Nelson’s Red Nose Day

Posted on March 13, 2015 by Rob Powell

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.

Reconstruction of Nelson's bust with a red nose

Admiral of the red (nose): Artist’s impression of Nelson’s bust

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.

Chantrey’s bust of Nelson is one of the things to see on the Nelson in Greenwich trail.

As today is Red Nose Day, you can find out more about donating here.


2 Responses to “Nelson’s Red Nose Day”

  1. Deborah on March 13th, 2015 7:38 pm

    The chap on the left was Alfred Lewis, from Plumstead, who was Manager of Works at the Naval College. He attended Plumstead High Street School in the 1890s (now Bannockburn Primary School). His forebears included a cheese monger, a prison turnkey and shepherds. The family moved to Plumstead when the Arsenal was expanding rapidly.

  2. Rob on March 14th, 2015 3:57 pm

    That’s great, Deborah – thank you for the additional info.