Greenwich.co.uk’s Charlton match reporter Kevin Nolan turns travel writer with this account of his visit with wife Hazel to Burnham Thorpe, birthplace of Nelson.
The village of Burnham Thorpe is one of the five “Burnhams” clustered together near the North Norfolk coastline, the biggest of which is Burnham Market. But Burnham Thorpe has a claim to fame which sets it apart from its brethren. It was there on September 29th 1758, that Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most celebrated naval hero, was born in All Saints parsonage, the sixth of eleven children raised by the rector Edmund Nelson and his wife Catharine until her death when Horatio was nine.
Not that Burnham Thorpe, at first glance anyway, exploits its reflected glory. As you approach the village through agreeable countryside to be found nowhere else in England, you are directed by just one wooden sign which has seen better days and lies at an unreadable angle. Or, at least, it did when my wife Hazel and myself went out of our way to visit the village some ten or so years ago. The off-kilter sign mentions the Nelson connection but that’s the first and last reference to Burnham Thorpe‘s favourite son.
We took to the casual, understated way in which the locals handle their connection to one of the most famous Englishmen of them all. Even the village’s only pub, the Lord Nelson, was re-named from “The Plough” shortly after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, its re-branding clearly unconnected to modern marketing.
It was in The Plough that the Nelson family hosted a come-ye-all party before their 13 year-old midshipman went to sea with his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling in 1771. Nearly 250 years later, the local boy would return to a pub which wears its years elegantly and has hardly changed. And being a man of the people, he might even stand his round, because unlike his military contemporary, the Duke of Wellington, who regarded the cannon fodder he commanded as “scum”, the admiral and his sailors shared mutual respect and affection.
Much of Nelson’ lasting reputation is explained by the almost reckless bravery he showed in combat. Convinced that his crews were encouraged by his refusal to direct operations from a safe place, the peerless tactician put his body on the line and made no attempt, despite the pleading of his staff officers, to spare himself the same danger his crew were undergoing. His courage had cost him an arm and the sight in his right eye during past engagements at Santa Cruz and Corsica.
Out of favour with the Admiralty and placed on half pay, Nelson spent five mid-career years back in Burnham Thorpe fretting that his naval career was over. As their resources grew thinner, the call from London eventually came and his superiors, many of them still sceptical about “the Nelson touch”, placed him in charge of the Fleet, with orders to track down and destroy the French navy. This was spectacularly accomplished at Trafalgar, where he was cut down by a French sharpshooter but lived long enough to learn that every man had done his duty as England expected.
Horatio Nelson had made plans to be buried alongside his parents in the All Saints church graveyard. The outpouring of national grief at the loss of their greatest hero made that unthinkable and when his body arrived back in England, it was laid in state for several days in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, ferried upriver, then buried in the crypt under St. Paul’s Cathedral. The city of London came to a halt for the biggest funeral a “commoner” had ever been granted.
Back in Burnham Thorpe, meanwhile, life placidly continued, its only concession to celebrity being the change of name two years after Nelson’s death of the local pub. This quintessential English village has little truck with tourism and bears its history lightly on each shoulder. It’s a beautiful place, thankfully unapproachable by motorway, but be careful with the rum-based libation they call “Nelson’s Blood” on offer inside the Lord Nelson. Splice the mainbrace, by all means, but steady as you go. We’ll say no more….
AROUND about the ninety-ninth anniversary of the death of Lord Nelson, in October 1904, an incident occurred in Greenwich which was described by the press as an “outrage”.
It was an act of vandalism at the Naval College that was so foul, the Kentish Mercury described it as a “senseless joke” which altogether exceeded “the limits of decency.”
But what was this long-forgotten offence that caused such colourful disgust?
In 1851, a bust of Lord Nelson had been presented to Greenwich Hospital by Lady Chantrey, the widow of its sculptor, Sir Frances Chantrey. It was a bronze version of a marble bust that had been commissioned from Chantrey by King William IV.
After spending several decades in the Painted Hall which housed the National Gallery of Naval Art, the bust was placed in the courtyard of the then Royal Naval College facing the river.
One morning, early in October 1904, a shocking discovery was made by a workman: the nose of England’s immortal hero had been painted bright red.
Brazenly standing next to the bust was a tin of red paint and a paint brush but the architect of Horatio’s humiliation was no where to be found.
The Times reported that “all cadets now studying at the college were paraded, and were addressed by the president on the wantonness of the outrage.”
Read the Kentish Mercury’s report on the incident
All of the cadets denied any knowledge of the disfigurement and the culprit who left Nelson red-faced was not traced by the authorities.
The paint daubed on Nelson’s face in the act of nasal mischief was “removed with considerable difficulty,” added The Times.
With the paint gone and Nelson’s dignity restored, the bust remained in situ for almost another thirty years.
In 1933, the bust was moved from the Naval College (pictured below) while the Greenwich Night Pageant took place.
Rather than be returned to the courtyard after, it was instead placed in the grounds of a Greenwich Hospital building which was very shortly to become the National Maritime Museum – it has remained there ever since.
As today is Red Nose Day, you can find out more about donating here.
Nelson’s three days of lying in state in the Painted Hall at Greenwich started on January 5th 1806, having been killed during his victory at Trafalgar in October 1805.
Newspaper accounts from the time explain how the public queued in vast numbers for their chance to see the coffin.
Those who managed to get in to the Painted Hall to pay their respects had to endure long waits with much pushing and shoving.
This article from the time (below) describes the waiting crowd as a “mob”, adding that there was a “terrible crush”.
“The passage is very narrow, and there, by this ill conduct of the people, several delicate persons, women and children, who had got so far, thought it better to get out of the ground, and give up any idea of seeing the state, although by waiting a little longer, they would have been certain of obtaining a free passage.”
Once inside the Painted Hall, the “whole of the view, at the inclosed place, where the coffin stood, was extremely solemn, magnificent, and impressive, people appeared to feel a degree of awe which produced the utmost decorum.” But on the first day, which public admissions started late in the day, of viewing the coffin, “thousands … went away without seeing more than the gates and walls of the Hospital”
The town of Greenwich, this report says, was “in confusion” with several hundred hackney carriages and the roads from London thronged with pedestrians. The “alarming scene” of people trying to get in is again described here, with “female shrieks” to be heard all around. “Several persons were trodden underfoot and greatly hurt,” as the crowd pushed forward, overwhelming an “express order” on how many to admit at a time.
Shockingly, this newspaper report says that “one man had his right eye literally torn out by coming in contact with one of the entrance gateposts”.
“Vast numbers of Ladies and Gentlemen lost their shoes, hats, shawls, and the Ladies fainted in every direction.”
Once the people managed to gain entry in to the Painted Hall, they were met with a “solemn scene”. The hall was surrounded by seventeen thousand yards of black cloth and lit by hundreds of wax candles.
“At the head of the coffin stood three mutes, in full dress mourning, with broad black silk scarfs, fringed weepers, with bags, and mourning swords; two others stood at each side, at the foot, dressed in the same manner.”
The same report continues with yet more details of injuries sustained by the ordinary folk who had come to pay their respects to Lord Nelson.
“A gentleman had his leg shockingly fractured, and was otherwise much bruised. He was carried away senseless on a bier. A woman had her arm broken, and several others were trampled upon, and carried away apparently lifeless.”
After three days of lying in state at Greenwich, Nelson’s body was taken from Greenwich to London in a Grand River Procession. His funeral took place on January 9th at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Newspaper clippings sourced from the British Newspaper Archive