a Guest post by Ian Robertson, MA.

Why is the Royal Navy of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries referred to as ‘Nelson’s Navy’?  As is so often the case, the simplest of answers is the right one.

England had been at war, on and off, during this period and if a war is going to maintain the support of the people then it needs its heroes. The army wasn’t doing so well at this time and the glory days of Wellington were yet to come.

What Nelson did was provide the people of a war-torn Britain with a naval hero.  Regarded as a man of the people because of his humble origins and his ‘natural ability’ as we would refer to it today, as a good man manager he was an ideal candidate for the role. So, let us look a little closer at the man.

Did he really come from such a humble background as we have been led to believe?

What is indisputable is that he was the son of a country parson in Norfolk.  Not, perhaps, such a propitious start in life for the man who was to become referred to as the ‘Victor of Trafalgar’ and was accorded a state funeral.  So, just how humble were the origins of Horace Nelson?

No, that Christian name is not a mistake! He was christened Horace but changed his name to Horatio preferring to be regarded as a warrior, like the hero Horatio of ancient Rome who defended the Pons Sublicius from the invading Etruscans , rather than a namby pamby ancient Roman lyric poet.[i]

What is often glossed over is that, even though his father was a country parson, his mother came from minor aristocracy and it was her family’s position in society and through her family connections that Horatio went to sea as a Midshipman.

He joined a Royal Navy ship under the command of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, and it was he who gave young Horatio every opportunity early on in his career.   

Portrait of Maurice Suckling 1764. 
Thomas Bardwell (1704 – 1767). NPG, London. Ref. NPG2010.

Suckling’s patronage went so far as to his being one of the captains on the panel, even though by then he was the Comptroller of the Navy, when young Nelson was examined to be a lieutenant. As far as is known Nelson never addressed him as ‘uncle’.

The Lieutenant’s Panel Could be a fairly hit and miss affair. A panel was made up of four senior captains who would each ask the candidate questions. There were no fixed questions and each captain could ask as much or as little as he wished. All questions were to do with how to handle a ship under different circumstances.

As part of the examination, each candidate had to present the Board with his journals[ii], and certificates of service verifying his competencies from each captain he had served under.

It was necessary to have had a minimum of six years sea service of which at least two had to be in the rank of Midshipman or Master’s Mate.

A candidate had also to be at least 20 years of age. Due to it not always being easy to verify this then the board had wording to the effect that ‘he gave the appearance of being at least twenty years of age.’

Passing the examination did NOT mean the candidate became a Lieutenant. It merely meant he met the requirements to be commissioned.

Nelson was commissioned almost immediately. Many were not. As an example, Midshipman Charles Shaw was not commissioned until eleven years after passing his examination.

Once Nelson had passed the examination Suckling did admit to their relationship but said he had not disclosed it previously in case the other two captains thought he might be biased. Nelson was not yet 19 years of age and as you have read, the regulations stated that a candidate had to be at least 20. Make of that what you will!

Young Nelson was almost immediately commissioned as a lieutenant (some midshipmen had to wait years to get their first commission; generally, it was those without any influence) and at the tender age of twenty-one he was made ‘post’. A post captain is one who has command of a ship of twenty-eight guns or more. Lighter armed ships would be under the command of lieutenants or ‘commanders’, both of whom would be entitled to the courtesy title of captain. Even Nelson acknowledged that he found it hard to justify this promotion at such a young age.

The significance of such a promotion was not so much the command of a larger ship, but he was now on the Captains’ List which meant that he only had to stay alive in order to move up the list in seniority eventually to become an admiral.  In other words, this was a clear case of Dead Men’s shoes; but being advanced to ‘post’ at the age of twenty-one meant the odds were very much in his favour.

It was at as a young captain on the West Indies Station, that three of his major characteristics emerged.

Firstly, there was his ability to form strong friendships. It was here that he became firm friends with the man who was to be his second-in-command at Trafalgar; Cuthbert Collingwood. There are those who would argue that it was Collingwood who won the battle of Trafalgar because Nelson died early on in the conflict.

Then there was his interest in women with older husbands.  Both he and Collingwood played court to Mrs Moutray, the wife of John Moutray the Commissioner at the English Caribbean harbour of Antigua, albeit, as far as is known, unsuccessfully.

Thirdly, Nelson was a social climber. He hungered after fame even more than fortune and it was while he was stationed in the West Indies that he became friendly with another young captain; the future King William IV, the ‘sailor king’.

To all intents and purposes this was something of a mutual admiration society. They both spoke highly of each other, but Nelson was a man, who, despite his youth, was only too well aware of the possible benefits of friends in high places. 

Two young captains together. In December 1786 Young Nelson as captain of the Boreas was senior captain on the Leeward Islands station and had ‘secret’ instructions to show HRH Prince William, captain of the Pegasus, around the Islands to familiarise him with the Crown’s possessions and then despatch him, by the second week of the following May (1787), to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

By tradition, when possible, Sunday afternoons were declared ‘make do and mend’. This was when the crew had the chance to, amongst other things, do their washing. A Royal Navy ship could be easily identified as such by its rigging used as washing lines.

Oh no! 

BUT NOT a ship commanded by HRH! Prince William’s boast was that any ship he commanded would be the smartest dressed in the fleet.  Can you imagine the foetid stench below decks as the foremast Jacks tried to dry their washing in the West Indies? With very little ventilation below decks anyway, the damp washing provided the perfect situation for rot, fungus and insects to develop.  These were all rife on HRH’s command.

Although their friendship continued until Nelson’s death, there is little evidence to suggest that Captain HRH Prince William had any influence on Nelson’s career.  Prince William was not highly regarded in naval circles never achieving genuine sea-going high rank despite continually petitioning his father, King George I. He was made a Lord of the Admiralty, which was more of a political appointment and he was most certainly never destined to be First Sea Lord, being a position reserved for a senior, experienced sea-going, full admiral.

At this time, it was illegal for British colonies (and ships sailing under the English flag) to trade with the Americans who were engaged in their War of Independence. Under the Navigation Acts governing these activities it was generally accepted that the authorities, mainly represented by the ships of the Royal Navy, would turn something of a blind eye to this trade in the interests of the islands’ economies.

Nelson was having none of this and despite being ordered to desist, he launched what was, effectively, a one-man war enforcing the law.

Legally he was correct.

Politically he was not.

Also, while stationed in the Caribbean island of Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands, on 11thMarch 1787 Nelson married the widow Fanny Nesbit and was subsequently recalled to England.  Evidently HRH the Prince of Wales was one of the witnesses.

Portrait of Lady Frances “Fanny” Nelson (1761-1831). 1798.
Daniel Orme (1766. – c1832). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Fanny Nisbet was a young widow living under the roof of her uncle John ‘President’ Herbert who was reckoned to be the richest man on the island. Before you ask, of course Herbert had slaves…..Who didn’t!  His estate exported 500 casks of sugar a year.  The Governor of Nevis described Herbert as the senior councillor of Nevis and ‘a gentleman of the first fortune in this country’.i.e. he was incredibly rich.  

Fanny was not only a widow, but also her Uncle Herbert’s heir – hmmm!  Was this possibly something that influenced Horatio’s desire for the young widow?  You can draw your own conclusions!  After this event Horatio     remained on half-pay without a command for the next five years – in effect he was beached.

On his return to England, five years on half pay may seem surprising, but he was not overly popular with the Admiralty. They thoroughly disapproved of his bending the rules regarding orders from senior officers about Prince William. Unfortunately, his main patron in the West Indies had no power to assist him in England and added to this was the was a time when there were more captains than there were ships.  Nelson was still only a junior Captain and quite low on the Captains’ List. This. He had an income of £100 per annum being half pay, but also had additional financial support from relatives. He was also suffering from malaria.

Considering the above, the question that needs to be asked is “How did Nelson become a hero?” especially if he was not the most popular officer with their Lords of the Admiralty?

Firstly, let us not take away from him the fact that he was a leader and, as such, he led from the front. Seamen liked him and trusted his leadership.

Having finally been given a new command in 1792, he moved up the Captains’ List, gaining in seniority each year, becoming better placed to ensure he had officers of his own choosing around him. These men became known as his ‘Band of Brothers’, which leads us back to the role of patronage again.

There are two sides, at least, to patronage in the Royal navy at this time. 

The patron surrounded himself not just with people he liked. They had, first and foremost, to be highly competent officers. At the end of the day, when one of them performs badly, it is the reputation of the patron that ultimately suffers due to what is seen as his error in judgement of the protégé’s character.

You might be asking yourself, what happens when the patron is no longer around, or indeed your friend?  His uncle, Cpt Maurice Suckling had died in 1767, and his next patron was hundreds of miles away in the Caribbean.

His close friend, Collingwood, continued to have a successful career, as did the majority of the captains at Trafalgar.  It was Nelson’s favoured lieutenants whose careers tended to slow down considerably with his death.

But enough of Nelson for the time being!

What of the men? The ordinary seamen or ‘Foremast Jacks’ as they were known?

What sort of life did they lead?

There is no disputing the fact that it was a hard life, but then so was life ashore for many ordinary people.  Each ship was a microcosm of society with its layered hierarchy and people employed in a range of crafts and activities necessary to keep the ship working efficiently.

But how difficult is it to compare a working life with that ashore?

If we discount those in the ship’s company with what are now referred to as ‘transferrable skills’, such as the carpenter, cook, tailor/sailmaker, surgeon, etc., how would a seaman be categorised on shore. Even the most skilled sailor, those who climbed the highest in the rigging, bare-footed to stand on a foot-rope, maybe a hundred feet or more above the deck to furl a topsail in a gale, would find it very hard indeed to find an equivalent employment.

As a comparison, what would the average seaman be employed as when ashore? While it is not possible to be specific it would seem likely they would be of the labouring class. Begging the question as to whether a labourer would swap his life ashore for one in the Royal Navy?

Let’s explode some myths here.  How were men encouraged to sign on?

Recruitment was always a problem in times of war. So many ships and too few sailors to man them. Captains would put up posters promising the possibility of prize money, together with a bounty, when they joined the ship under his command.  In other words, these men would be volunteers, pure and simple.

Others were not volunteers, or at least only semi-volunteers.

It was a regular practice for convicted criminals to be given the option of joining the navy instead of serving a lengthy prison sentence and, providing they passed a medical by the ship’s surgeon (no one wanted a case of the highly infectious ‘jail fever’ on board), then they would sign or make their mark and, from that moment on, be subject to the Articles of War. These were the rules and regulations governing the behaviour of all members of a ship’s crew and, without going into too much detail, it may come as a surprise to people in this day and age, just how many offences were punishable by death. Fortunately, some of these offences had the caveat of ‘or such lesser punishment as may be customary at sea’. Even a lesser punishment was still a painful affair for it would usually feature being strung up to a grating and being flogged with the notorious ‘cat o’ nine tails’.

What is important to remember is that at this time there was an equivalent number of offences ashore that were also punishable by death and that public hangings were still considered an opportunity for a good day out.

Oh, did I forget to mention impressment? The notorious pressgang and the way they operated? Would you be surprised to learn this is a case of myths and legends again?  For those who do not know, impressment was the sending ashore of a group of sailors under the command of a lieutenant or a senior midshipman, to round up seamen and forcibly ‘press’ them into service was commonplace in times of war. Cartoons of the time portrayed harrowing scenes of husbands being snatched away from their wives and children. 

Did this actually happen? Undoubtedly it did and men who had never been to sea in their lives, would be pressed. However, what the pressgangs were looking for were experienced seamen and not solicitors’ clerks or agricultural labourers. Fishermen were the prime targets and certificates of protection, exempting them from the tender mercies of the impressment service, seemed often to be conveniently mislaid.

The pressgangs were not as successful as is often portrayed, simply because word got around very quickly when a Royal Navy ship anchored in a bay and a boat was seen pulling for shore. This was the cue for all healthy adult males to make their way into hiding in the countryside until the all clear was given. Pressgangs would find whole villages occupied only by women, children and old men.

But life on board a Royal Navy ship – was it so bad?

A ‘Foremast jack’ was paid considerably less than a labourer ashore. In fact, around half as much. One of the driving forces for the mutinies in the late 18th Century was the fact that the rates of pay for men in the Royal Navy had remained static for well over a hundred years. Linking this to the events in France at this time makes it very easy to see how sailors were ripe for mutiny.  But dies the comparison stack up?

Not really.

A labourer ashore, in general terms, had little, if any money left over after paying for rent, food, fuel and clothing etc., the average wage being seventeen shillings and six pence per week, which equates to £67.45 in today’s money[iii].

A lowest rating, who would be the equivalent of an unskilled labourer, had very little to spend his wages of, on average, one pound and six pence per lunar month (£81.29 relative value today), i.e. every four weeks.  Not to mention the fact that the general rule was that wages were not paid until the ship returned to England, although this was not held to when stationed far away from home such as in either the East or West Indies – often for years at a time.  In these cases advances were made so that ‘Jack’ could afford a run ashore.  No wonder these men had a ‘girl in every port’ as the accumulated wages must have been a small fortune, burning a hole in the pockets of our ‘Jacks’ after all those months at sea!

There was another reason why sailors did not have an opportunity to spend their pay when they eventually returned to their home port. This was when the crew were ‘turned over’. With difficulty in manning ships with experienced hands, a custom developed whereby whole crews on arrival in a home port would be escorted to a holding ship to await dispersal to whichever ship’s captain claimed them for crew. (Another causal factor in the mutinies.)

The thought might have gone through your head of what seamen actually had to pay for out of their £1 0s 6d per month?

  • They had free accommodation. Not private, but free. Hammock space was between 18 and 23 inches wide, per man.
  • They had their food provided, which they ate in ‘messes’. These were groups of usually eight men.
  • There is another myth here and it is about the food served to seamen in the Royal Navy.  The daily ration for each member of s ship’s crew amounted to around 5,000 calories, which was necessary bearing in mind the physical nature of their work.

One big difference in the diet between ship and shore is that the equivalent person ashore would only rarely be afforded meat, apart from bacon, on a regular basis. Each crew member was allocated a pound of pork every Sunday and Thursday and two pounds of beef every Tuesday and Saturday. Issues of oatmeal to make porridge, dried peas and cheese completed the rations. They also had a pound of ship’s biscuit (hard tack). There was also an allowance of a gallon of beer a day per man as well as the famous tot of rum. Odd, when drunkenness on board was punishable under the Articles of War!  The only things ‘Jack’ had to pay for would be additional clothing from the ‘slop chest’ and tobacco.[iv]

There is also a myth is around the quality of the food.

Casks containing food supplies would be inspected and if they were not thought to be in good enough condition then these would be returned to the dockyard with a request for replacements.

Now, what happened to those returned casks? Firstly, they would be offered to another captain, after having been resealed of course. If returned for a second time, then they would be sold to a captain of a merchant vessel whose sole concern was to spend as little money as possible in order to increase his profits from the voyage.

Commissioned officers were all professionals. The vast majority had been at sea since they were not much more than children.  They had to serve for a minimum of six years before being eligible to take their lieutenant’s exam. They were also supposed to be no less than twenty years of age at the time of the examination and to have served at least two years as a midshipman or master’s mate.

Which brings us to the midshipmen – the lowest rank of officer in the Royal Navy. They were generally the sons of ‘gentlefolk’ and joined their first ship usually between the ages of twelve and fourteen years of age. These embryo officers were neither fish nor fowl. They weren’t one of the ‘Foremast Jacks’ and they weren’t one of the officers either. However, they did wear an identifiable uniform and were addressed by the crew as ‘Mr’.  Unofficially, they were often referred to as ‘snotties’ or ‘squeakers’. ‘Snotties’ because of their apparent inability to remember to carry a handkerchief which meant they tended to wipe their noses on their sleeves; and ‘squeakers’ because during the course of their early years at sea their voices would break resulting in sentences coming out in a voice ranging from a piping high tenor to a full baritone with apparent ease, causing considerable confusion and embarrassment to the speaker (or more appropriately – squeaker!).

Who else was on board one of His Majesty’s ships of war?

The warrant officers. These men fell into two categories; those who were deemed fit for the wardroom and those who weren’t. Quite simple really. Those not deemed suitable for the wardroom were those holding a King’s Warrant due to their high levels of practical professional skills, such as the gunner and carpenter. The warrant holders permitted the comforts of the wardroom would include the surgeon, master, chaplain and the purser. The social division was very clearly created by education, regardless of comparable ranks.

But where does all this scene setting leave us with Horatio Nelson?

After his five years without a command he returned to sea in 1782 as captain of the Agamemnon, spending the rest of his career in command in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Nelson lost the sight of his right eye at the siege of Calvi in 1794

Print by R Bowyer, Pall Mall. 1808. National Maritime Museum, London.

and his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife that took place between 22 – 25 July 1797.

Nelson Wounded at Tenerife, 24th July 1797.
Richard Westall (1765 – 1836) National Maritime Museum, London. Painted 1806. 

It was during service in the Mediterranean that Nelson achieved one of his ambitions. After the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Nelson was based at Naples.  After much dalliance in the Mediterranean which included shuttling back and forth members of the royal family of the King of Naples, on 13th August 1799 Nelson was created Duke of Bronté by the Neapolitan king. Although not an English title he insisted on using it at every opportunity, even signing official documents as Bronté. He never visited the estate that went with the title, which was reputed to be in a state of disrepair. He fully believed that a man of his achievements deserved such a title, which was higher than anything England had awarded him.  This did little to further endear him to his masters at the Admiralty and it was made clear to him that orders and decorations awarded by foreign powers were not to be worn on the uniform of an officer in the Royal Navy. Yet another order he chose not to obey. 

Read-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805) 1799.
Lemuel Francis Abbot (1760 – 1802). Greenwich Hospital Collection,
National Maritime Museum, London.

If you asked a random selection of the population, there are probably three things many people could tell you about Nelson.

He put his telescope to his blind eye at the Battle of Copenhagen; he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar and he had a longstanding affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador in Naples, Sir William Hamilton. 

Lady Emma Hamilton (nee Hart) (1765 – 1815) aged 17, wearing a straw hat.
George Romney (1734 – 1802). Huntington Library, California.

  It was this love affair that raised many eyebrows in English society, mainly due to the fact that it was carried on quite blatantly and with what appeared to be with the permission of Sir William himself. James 

A James Gilray (1756 – 1815) cartoon of 11th February 1801, depicting WH’s tacit complicity of the affair.  SUMMARY: An elderly Sir William Hamilton inspecting his antiquities, all of which refer to his wife, Lady Emma Hamilton and her lover, Lord Horatio Nelson. In the background hang four pictures on the wall: “Cleopatra”, a picture of Lady Hamilton with her breasts exposed, holding a gin bottle; “Mark Anthony”, Lord Nelson with a sea battle in background: an erupting volcano; and a portrait of Hamilton, facing away from the other paintings. Source Wikipedia.

It may be questioned whether or not the Lords of the Admiralty gave their tacit approval to this affair, but what was very apparent was that it was not in the best interests of the navy that Nelson’s ships were spending such an inordinate amount of time around Naples.

Neither Nelson nor Emma Hamilton divorced their spouses. Hamilton gave every appearance of being unconcerned by the way his wife was carrying on and Nelson and Emma simply set up home together in England where they had a daughter, Horatia. Nelson’ wife, Fanny, was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned and left in Norfolk.  

After Nelson was killed, society, and the powers that be, clearly showed how they truly felt about this affair.  Fanny, as his lawful wife, was invited to the state funeral. Emma was not.

The Death of Nelson 21st October 1805.
Arthur William Devis (1762 – 1822). National Maritime Museum, London. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/death-nelson

This article has been an outline of the life in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Royal Navy is often referred to as ‘Nelson’s Navy’.  The picture of Nelson that emerges is of a man with a driving sense of ambition.  A man both respected and liked by the officers and men who served with him. A naval officer who knew his craft and would always lead from the front. A man whose talents were recognised by the King of Naples, but at home it was a long time before he eventually attained the rank of Vice-Admiral and was made a Viscount.  A man who was more than willing to disobey orders when it suited him: a man whose political naivety tended to make him unpopular with their Lords at the Admiralty.

But was he a hero to the general public?

Yes!  So how did that happen?

Simple!  Nelson recognised the importance of self-publicity.

As a general rule the public at large only knew what was happening in the war at sea by what despatches the Admiralty decided to print in the Naval Gazette, but as far as Nelson was concerned this was leaving too much to chance.  Oddly enough reports of Nelson’s exploits began appearing in the newspapers long before they appeared in the Naval Gazette, if they ever did.

Nelson would write two different reports. The official one would be despatched to the Admiralty and the other to the ‘gentlemen of the press’. It was this latter report that would be printed and circulated in the newspapers often weeks before any mention was made through the official channels.  That was how Nelson became a public hero. 

Regarded as a hero by many of his contemporaries in the Royal Navy, it was popular acclaim he craved, and what he so skilfully manipulated.

I have one last thought for your consideration. If you ever see a picture of Lord Horatio Nelson wearing an eye patch just ignore it. Records relate he never did!

© Ian Robertson.  2020.

Ian studied maritime history at the Greenwich Maritime Institute (University of Greenwich) where he gained his Master of Arts degree in maritime history. I featured his short story, A Voyage of Isolation, earlier in the year. The story line is based on his research for the taking of the Madre de Deus by the Tudor navy in 1592 and has a wonderful twist at the end.

Ian has just finished his first novel based the original records of a court martial on a midshipman he discovered while rummaging in the Cairds library, Greenwich and is now looking for a publisher.

The featured image is The Victory Raking the Spanish ship, Salvador del Mundo, at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14th February 1797 by Robert Cleveley (1747 – 1809) and is one of the many fabulous paintings in the collection of maritime art held at the Royal Museums, Greenwich, London.


[i] Horace (67 – 8 BC) was a Roman poet; the original Horatio was a 6th century Roman army officer, famous for defending the Pons Sublicius, spanning the River Tiber in Rome, from the attacking army of the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena of Clusium.  We know about Horatio’s exploits through the writings of the Roman historian Livy. (Between 64 & 59BC – 12 AD).

[ii] These are also known as ‘logs’.

[iii] The comparative values come from www.measuringworth.com

[iv] The slop chest held the ‘uniform’ worn by ratings. 

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