Before the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, Nelson sent out the famous signal to his fleet ‘England expects that every man [ship] will do his duty’. A few hours later, while leading the attack on the combined French and Spanish fleet, Britain’s most famous naval hero was struck by a fatal musket ball – at the very moment of his greatest strategic triumph.
Later, as the Battle of Trafalgar raged overhead and just before their poignant farewell kiss in the cockpit of HMS Victory, the dying Nelson was said to have whispered to Captain Thomas Hardy: “Don’t throw me overboard.” To which came the reply “Oh no – Certainly Not!” Hardy knew that there could be no question of burying the hero of Trafalgar at sea, as was the practice for the rest of the British dead. The Country would wish to bury Nelson at home with full honours.
The outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar turned out to be a total victory for Nelson’s British Fleet, but with the death of its commanding officer. HMS Victory, the Flag Ship, had been badly damaged and would have to be put into Gibraltar for repairs before making the voyage home. This presented a problem for both Hardy and the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty. They were faced with preserving Nelson’s body for some considerable time, possibly two months, until they could dock at a English port. The two agreed to ‘pickle’ Nelson in a large barrel, but on the advice of Beatty, the preserving solution would be brandy, mixed camphor and myrrh – not rum as persistent naval tradition dictated. Time would tell whether Beatty was right or wrong but, before that moment, HMS Victory had to limp back, under tow by the 98 gun ship ‘Neptune’. Victory finally anchored at Gibraltar one week after the battle – a ship grieving, wounded and jury opinionated.
News of Nelson’s death took 16 days to reach London, arriving on the 6 November; the ship that brought it was – excuse the pun – HMS Pickle! The news of the victory at Trafalgar and the loss of Nelson was met with muted celebration and, of course, sadness. Britain’s Navy had then established undisputed mastery and control at sea which was to last for over a century. The victory had removed the threat of invasion by Napoleon – but at a cost. The Times newspaper captured the mood of the nation:
‘We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant NELSON is no more’ (Hibbert, page 382).
For the next two months, England would be in a frenzy. The Times ran daily articles about Nelson’s death and the homeward progress of his flag-ship, the Victory; but each and everyone of them was pure speculation. Eyewitnesses to the event were, after all, still at sea and electronic and digital communication had not yet been invented. Members of the public were no better than the newspapers, many of their contributions were poems of lamentation and The Times had to ask them to stop sending them. Nobody in England yet knew what had transpired in Nelson’s final moments, nevertheless the Drury Lane Theatre still staged nightly re-enactments; there was no escaping Nelson mania.
In the meantime, Nelson’s body had been placed in a cask filled with brandy on 22 October 1805 and lashed to the deck and would be under guard for the journey to both Gibraltar and then to England. The barrel would also need to be topped up more than once due to the body’s natural absorption of the liquid. Stories of sailors drinking the alcoholic concoction out of respect for Nelson were merely fantastical hearsay, however they made for a good yarn – over a drink maybe!
HMS Victory arrived in Gibraltar on 28 October 1805 where the body was immediately moved to a lead-lined coffin and refreshed by replacing the brandy with spirits of wine to ensure continued preserving whilst essential repairs to the Victory were carried out. Then on 4 November, HMS Victory set sail for England but within two weeks into the journey, the gaseous pressures would burst the lid of the cask, startling one of the watchmen so much that he thought Nelson had returned to life and was trying to climb out. Despite this, the preserving process worked pretty well, the body remaining in near perfect condition throughout the long return voyage, which included a week long storm labelled “The Storm of the Century”.
Meanwhile, London was gearing up for the most lavish funeral celebration imaginable. Every coastal town in southern England was on alert to prepare multi-gun salutes, militia parades, and black crepe street hangings “to turn out at a moment’s warning” if and when the Victory landed nearby. There was popular support to erect a huge Nelson monument under the central dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (They settled for a fancy tomb and a smaller statue by the wall.)
HMS Victory reached England on 4 December 1805 and was inundated with a stream of visitors. If anyone on board had doubted the intensity of the public’s interest, then it could no longer be questioned. Beatty’s responsibility then was to prepare the body for lying in state in Greenwich; this meant removing Nelson’s somewhat deteriorated pickled remains from the cask, wrap them in clean linen, and transfer them to a lead coffin, again filled with brandy, as well as camphor and myrrh. This was carried out on 11 December 1805 when Beatty took the opportunity to conduct an autopsy, during which he recovered the musket bullet and a piece of gold epaulet—proof Nelson had been struck in the shoulder before the bullet lodged in his spine.
Beatty was to write up his findings for the Admiralty and Nelson’s brother, but his primary objective was not fact finding: he needed to empty out Nelson’s abdominal soft tissues, which were decomposing at a faster rate than everything else. Although Beatty would later claim the corpse was in perfect condition, both he and the chaplain wrote letters to their higher ups suggesting the face was by then a little too gruesome for public viewing.
On December 13, the Times ran an editorial imploring the public not to march a wax likeness of Nelson through town, “pageantry which borders upon childishness.” No rumour was too insignificant to print, and no monument too improbably large. The entire nation, regardless of class or occupation, was riveted. On the 21 December the lead coffin was again opened and the body placed in another coffin made from L’Orient’s mainmast – a French ship that had been destroyed in the Battle of the Nile and a present given to Nelson in 1799 from Benjamin Hallowell, then captain of HMS Swiftsure. The coffin was then placed in another made of lead and then one final body shift, to a wooden coffin—Beatty cautious to make sure Nelson’s skin didn’t fall off in front of everybody—it would be a closed-casket farewell tour. The official account of this appeared in the Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, dated 1807′:
“The Remains were wrapped in cotton vestments, and rolled from head to foot with bandages of the same material, in the ancient mode of embalming. The Body was then put into a leaden coffin, filled with brandy holding in solution camphor and myrrh. This coffin was enclosed in a wooden one, and placed in the after-part of HIS LORDSHIP’S cabin; where it remained till the 21st of December, when an order was received from the Admiralty for the removal of the Body. The coffin that had been made from the mainmast of the French Commander’s ship L’Orient, and presented to HIS LORDSHIP by his friend Captain HOLLOWELL, after the battle of the Nile, being then received on board, the leaden coffin was opened, and the Body taken out; when it was found still in most excellent condition, and completely plastic. The features were somewhat tumid, from absorption of the spirit; but on using friction with a napkin, they resumed in a great degree their natural character. All the Officers of the ship, and several of HIS LORDSHIP’S friends, as well as some of Captain HARDY’S, who had come on board the Victory that day from the shore, were present at the time of the Body’s being removed from the leaden coffin; and witnessed its undecayed state after a lapse of two months since death, which excited the surprise of all who beheld it. This was the last time the mortal part of the lamented Hero was seen by human eyes; as the Body, after being dressed in a shirt, stockings, uniform small-clothes and waistcoat, neck cloth, and night-cap, was then placed in the shell made from L’Orient’s mast, and covered with the shrouding. This was enclosed in a leaden coffin; which was soldered up immediately, and put into another wooden shell: in which manner it was sent out of the Victory into Commissioner GREY’S yacht, which was hauled alongside for that purpose. In this vessel the revered Remains were conveyed to Greenwich Hospital; attended by the Reverend Doctor SCOTT, and Messrs. TYSON and WHITBY.”
On 23 December, the coffin was collected from HMS Victory, moored in the River Medway, by the Sheerness dockyard commissioner George Grey’s official yacht Chatham. From there, the coffin was taken up the Thames to Greenwich Hospital where, on 25 December, it was placed in a private room until 4 January 1806. Nelson’s corpse had spent 80 unrefrigerated days above ground; now it was all over – but not quite. The gossip continued.
Despite the fact that Beatty was now famous, partly by his own doing, people still wondered, sometimes to Beatty’s face, why he did not use rum instead of brandy. Countless printed accounts maintained that Beatty did use rum, because that’s what is always used – isn’t it? Popular slang also popped up; navy rum, mixed with brandy, was now “Nelson’s Blood.” Surreptitious tippling on the sly was “Tapping the Admiral”.
In 1807, Beatty fought back with a bestselling book, Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, which let readers know in an authoritative third-person voice that all of his decisions had been exceptionally clever, and by the way brandy was the better choice.
Beatty said of his decision to use brandy,
“……a very general but erroneous opinion was found to prevail on the Victory’s arrival in England, that rum preserves the dead body from decay much longer and more perfectly than any other spirit, and ought therefore to have been used: but the fact is quite the reverse, for there are several kinds of spirit much better for that purpose than rum; and as their appropriateness in this respect arises from their degree of strength, on which alone their antiseptic quality depends, brandy is superior. Spirit of wine, however, is certainly by far the best, when it can be procured.”
This worked – but then, it did not!. The Authentic Narrative became the go-to source for historians interested in Nelson’s final moments, and Beatty died wealthy—a king’s physician, and a knight. However, the Nelson-rum connection remains tenacious, with several liquor companies selling bottles of spiced rum named after the Admiral pickled in brandy. There are still pubs all across England called The Lord Nelson.
As for the killer musket ball, Captain Hardy (of “Kiss me, Hardy” fame) let Beatty keep it as a good luck charm. He used it as a watch fob for the rest of his life. When he died in 1842, his family gave it to Queen Victoria. It’s in the grand vestibule of Windsor Castle.
A word about surgeons:
Today, the title evokes respect. These are the cool-under-pressure miracle workers who can clean out a heart and rewire nerve endings. In the 1800s, this was quite different. This was a time not altogether removed from the barber-surgeon days; in the absence of anaesthesia, most surgeons were essentially brawlers, burly guys who could hold you down or knock you out while they sawed and sewed. They often came from the lower classes – although this was less true in the navy than on land – and, unlike the ship’s physician, were not typically invited to dine with the commissioned officers. Although the profession was trying to set up a system of accreditation, most of the public still viewed surgeons as a cross between butchers and sideshow performers, and they weren’t far wrong.
Nelson’s surgeon, William Beatty was, however, exceptionally competent. At Trafalgar, 96 of 102 casualties treated by Beatty survived, including 9 of 11 amputees. To put this into some sort of context, battlefield statistics collected in 1816 found amputation’s mortality rate in the best case scenario was 33 percent, and in less optimal conditions more like 46 percent. Beatty was not working in a best case scenario, according to Nelson’s Surgeon by Laurence Brockliss, John Cardwell, and Michael Moss. Beatty had to work in a small, poorly-lit, cabin on a ship under attack – and then in a hurricane. To make matters worse, he was understaffed. Beatty’s staggering survival rate is all the more remarkable when you remember that Pasteur’s work on germ theory and Lister’s development of antiseptic surgery wouldn’t happen for another 50 years.
Beatty was also Irish at a time when Anglo-Irish relations were complicated. Although the two countries were firmly joined by the Acts of Union 1800 (creating the still-used Union Jack flag), that firmer union was a direct response to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was in turn a response to English brutality in Ireland. So although almost a quarter of the British seamen at Trafalgar were Irish, they were largely confined to the lower ranks.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of Irish fighting on the French side, a whole legion of them waiting to invade the British Isles. Ireland was about as unified as Afghanistan.
So, looking at Beatty, you have someone outside the chain of command; who had no significant patrons or connections to institutional power; who was Irish. This was the person who took charge of Nelson’s body; who was ‘allowed’ to take charge of Nelson’s body—essentially because he was bold enough to say “I think I know how to do this,” and his co-workers trusted his skill. Finally – and despite all the criticism about what spirit should be used to pickle Nelson, Beatty was knighted for his services to the Crown.
On Tuesday, Sep 23, 2008, a box, believed to be made of wood from a barrel that held Lord Nelson’s body preserved in brandy on its voyage back to Britain, was sold for £8,160. This tiny box measured 2.6 inches by 1.8 inches and less than an inch deep. It was a commemorative item with silver inlays.
Photos:Wikimedia.org and Google Images
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2833284