Article MT166

Nelson's Monument1

As the bi-centenary of Trafalgar approaches it was thought worthwhile to consider some of the material surrounding the life and times of Horatio Nelson particularly since certain pieces, unlike those featuring other admirals and some generals, were retained in the popular memory; and whilst the total haul proves to be very small the process of mythologising is intriguing.

In fact, the phenomenon of songs in praise of heroes in history and in celebration of or commenting on historical events still has a particular resonance when the years between the advent of the French Revolution and the passing of the Reform Act in England in 1832 are considered.  One commentator, Gavin Greig, suggested that 'The twenty years that ended with Waterloo have left more traces in our popular minstrelsy than any other period of history has done'.2  As part of a testing process as far as the accuracy of such a claim is concerned, this brief study considers how one song about Nelson came to prominence and how it fared as broadside and as a sung item (there are other studies to come).

Frequently, of course, in the history of traditional song, it is less the full-blown hero and more the humble, anonymous protagonist who features.  We may well encounter someone like the rather sad figure, leaving his loved one, of the soldier in a version (there are others) of the song, The Banks of the Nile - 'Hark, hark, the dogs are barking…'.  Roy Palmer has suggested that this song may have had an earlier origin, perhaps during the American war of independence and that it may then have been attached to Nelson's victory at Aboukir Bay in 1798.  The form of the song, The Banks of the Nile, that of a dialogue of lamentation between the young man leaving his lover at home, can also be found elsewhere, one of the most popular manifestations being that of Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy.3  The immediate physical context for The Banks…, the English defeats of Napoleon at and around the Nile, turns out also to be the context for the song here under scrutiny, Nelson's Monument

There are, in the general field of ballads, named heroes: Duncan, Jervis, Howe, Cornwallis amongst the English; and in this respect, one of the most fascinating of conundrums is the acceptance of Napoleon Bonaparte as something of a hero in Britain.  Of three principal actors on the European stage at the time, Nelson, Wellington and Napoleon, only Napoleon has had a clearly visible extended life in the imagination of singers in England, which was vested in numbers of songs; and in this regard there are no clear reasons as to why he outgunned others such as Nelson and Wellington.  Yet as an example, during the latter years of the nineteenth and the earliest years of the twentieth centuries, from the singers who gave songs to the group of collectors associated with what is known as the English Folk Song Revival, operating, roughly, between the late 1880s and early 1920s, over thirty sung versions of The Bonny Bunch of Roses were found (all from England and not counting Ireland or Scotland) even though this song seems to have been linked, erroneously, with Napoleon himself rather than his son who is actually the protagonist … these versions were both full and fragmented and sometimes only the tune survived.  All through the twentieth century, The Bonny Bunch of Roses - and The Dream of Napoleon, as another example - both favourable towards the name of Napoleon - persisted in repertoire.4  What characterises such songs is a certain retrospective wistfulness, a paler shade, perhaps, of the passionate hope for a saviour from the Hanoverian dynasty as expressed by Jacobites - followers of the royal family of Stuarts and their heirs in England, Scotland and, in more complex ways still, in Ireland (the legacy in song of Jacobite activity is, again, a subject hardly yet broached in detail). 

In the case of Nelson, initially we encounter a prolific outpouring of text.  Some of this material came from sources seemingly unrelated to what we take as a traditional song context - from minor scribbledom, for instance - and we can look to broadside ballad printers and find reflected an immense interest in the doings of a hero which may well have prolonged attention to his exploits. 

Tom Pocock, a recent biographer of Nelson, recorded that after the naval action at Cape St Vincent, on February 14th 1797, Nelson's father, staying in Bath for his health and hearing the news of victory, declared that "The name and services of Nelson have sounded throughout the City of Bath from the common ballad-singer to the public theatre."  Similarly, Pocock wrote that Nelson sent his wife a ballad by “an old sailor”, the last two verses of which were:

This hero brave, old England's boast,
Grappled two ships along,
Forced them to strike on their own coast
       and lasting laurels won.

Long will this fact in history shine;
'Give me', the fair sex say,
'A Nelson for my valentine
on this auspicious day.'
And in the final chapter of his biography of Nelson he noted that 'Every newspaper and periodical printed ballads, orations and hymns in Nelson's praise'. 

Certainly the nation rejoiced and, where the Nile - Aboukir Bay - is concerned, there are examples of celebration recorded in The Times - fireworks and theatrical presentations at the beginning of October 1798 when the news of the victory reached England.

As another instance of the concentration on the name of Nelson, a Mr Sharp, in Norwich, it seems, added new verses to Rule Britannia:

And see! From Norfolk's favoured site,
By Heav'n uprear'd, a Hero springs,
Arm'd with the thunder of her might
And shielded by her Seraph wings,
       Rule Britannia, etc.

By NELSON's glorious deeds inspir'd,
Fresh trophies shall thy children bring,
And with his patriot virtues fir'd,
Protect their Country, Laws and King,
       Rule Britannia, etc.5
The biographer, Christopher Hibbert, also described how Nelson sent his wife a copy of a ballad written by 'an old sailor' on the same incident to which Pocock referred; how 'Balladeers' found inspiration in the then bulky figure of Lady Hamilton'; and, especially after Nelson's death, how 'Elegaic verses, popular ballads and hymns', were put out in his memory.  And after the battle of the Nile, at Swaffham, near to Burnham Thorpe, Nelson's old home, according to his niece, Charlotte Bolton, a celebration ball was arranged and 'We sent to London for all the songs and we had them and sung…'.6  There was, clearly, a strong output though it may not have had direct relevance in traditional song circles.

We know also of the numbers of broadside texts concerning Nelson and that printing persisted throughout the nineteenth century even if its scope declined.  Pitts issued Great Nelson's Laurels, being a choice selection of admired songs, on the glorious victory off Trafalgar and Evans (London), despite its title, a less focused collection called Nelson's Wreath, or British glory, containing a selection of the most favourite sea, comical, and other songs, sung at the places of public amusement … (interestingly a context of performance is evoked).  These were relatively early manifestations.7

In broadside printings as a whole we actually find quite a limited palate of descriptive terms.  Nelson is almost always 'brave', 'bold' or 'gallant'.8 As other instances, In Nelson's Fame and England's Glory he is brave', 'bold' and possessed of 'courage stout and bold'.9  In Nelson Eclipsing the Heroes of York he is described as 'great Nelson'.10  In Nelson's Death and Victory he is both 'brave' and a 'bold commander'.11  In Grand Conversation of Brave Nelson, 'he was a man of noted fame'.12

And, again as instance but other than in broadsides, a piece in Ashton's Real Sailor Songs, described him as 'brave', 'gallant' and 'bold'.13

We are, in other words, dealing with stock-in-trade phrases which leave the sentiments suitably vague but probably needed no further gloss or extra focus because they mirrored a known general feeling and a habitual cast of mind where song composition was concerned: a concentration on the idea of heroes which may, in part, be thought to be less an accurate portrayal than one in the imagination; and an established broadside vernacular where theme, image and archetype are prominent.  The portraits of gallant, roving tars who drink their liquor merrily, spend their money free, love and leave girls and so on… has a lengthy history (and it may well suggest a brave face as much as an actuality) - but suffice to say that the kind and quality of vocabulary as outlined above became ubiquitous in such portraits and with the flowering of the broadside trade in its nineteenth century manifestations. 

It is also noticeable that such descriptions incorporate a similarly conventional view of Britain and France (and any other opposing nation).  In this view, British tars are, like Nelson himself, inevitably 'gallant'; and the enemy, the French (or the Spaniards) suitably cowardly….  Again, this embodies an inherited shorthand language of popular - perhaps commercial - perception, and, in this case, leans heavily on forms of patriotic sentiment, understandable during the period of sustained war between England and France at a time when the English nation state was still striving to establish itself and before the full panoply of imperialism emerged.  We look, in this respect, to popular songs such as The Arethusa and The Shannon and The Chesapeake as reflection of pride in British naval achievement and songs about Waterloo as an obvious comment on military matters.

We are at least given an indication of the nature of hero-worship and an opportunity to observe the way in which popular balladry (a useful enough term in the context if not absolutely accurate) was designed and promulgated.  One study offers a good example, showing how the eighteenth century admiral Edward Vernon and especially his expedition against the Spanish and victory at Porto Bello during 1739-1740 was celebrated: in popular demonstration but also as a focus for opposition to the policies of Robert Walpole.  The details of Vernon's career and his standing need not concern us unduly but it was not, then, simply because of his naval heroics that he achieved distinction - this may, as it were, be taken for granted - but as an opposition figure, perhaps unwittingly, in political terms:

His conduct appealed to those forces, both nationalist and patriotic, that were profoundly alienated by the Walpolean regime and clamoured for a more aggressive blue-water policy to protect British trade in Caribbean and American waters.
When circumstances changed, Vernon's popularity inevitably declined.  'Our hymns,' wrote Horace Walpole in 1742, 'are not so tumultuous as they were some time ago to the tune of Admiral Vernon.'14

The same study considered the successive naval victories over the French during the 1790s which tended to have the effect of gradually bolstering the government's stand against Napoleon, a process that was not at all straightforward since there were many who espoused the apparent social and political liberties that the revolution in France unleashed whilst yet Napoleon's own military expansion and his assumption of dictatorship came to evoke fear, bewilderment, alarm and fervent opposition.

One of those 1790s victories, that of Nelson at the Nile in 1798 (strictly, Aboukir Bay), consequently became a symbol of loyalism.  But Nelson also attracted favour through his unconventional attitudes whilst in action - after Aboukir Bay, the famous blind eye episode at Copenhagen being one such manifestation.  And his concern for the men under him ensured that he never lacked for crews, thus underlining his popularity.  Politically, too, Nelson merely tested the waters but declared that he could never be a party man and his popularity then assumed dimensions of untarnished dedication to service and to his country's causes.  Nelson could never be used in the same way that Vernon had been.  It seems, further still, that although he was more or less ostracised in polite society because of his association with Emma Hamilton, this did not affect his popular standing.  His tour - with her - of the Midlands and the West Country in 1802 confirmed this in spontaneous acclaim amongst the people:

The cult of Nelson … touched the experience of English men and women quite intimately, recalling their own sacrifices and the contribution of their friends, neighbours and families to the war effort.15
It is not surprising, as a result, that his deeds were celebrated in song.  Still, though, the whole apparel of balladry was in ephemeral guise as songs came and went in repertoire, as historical actuality gave way to myth-making, and as distance in time provided new and, probably, changed perspective, layers of interest and satisfaction; or, in contrast, as interest simply diminished.  Ultimately what survived was but a token representation of Nelson in sung repertoire.

Against that background we can now turn to the song usually known as Nelson's Monument which acted as significant notice of the ways in which Nelson's deeds came to be viewed in the popular imagination.


The version of the song given here is one of four known to have existed just after the turn of the twentieth century.  It came from Daniel Wigg and was got by Dr George Gardiner and Charles Gamblin in Preston Candover, Hampshire, in July 1907.16  Charles Gamblin, a professional musician, who took down the tune of Nelson's Monument on the occasion cited, was one of three men assisting George Gardiner in the notation of music, the others being Charles Guyer, an organist at Winchester, and Balfour Gardiner, the composer (not related).  Dr George Gardiner, one of the prominent collectors of the English Folk Song Revival, began his work in the Bath area during 1905 where he met other collectors such as the Hammond brothers.  It is typical of the close-knit network involved in collecting at the time that it was Lucy Broadwood, then the secretary of the English Folk Song Society, who suggested that Gardiner concentrate his efforts in Hampshire (and the Hammonds in Dorset) and the manuscript material and, particularly, the fair copies that Gardiner - and the Hammonds - made were frequently ordered and submitted to Lucy Broadwood for publication under her auspices and that of the Society in its journal which itself first appeared in 1899.  It is unfortunate that the particular field notebook, of the kind which Gardiner habitually used as a repository during his collecting activity, is missing and we are left with his fair copy, made later, in a format ready for publication in the Journal of the English Folk Song Society.  Comparison between other notebooks and fair copies reveal, all the same, that there are no significant differences in the setting out of the songs in note and in fair copy form. 

Daniel Wigg was born on March 1st 1825 in Preston Candover, Hampshire, to Robert and Elizabeth.  Robert was described on the baptismal certificate as 'labourer' and Daniel followed the same occupation until, seemingly, he progressed in his working life to the position of gardener, so described in the 1871 census, and a position he held when George Gardiner encountered him.  He married Sarah Mills on 23rd December 1848: her age was given as 20 and Daniel was described as being of 'full age' - at 23.  Sarah signed her name: Daniel made his mark.  There were two witnesses - Elizabeth Wigg (who also signed her name) and Moses Mills - the same - who, like Daniel, made his mark.  Moses and Sarah were, in fact, brother and sister and it looks as though Daniel and Elizabeth were too.

Daniel Wigg became a gardener at some time between 1861 and 1871 by which time Sarah had taken on the job of School Teacher but, by 1881, she had, evidently, given up this job as no occupation is noted against her name in the census returns.  In fact, she died soon after; and was buried on 30th December 1884.  Four years later, on 31st March, Daniel, widower, married again, with Ann Batchelor (née Drewett), widow, resident in Preston Candover, whose birthplace was given as Maddington in Wiltshire.  It was a Henry Batchelor who acted as witness to the marriage - and this might suggest that he was related to Ann's former husband.  However, when Gardiner met Daniel Wigg, the latter was living alone and it seems that Ann had died somewhere after 1891 when she last appeared in the census returns - there does not appear to be a record of her death in Preston Candover.  The first marriage did not produce children; and the circumstances of the second marriage hardly allowed it - nor, apparently, did Ann bring any children with her.

Daniel Wigg himself was buried on 8th March 1910.

Mr Wigg's sung version of Nelson's Monument, which differs little in its narrative guise compared to those of broadside printers, is as follows:

In January 1909, Ralph Vaughan Williams also visited Mr Wigg and he took down the tune of Nelson's Monument and a fragment of text with the comment that the rest of the words were 'not worth noting'.  Vaughan Williams' manuscript version appears to have been lost but somebody, perhaps Vaughan Williams himself (though he was notoriously unhandy with any kind of machinery), made a cylinder recording of Daniel Wigg's song which is now housed in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  There is another reference to Vaughan Williams' Wigg version of the song in the magazine English Dance & Song, where four stanzas of text, those corresponding to stanzas 1-4 above and to the cylinder recording, are also given.17  If this is what, according to the cylinder recording, Mr Wigg sang, where did Gardiner get the extra words?  It is not known, for instance, if he had access to broadside printings of the particular text but they all include the two 'extra' verses - which Daniel Wigg may, of course, have sung to George Gardiner.  The particular tune for Nelson's Monument differs from the Gardiner version, essentially, in its final phrase only.  Gardiner's fair copy of his version records that it had been 'Revised by R. V. W.' the dating of which suggests that the fair copy was not prepared and submitted to the Folk Song Society until 1909 when the songs were published.18

Vaughan Williams, we know, was intent on rescuing tunes above text and his particular omission of text was only rectified in his second encounter with the song, in a version communicated to him through a William Fiske.  This, a handwritten version, can be found in a collection of bits and pieces collected together in a scrapbook and held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  There are no details of notation but the information was given that William Fiske was born in Barsham around 1831.  Barsham, according to Gazetteers, is a small village just outside Beccles in Suffolk.  The census returns eke out the details of William Fiske's life.  There was a William Fiske, born in Barsham - the date is given as 1832 - who appears to have lived and died there, having married twice (Susan Elizabeth, born in 1841 and buried in 1869 and Sarah, née Minter, buried in 1892 'aged 64', whom he married in 1870).  The 1881 census gave his occupation as 'farm labourer'.  He was buried in 1915.  In Roy Palmer's book Bushes and Briars…, a collection of Vaughan Williams songs, Mr Fiske was described as 'a correspondent': a revision of a suggestion made in English Dance & Song (the volume cited above) that, perhaps, Mr Fiske was the singer. 

Compared with the Wigg version, Mr.  Fiske's lacks the penultimate stanza.  There is also one curious feature in its third stanza where the third line reads 'Come now my dear mounericks'.  The word 'mounericks' has no obvious meaning or connection but a note added a question mark and the word, 'comrade', together with the comment about Mr Fiske to the effect that 'he sticks to this forum “that is what I was taught”'.  But there is also a possibility that, somewhere along the line of transmission the word might have involved a misreading of broadside text.  There are two common versions of the particular line, one reading '… come brother sailors, to church let us go' (as, for instance in Catnach,) and the other, '… come, dearest brothers, to church let us go' (as in Batchelar,).  However, Pitts also printed the line in what appears to be a shortened whole stanza, as follows:

The merchants of Yarmouth, hearing us
       say so,                       (will build,
Sent my dearest monarch and there we
A most beautiful pile, in remembrance
       of Nelson,
The hero of the Nile.
The word, 'monarch', then, may just have caused the variation: admittedly, a long shot in possibility.19

Details of the life of Mr Fiske and of the appearance of the song in the Vaughan Williams scrapbook remain an intrigue but the text of that version turns out to be consistent in narrative sequence with both the Wigg version given to Dr.  Gardiner and with known broadside texts and we may, therefore, surmise that this was a regular form in which the song travelled during the nineteenth century.  There was, though, a refrain given with the Fiske version which looks as though it might just have been associated with part of the refrain of Rule Britannia:

1.      Rule Britannia.
         Britannia rules the waves.
         Britons never, never, never
         Shall be slaves.

2.      (the Fiske version)
         Rule, a-rule, a-rule!
         Britons rule the main
         Since Nelson, brave Nelson,
         In the battle was slain.
Interestingly, in this regard, a version of the tune of Nelson's Monument had already been noted by Percy Grainger from George Wray in Brigg, Lincolnshire; and Grainger had written that:
I phonograbhed [sic] this corruption of “Rule Britannia” to have instance of the way an art-tune becomes folk-song-ized & irregularized in the mouth of a genuine folksinger.
Spellings are as on the Grainger copy in manuscript form held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  The tune as Grainger noted it down is by no means easy to place alongside the usual Rule Britannia tune by Thomas Arne and the snatches of detail given above are all there is to connect Nelson's Monument with Rule Britannia.

One further copy of Nelson's Monument, this time of text only, can be found in a Vaughan Williams scrapbook, a six-stanza version, like that of Gardiner's from Daniel Wigg, and given the title of The Battle of Trafalgar.  Two notes were appended.  The first, heading the text, indicates the source, a Mrs Prangle, from Manor Farm, East Horsley, Sussex, who had written that:

This song has been sung by my father, who is now 62 years of age, and by his father before him, both Sussex people. 
This indicates possible provenance in singing terms dating back to before the middle of the nineteenth century.

The second note, at the end of the text, gives the information that a Miss H Chant, 28, East Dean (in Sussex), 'also sends this song, somewhat differently worded'.  There are no details on this cutting but it turns out that it was one of those songs sent in to the West Sussex Gazette as contribution to an organised singing competition during the early days of the English Folk Song Society's existence. 

Later still, another version was sung by Harry Cox, known as one of the most significant of all English singers in the middle part and after of the twentieth century, and with a tune different to both the Wray and the Daniel Wigg ones, but with a text employing the same stanzas as the Wigg and the broadside versions.20

In fact, where these broadside printings are concerned, it is possible, in the case of Nelson's Monument, to trace some kind of printing history which then helps to set the song in a context of actual historical time relative to the events described.  The two major English broadside printers, Catnach and Pitts issued copies.  Pitts was then operating from 6 Great Andrew Street - that is, after 1819, when he moved from 14 Great Andrew Street; Catnach from Great Monmouth Street where, it appears, his business was established first in 1813.  The title does not appear in Catnach's 1832 catalogue but Pitts included it in 1836.  This immediately sends out mixed messages: to an event and a character whose contemporary significance has passed; and with a nostalgic look back and a continued exploitation of an apparently successful text; and, then, to a period of first issue which, as far as the evidence shows, does not appear to have been before the second decade of the nineteenth century. 

One issue from Catnach was included in a mix of songs - a popular nineteenth century form - entitled The British Sailor's Delight: Other London printers included Edwards, printing during the 1830s; and Hillat and Martin, who first began operating in 1837.  Walker, in Durham, and Harkness, in Preston, also printed copies and the title appeared in Walker's 1839 catalogue; but there was no really widespread dissemination.21

This, then, gives us possible dates of issue which look to begin during the second decade of the century and focus on the mid-thirties and after for the bulk of copies in circulation; and it is also clear that, in print, there was an extended life for the text.  Such, for example, was printing Nelson's Monument after the mid-century point.  We can also assume some kind of life in oral circulation: a fragment of the song appeared in the log of the New Bedford whaler, the Cortes in 1847.22  We do not, at this stage, have any knowledge of any intimate transmission.  There is nothing beyond what has been recounted that gives clues as to where each of the four singers noted above got their songs.  We are left in general with surmise, circumstance and probability and, where our four singers are concerned, can only assume a learning period which would have taken in at least the middle part of the century, the opportunity, at least, to consult broadside texts, and the probability that the song could have been heard.

This, then, represents the history of the song as it was disseminated during the nineteenth century.


Given that the appearance of the song seems to have been retrospective, it is worth considering the significant references in the Wigg version which, apart from to the Nile and Trafalgar, are to the merchants of Yarmouth, to Lord Exmouth and to Lord Collingwood; for these references, taken with the appearance of broadside versions, may help posit a pedigree for the song.

First, a brief résumé of the battle at Aboukir Bay is necessary.  Napoleon's plans for an invasion of Egypt and the circumstances surrounding his eventual voyage were unknown to those English admirals who patrolled the Mediterranean and its approaches.  These admirals were intent in bottling Napoleon's ships up in Toulon; and it seems extraordinary that, without making contact, Nelson and his fleet chased Napoleon up and down the Mediterranean, calling at Alexandria just before Napoleon himself arrived and, at one point, passing within twenty miles of Napoleon's fleet of battleships and transports.  This illustrates a fact of naval war at the time when navies relied on frigates as a rule for their information and followed the normal avenues of trades winds and well-known routes in order to cover distance.  We recall that the battle of Trafalgar itself came at the end of another chase across the Atlantic before the French fleet was hemmed in off the coast of Spain …

As for Napoleon's Egyptian campaign itself as it got under way and his disposition of troops and naval personnel, the latter, under the nominal charge of Brueys, his admiral, seem hardly to have been of the best.  Detailed and up-to-date charts of Aboukir Bay were not available and Brueys' eventual line of battle - strictly, since his fleet was static, of defence in respect of Napoleon's military landings - left gaps at either end of his congregation of ships in Aboukir Bay around which the British boldly slipped.  Even the line itself was insecure, each French ship showing bow-on to any advancing fleet and lacking the bowsprit to stern solidity that might have offered a solid wall of fire which, in turn, may have succeeded in repulsing any British attack.  Nelson's captains, at any rate, showed both initiative and skill and, whilst we need not recount the full details, we can record that the French fleet was decimated.23  One should note the complete nature of the victory: nine sail of line taken out of thirteen, two burned; one of four frigates sunk; another burned by its French captain in ignoble fashion so as to avoid capture.  British losses amounted to less than a thousand killed or wounded; the French, on the other hand, lost over five thousand men and three more thousand had to be returned, inoperative as seamen, to the shore.

The salient dimension surrounding the English victory at Aboukir Bay, though, is that it was the first major one enjoyed by the British in six years and that, with the background of Irish insurrection in 1798 and a continual and, perhaps, even increasing questioning in Britain of the war with France, it was received - at least in Britain amongst government supporters - with relief and rejoicing over a sign that the tide of Napoleon's progress had been halted.  Pocock, indeed, points out, that before Cape St Vincent the British had not only been driven from the Mediterranean 'but the whole of continental Europe was now dominated by France.  At home, the scene was as dark for the war had brought the nation's commerce to the brink of bankruptcy, Ireland was near to rebellion and there were even rumours of simmering mutiny in ships of the Royal Navy.'  Victories such as those at Cape St Vincent (1797) and at Aboukir were, clearly, welcome, as contributing to the extinction of threats of French dominance and for the encouragement of English naval power.24

Southey's comment on the explosion which shattered the French flagship, Orient, is indicative of the mixed tragedy and triumph of the British victory that first impressed the English fleet.  The explosion:

was followed by a silence not less awful; the firing immediately ceased on both sides, and the first sound which broke the silence was the dash of her shattered masts and yards falling into the water from the vast height to which they had been exploded.  It is upon record that a battle between two armies was once broken off by an earthquake; such an event would be felt like a miracle; but no incident in war, produced by human means, has ever equalled the sublimity of this co-instantaneous pause and all its circumstances.25
Brueys, the French commander-in-chief, was hit at least four times by cannon-fire (and, possibly, musket-fire), having his legs shot off; and he died, cut in two, at his post.

It is also worth noting Southey's censure of the government for an apparent mean-ness in acknowledging Nelson's success because this gives the song a certain distinction, setting its respectful gravity against a perceived official indifference even if, because it seems to have been a retrospective piece, such immediate connections might not have been made.  Though Nelson was showered with honours from the Turkish Sultan, the Czar Paul and the King of Sardinia - all of whom had cause to fear and resent French invasion - and although he was created Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe, Pitt, the then Prime Minister, refused any higher honour which was thought appropriate by many others.  A Baronetcy was on the bottom rung of honours available for bestowal and, certainly, Sir William Hamilton expressed his disappointment of such scant recognition.26  This may be accounted an oddity in view of Nelson's relationship with Hamilton's wife but all the evidence points to a mutual respect between the two men.  Others echoed Hamilton… Southey referred to certain members in the Commons as being dis-satisfied with the lack of what they felt should have been more extensive acknowledgement on the part of the government of Nelson's success.  Southey wrote, caustically, that the degree of rank which Pitt and his government thought proper to allot 'was the measure of their gratitude, though not of his services'.27  One must bear in mind the extent of patronage at the time which doled out honours not necessarily commensurate with success at any given moment.  Indeed, in politics, Prime Ministers relied on patronage to fill their cabinets. 

There is no doubt that the battle of Aboukir Bay was, for Napoleon, a disaster.  He lost a whole fleet and any subsequent attempt at conquest and colonisation in Egypt and Syria and any lingering hope of dominance over routes to eastern power and riches were both seriously hampered if not, effectively, rendered unachieveable.  Indeed, at length, Napoleon returned to France, amidst great secrecy and, certainly, under some suspicion as to his motives.  Effectively, he had little choice since the Egyptian campaign was stalling badly in the face of Arab opposition and British blockade and military intervention; and the Directorate in Paris had reached a point of collapse - the deputies had, it seems, more or less, written him off anyway. 

To add to the significance of Aboukir Bay, in Ireland, as it happens, there was some dismay amongst insurrectionists that Napoleon had chosen not to throw any weight behind action there and, instead, to fight in Egypt.  None of the schemes proposed for French intervention in Ireland - England's back-door - were properly serviced.  Whilst Napoleon was absent in Egypt, for instance, General Humbert's attempted landing turned into a fiasco.  For Irish purposes and for French domination of England an opportunity was certainly lost.28

Nelson had had no doubt of the importance of Aboukir and had, on his own initiative, sent letters overland to India to the governor of Bombay informing him of the victory over the French 'and the consequent preservation of India from any attempt against it on the part of this formidable armament.'29

Later, the circumstances of Trafalgar were the occasion of what is now a familiar litany of celebration and grief and, more importantly in actuality, they finally put a stop to any thoughts amongst the French about an invasion of Britain and gave Britain dominance on the sea for a century.  But there is no doubt that the battle of the Nile now appears to have been vastly important in its impact on Britain and on the conduct of the French wars.

So much for the briefest look at the action and historical consequences.  Returning to the song and the personnel mentioned in the song - Lord Exmouth was, in fact, Edward Pellew (1757-1833), who had a distinguished naval career during which he fought in the American War of Independence; was knighted (June 29th 1791) and then created baronet when he rescued the crew of a ship off Plymouth (March 5th 1796); and was on blockade duties during the French wars up to the peace of Amiens in 1802.  He was eventually promoted to the rank of rear-admiral and moved to be commander-in-chief in the East Indies (April 23rd 1804).  Thus it was that he missed the action at Trafalgar. 

He was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral in April 28th 1808 and, in 1814, given a peerage as Baron Exmouth of Canonsteignton, Devon.  After this, perhaps, he was best remembered for his success at the battle of Algiers when he released Christian slaves from their owners.  'For this splendid achievement Lord Exmouth was raised to the dignity of a Viscount and received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament'.  His subsequent career seems to have been promoted with few setbacks.30

The important point as far as Nelson's Monument is concerned, is that, if Pellew did not become Lord Exmouth until 1814, then a possible implication is that the song did not appear until after that date.  Reference to Lord Exmouth by this name does not appear in broadside texts and, as indicated above, these broadsides appear to have a collective date of issue well after 1814. 

The possibilities of printing history and pedigree become somewhat more tangled when the career of Cuthbert Collingwood (1750-1810), another figure featuring in the various texts, is examined.  After service as a junior officer, he seems to have worked coincidentally or in association with Nelson on several occasions and was, of course, second-in-command at Trafalgar

In respect of Collingwood's connection with the song under review, the important point is that he was given a sword by the then Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, seemingly as a personal gesture, immediately after the battle of Trafalgar, in 1805.  'Both St.  Vincent and Nelson had', the Duke recalled, 'accepted a sword from him in the hour of victory and he hoped that Collingwood would now confer on him the same pleasure, and accordingly sent a sword which he hoped the Vice-Admiral would accept with his sincere wishes for his future welfare…' (Clarence's reference to St Vincent's and Nelson's 'hour of victory' was to the battle of Cape St.  Vincent on February 14th, 1797).  Clarence went further, proposing a vote of thanks in the Commons in favour of Collingwood, 'for the prompt obedience with which he had executed Nelson's orders and “for his integrity in forcing the enemy into action; and more especially for his exertions in destroying those vessels which were captured when he found they could not be returned.”' Clarence was adamant in this expression of thanks and secured the insertion of the words 'for his (Collingwood's) conduct after the action'.  The motion was carried unanimously. 

Further, W Clark Russell noted 'the handsome testimony of the King's son, the Duke of Clarence…'.  William Henry, Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III, had himself been 'a seaman of experience', though 'a martinet'.  Nelson himself had encountered the young Prince when he was serving in Nicaragua; and maintained a correspondence with him on the basis of friendship rather than simple patronage.31

After he was advanced to commander-in-chief following the battle of Trafalgar, Collingwood occupied himself more with paperwork than with more obvious practical seamanship - so much so that his heath deteriorated rapidly and he suffered something of a premature death (1810).  The Naval Chronicle, nonetheless, noted that the one 'prejudice' he had 'was singular, as his mind was liberal.  He deemed it the bounden duty of every Englishman, to hate a Frenchman as his natural foe…'.  And 'His lordship, with Nelson, was lovely in his life, in death they were not divided - they were both Sorpros, the thunder-bolts of war, the glory of their name and nation'.32

Ultimately, Pellew and Collingwood in their respective careers would appear to extend retrospection - which we can underline by considering the Yarmouth merchants noted in the song. 

Nelson came ashore in Yarmouth on 6th November 1800, obviously well after the battle of Aboukir Bay on 1st August 1798, and following a lengthy stay and some tortuous and unsatisfactory action involving support for the King of Naples, and a prolonged journey through Europe, with Lady Hamilton and her husband, Sir William (who was, at the time, ambassador to the King of Naples), soaking up adulation.  Despite bad weather large crowds greeted him in Yarmouth:

The populace, frantic with delight, received him on landing with vociferous cheers; and taking the horses from a carriage which was ready for his use, drew him in triumph to the Church plain.  Standing at an upper window of the Wrestlers, and surveying the vociferous multitude below him, Nelson, much gratified, exclaimed “I am myself a Norfolk man, and I glory in being so.”33
Soon afterwards on the same day, the freedom of the borough was conferred on him as part of official celebrations.  Nelson's claim to Norfolk birth may have been one reason why he was prompted to come to Yarmouth and not either to London or Portsmouth.  Certainly, he was a man who craved recognition and was bound to have got it in Norfolk, especially in the circumstances (as it happened, The Times - perhaps reflecting an official embarrassment - made no record of Nelson's landing in Yarmouth).  William Finch-Crisp noted, prosaically, that on November 6th, 'Admiral Lord Nelson landed here after the battle of the Nile, having been absent two years and seven months from his native country, and was presented with due honors (sic) and freedom of the town.  He was accompanied by Sir William and Lady Hamilton.'34 This conveniently raises another possible reason for Nelson's decision to come ashore at Yarmouth in that because of his liaison with Emma Hamilton he was not at all popular in the more exalted circles and an appearance in London may have exacerbated this embarrassment.  A third reason for coming ashore in Yarmouth is, perhaps, that he got tired of waiting in Hamburg for a ship that the Admiralty had promised for him and took a packet vessel instead. 

As regards a suitable commemoration of his victory at Aboukir, it was not until 1814, coincidental on Pellew's elevation as Lord Exmouth, that a proposition was made by the Honourable John Wodehouse, seconded by Thomas Coke (of Holkham, Norfolk) to erect a column at Great Yarmouth, the Norfolk sea-port.  There were other such monuments erected - in Dublin, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Sheffield, York and, of course in London.  In the case of Yarmouth, the Corporation listed £280 and then further committed another £700 for the purpose.  A Monument Committee met at Thetford on March 29th 1815 in order to examine some forty-four different plans, eventually choosing one by William Wilkin, an architect from Norwich, based on a Doric column.  Apparently, £7000 was amassed but it was not until August 15th 1817 that the first stone was laid by Colonel Wodehouse. 

A full description of the monument and the circumstances of its erection was given by a John Preston in his book, The Picture of Yarmouth published in 1819.  He described it as 'an emulating object to British seamen, who are daily passing and repassing the Roads within its view'; and commented on the chosen site that it was 'selected to record the valour of the Norfolk Hero' and that 'the effect was so striking, as will long remain in the memory of the thousands who saw it.' There had been 'an elegant ball' to mark the occasion of completion involving some 'three hundred and fifty persons of rank and respectability' - not, of course, including any common seamen (for instance) but, presumably, amongst others, those who contributed to the cost.  Preston gave many details of construction and measurement and the information that on 'the square of the capital are the names of the ships, on board which the late gallant admiral gained his victories' - the Captain, the Vanguard, the Elephant and the Victory, as well as the names of the four battles in which the ships were engaged: Cape St Vincent (1797), Aboukir (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805).  Preston offered the Latin inscription and a translation and some detail of the responsible committee and the names of the contractor and foreman of works, the Master mason and the superintendent.  He wrote, of the monument, that

It is a structure which, for taste and execution, eclipses every other modern piece of architecture in the neighbourhood, is truly honourable to the native county of that great hero, whose memory it is gratefully intended to perpetuate, and may with propriety be acknowledged at once the pride and justly-boasted ornament of Yarmouth.35
In fact, the Yarmouth column still stands and in 2003 was listed as a national monument to be preserved.  The clear reference to Yarmouth merchants in the song relegates all other candidates: it seems certain that the Yarmouth 'pile' was the monument of the song; and, since the dates surrounding its building almost coincide with Lord Exmouth's elevation, this makes it even more certain that the song did not appear until after that event even if, historically, this still conflicts with the date of the gift of a sword to Collingwood and any specific connection with Trafalgar.  The reference in broadsides to a sword for Collingwood (see more below) is perfectly appropriate in the context of the song whatever the date of its appearance.


These, in brief, are the circumstances around which the song was fashioned.  In the face of such a body of history, the text itself - in Mr Wigg's version but consistent with broadsides - turns out to be perhaps, unremarkable, bearing the hallmark, in its linguistic shape, of conventional expression in traditional song text (as indicated above in more general terms): 'for to meet' instead of a straightforward 'to meet'; the 'watery main' as a synonym for the sea; the phrase 'as I have been told' typical of a shift of emphasis and viewpoint and, perhaps, indicating a touch of padding.  Nelson is, of course, 'brave' and his deeds are set in the context of 'old England's glory'.  One or two points deserve further attention.  Daniel Wigg sang of a monument to Nelson and to Collingwood.  In broadside texts the line usually refers to a sword for Collingwood - which must refer to a time immediately after Trafalgar and suggests that Mr Wigg's version was altered in transmission.  Similarly, the final line of the Daniel Wigg stanza five also deserves a second glance since, for instance, the Prangle text has 'From every invasion to keep each British port' and this is consistent with all known broadside printings.  Again, the process of oral transmission either in an initial inception or as a digression from previously known textual form is illustrated.  Conversely, the line as usually printed may suggest reinforcement in broadside printing: the Harry Cox sung version, like that of Mrs Prangle, employs not Mr Wigg's line but the broadside one as noted above.

Finally, Lord Exmouth is seen here as one of the movers in favour of recognition of Nelson and Collingwood and one can only think that this was because he was still alive when the text was produced - after Collingwood's death in 1810, then, and Pellew's own elevation as described above.  This, taken together with the consistency in broadside versions, does not suggest refinement of text.  Nor is Lord Exmouth mentioned in broadsides - the line is:

'Your plan says Britannia is excellent and good…'
It seems clear that the piece was produced well after the event and consistent with the erection of a monument in Yarmouth. 

One takes the song, in the end, not as necessarily accurate or exactly contemporary history but as a glimpse of the perception of broadside printer and of singer of events to be superimposed on an official account.  This may suggest a slightly different angle, a different 'meaning', in the minds of singers and printers as compared to any official line - of which the actual bestowal of honours on Nelson (rather, the apparent lack of acknowledgement) is an indication.  In turn this suggests one way in which the popular imagination worked or was exploited.  In the end the song embraces a view in which historical perspective was collapsed but, as Southey pointed out, remembrance of Nelson was tinged with something of a 'higher character' than the 'usual forms of rejoicing' might signify - as was noted above.36  We might not guess this from the language employed unless its very restraint invited prolonged attention.  There is, for instance, little to see in the song which might give an idea of the undoubted twists and turns of the human psyche and the failings as well as the successes of human endeavour which, according to Southey, and others, Nelson shared with his admiring public.  But, as a view of Nelson, it is a useful example of popular hero-worship which may also reflect a certain wish-fulfilment.  It must certainly be accounted significant in its rarity value as exemplified by its persistence in English traditional song repertoire.

Roly Brown
Oradour sur Vayres, France

Article MT166


Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 29.10.05