By Imogen Russell, Searchroom Supervisor
‘Lady H hopes to have the happiness and honour of your company’ Lady Hamilton wrote some time after the Battle of the Nile, ‘for she Loves dearly all seamen, but particularly those spoken so highly of, by our brave Admiral [Nelson]’. This was an invitation to Captain George Murray to attend Horatio Nelson’s birthday party, showing how highly regarded the man was in his social circles. As beloved as Nelson was, the sentiments bestowed upon the events surrounding the Battle of Trafalgar were thus mixed: elation over a victory that meant Napoleon would never invade Britain, and grief upon hearing of the death of such a pivotal naval tactician and hero. Today’s blog shall introduce you to the documents held within the West Sussex Archives, relating first to the Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Horatio Nelson.
By far the most fascinating of our records are the collection of letters written by Lord Nelson to Captain George Murray in the early 1800’s. One such letter compliments Murray for his gallant support at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. While another congratulates Murray on the Birth of his son, saying ‘if you do not call him Baltic, I shall be very angry with you. Indeed, he can be called anything alive’. This must have resonated somewhat with Murray, for his only son was called George St Vincent Thomas Nelson Murray. We can assume he was named not only after one admiral but at least two or three notable seamen and battles – Nelson was one, the battle of or the Earl St Vincent (Admiral John Jervis) another, and possibly Thomas Troubridge the third.
The letters and records in this collection also offer a valuable insight into the workings of the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary, Napoleonic and American War of Independence. And as such may be useful to anyone studying this period of history.
Admiral Murray’s service record shows he was Captain of the Fleet aboard the Victory from 1803 – 1805, interestingly disembarking in August 1805 a mere 2 months before Trafalgar to settle the estate of his father in-law, Col. Christopher Teasdale. This meant that Murray was absent for the battle in October. This absence may explain why we have a souvenir piece of Victory’s sail in his collection
Nelson’s regard for Murray was such that Murray’s position as Captain of the Fleet was left vacant, and his duties, during this time were, unofficially carried out by the Victory’s Flag Captain, Captain Thomas Hardy. Several letters to Murray from Hardy and his wife ten years later show a solid friendship between the two seamen.
With the absence of Captain Murray at Trafalgar, we have to look to other sources for what happened. So, for an account of the action we have the testimony of Midshipman William Stanhope Badcock (later Lovell) aboard HMS Neptune, and an account written to the Admiralty and published in the London Gazette Extraordinary by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, second in command, aboard the Royal Sovereign.
In their descriptions of the battle written within a few days after the events, we find that the French and Spanish fleet outnumbered the British. Nelson’s battle plan relied heavily on the skill and experience of his men, and the superior fire power of his ship’s guns. Collingwood even commented that very few signals were needed between the British fleet, except those to direct close orders as the lines bore down. It has been said that the British were so efficient with their firing that it was impossible for the French and Spanish Fleet to keep up.
In these accounts we hear that Nelson split his fleet into two columns: Nelson leading from the Van or the front in the Victory and Admiral Collingwood leading the rear from the Royal Sovereign. Collingwood’s account in Buckle Mss 225 shows which ships of the fleet followed which admiral, including the Neptune’s position, in the line. What’s also interesting is that we have a list of ships in the French and Spanish fleet compiled by Badcock.
It’s also notable to see that, even after the events of the Trafalgar, Collingwood is complimentary towards the French and Spanish crews, remarking that “the enemies ships were fought with a gallantry Highly honourable to their officers”.
At Trafalgar, Nelson’s aim was to ‘break the line’ or ‘cross the T’, a tactic causing the enemy to lose tactical cohesion and overwhelm individual ships, raking or attacking each ship at their weakest point. Attacking in the line or column was the most logical tactical arrangement; a means to command and control the fleet, it ensured manoeuvres were co-ordinated, and strategically allowed ships guns to face their enemy without obstruction.
Midshipman Badcock’s account gives an almost hour by hour account of the Neptune’s actions. The Mock Battle of Trafalgar video and the ‘Crossing the T’ documentary produced by the Murray Club in 2015 show how this may have looked. Nelson’s plan was so successful that 22 of the 33 French and Spanish ships were lost.
Both Badcock and Collingwood’s accounts recount the loss of Nelson. Thus, Trafalgar itself and Nelson’s death go hand in hand. We cannot mention one without the other. With Henry Pigeon and Rear Admiral George Murray’s invitations to Nelson’s funeral, we are given a glimpse in to the elaborate affair, which was awarded all the pomp and ceremony of a state funeral.
Both the Gentlemen’s Magazine (available in the Searchroom) and The Scots Magazine (accessed via the Newspaper collections on Find My Past) recorded every elaborate detail of Nelson’s arrival at Greenwich, his laying in state, the processions to the admiralty and St. Paul’s, and finally the service itself.
With the exception of the photos from my own personal collection, All these records can be viewed in the searchroom, so drop us an email, letter or call and we’ll advise you on how best to access these records.