Public flock to see Nelson lying in state: “One man had his right eye literally torn out”

Posted on March 2, 2015 by Rob Powell

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


3 Responses to “Public flock to see Nelson lying in state: “One man had his right eye literally torn out””

  1. Nelson in Greenwich website goes live | on March 2nd, 2015 10:23 am

    […] first article is all about the astonishing scenes witnessed in Greenwich as thousands of people waited – […]

  2. mike guilfoyle on July 9th, 2015 10:44 am

    Fascinating piece on Nelson lying in state after his triumph at Trafalgar. One of his midshipmen Cpt Richard Douglas RN ( HMS Achille) has his family grave in the Ladywell section of Ladywell & Brockley Cemetery and I will incorporate noted comments above in guided walk at the Foblc Open Day – Sunday 12 th July – many thanks for posting.

    Mike Guilfoyle
    Vice-Chair : Foblc

  3. Rob Powell on July 9th, 2015 10:59 am

    Thanks Mike – sounds good. I’ve just given it a tweet and might get along myself if I can.