were available to finance it but due to an oversight he was borne to his grave, in the Old Cemetery in Yarmouth, accompanied only by members of his family and without anyone from the navy being present. His gravestone, which includes the words ‘HMS Victory’ is now badly laminating and may well have become illegible.
As for his ‘Pillar’? Well, It has ended up being surrounded by commercial and industrial buildings. But despite this, and with the restorations of 2005, there is still grandeur and fascination with it – “a monument to a Norfolk man who bestrode his epoch and commanded the sea”. In 1817, an ‘Able Seaman’ from Yarmouth by the name of James Sharman was allowed the opportunity to looked after his master’s Monument.
Towards the latter part of James Sharman’s 50 years in charge of Nelson’s (Britannia) Monument, the cottage that he lived in became a beer house with him as Landlord. This beer house later became a public house called the ‘Monument House’ followed by being re-named the Nelson Hotel.
James Sharman’s General Service Medal with Trafalgar Bar was sold at auction in 2012 for £27,000!
The Nation Museum, Royal Navy: http://www.hms-victory.com
Photos: Royal Navy National Museum & Google Images.
Nelsons Monument: http://www.nelsonsmonument.org.uk
Visit Norfolk: http://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk