Article MT173

The Death of Nelson1

And so we arrive at the anniversary of Trafalgar …

The story has frequently been told and re-told and it is supposed that even the youngest competent generation would today have some inkling of what was a vital feat of arms in the history of England.  It should not, therefore, be necessary to recount the events in detail; but one or two preliminary remarks add verisimilitude to what otherwise might be thought to be typical exaggerations and variations in the story as expressed in adulatory comment and in broadside and song manifestation.  In establishing a context, Robert Southey is a good guide.  He wrote of the weeks preceding the battle and, in particular, of Nelson's state of mind and of the kind of esteem in which Nelson was held.  A quotation from Nelson's private journal was given:

May the great God whom I adore enable me to fulfil the expectations of my country!  And if it His good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the throne of His mercy.  If it is His good providence to cut short my days on earth, I bow with the greatest submission; relying that He will protect those so dear to me whom I may leave behind!  His will be done!  Amen!  Amen!  Amen!
This may be accounted extravagant but it seems to have been how Nelson often perceived his place in the world and is entirely human in its concern.  His prayer before Trafalgar follows the same pattern: 'May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe a great and glorious victory …'.  And, fearing that this battle would be his last - Southey commented on this - he would appear to have been unusually prescient at Trafalgar - even to the extent that he felt the 21st October to be an inevitable day of battle recalling his uncle Suckling's fight in the Dreadnought against the French on the same date many years before; and, as had become a family tradition, celebrating not only Suckling's action but the local, Burnham Thorpe, Fair Day.

Southey was in no doubt, either, about Nelson's status.

England has had many heroes, but never one so entirely possessed the love of his fellow-countrymen as Nelson.  All men knew that his heart was as humane as it was fearless; that there was not in his nature the slightest alloy of selfishness or cupidity, but that with perfect and entire devotion he served his country with all his heart and with all his soul, and with all his strength; and therefore they loved him as truly and as fervently as he loved England.2
It is with this kind of heightened sense that we approach the particular subject of song and broadside in commemoration of the man - even if there is an element of the mundane in what we discover.

In amongst the adulation for the one man it is as well to remember the sacrifices of his seamen.  Nelson himself, conscious of a destiny unfolding, took express time to insist that, whatever the outcome of the particular day, proper regard for his men would be assured in the establishment of a patriotic fund for the disabled and for widows and orphans.3

The briefest account of the battle itself will serve to offer points of reference.  Villeneuve, Nelson's old adversary at the Nile (when Villeneuve was very much the junior in the French hierarchy) had at last come out and had disposed his fleet placing the shallows of Trafalgar at an inconvenient distance to the English fleet and making his own escape route to Cadiz harbour available.  The combined fleet was composed of eighteen French ships of the line supported by five frigates and two brigs plus fifteen Spanish ships of the line.  Nelson also went into action with two lines of ships comprised of twenty-seven ships of the line, four frigates, a schooner and a cutter, strictly speaking outmanned and outgunned.  Nelson's fleet had adopted Villeneuve's first course towards the south-east as Villeneuve set out for Gibraltar and then, when Villeneuve had turned his battle fleet in the opposite direction to make for the safety of Cadiz, had altered course to the north-east so as to cut the enemy lines.  In the early morning of the 21st, when there were but light airs - which slowed manoeuvres considerably - it was reckoned that it would take some six hours before battle could be enjoined.  So it turned out.  The battle commenced at around twelve o'clock.  Collingwood, in Royal Sovereign, in command of the lee line, led his part of the English fleet in attempting to cut the more southerly part of the French battle lines in two.  This was not a new tactic.  It had been employed by Rodney at the battle of Les Saintes in 1792; and Villeneuve, the French admiral, was well enough aware of its dangers.  It was unfortunate for him that he was unable to counter it.  Nelson, too, was aware of precedent, noting that Rodney had made one break in the French line and that he, Nelson, intended to make two.  Victory would aim at the leading French ships, leaving Collingwood's Royal Sovereign the rest. 

Victory, Nelson's flagship, like Royal Sovereign, was fired on for some time, receiving some fifty casualties, before she was able to return fire, although this initial sufferance had been anticipated (apart from Santassima Trinidad, 140 guns, Santa Ana, 112 guns, and Principe de Asturia, 112 guns, all Spanish-built ships, the first-named the flagship of the Spanish admiral, Victory was the most heavily armed of all ships at Trafalgar at 110 guns).  When faced with a choice of three ships within the offing - Bucentaure (Villeneuve's flagship), Redoubtable and Santissima Trinidad - Nelson told Hardy, his captain, that it made no difference which ship the Victory engaged and Hardy steered under the stern of Bucentaure, giving her a broadside which was one of the most deadly kind, through the stern windows and sweeping forward along the decks which had been stripped and offered no obstacles to cannonballs.  Victory was herself hit by fire from Neptune (84 guns) as the latter crossed Victory's bows (there was a Neptune on the English side also - see below).  Victory then settled to a twin action between Bucentaure and RedoubtableTemeraire joined her and was followed by other English ships crossing the French line and turning to engage the enemy broadside to broadside, the conventional tactic.  Redoubtable, in this way, was eventually pounded into submission.  Nelson had already given written orders to his captains that they could not go wrong if they laid their ships alongside the enemy.

Meanwhile, both Beatty, Nelson's surgeon, and Blackwood, captain of the frigate Euryalis, who had come on board Victory to report, had been concerned that Nelson appeared on deck in full regalia, thus offering an obvious target to enemy sharpshooters, but Nelson refused to change his clothes (a point to be noticed later).

Not long after one o'clock, Hardy turned to find his admiral on his knees.  He had been hit by a shot from the mizzen tops of the Redoubtable, the ball entering through his shoulder, passing diagonally through a lung and lodging in Nelson's back.  Many words are ascribed to Nelson from this point on but all accounts agree that he knew at once that he was doomed.  Several times he said that his backbone had been broken

He was carried below and urged his surgeon to attend to others.  Apart from crying out for water and attention to the discomfort in his chest, he asked repeatedly how the battle went.  He also said, more than once, that he had no feeling in the lower part of his body.  More than once, too, he thanked God that he had done his duty; and he urged that care would be taken of Emma Hamilton and his daughter by her, Horatia.

Hardy, who had helped take Nelson below, was now back on deck and did not re-appear for some time after Nelson was shot.  When he did it was to report the progress of the battle.  Finally, at around half-three in the afternoon, the affecting scene between Nelson and Hardy (frequently caricatured) took place.  At approximately half-past four Nelson died but not before Hardy had acquainted him with the extent of the victory.  Nelson had been told that fourteen ships of the line had been secured and declared that he was not quite satisfied since he said beforehand that he had aimed at twenty (see, in ballad terms, Nelson's Glorious Victory at Trafalgar below).  He had, of course, sought complete annihilation of the French fleet.

Collingwood, who had been urged to anchor by Nelson, did not do so.  A gale, predicted by Nelson, blew up and as vessels continued to move around Collingwood was prevented from collecting those French vessels that had been captured or damaged.  As it happened, four French vessels that had escaped were, in fact, recaptured shortly afterwards.  Villeneuve himself along with 20, 000 men, had been made prisoner.  The French had lost some 6,000 - the English around 1,700.  The final count for the English was of sixteen ships taken, one sunk, one that had blown up, two burned, two scuttled and four wrecked in the gale that followed the battle.  This gives us a figure against which to work when the various claims are found in the ballads below.

The victory was complete enough.  It left Britain in charge of the seas for another hundred years. 


This survey begins with broadside printings, following the process begun in the consideration of Nelson's Monument and continuing through the discussion of printings in the Glimpses series on this site.  But, whilst reference is made to the general appearance of broadside ballads which refer to the events off the Spanish coast and often, in passing, further afield, there is, finally, a concentration on one ballad which encapsulate Nelson's death in titles and as content, the piece known variously as The Death of Nelson, Nelson's Tomb, 'Twas in Trafalgar Bay and Death of Lord Nelson.  This piece is one of very few survivors in sung repertoire of any sort - as will be seen.  It is more usually associated with what Derek Scott has called 'The Singing Bourgeois' rather than with traditional song repertoire.4

In respect of the broadside ballads focussed on Trafalgar - a selection is covered here that takes into account the considerable aftermath in printing terms and also demonstrates the broadside deployment of a number of occurrences and sayings that were part of actual chronology and human commerce. 

One ballad, appearing in Catnach's stock but, otherwise, it seems, only again in that of later printers - Fortey, Henson, Swindells, Harkness, Talbot, Walker (Durham), Williams and Russell … begins, in southern printings, with the line, 'Come all you gallant seamen that unites a meeting' and has a refrain: 'Mourn, England, mourn …'.  Despite different titles and certain differences of expression - 'and give me a meeting', for instance, in the north … and 'Pray let me, sir, know how the battle does go (Williams) as opposed to 'Pray let me know how this battle does go' (Harkness) and so on - the visible north-south divide does not change the narrative in any way.5  And, overall, the ballad, In its expression, is compatible with broadside texts already considered in discussion on this site.  It continues:

      … he was a brave and undaunted commander,
      As ever did sail on the ocean so wide,
He made both the French and the Spaniards surrender,
      By always pouring into them a broadside …
Then there is a refrain:
Mourn, England, mourn, mourn and complain,
For the loss of Lord Nelson, that died on the main.
Roy Palmer has suggested that the refrain lines are a quote from an earlier song, attached to the death of Wolfe at Quebec where we find
Mourn, England, mourn, mourn and complain,
The chiefest glory, Wolfe, is slain.6
Wolfe, as it happened, was one of Nelson's own particular heroes.  Nelson is recorded as admiring the painting of Wolfe on the heights of Abraham and he also asked the question, 'What would Wolfe have done?' when he was contemplating the assault on Bastia in 1794.7  One wonders if broadside printers were aware of Nelson's admiration for Wolfe and, correspondingly, issued text acknowledging the fact.

Nelson's death-wound is mentioned, got from 'aloft' - no closer observation was made.  Then, more particularly for the purpose of a public's admiration, when 'up steps the Doctor' who declares that he was 'very sorry' to see Nelson 'lying and bleeding this way', Nelson purportedly responds by saying,

No matter, no matter whatever about me,
My time it is come - I'm almost at the worst,
But there's my gallant seamen a fighting so boldly,
Discharge off your duty unto them at first.
And, further, he insists on knowing how the battle had gone.  These remarks, as we know, have correspondence in actuality.  We note that in the reply it is said that 'the antagonist has gone to the bottom' - reminding us of the line in Nelson or The True Blue as discussed in the Glimpses piece on the Nile.8  Success is proclaimed - eighteen ships captured, two more blown up. 

In broadside style, there is nothing remarkable about the ballad; but its appearance in so many printings around the heyday of the ballad trade in the 1830s and 1840s attests to a degree of prolongation of Nelson's memory.  It did not survive during the latter half of the century as broadside text, though, and there is no sign of it in sung repertoire during the Revival, our usual touchstone in these matters.9  In this, of course, it followed the course of many other Nelson ballads as broadside printings and of those ballads attached to the names of other admirals and generals.

Nelson's Death and Victory can be found in a printing from Swindells and in two copies without imprint.10

YE sons of Britain, in chorus join and sing,
Great and joyful news has come to our Royal King,
      An engagement we have had at sea,
      With France and Spain our enemy,
      And we've gain'd the glorious victory,
                        Again my brave boys.
Some of the epithets discussed in previous pieces about broadsides appear (like 'brave' above); but the odd detail distinguishes this ballad … the time of battle, for example - 'twelve o'clock'; and 'small shot like hailstones on the deck did lie'; and 'The Achille blew up'11; and, in amongst which, 'Nelson was slain by a musket ball' ('Mourn England mourn' - which might just indicate a familiarity with other text).  The ballad also says that although he had fallen, Nelson 'cried fight on, God bless you all'.  In the next stanza there is a rapid change of viewpoint with more of Nelson's alleged words:
Huzza, valiant seamen, we've gained the day,
Tho' lost a bold commander who on the deck did lay
      With Joy we've gain'd the victory,
      Before me death I now see,
      I die in peace, bless God, said he,
                        The victory is won.
Finally, there is a hope for peace and the increase of trade and wealth for Britain and 'May this turn the heart of our enemy'.

There is a text from Ford in Chesterfield entitled Nelson's Glorious Victory at Trafalgar.12  It begins: 'Arise, arise brave Britons …', and in it there is a neat link with a former Nelson in the lines:

Once more the Hero of the Nile,
Did seek to make Britannia smile,
With another victory on the file -
                        O brave Nelson.
The ballad describes how the combined fleets of France and Spain were met off Cadiz and, as in the first ballads discussed here, words are attributed to Nelson.  On seeing thirty-three ships, he exclaimed, 'twenty of them in there for me'; again, we know this to have been true.  Similarly, as battle was enjoined, but with no actual verification, he
… unto his men did say,
'We'll conquer them, my lads, or die' …
He 'then 'broke their line of battle', blew some ships up and sent others to the bottom.  However,
… with victory on his side,
A fatal blow his life destroy'd.
That is all: no details … It is a general portrait of his behaviour and of the course of the battle that is emphasised.  In this ballad, even with his parting breath 'He pray'd for England's glory'; and he finished as follows:
“Farewell, my lads, my glass is run,
This day must be my setting sun;
But providence, thy will be done'.
Nelson's hope before the battle was met according to the ballad:
The battle it being over,
      Which was a bloody fray,
We twenty of their finest ships,
      From them did take away …
There is then a tribute to Collingwood and Hardy and a call for Britain's trade and wealth to increase:
All wars and tumult cease,
And may we find a lasting peace.
This piece appeared in Logan's Pedlar's Pack as well as in broadside form and in Firth's Naval Songs and Ballads …; as a song, in Nova Scotia; and in the repertoire of George Lovett, one of Gardiner's singers (see below) - a fairly rare example of a sustained life.13

A New Song called Nelson's Victory begins:

Come all you jolly seamen bold, in chorus
                        join with me,
To sing the praises of Nelson's victory,
      Victory was on the file,
      He thought to make Britania [sic] smile,
      He thought to make Britania smile,
                        That brave Nelson.
It goes on to describe how Nelson met with the combined fleets of France and Spain, giving the number of ships as '33' as against '27' in the English fleet (the full figures on both sides have already been given); and how the English 'shocked' the Spanish 'on the shore' …
Brave Nelson stood on deck so high, aloud
            unto his men did cry,
“Fight on, my boys, we fight or die,”
                        Said brave Nelson.
In the ballad, the line of battle was broken and four ships were blown up and '3 we sent below' before a 'pistol shot' Nelson's life 'destroyed”.  Then, Nelson said:
“Farewell my lads, my glass is run, this day
            coming rather soon,
But the will of Providence must be done … ”
Twenty of the finest ships of France we
            took away … 14
Nelson's Fame and England's Glory, a Pitts contribution and apparently written by one William Welch, offers detail not found elsewhere - that the Royal Sovereign 'led the van', that The Victory 'she seconded under a cloud of sail', that the first French ship encountered was an eighty-four, that the Santissima Trinidad was engaged and so on.  Oddly, perhaps, there is no mention of Nelson's death.  A fragment of this song was collected by Gavin Greig who, at the time of publication, was apparently not aware of antecedent and asked for enlightenment.15  It ends, describing the extent of the victory, as follows:
… one we sunk and one blew up and twelve more ran away.
And nineteen more we took in tow to show we
            won the day.
Britannia's Revenge For the loss of her Hero, nothing short of an outburst, nonetheless contrived not to described Nelson's last fight and insisted on revenge - which, one would have thought to have been superfluous after Trafalgar:
“Let the British thunder go,
“Hurl destruction on the foe,
“Let not him fall without something as great
“Be recorded, to mark the lamentable fate,
                        “Of a Hero so great.”
The piece is entirely flamboyant in expression, ending thus:
See they strike!  - vengeance sweep,
Rushing down th'unfathom'd deep,
Sinks the confederates of proud France and Spain,
While the Genius of Albion exulting exclaim;
                        VICTORY!  VICTORY!16
It is faintly possible that this was the song referred to in the list of Henry Burstow's songs appended to his Reminiscences (1911) although the title given there is actually Britain's Revenge on the death of Nelson.17  No other candidate has emerged; and the piece seems to be such an exaggerated one, and lacks a strong narrative line, that it hardly seems likely Henry Burstow or anybody else would have taken it up.

There is a further clutch of ballads, not, as far as has been ascertained, widely printed, which nonetheless extend our appreciation of Nelson's celebrity.  For instance, in Nelson's Victory Or The Defeat Of The Combined Fleets of France and Spain 18

'Twas on the twenty-firft of October,
      The morning being clear,
We received the intelligence,
      The Combined Fleets were near …
They were engaged by twelve o'clock:
The Britifh fleet were fired fo hot,
      Scarce one was fent in vain,
And hundreds of our enemies,
      Were quickly by us flain.
The British, too, received casualties and:
All Nature feemm'd to ftand aghaft
      At the horror of the fight.
- an unusual observation in these ballads.

Nineteen ships were captured but:

      … the laurels of this action
      Met with a fatal check,
Our commander being flain
      Upon the quarter-deck …
In this version Nelson received a musket shot through the left breast - not so (see the description above):
But his noble deeds and actions
      Shall fhine in future ftory.
The piece ends with a plea that survivors and wives and children of the slain shall live in comfort, thus echoing Nelson's own wishes.

This piece, like the next, would seem to have been a relatively early issue if the old-fashioned use of the letter 'f' is taken into account.  The printers of the latter piece, Howard and Evans, are certainly known to have operated between 1797 and 1811; but it is not possible to get any nearer a date of issue.

Nelson Victorious, in ringing tones, recounts Nelson's exploits at the Nile and at Copenhagen and, without mentioning Nelson at Trafalgar, nevertheless records his death -

No earthly task for him remain'd,
      So heav'n has called him in the sky …
- ending with the satisfied boast that:
“Britannia still shall rule the waves,
“And Britons never shall be slaves.”19
Grand Conversation on Brave Nelson also recounts the Nelson victories, includes Trafalgar, and goes on to note the building of a monument in Trafalgar Square (1843) - thus denoting a very late issue and not one, therefore, directly and immediately inspired by our own immediate subject, Nelson's death at Trafalgar.  In fact, the piece is something of a rarity, appearing only in copies from Henson (Northampton) and Taylor (Aylesbury), Harkness and Such.20  The references to battle would seem to underline the late issue -
Trafalgar I will mention, if you will give attention,
It long has been recorded where brave Nelson fell and
                              bled, The officer's [sic] found him, all human aid was around him,
But were affected to the heart to find that he was dead …
The 'gallant tars were griev'd' (we know) and 'All was in confusion' (not quite the case unless the ballad is referring to the ensuing storm).  The ballad then becomes the only one to indicate that
In rum they put him it is said, and then to England
            him conveyed …
- again, not quite true.  A seaman, James Bayley, noted that Nelson's body was preserved in spirits.  Pocock writes that it was 'first preserved in brandy' and then, at Gibraltar, transferred to a cask of wine for transportation to England.21

Another Pitts piece, Nelson's Victory and Death (to be sung to the tune of The Arethusa, 1796) began:

COME list you lads wheree'r [sic] you be
      Ye staunch lovers of your country,
While I unfold a victory
      Gained by the British squadron.
It was a fleet so bravely man'd
As e'er and Admiral did command.
      The fleets Combined went out to find
Twas Nelson, brave that steer'd each rudder
Whose very name every soul made shudder
                  On board the combined squadrons.
The ballad observed that Nelson was implored to change his clothes but argued against this:
No, no, said he, I'll stand in those
As the Admiral of the squadron …
One assumes that this, in actuality, meant that he insisted on full regalia - which would obviously mark him out and we know that this was so (see the brief reference above).  Further, of course, his death did come when 'A ball smote him fatal on the breast' (see above again for amore accurate description of the moment when he was struck).  The ballad ends with a call for 'a sparkling bowl' in order to 'drink peace' …22

A post-Trafalgar piece, in distinctive stanzaic patterning, from Bence in Wotton (a printer, like Stark in Gainsborough, mentioned in the companion piece on this site about the battle of the Nile, who lies in obscurity as yet although he is known to have been printing until 1808) described Nelson when slain as victorious; and how 'His remains were sent home to his dear native land' - there is no reference to spirits!23

A piece with the title The Death of Nelson - not the same text as is in focus below - comes from Oxlade in Portsea (yet another printer hardly known)24

Enroll'd in the bright annals, lives many a glorious name
Did e'er a British hero conceal a prouder deed of fame?
To shield our liberty and law, huzza, huzza, huzza,
And noble Nelson's mighty arm achieved a Trafalgar.
It would be too easy to smile at what appears to have been a serious loss of invention.  The ballad insisted that Nelson did declare that twenty French ships would be his on the day.  The battle - the only concession to description - was 'fierce and hot'.  Nelson himself received a shot 'which pierc'd his shoulder', a more accurate description than some.  In the cockpit he urged his surgeon to attend to others.  And, for the first time, we encounter the supposed scene with Hardy although this is only to record that Nelson 'reclin'd his head, and said, 'The will of God be done!'.  The ballad concludes: 'His names survives [sic], and still shall be, till time shall be no more!'

Birt, clearly at a late stage, issued an extensive piece entitled The Hero of Trafalgar Or, The Death of Nelson - 'Ye true sons of Britain, give ear unto my ditty'.25  This is a piece riddled with lavish Biblical reference, not always clear in implication.  For instance,

Jehovah, his guardian, all with the rod of Aaron
      Contain'd in the Ark, then with God for his guide
A token for rebels, he would make them surrender,
      By powering down on them a dreadful broadside …
When the fleets engaged, 'Jehovah inspired him with wisdom and learning' and so 'thousands we sank to the bottom'.  Then:
As he sailed from Moab unto the plains of Jerico,
      Where Joshua his praises and trumpets did sound
Seven times then he sounded, surprised their cities,
      His foes he destroyed, & their walls tumbled down
Seven times that glorious, immortal Lord Nelson
      Pourd in on those traitors with all his might,
They all struck their colours which made them to
      Unto him, as he was then, a true Israelite.
This ballad insists, like others already mentioned, that Nelson was struck by a ball in the left breast - an extraordinary projection of mythologizing, only perhaps understood if we accept that a hero must, in mythical terms, be shot whilst facing the foe and not from behind.

In this ballad, too, Nelson asks Collingwood how the battle was going and got the reply that the enemy was in total overthrow and that the Santassima Trinidad had gone to the bottom.  This was true but in a roundabout way.  The Santissima Trinidad surrendered to the English Neptune (mentioned above) and, very badly damaged, was taken in tow by Prince, only to founder in the gale that followed the battle.

In the ballad, Nelson then spoke to Collingwood in extensive vein:

Let the sacred name of Jehovah be praised,
      For fortune this day, boys, has been good to us
My blessings I leave with my noble brave seamen,
      My post I resign to you, my Lord Collingwood.
I give you advice to be steady and loyal,
      In supporting our King; constitution& laws
In remembrance of Nelson, bold Wolfe, and King
      May Heaven ever guide you and prosper your cause.
Nelson is then described as a true Christian and the conqueror of the ocean, 'The Hero of the Nile and the terror of Frane' [sic].  In its expression this is perhaps the most astonishing of all broadside ballads encountered.  It never appealed to singers though.

There is, again, another text with the title of The Death of Nelson (but not the principal text to be scrutinied here), beginning:

Long time the fleets of France and Spain,
Have play'd at Boh-peep on the main …
A refrain brings us back to the first ballad discussed here:
Mourn England, mourn, thy lofs deplore,
Thy Guardian - NELSON is no more!
The piece regurgitates the famous Trafalgar signal as 'Your Duty England calls from you' and describes the fatal ball as 'envious'.  Nelson:
Like Wolf refign'd his willing breath,
And met with fmiles a glorious death …
The ballad concludes:
For never more upon the Main,
Will Britain boaft his like again.
Mourn England, mourn, thy lofs deplore
They Boaft - they Nelfon is no more.26
None of these latter ballads had a wide distribution as far as has been ascertained nor was there a sustained printing life for them.  It might appear, instead, that separate printers were determined to celebrate the hero through an individual contribution and, that done, the subject was dropped.  The very variety of form and small details seems to bespeak individual determination to be distinctive.  A large number of them continued to exploit Nelson's name through the century.  None of this crop, though, survived in sung repertoire.27


It is, in fact, to one particular piece that we look for the most solid presence in both print and sung repertoire and it has very little to do with traditional canons.  The text for the song under review - let us call it The Death of Nelson since this was the more usual title in an extensive output - whose presence persisted right through the nineteenth century, was written by Samuel Arnold (1774-1852) and the music by John Braham (1774-1854), 'one of the most celebrated tenors of the first half of the nineteenth century'.28  Contemporary opinion seems to have been one of approval of Braham's singing talents.  Mary Russell Mitford wrote of the way in which Braham was capable of joining sense to sound; and the Earl of Mount-Edgcumbe that he was impressed not only by the brilliance of the voice but also by Braham's 'most perfect taste and judgement'.  Both Cimarosa and Carl Maria von Weber were impressed enough to write parts especially for him - he had studied and sung in Europe.  He actually began his career as a boy soprano at Covent Garden in 1787 and made his adult debut in England in 1801.  Even when his voice got lower he continued to perform (as baritone), the last time in 1852, when he was over 70.  One of his trademarks was to write his own parts and he had a long association with composers such as Bishop and Attwood who are known, at the least, for their contribution to the corpus of drawing-room songs; and himself wrote many ballads, duets and patriotic songs. 

Braham was a showman who gave his various audiences what they wanted, whether singing of a high quality, stirring patriotic sentiment or florid, tasteless ornament.
The Death of Nelson first appeared in Braham's opera, The Americans, in 1811 with words by Arnold.29  Braham had, in fact, been befriended by Nelson himself in Livorno during Brahams' earlier years and Nelson's dalliance on the continent.  Intriguingly, he had also been sponsored by Abraham Goldsmid, a financier, who had been instrumental in securing Brahams' place at Covent Garden when he was still a boy.  It was Goldsmid who was also particularly helpful to Nelson in his purchase of Merton, Nelson's house in Surrey, bought by Nelson subsequent to his victories at Aboukir Bay and at Copenhagen and which he shared with Emma Hamilton.  Goldsmid became a friend and neighbour of the ménage then currently in existence.  It could well have been Goldsmid who brought Braham back to Nelson's notice.  For Christopher Hibbert records that at Christmas 1801 Braham himself sang for Nelson at Merton.  where Hibbert quotes a letter from Lord Minto, an old friend of Nelson's, to his wife, referring to 'Braham, the celebrated Jew singer, who performed with Lady H.', adding that ' She is horrid, but he entertained in spite of her', an indication of the lack of esteem in which Emma Hamilton tended to be viewed by those who thought themselves to be amongst the élite of society.  Minto is recorded, on other occasions, as indicating his dislike for Emma Hamilton and his concern for the ridiculous figure that Minto thought Nelson was cutting in her company.30  Braham, it should be added, sang at Nelson's funeral.

Clearly, the immediate context for the song, like so much else that was put out on specific occasions such as red-hot electioneering is unlikely, strictly speaking, to have been amongst traditional singers.  It is quite possible, though, that, if it was popular enough, a song could have been adapted and absorbed into what we now term traditional repertoire.  Unfortunately, this kind of cross-over was consistently ignored or downgraded by the collectors of the Revival so that there is no evidence that singers encountered at the time of the Revival sang the song. 

We do know that at least four twentieth century singers had songs with the known title, or variants of it, in their respective repertoires: George Lovett, Harry Cox, Bob Hart and George Dunn.  George Lovett, one of Gardiner's singers, sang a song which Gardiner entitled The Death of Nelson and which is actually a version of Nelson's Glorious Victory at Trafalgar, beginning 'Arise, proclaim your loudest cause …' (discussed above - a Ford printing).31  Gardiner gave no details of where George Lovett got his song and George Lovett is proving hard to pin down as far as his birth and domicile are concerned.  At any rate, after George Lovett this song seems to have disappeared entirely.

It turns out that, in George Dunn's case, it is not The Death of Nelson.32  The survival of the song, like George Lovett's song, is a matter of small wonder and one might posit oral transfer.  Interestingly, the two tunes from George Lovett and George Dunn resemble each other in some particulars, especially in the final half of each.  At a stretch, this might just indicate a nexus of such songs in circulation where tunes were interchangeable (like that for The Arethusa) and, as time moved on, the connections changed in their nature.

In Harry Cox's case the song turns out to be a version of Nelson's Monument.  In Bob Harte's case, only the title is given in a list of his repertoire so that we may only speculate that it may have been the song in question.33

And, to add to these indications that there is little sung evidence of the retention in traditional repertoire of the song, there are also, as it were, implications of counter-evidence.  Alfred Williams, whose aim was to collect songs sung in the area of the Upper Thames without disbarring those which were un-canonical, has - perhaps a little surprisingly - no trace of this song in his manuscripts or printed matter.34  And even amongst Henry Burstow's extensive list there is no mention although he had several Napoleon songs and a couple about Waterloo.35  Overall, then, any speculation that the song did enter and remain in traditional sung repertoire during the nineteenth century is no more than what our old friends, circumstance and probability, can offer us - given also that some collectors may just have suppressed mention of the song for the sake of their own preconceived notions.

And, in fact, even if much of the vocabulary is familiar, the nature of the piece as air and recitative might suggest that it was too complex to have been taken up easily by traditional singers, as the following example of the text indicates - this is the 'Recitative':

O'er Nelson's tomb, with silent grief
Britannia mourns her hero now at rest,
But those bright laurels ne'er shall fade
            with years,                    [tears.
Whose leaves are watered by a nation's36
With its elliptical references, this is clearly an echo from scribbledom.  Nonetheless, the vocabulary and the tone of the following 'Air' could have been found - is found, in part - in broadside printings.
'Twas in Trafalgar bay,
We saw the Frenchmen lay,
Each heart was beating then;
We scorned the foreign yoke,
Our ships were British oak,
And hearts of oak our men!
Even the repetition in each stanza of the lines that end the first stanza might have gained acceptance:
Along the line this signal ran;
“England expects that every man,
      This day will do his duty.”
Succeeding stanzas are relatively simple in expression:
And now the cannons roar,
Along the affrighted shore;
      Our Nelson led the way;
His ship the Victory named,
Long be that Victory famed,
For Victory crowned the day.
The victory was achieved, but 'dearly' - the only reference to the intensity of the battle - and:
At last the fatal wound,
Which struck dismay around,
The hero's breast receivd …
Pratt's spelling of 'receivd ' is not duplicated but can also be found as 'receiv'd' as well as 'received' (there are other orthographic changes but the essential narrative line is intact in all copy).  Once again, as in ballads noted above, Nelson's own supposed words take precedence:
“Heaven fights upon our side,
The day's our own,” he cried,
“Now long enough I've lived,
In honour's cause my life was passed
In honour's cause I fall at last,
      For England, home and beauty;
Thus ending life as he begun,
England confessed that every man
      That day had done his duty.
All known broadsides follow this form closely though there is sometimes a little latitude in orthography.  The text, apart from an initial flourish, is of modest proportions, mixing conventional imagery and mild rhetoric, and there is no concession to historical accuracy.  For instance, the myth of Nelson being struck in the breast by a musketball persists whereas a description of the fatal blow (given above) contradicts this idea.  Nelson - of course - is described as being 'gallant' as he was in much broadside material and, likewise, the immediate context is familiar with its suggestion of the bravery of British seamen (themselves 'gallant') who fought against the 'foreign yoke'. 

It is the mood that seems to be important, as one might expect.  Nelson, it seems, had an obsession with 'honour' and the fact that this obsession was combined with a continuing sense of slight that more 'honours' were not heaped on him nor was he the recipient of monetary compensation, in particular via prize money, for his efforts which, as is familiar to us, resulted in a substantial abuse of his body.  Both Christopher Hibbert and Tom Pocock remark at length on the subject in their respective biographies.  For instance, Nelson expressed his concern that he could not get an appointment to a ship though the felt that he deserved it - although this was a concern shared by many another sailor thrown like Nelson at the time (1789-1790) onto shore with but half-pay.  He was unhappy at the lack of public acknowledgement of his deeds after Bastia (1794).  After Cap St Vincent (1797) he was relieved at some measure of recognition; but dismayed at its apparent lack after the Nile (1798).  As Duke of Bronte, an honour given in respect of his services to the King of Naples (1799), he swore by the recognition itself rather than the estate and monetary rewards.  And so it went on …37  In the Glimpses piece already in place on this site, it was noted that Nelson's reactions to his injuries were at once at the extreme (why not, indeed?) … with no exhibition of a stiff upper lip unless his concern for his men and for how the battles proceeded be accounted as such - diversions from his own agonies.

Given also that the view of Nelson here would appear to be appropriate to the degree of hero-worship entertained immediately after Trafalgar, it should be noted that Braham's contribution was already separated from the event by six years, indicating a prolongation of adulation.  When we consider, further, the continuing attempt to set up memorials to Nelson, notably the various monuments including that in Trafalgar Square and, of course, that in Yarmouth as discussed in a previous article, it might be that the sentiment was adopted for purposes other than those of acknowledgment of an immediate heroic deed: perhaps, in effect, as a continuing effort to bolster national patriotic fervour (the wars with France were continuing), the appeal to precedent, the recital of litany -

… Hector and Lysander
And such great names as these... 
- and as a way of linking the current production with an event that might spread a glow of reflected glory.  So as far as The Death of Nelson is concerned one speculates as to the extent of public demand as opposed to a printer's determination to exploit the name of Nelson at every available opportunity.  In respect of pedigree, we find that both Catnach and Pitt carried the text of Death of Nelson, so that prominence in broadside printing terms was assured.  The names of other printers illustrate a widespread take-up of opportunity in direct contrast to the fortunes of most other ballads: as examples, Walker and Harkness in the north, Henson in Northampton, Williams in Hampshire, Keys in Devon, Pratt in Birmingham and Warwick in Leicester (there are still others …)38

At least one broadside suggests a physical context other than the street environment or that of traditional circles - Pollock of North Shields headed a text with the title and then the following information: 'As Sung by Mr. Huckel, at the Theatre, North Shields, with unbounded Applause'.39  As a parallel example, Mate of Dover also presented material in a similar way at the head of one of his printings where there are notes indicating that Boney from Moscow was 'A Comic Song, Written & Sung by W. Mate at the Theatre, Deal with unbounded applause' and that, likewise, Bonaparte's Flight from Leipsic was 'Written and Sung by W. Mate at the Dover Theatre, in Character of a French Officer, with most unbounded applause'.40  To this we can add that Firth's version of La Loire Frigate is headed by a note which tells us that the song was 'Written by Mr. C. Dibdin, Jun., Composed by Mr. Reeve, and sung by Mr. Slader at Sadler's Wells'41  Obviously, this all underlines the genesis of pieces in the context of theatre.

Still, one wonders quite what to make of this extract from the letters of one who was voyaging in the Impétueux in 1811 and was describing the practice of the singing of 'forebitters' (as opposed to the work-songs or 'chanteys'):

Again is to be found a party singing songs to the memory of Duncan, Howe, Vincent and the immortal Nelson, while others whose souls are more refined are singing praises to the God of Battles.
Nelson is certainly set amongst his compatriots whilst yet that 'immortal' individualises him and characterises the brand of hero-worship attached to him, as noted by Southey, and as vested also in the regular naval toast to 'The Immortal Memory'.42

So that, in assessing the impact of the piece, Death of Nelson and in amongst any Nelson songs, one may conclude that a distinct kind of audience would seem to have been in view during the inception of the piece and that, indeed, that audience responded.  But it is not a context associated with traditional song - we are left to wonder if the piece did appear in the repertoires of other singers.43

That Death of Nelson did retain some sort of hold on the imagination amongst a particular audience is attested by the following extracts from newspapers.  The first is dated 1860 (and, as a matter of fact, bears on the fascinating topic first raised by Keith Chandler in his Enthusiasms piece on this site, The Singing Miller, as to who the song-carriers were and what kinds of songs they sang).  A musical entertainment at Abingdon (at that time, before County boundary reorganisation, in Berkshire) was being described at which a certain George Buckland, 'the popular musician', gave an entertainment entitled 'Old English and Patriotic Songs' which included The Old English Gentleman (Fine?), The Bailiff's Daughter … , The Death of Nelson and The Leather Bottel … .44  The second piece was dated 1863:

BICESTER MICHAELMAS SHOW FAIR On Friday last, the Michaelmas Show or Pleasure Fair was held in Market-end, Bicester.  Early in the morning began the sharp crack of rifles at the galleries, the distracting sounds of gongs and organs in all directions, the blasts of trumpets, the shrieks of ballad-singers … and ever and anon the strains of Whitechapel tars as they sang to their “kind Christian friends” of the prowess of Nelson or the eternal wonders of “Trafalgar's bay.” …45
This reference, it would seem clear, is referring to the song under discussion. 

Further, as the collecting of Sabine Baring-Gould underwent quite a sea-change in its inclusiveness between the first issue of Songs and Ballads of the West (roughly, between 1889 and 1892) and its re-appearance in 1895, during which brief time his own experience expanded, he filled eight volumes with songs not then normally associated with traditional canons, published as English Minstrelsie in 1895; and in the second volume can be found The Death of Nelson.  There is no indication there of who sang the song for Baring-Gould but it would be a reasonable assumption that he had encountered the song whilst assembling his more 'orthodox' version of what singers in his neighbourhood sang.  He claimed that Braham actually sang The Death of Nelson in 1810 at the Lyceum theatre.  We know that he was frequently inaccurate when citing dates.  In this case, all other known dates for the song link it with The Americans which opened in 1811. 

As a view of the impact of the song, In his notes Baring-Gould quoted at length from a Mrs Byrne and her book, Gossip of the Century, published in 1892.  Therein she described an occasion when her father took her to see Braham in Brighton:

The great singer knew his public, and that he would not be let off without one of his popular songs; the orchestra struck up ''Twas in Trafalgar's Bay,' and even before he had opened his lips the very symphony was applauded to the echo.  This spirited and also patriotic song touched the hearts of the audience, and their shouts for a second encore were so persistent that it was in vain the singer tried to pacify them with bows and smiles …
Mrs Byrne went on, a little more pointedly, to write that:
Brahams' sea-songs, even when not at the seaside, were always captivating to the million, and he so well knew their effect on the masses that he was too often willing to sacrifice musical taste in order to respond to the demands of a public who worshipped him … 46
Perhaps, indeed, as distance lent proverbial enchantment, the song became even more popular in some circles.  For, certainly, in the Newbury area of Berkshire at the end of the nineteenth century it seems that the song persisted as a party piece amongst the bourgeoisie as a vehicle for individual bravura.  There are numerous references to the song being sung at various concerts and entertainments of which the following are typical … at a smoking concert at the Conservative Club in Newbury; again at a Faccombe concert; at a Highclere Volunteer Cricket entertainment; and at a concert in Hannington - the latter three all small places within a dozen miles of Newbury.  The organisation and the venues tend to be centred on Parish or School Rooms and various causes are sometimes adduced - reading room, church, or cricket club funds, for instance.  The names of singers are recorded and it becomes possible to ascertain an outline of repertoire.47  We seem to be a long way from the public house and hearth of what we apprehend as the usual traditional venues; and the kind of song described here is, in the end, not at all characteristic of traditional song, even if we do concede that singers may have sung other examples of the kind - from what we might call a drawing-room or, even more removed, a concert genre: Home, Sweet Home or The Rose of Tralee.  It was surely more a question, at that time, of the idea of performance and, in some sense, self-aggrandisement in a socially élite atmosphere rather, perhaps, than of genuinely-felt sentiment for Nelson. 

In this way, perhaps, the great deeds of Nelson achieved, in the memory, a subfusc character far removed from a contemporary mixture of wholehearted admiration, anxiety over the course of the French wars and a need to bolster national pride.  Yet and all, the very survival of Nelson's name in the terms discussed above does set him in a sort of pantheon, albeit a mixed one: with St George, perhaps; with Richard the Lionheart, with Robin Hood, with Guy Fawkes … all of whom contribute in their convoluted ways, to a sense of identity amongst the English; and all of whom can be vested with a certain glory or infamy in the way that events were; say - Bosworth, the Restoration, Waterloo (of course), Dunkirk …  It is not a matter to be taken lightly but, one supposes, in what has come to be accepted as typically English in fashion, neither is it quite proper to boast, even though it is certain that at Trafalgar the course of history was irrevocably changed.

Roly Brown - 21.10.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France

Article MT173


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