History's HEROES? 1758 - 1805

Horatio Nelson

His world
  • A officer and a gentleman in Georgian society

    Young NelsonThe world into which Nelson was born was one where the riches generated through overseas trade brought about the rise of a wealthy new middle class. Despite this, a person's role in society was still largely dependent on the family into which they were born. 

    Towns and Villages
    Britain was a rural country of villages and very small towns. In the mid 18th century most towns had generally no more than 1-2,000 inhabitants. In the towns were the houses of the more comfortably-off people such as bankers, merchants, doctors and lawyers. Most people still lived in villages and made a living as farmers, farm labourers, blacksmiths, carpenters and innkeepers. 

    Rural Life
    Life for ordinary people was hard. They worked long hours and did not have much money. The enclosure of common land and introduction of new agricultural practices saw many families left with no means of support. They were forced to move to the small but growing towns. However most people had enough to eat, unlike peasants in other countries who were often starving - indeed foreign visitors were often surprised at how well-fed and prosperous most British people were. 

    The Squire
    Near many villages was the large manor house, in which a squire and his family lived. The squire was a gentleman who owned a large amount of land, which was divided into farms which he rented out to tenant farmers. In most localities, the squire was also a local magistrate or Justice of the Peace. It was his responsibility to keep the peace, settle disputes and to administer the law. Those charged with more serious offences were tried at the 'Quarter Sessions' of the county. These met four times a year in the county town and also made decisions about the affairs of the county.

    The Vicar
    At the centre of most villages was the parish church, and nearby was the parsonage in which the vicar and his family lived. The vicar was an educated man, and, after the squire, one of the most important men in the village. The vicar was considered by all (including himself) a 'gentleman'.  The vicarage was generally the largest house in the village. He and his family would have a small number of servants, usually from the poorer families on the village, to cook and clean for them. Horatio Nelson was born into such a family at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.  

    The Gentry and Aristocracy
    To be a gentleman was to be a member of the upper classes of society. They were well-educated and were looked up to by poorer folk. Many gentlemen were also MPs (Members of Parliament), which gave them a say in the affairs of the entire nation.  Above the gentry was the aristocracy: a small group of very wealthy and powerful families who held hereditary titles, such as baron, viscount, earl and (highest of the lot) duke, which entitled them to sit in the House of Lords. Most of these people lived in huge mansions, staffed by lots of servants and surrounded by great estates. Although they numbered only about 200 families, their influence was huge. Not only did they fill one of the House of Lords but also they dominated the House of Commons. 

    Family Ties
    English society was bound together by ties of family, friendship and influence, that went from top to bottom. However, the aristocracy in Britain was different from those on the continent. They were not cut off from the rest of society by a great social gulf.  They intermarried freely with 'commoners' (those without titles of nobility) and, importantly, only the eldest son inherited the title and estates. The younger sons, without an estate to inherit, had to earn their living like anyone else.

    Finding Suitable Employment
    Both the sons of the aristocracy and those considered as gentlemen, were expected to do only certain kinds of work. Apart from being clergymen, they could be doctors, lawyers, bankers and businessmen, and, above all, they could be officers in the Army and Navy. Nelson's choice was typical for his class of people - many naval officers were the sons of vicars or the younger sons of the aristocracy. Families' influence meant that they started out with great advantages, for example, a large proportion of admirals and generals were the younger sons of aristocrats. 

    Using Family Connections
    Jobs were also given out as a result of connections through family or friends. So, the young Horatio Nelson was taken into the Navy by his uncle, Captain Suckling, a naval captain, just as Horatio's father had been given his parish through the influence of his relations, the Walpoles (Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister of Britain). Others got apprenticeships for their sons, roles as officers in government, commands in the Army, or rich contracts, through their friends and relations.

    Using Power to Influence Government
    At the top of this network of connections were the great aristocrats - the dukes, the earls, the viscounts - who used their power to influence the national government and their local communities. The British aristocracy, unlike those in Europe, focussed their interest not on the Royal court but on parliament where the great questions of the day were debated publicly. 

    A Chance for Advancement
    Nelson was 12 years old when he went to sea. Ever after he recalled the loneliness and homesickness of those first few days on board, an experience which must have been shared by many young officers. However, what the Navy did provide was a route to advancement. From midshipman to lieutenant to captain and even, if successful enough, to admiral of a fleet. A daring and talented young officer such as Nelson had the chance to rise up the ranks (see the section on the Royal Navy). 

    Joining the Nobility
    Victory in battle earned an admiral the ultimate social prize - a peerage. This meant he joined the nobility: the most exclusive and influential group in British society. Nelson was made a baron (the lowest rung on the peerage ladder) after the Battle of the Nile; after Copenhagen he became a viscount. Had he survived Trafalgar he would certainly have received an earldom (which his brother got in his place), or he might even have become a marquis. The money he got from the prizes, or voted to him by parliament, would have enabled him to buy a large country estate and a stately home. 

    A Georgian Celebrity
    Of more importance to Nelson, however, was something he had already achieved by the time of his death - the glory of being one of the greatest national heroes Britain ever produced. Nelson was a 'hot news topic' and one of the celebrities of his time. In 1800, Nelson went on a three-month tour of Europe where he was entertained by monarchs, had politicians vying for his attention and was hailed a hero by crowds everywhere. On returning to Yarmouth to cheering crowds he boarded a carriage whereupon the horses were removed and replaced by people that drew him in triumph to the Wrestler's Inn where he was presented with the Freedom of the Borough.

    Spreading the News 
    The general public followed the parliamentary debates and national events closely. A growing number of newspapers fed the public appetite for domestic and international news. The first of these, The Daily Courant, had started in 1707, and others soon followed suit. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Nelson was at the height of his fame, the leading paper was the Daily Universal Register, founded in 1785. In 1803 it changed its name to The Times, which we still know today. It was The Times which broke the news of Trafalgar to the nation.

    Georgian Spin
    Just like many today, Nelson was adept at using the newspapers for self publicity and to further his own career. During his career, if he did well in a battle or other situation, he would write to people he knew at the newspapers to make sure they got his version of the story and so that people were aware of his exploits. This is what, today, we would call ‘spin'.

    Waiting for the News
    However, in the days before steam power, news could take a long time to arrive from abroad. Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile was on 3rd August; news did not arrive in England until two months later, on 2nd October. The country had been waiting with bated breath for news of the expedition, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, is said to have fainted with relief when he heard. 

    Uniting the Nation
    Newspapers also brought the benefit that the same news which was being read in London now reached the furthest towns in Britain as fast as a stagecoach could travel. Hence Nelson's exploits soon became known across the kingdom. Newspapers not only carried news but they also carried opinion and reports of debate. The same issues were being debated in the inns of Newcastle and the inns of Westminster, uniting the nation's ideas in a way never before possible.

    New Ideas 
    One result of this was that intellectual and religious ideas could sweep the nation much faster than in previous times.  The evangelical movement started by John and Charles Wesley in the 1730s had, by Nelson's time, won many followers throughout the country, in all classes and walks of life. However feelings within the upper classes remained deeply suspicious of religious fervour and in favour of rationalism and refined taste.

    Religion, Morals and Ethics 
    The Georgian era was an age which combined formal Christianity with a colourful disregard for Christian morality. In this, Nelson was typical of his class. He was far from being alone in living with a mistress, although he was prone to flaunt his mistress to a greater degree than most. Although widely commented upon it did not cause moral offence to most of his friends and acquaintances.  It was however frowned upon by the government who refused to let Emma Hamilton attend Nelson's funeral.

    Changes Brewing
    By the time of Nelson's death great changes were brewing. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution was seeing the growth of towns. Crime and poverty were both increasing rapidly and in the light of revolution in France more and more people were questioning the justice of the old order, where only a small proportion of the population was able to vote or have a say in how the country was run.  Indeed the victories of Nelson and the celebratory holidays that followed were used to encourage patriotism and unite the nation in the face of the threat of revolution.

    A Passion for Glory
    As far as we can tell, Nelson made no reference to the evils of slavery in any of his correspondence, even though he married the widow of a West Indian planter. Terrible living conditions for the poor, social injustice or the harsh legal system - these things did not trouble most 'men of taste' in the 18th century. What drove Nelson throughout most of his life was not to do the will of God, but to achieve fame and "honour" - so important to a gentleman of the period. What comes as a more of a surprise is his final prayer, just before the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he commits his life so wholeheartedly to "the Great God whom I adore".

  • Trade, empire and revolution

    British history of the 18th century is dominated by the overseas rivalry with France and other nations, which came to a head in Nelson's time. The 18th century was a time of great growth in trade, territory and wealth for Great Britain.  The Royal Navy played a vital role in this.

    Keeping the Sea Lanes Open
    Most of the country's wealth was based on overseas trade with the British Colonies and depended upon the sea lanes remaining open. The Navy was the means by which this was achieved as well as providing the main defence of the country against invasion.

    Supporting Colonial Expansion 
    In the 18th century, the Navy that Nelson joined played a vital part in the expansion of the British Empire around the world. In the West Indies, in North America and in the East, British warships defended British bases and attacked enemy (mostly French) ones. They supported British troops in conquering vast tracts of territory in North America and India, and blockaded enemy warships in their ports to prevent them doing the same for their own troops.

    An Expanding Empire
    The 18th century was a time of dramatic expansion for Britain - both in terms of its commerce and its overseas territory. At some time during the century London became the largest city in the world - the capital of a large empire that took in much of India, a scattering of colonies in Africa, the immensely valuable West Indian islands, and the vast expanses of Canada and Australia. 

    Industrial Revolution
    These changes abroad were matched by even more far-reaching changes at home. The money pouring into the country helped drive the Industrial Revolution. From the mid-18th century, some parts of Britain became transformed by the appearance of large, machine-driven factories and all that went with them - belching chimneys and spreading slums as well new wealth and opportunity. The new industries soon made Britain by far the most dynamic economic power of the day.

    The Enlightenment 
    But it was not Britain alone that was changing. This was an age of revolution which eventually embroiled all Europe and its offshoots in North America. The Enlightenment movement encouraged thinkers to approach all subjects in a 'rational' way, ditching all received wisdom and looking at things through the lens of reason. This had given birth to many scientific advances, and had also led to new ways of thinking about society and politics. The suggestions were being made by writers, such as Voltaire in France, that states should be organised along rational lines, in which the authority of kings, nobles and church should be done away with, or at least severely curtailed.

    American War of Independence 
    In the mid-1770s, some Americans began to attack the British forces in their country over disagreements about taxation and other matters. These attacks escalated into a general conflict, which may have resulted in a fairer situation for Americans within the British Empire had it not been for Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Paine, who urged complete independence and the creation of a new nation. The failure of the British to re-assert their control of the colonies gave the American leaders the chance to design a new style of government, based on Enlightenment principles. A Constitution was eventually drawn up which had no place for hereditary rulers or aristocracy, but was based on the power of the common people.

    The French Revolution
    This American Revolution had a profound impact back in Europe and helped to spark the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789. At first, many people in England welcomed the Revolution. They thought it would bring about a political system very much like their own, in which the king had only limited power and the government, was carried on by elected representatives of the people. But the French Revolution soon gathered its own momentum and fell into the hands of radical leaders whose aim was to reshape French society from the ground up. 

    The French Challenge to the British Way of Life 
    The King of France was executed in 1792, and a Reign of Terror designed to eliminate the old nobility and other conservative elements took hold of the nation in 1793. These developments shocked most British people to their core; the French Revolutionary government issued a challenge to all governments of the 'old' type that they would export their revolution to other countries.  The French Revolution was seen as a challenge to all that British elite held dear - God, King and Country but, mostly, hereditary rule and power.    

    For King and Country
    Most of Nelson's life: his gradual climb up the naval career ladder, his service in the Caribbean, his marriage to the widow of a West Indian planter, his quiet life in a Norfolk rectory, even a short stay in France, can be followed without any feeling that the world was changing around him forever. However, when the long wars with revolutionary France began Nelson became very much part of the history of the times. From early 1793, Nelson knew only war, except for a brief period in 1801-3, until his death 12 years later.  His great victories against revolutionary France and Napoleon Bonaparte meant that he was seen as a great defender of the British way of life.

    "We have lost more than we have gained"
    After Trafalgar, the reception Nelson's body received upon return to England was the clearest indicator of just how revered he had been by the British public during his lifetime. According to accounts from the time, upon hearing the news the king was said to weep and say "We have lost more than we have gained", in reference to winning the Battle of Trafalgar but losing Admiral Nelson. 

    A State Funeral
    Nelson's body was returned to England. It first lay in the Painted Hall in Greenwich for three days before being taken by boat upriver to the Admiralty in London. The next day, Nelson's body was marched in procession to St. Paul's Cathedral. Thousands lined the route. The coffin was accompanied by 32 Admirals, over 100 captains and 10,000 troops who wanted to escort the coffin. The service in St. Paul's lasted for over four hours and, afterwards, Nelson was laid to rest in a sarcophagus that was originally intended for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

  • Competition and conflict - the long wars with France

    During the 19th century, the Royal Navy, in which Nelson served, was involved in several conflicts; the most threatening to Britain came at the end of the century with the start of the Revolutionary War with France.

    War with France
    The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France lasted from 1793 to 1815, with only two brief pauses. They went through several stages, with the Royal Navy playing an important part in each, and sometimes taking centre stage. 

    Invading France
    The first phase involved Britain and her allies trying to invade France and put an end to the revolutionary regime. These invasions were met by a France which had raised mass citizen armies of a size never before seen in European warfare. The British and her allies were driven back - indeed France extended her borders, especially with the addition of the Low Countries.

    Attacks by Sea
    In this phase, the Royal Navy joined in the attacks on French territory by seizing the French Mediterranean naval base of Toulon. Nelson was one of the captains in the fleet which conducted this operation. Unfortunately for the British, the hills overlooking Toulon made an excellent position from which to fire into the ships in the port, and the British had to evacuate it when the French artillery (under a junior officer named Napoleon Bonaparte) made the port too hot to hold.

    The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
    The second phase began when the French government sent the young general Napoleon Bonaparte into Italy. He swiftly conquered the northern part of the country from Austria. Spain came in on the side of France at this time, and Napoleon's Italian adventure was followed up by an even more ambitious project, the conquest of the East. This came to nothing thanks to Nelson's victory over Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1798). The battle saw Nelson capture all but two of the French vessels by steering his ships straight at the French lines and engaging in close combat. The battle however was followed by Napoleon's return home to France and the coup d'etat which made him effectively the ruler of France.

    An Alliance Against Britain
    Napoleon's experience in Egypt had clearly demonstrated to him that, so long as Britain held command of the seas, French ambitions must be limited to continental Europe. On gaining the leadership of France, he almost immediately set in train the effort of gathering an Army of invasion, plus an armada of flat-bottomed boats in which to carry them across the Channel. He also began trying to build an alliance against Britain. He almost succeeded in bringing the Baltic countries into the war as his allies (which would have been a serious threat to the Royal Navy as it got most of its wood and rope from that region), but Nelson's victory at the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), when he attacked the Dutch fleet in the harbour, broke the alliance and brought these plans down. 

    Planning to Invade Britain
    Peace ensued a little later (1801-3), to be followed by the fourth phase. This revolved around Napoleon's efforts to invade Britain. To achieve this end, he came up with an elaborate plan which involved his two main fleets, one based in Toulon, in the Mediterranean, and the other based in Brest, on the Channel coast, and sending them to the West Indies. There they would unite and, joined by the Spanish fleet from Cadiz, return in overwhelming force to the Channel, make the British Channel fleet withdraw in the face of their vastly superior numbers, and then escort the French Army across the Channel in their flat-bottomed boats. Given the state of the British Army at that time, it was a foregone conclusion that the French would easily beat the British and take London quickly.

    Blockades and Chases
    From the very beginning, this plan began to go wrong. The French fleet at Brest was unable to move - the wind remained against them and the Royal Navy's Channel fleet kept close watch on them. The Toulon fleet, however, along with a few Spanish ships, made it to the West Indies. With the large Brest fleet unable to join them, the French fleet returned to European waters. All this time, the French were being chased by Nelson's fleet which, despite desperate efforts, was unable to catch up with them.  The French ended up cooped up in Cadiz, along with the main Spanish fleet, blockaded by Nelson's ships.

    This was a situation which could not last, as Cadiz simply could not keep the crews of such a large number of warships fed and supplied. So, on October 20th, 1805, the combined fleet left Cadiz, and the long-expected battle at last took place, off Cape Trafalgar. The battle pitted the French and Spanish forces under Napoleon against the Royal Navy led by Admiral Nelson. Napoleon had already given up his immediate plans to invade Britain by the time Trafalgar was fought. However the resulting British victory was so resounding it put paid to any hopes of a French invasion of Britain. It was also the battle at which Nelson died.

    Nelson's Death
    The captain of the Victory and Nelson's friend, Thomas Hardy, had been talking with Nelson but became aware that he was no longer at his side. He turned to see the Admiral on the deck supporting himself on his arm. Hardy rushed to him, at which point Nelson smiled and said, "Hardy, I do believe they have done it at last... my backbone is shot through." Three hours later Nelson died.

    European Domination 
    The next phase of the wars involved Napoleon seeking to dominate Europe as never before, leading him eventually to impose on Europe his 'Continental System'. This was an attempt to ruin Britain's overseas trade and so apply pressure on her to make peace. The attempt backfired because it affected the European countries more than it affected Britain, and it resulted in mounting dissatisfaction with Napoleon's domination in Europe.

    Fighting Back
    This led on to Britain aiding a Spanish revolt in the 'Peninsula Wars' (1808-14), which ended in British armies, under the Duke of Wellington, invading France, and in Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia (1812), which was followed by the 'Wars of Liberation' in which Russia, Prussia and Austria drove the French armies back into France. The Royal Navy played a vital part in supporting the land campaigns with reinforcements, supplies and money.

    This phase ended with Napoleon being sent into exile on the island of Elba (1814), but less than a year later he escaped and led the French in one final attempt to attack his neighbours. This brief episode ended in the Battle of Waterloo (1815), in which the allied forces under Britain's Duke of Wellington and Prussia's Marshall Blucher defeated Napoleon once and for all. Escaping from the scene of battle, Napoleon fittingly gave himself up to the ships of the Royal Navy off the coast of France. He was then sent to the island of St. Helena, in the mid-South Atlantic, where he died in 1823.

    Nelson's Role in the Wars
    Nelson's role in the wars was very important. Only six large-scale naval battles took place during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: The Glorious First of June (1794), St. Vincent (1797), Camperdown (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805). Nelson was involved in four of these, and commanded at two - which goes a long way to explain his dazzling reputation. It also cost him his life.


  • An organisation that ruled the waves

    The Royal Navy was by far the largest British organisation in Nelson's time. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, it consisted of more than a thousand warships, crewed by over 200,000 men - more people than any city in England except London.

    Running the Organisation
    At the top of this organisation was the Admiralty. This was one of the most important departments of state, headed by one of the most senior cabinet ministers, the First Lord of the Admiralty. One modern scholar has noted that it was the only high political office to be always filled by capable men! The First Lord was advised by a committee called the Lords of Admiralty - a mixture of politicians and senior naval officers - and served by a large staff of clerks. A never-ending stream of orders flowed from Admiralty House to the far-flung fleets and ships of His Britannic Majesty's Navy

    The Fleets
    During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the majority of the ships of the Royal Navy were in three large fleets. The Mediterranean fleet watched the French fleet in Toulon and the Spanish fleet in Cadiz. The North Sea fleet watched the Dutch fleet, which for most of the war was on the side of the French. The largest fleet of all, the Channel fleet, watched the French fleet in Brest, in north-west France. Each of these fleets had about 15-20 battleships, and were commanded by a senior admiral, like Nelson. More junior admirals commanded divisions within these fleets.

    Other Squadrons
    Smaller groups of battleships were also deployed in squadrons around the world, particularly in the West Indies and the East Indies, protecting Britain's overseas colonies. They were commanded by junior admirals. At any given time, also, there would be a lot of ships cruising on their own or in pairs, carrying despatches, looking for enemy privateers and merchantmen, escorting convoys of British merchantmen, etc. These ships were mostly frigates - smaller and faster than the battleships in the fleets.

    Bases and Ports
    All these fleets and squadrons needed bases where they could be supplied and refitted. The largest of the naval bases were Portsmouth and Plymouth, on the south coast of England. Yarmouth was the base of the North Sea squadron for much of the war, and Gibraltar and Minorca were the bases for the Mediterranean fleet. Bases in the West and East Indies provided for the warships in those regions.

    Supply Ships
    The great fleets blockading the French ports were supplied by a train of supply vessels and did much of their refitting at sea: fresh water, food and equipment were all brought out to the ships without the need for them to return to port. But, of course, all ships did need to return to port at some time or other, and six much-needed battleships missed the important Battle of Trafalgar for this very reason, having sailed across the Atlantic and back, after many months off Toulon.

    The warships of the Royal Navy were classed into 'rates', depending on how many guns they carried. A first rate was a three-decker battleship of 100 guns or more, like Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory. There were only a handful of such large ships in the Navy, all serving as flagships with the main fleets. Second rates were three-deckers carrying 90 to 98 guns. These also often acted as flagships. Most ships of the main fleets were third rates: two-decked battleships of 64 to 80 guns, most often 74 guns.

    Ships of the Line
    The first three rates of warship were known as 'ships-of-the-line'. This is because fleets normally sailed into battle with the battleships forming a long line, or 'line of battle'. The reason for this was simple. Most of a sailing ship's guns were distributed along its sides, or 'broadside'. A fleet sailing in 'line ahead', with all its ship's broadside to the enemy, was therefore able to bring many more of its guns to bear than a fleet sailing with its ship's bow or stern to the enemy. Ships-of-the-line made up the large battle fleets which the Royal Navy deployed.

    Frigates and Sloops
    Below them came the fourth rates (50 to 60 guns, of which very few were in service in the Napoleonic Wars), fifth rates (32-44 guns) and sixth rates (20-28 guns). These smaller warships were collectively known as 'frigates'. They were used above all as the 'eyes and ears' of the fleet, patrolling far out from the main body in search of the enemy, or close inshore to keep a watch on the enemy in port. They were also used to cruise against privateers. Below the frigates were unrated ships known as sloops. These were used as despatch vessels and convoy escorts. Below these came an assortment of small warships such as fire ships and so on.

    Manning the Ships
    The number of men making up the crews of these warships varied. A first rate, such as Nelson's Victory, carried more than 850 men; a normal third rate battleship carried 500 to 650 men; a fifth rate frigate carried 200 to 300 men; whilst a sloop of 16 guns carried about a 100 people. The crews were divided broadly between 'officers' and 'men'.

    The Men
    The crew was made up of ship's boys, landsmen (inexperienced crew members used for unskilled work), ordinary seamen and able seamen. Members of the crew of a warship (as opposed to the officers) signed on for a single voyage, rather than joining the Navy as a whole. When war broke out, many warships were brought into service at the same time, and all had difficulty getting enough men.

    Recruitment and Desertion
    This situation led to the notorious system of filling ships by means of forcibly impressing men by means of 'press gangs'. Many merchant seamen, especially those who had just returned from long voyages, had no wish to go to sea with the Navy, where the pay was generally much worse than on merchant ships and where the voyages were much longer. This system of compulsory recruitment led naturally to high levels of desertion amongst new crew members - 25% on average. After a ship had been in service for a year, there was very little desertion. One result of all this wastage was that most ships carried men (and women!) from many nations - making up about a quarter of all crews.

    The Officers
    The small group of officers at the top of the ship's hierarchy were drawn, on the whole, from upper-class families. Though a surprising number had risen from being common seamen, most were well-educated even though, like Nelson, they went to sea at 12 or 13 years of age. 

    Senior and Junior Officers
    The small group of officers comprised the captain, who was in overall command of the ship; the lieutenants, who were the captain's subordinate officers and who managed the day-to-day routine of the ship; there were other officers such as the master (in charge of navigating the ship), the surgeon, the purser and the chaplain. There were also more junior officers who were responsible for particular aspects of the ship: the boatswain (in charge of masts and spars), the gunner, the sail maker, the carpenter, the master's mates and the cook. These 'petty officers' were men who had risen from the ranks of the crew.

    Starting Off 
    In their first years at sea, young gentlemen were ranked as midshipmen, or trainee officer. After about six years at sea, they had to pass an exam to become a lieutenant - one of the officers who managed the routine of the ship on a day-to-day basis. Lieutenants had their own cabins, and ate their meals and relaxed in the 'wardroom' - a haven of gentility in a rough-and-ready world.

    Most naval officers spent their whole career as lieutenants. In order to rise higher, an officer needed either to especially distinguish himself in action or, more frequently, to have the patronage of a powerful man - an admiral, perhaps, or a nobleman whom an admiral needed as a political ally. Nelson's uncle, the Comptroller of the Navy (senior accountant), would have made a powerful friend to any admiral (or indeed, a powerful enemy).

    The next step up the ladder was to be the commander of a small 'unrated' warship, carrying less than 20 guns. Next, the officer was promoted to the rank of captain. Once on the 'Captain's List', promotion to rear admiral, then vice admiral, then (full) admiral, and finally admiral of the fleet, was by seniority only. Since most captains spent 20 years or more in the captain's rank (Nelson was lucky in only spending 18 it was important to become a captain as young as possible to advance further. Nelson was a captain by the age of 21, and most notable admirals had become captains in their 20s or early 30s.

    A Captain's Wealth
    A dashing frigate captain could become a national figure, and very wealthy - the system of prize money meant that any enemy ship a captain captured was sold on, either to a merchant or into the Navy, and the captain received a quarter of the proceeds (the other officers and the rest of the crew also received a share, and the local admiral received a quarter, even though he may not have been anywhere near at the time). A lucky cruise could enable a frigate captain to buy a country estate and set himself and his family up as landowners: almost (but not quite) the ultimate social prize. If he managed to capture an enemy frigate he could also expect a knighthood and national fame.

    A junior admiral was normally given a few battleships within a large fleet to command. If he were lucky and influential enough, he could be given the command of one of the smaller squadrons protecting the overseas colonies in the West or East Indies. This was basically a licence to print money, as he received a quarter-share in all the prize money his ships gained in their cruises against the enemy. Senior admirals - vice admirals or admirals - could hope for one of the great fleets to command - the Mediterranean, North Sea and Channel fleets. These highly responsible posts were reserved for famous officers who had tremendous reputations. To achieve real, enduring fame, an admiral had to win a sea battle. On average, these only happened every few years.


  • Life and death on the ocean waves

    When young people entered the Navy they entered a different world to anything they had known. The phrase 'all at sea' conveys the feeling they must have felt at the strangeness of the world in which they found themselves - a world full of strange objects, of men busy doing strange jobs and speaking strange words.

    Ships' Watches 
    Life on board an 18th century warship was hard. While at sea, sailors had their days organised according to the age-old watch system, in which the crew were divided into two watches, starboard and larboard, and worked in eight-hour shifts (except in an emergency, day or night, when all hands were called).

    Sailing the Ship
    The work depended on the weather. At any time, any one of the sails might have to be carried up and spread, raised or lowered, furled (rolled up), reefed (shortened) or unreefed. All these tasks involved sailors climbing the rigging and out along the yards (the great strutts from which the sails were hung). When the wind changed direction, or got stronger or weaker, all the sails might have to be worked on at the same time. This was very demanding on the crew, as well as dangerous. While the experienced sailors were aloft dealing with the sails, the less experienced crew members ('landsmen') were busy on deck, pulling on ropes and securing them to adjust sails and yards, so that they took the wind better. This often had to be done in the teeth of a gale, which made the work much harder, and with sea pouring over the side.

    Other Work
    As well as sailing the ship, there was always plenty to do: washing the decks; drying the sails, checking the ropes, cables and blocks; repairing, scraping, caulking, tarring and painting the ship's hull; and re-stowing the cargo to maintain the balance of the ship as the stores were consumed. Running repairs were also a priority - on long voyages the ship and its equipment were always being damaged and required hours of patient labour to repair. Also, most ships leaked all the time. The arduous work of pumping was a regular task, sometimes hourly or even more frequently. And, of course, there was gun drill to be done.

    Health and Welfare
    One of the most difficult tasks for the sailors was keeping the ship clean. Despite the best efforts of the British, who kept their ships cleaner than those of many other countries, thousands of sailors died of disease as well as in battle. There were no purpose-built washing facilities for the men, toilets were no more than holes over a clear drop to the sea. Storms could completely wreck a ship with the loss of all lives on board. Bad weather caused many accidents as the men went about their tasks on the swaying ship. A missed foothold often meant death. The work was also backbreaking. On HMS Janus in 1781, six men died of exhaustion on the pumps.

    Disease and Accident
    Of the 92,386 British sailors lost during the Napoleonic Wars, only 6,663 were killed by the enemy. All the others (93%) died through disease, shipwreck or accident. The main illness onboard ship was dysentery, while malaria and yellow fever made service in the tropics unusually hazardous. During his naval career, Nelson suffered from all three of these common illnesses. By the time of the French Napoleonic Wars a solution to one of the previous biggest killers - scurvy - had been found. The issue of lemon juice was available by the 1790s. During an early voyage across the Atlantic, Nelson had suffered from scurvy and by the end of his life most of his teeth had fallen out due to the effects of this. However, one reason why Nelson won his battles was because his men were healthier than those of Spain and France. The Royal Navy's mania for cleanliness held back contagion, and it fed its crews better.

    The Sailors' Mess 
    The officers on board had their own cabins, 'messed' (i.e. dined and relaxed) together in the 'wardroom' and had the right to walk on the quarterdeck - a part of the deck reserved for the officers. The ordinary sailors lived in messes of eight men each. This is where they had their meals, relaxed (especially when they couldn't be up on deck because of the weather) and slept. Each mess was centred on a wooden table which was laid on a gun. The hammocks were slung from the beams, a few inches apart.

    Hard Work but not Hungry 
    The life on 18th century warships has come to be seen as hard and brutal. It undoubtedly was by the comfortable standards of today, but not necessarily by the standards of the time. The food was normally plentiful, and it was regular, unlike for many people at home. The work was hard, but no more than in many land-bound professions, such as mining, and certainly less so than on merchant ships, which carried much smaller crews but which had the same amount of work to sail the ship.

    The food was simple but regular and, except on long voyages, plentiful. Standard rations were the same as on merchant ships: salt beef and pork in cask, ‘bread' (i.e. ship's biscuits), flour, oatmeal, dried peas, butter, suet, cheese and dried salted cod. After a long time at sea much of the food was inevitably of poor quality. However, fresh fruit and vegetables were available from time to time, especially in port, and fresh meat was available when one of the animals, which each ship carried, was slaughtered. Great care was taken by admirals to keep their fleets well provisioned with fresh food and drink.

    Sailors consumed huge quantities of drink. Famously, warships' crews were served alcoholic drinks each day. The official allowance was a gallon of beer. However, during the long wars, when ships were at sea for ever-longer periods of time, and space was at a premium, this was increasingly replaced with a half-pint of spirit, mixed with lemon and lime juice. When in port, most sailors often became drunk. This made management of ships' crews much more difficult in harbour than at sea.

    As for the notorious and brutal discipline on board naval ships, this is largely a myth. The authority of the officers rested largely upon the crew's willingness to obey. This was certainly not automatic, but there was a tendency for crews to maintain their discipline, because the safety and welfare of all on board depended on the well-ordered running of the ship. The books of each ship were inspected after each voyage, and if a captain was shown to use the 'cat-o-nine-tails' (a whip) too often, he was censured. A good officer was expected to gain the obedience of the crew by his qualities of leadership and management.

    Under harsh or incompetent officers, however, discipline could break down quite easily, and small-scale mutinies often went more-or-less unpunished by the naval authorities.  However, the overwhelming evidence is that relations between officers and the men they led were, on the whole, good. Nelson was by no means alone in being adored by his men. Most officers were respected by the men under their command, even if not loved. Those officers who failed to inspire respect were soon noticed by their colleagues, and few of these ended up commanding ships, let alone fleets.

    The supreme test of the efficiency of the officers and crews of a warship was in battle. It is very hard for a modern person who has seen no war to imagine the awfulness of battle on a man-of-war in the age of sail. The first warning of what was to come was that sand was put down on the decks to soak up the blood. The next warning was that the men stripped to the waist so that their clothes wouldn't enter their bodies on being wounded.

    Close Fighting
    In a close-fought battle - precisely the kind of battle that Nelson always wanted to bring about - ships would be firing their guns point-blank into each other. Sometimes the guns on the lower decks would actually be jutting through the opponents ship's gun holes. The din would have been tremendous (in fact it has been suggested that the storms that took place after many battles were the result of atmospheric disturbance).

    The Devastation
    Huge cannon balls would be crashing through the sides of the ships, not just causing devastation themselves but also throwing up masses of wooden and iron splinters. Men would be seeing close friends having their heads and limbs blown off and their bodies mangled to a pulp; the screams of the wounded would be added to the thunder of the guns. After a few minutes' close fighting the decks would be littered with body parts. What would have helped most of the men was that they were concentrating on the effort of firing the guns - requiring enormous physical exertion, great concentration and teamwork.

    Setting an Example
    For the officers, things were more difficult. Their job was to be aware of what was going on and direct men to where they were needed most. They cannot but have been aware also of the awful things that were happening around them and of the tremendous danger they were in. Worst of all was the situation of the captain and, if there was one on board, the admiral. It was their job to stand on the quarterdeck, in full view of their men - and of the enemy - and set an example of calm courage. They had to know what was happening in the battle around them and ensure that their ship was placed in the most effective spot. It is no wonder that captains had a 20% chance of not making it through a hard-fought battle.

    Eager for Battle 
    And yet, for all this, the men looked forward to battle. As their ships approached their opponents, British crews would let out great cheers. Captains would eagerly seek to get as close as they could to the enemy. After battle, after the most frightful carnage, officers and men seem to have just got on with life, apparently unaffected by what they had just been through. Very few seem to have suffered from mental trauma as a result of their experiences. Perhaps it was just that life in those days was so hard, and death such an ever-present reality in their lives.

    Battle Injuries
    Nelson's life illustrates probably better than anyone's the injuries that could be inflicted during battle.  He was wounded almost 100 times during his naval career and lost both an arm and the sight in one eye.   There were no antiseptics available at this time and gangrene often set in to any wounds. Many sailors also died from blood loss. Any major internal injuries were usually fatal. Often the only way to save a life was amputation. However there was no anaesthetic, other than getting the sailor as drunk as possible. It is said Nelson never forgot the feel the surgeon's scalpel after his shattered arm was amputated. Amputations had to be carried out very quickly (under three minutes) before the patient died of blood loss or shock. The ship's surgeons were kept very busy. 

    The Battle of Trafalgar
    The ship's surgeon treated 146 wounded men at Trafalgar in 1805; one of these was Nelson who died on the 21st October 1805.  He was shot by a French or Spanish sniper whilst giving orders on the deck of the Navy's flagship HMS Victory. He was carried below and made comfortable but it was clear that he could not be saved. According to eye witnesses, Nelson's last words were "God and my country". Nelson died at half-past four, three hours after he was shot.

    Death at Sea
    As was the custom, the ordinary sailors who died during a battle were buried at sea. There were no facilities for storing bodies for later burial. At Trafalgar a few sailors who survived the battle but who later died of their wounds were buried in the Trafalgar Cemetery in Gibraltar. The British Navy, however, transported Lord Nelson's body to London for a state funeral. His body was brought ashore at Rosia Bay in a lead-lined coffin and then placed in a brandy vat in preparation for the long journey back to England.



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