Trafalgar Square Redux 2 – the Death of Nelson

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.

Streets Ahead.


This one was conjured up on January 5th, 2024. And for a pin for it, the day’s main headline: Flooding across England!

When we get to the end of the greatest naval battle of the nineteenth century I’ll check back here, see whether the headlines moved on.

And here’s today’s random.

We go back 200 years. Bad times for African elephants. Ivory – elephants’ tusks – were needed for billiard balls. They’d get a maximum of three billiard balls out of each tusk. Counting the white cue ball there are 23 balls in a snooker game. That’s twelve dead elephants for one snooker table. OK, the rest of the tusk wasn’t thrown away. They were also using ivory to make knife handles, piano keys, crucifixes, dildoes, chess sets, cribbage pegs, door handles, napkin rings, sealing punches and umbrella handles. And it was used as an inlay to furniture and gun butts. And the chips and the dust could be used in polishes and the preparation of Indian ink. A single manufacturer kept 30,000 billiard balls in stock. A cutlery manufacturer in Sheffield went through twenty tons of ivory every year. And let’s bring it back to London. London was the principal centre for the distribution of ivory in Europe for most of the nineteenth century. And it needs must be stressed that they were African elephants. Indian elephants have poor tusks. Ninety-nine percent of Sri Lankan elephants don’t even have tusks.

And what’s prompted all of this between my, David’s, ears? Lisa’s East India Company Walk. Some walks are game changers, they set something in motion. Lisa’s East India Company Walk had that effect on me. Before I went on it I knew almost nothing about the British Empire. I came away from it with my eyes opened. Wanted to know even more. So ever since I’ve been reading ravenously about the British Empire. What it meant for African elephants is some of the ground that reading has so far covered.

Ok, now it’s back to Trafalgar Square. For another whorl.

And where’s the roulette ball – mixing my metaphors here – landed? On the double zero. Double zero for Nelson. In short, a death in the afternoon. One of nearly 5,000 deaths that day. Which is by way of saying, this unveiling of Trafalgar Square looks at the death of Admiral Nelson.

The other deaths? Sure, let’s clear the decks, let’s get our accounting straight. 47,000 sailors and marines fought to the death that day. Literally to the death for over ten percent of them. The British were outnumbered in terms of manpower and size of the respective fleets. There were 33 French and Spanish warships. Almost 25 percent more than the 27 ships under Nelson’s command. There were 27 vessels in Nelson’s fleet but the Battle of Trafalgar was essentially won by 14 ships, which together suffered 85 percent of the British fleet’s casualties. The enemy fleet was manned by some 30,000 French and Spanish sailors. Nearly half of them – about 14,000 – were killed, wounded or captured. The 7,495 Spanish casualties added up to 63 percent of their total manpower. 3,373 French seamen lost their lives that day.

Fighting the French and the Spaniards, 17,000 British sailors. There were 1663 British casualties, 449 of them killed.

Those figures are the starkest possible demonstration of the power of the British war machine.

The battle was a melee of carnage and chaos, of deafening noise, of blinding and choking smoke – the ships’ atmospheres were drained of oxygen by the explosions. It was a scene of sudden and grotesque injury and death. The ships were so close they might have snugly moored in harbour.

So close some of the Victory’s guns could not

Fighting the French and the Spaniards, 17,000 British sailors. There were 1663 British casualties, 449 of them killed.

Ok, we’re in Trafalgar Square. Let’s find Nelson. The mortally wounded Nelson, not the Nelson up at the top of the column. Look at the four bronze panels around the base of the column. They depict his four great victories: Cape St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Find the Trafalgar panel. It’s the one that faces down Whitehall. There’s Nelson, right in the middle. He’s dying. Now a couple of things about that panel. To start with, its size and its position. Size-wise, it’s bigger than the other three. It’s primus inter pares. Except they’re not pares because they’re not equal. The other three are the supporting cast. The Battle of Trafalgar – and the Death of Nelson – the death of Britannia’s God of War – is primus. It’s the big one. The most important one. And position-wise, well, the dying Nelson is looking right down at the Admiralty. And at the Houses of Parliament. And at Number 10 Downing Street, occupied by Prime Minister William Pitt. Nelson had promised Pitt and his ministers a battle of annihilation. And he meant to make good on that promise. But the Admiralty, the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street aren’t the whole story. The dying Nelson is also looking down at Westminster Bridge. He’ll have had memories of crossing Westminster Bridge in a coach, the coach turning south and passing through Lambeth and then heading in a southwesterly direction to Merton down in Surrey – now part of London – to Merton Place, the country house where the love of his life, Lady Emma Hamilton, was to be found with her husband. And finally, the position of the panel is so very right because positioned there the dying Nelson is looking down toward Battersea. And it was a 23-year-old sailor from Battersea, one John Rome, who hoisted up the topgallant masthead the famous 31 flags signal, “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty.” That’s what you see when you see the Battle of Trafalgar panel as it’s meant to be seen.

And there’s more. The thing about history is that it often chimes with the present. I’m thinking about the goal Napoleon was pursuing. His aim was to ruin Britain by a ‘continental system’ that locked her trade out of Europe.

Sound familiar? The difference is Brexiteers have succeeded in bringing about what Nelson and Wellington prevented from happening.

Ok, battle coming up. The British attack gets underway at about 10 am. There’s almost no breeze. The British warships glide slowly toward the enemy. Their bands playing ‘Hearts of Oak’, ‘God Save the King’, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘The Downfall of Paris’ and ‘Britons Strike Home.’ Sailors dance the hornpipe to relieve the tension. The Temeraire was leading the fleet but Nelson ordered it into second position, behind his flagship, the HMS Victory. Now there’s a connection for you, Turner’s famous painting, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ is of course there, in the National Gallery, perfectly positioned, behind Nelson. The firing begins shortly before noon. At a distance of about a thousand yards. At about 630 yards the foresail of the Victory is mauled. You can still see it in Portsmouth. It’s severely torn in the centre. It’s perforated by 20 round shot. And some 60 musket balls.

Admiral Nelson is on the quarter deck with his secretary John Scott and the Victory flag-captain, Thomas Hardy. That young secretary John Scott is one of the first to die. He’s almost torn in half by a round shot. Soaked in his blood, Nelson looks on as his secretary’s body is lifted from the blood-drenched deck and flung overboard.

The French warship Redoutable is just 30 yards away. The ships are so close some of the Victory’s gun can not be run out properly. The Redoutable is ablaze. British seamen pour water into its ports to prevent the fires from spreading to the Victory. And you want to know about firepower, at 30 yards British ordnance could smash through more than four feet of solid, seasoned oak.

But the most famous shot in the battle wasn’t fired by one of the huge three tonne guns. It was fired from a musket aimed by a French sniper steadying himself near the top of the Redoutable’s mizzen mast. The sniper was 18 yards from his target. His target was a small officer in a blood-spattered coat with a huge gold star pinned to the left breast. That medal, which Nelson couldn’t be persuaded not to wear, was the giveaway. The sniper took aim and squeezed the trigger. He missed the breast.  But not by much. The ball – I carry a near approximation with me on my walk, show it to my walkers, let them hold it, feel its heft – the ball struck Nelson high up on the front of his left shoulder. It pierced his epaulet. Torn away bits of gold lace, silk pad and bullion accompanied on its frightful journey through Nelson’s body. The tally was fractured ribs, a ripped open lung, a terrible spinal injury and ruptured arteries. It rendered Nelson an instant quadriplegic. The ball struck him at about 1.15 pm. Nelson has three hours and fifteen minutes to live. He’s in excruciating pain. It’s a terrible death. He’ll drown in his own blood. Dying he’ll say, over and over again, Thank God, I have my duty. One of the ship’s doctors, Alexander John Scott, remembered his last words as ‘God and my country’.

So, yes, take a last look at the crumpled Nelson, there in the centre of the panel. And to his left, there’s Captain Hardy.

But now make a London Walks move. Look at a detail of the panel that most people never see. I suppose you could say, look at a couple of the spear carriers in the scene. Look at the left-hand side of the panel. There are two young midshipmen there. With muskets. And just behind them there’s an older man pointing. He’s saying, ‘there he is, get him.’ He’s pointing to the French sniper. The older man is the Victory’s quartermaster. He has just seconds to live. He’s about to be shot in the face. But he’s done his duty. The young midshipmen have seen the French sniper. They’re going to take aim. They’ll shoot the sniper dead just a few frames forward from the one we’re looking at.

And then finally, look closely at the hair and facial features of one of the midshipmen. Whoa. That comes as a bit of a surprise doesn’t it. Yes, that’s right. He’s African. Nelson’s sailors were an international lot. Lots of different nationalities. Including a couple of dozen men and boys of colour.

C’est tout. But here’s the thing. We’ve just scratched the surface of Trafalgar Square. We’ll see where the whorl takes us next time.

Finally, credit where credit is due here. A biographer of Nelson I’m not. But I read widely. I tapped into several sources for this piece. The main one being John Sugden’s magisterial study, Nelson – the Sword of Albion.

And to make good on my earlier promise. Remember I said when we got to the end of this piece we’d see whether the headlines had moved on. From the floods. Sure enough, they did. And you probably guess. Taking yet another centre stage turn, Jeffrey Epstein and, yes, Prince Andrew. The headline of the Metro brayed, ‘Andrew in ‘orgy on Epstein Island.’ And four paragraphs in, ‘Andrew is mentioned more than 70 times in 950 pages of depositions.’ Dearie me. When I was growing up there was a vulgar saying that ‘blah blah blah has no conscience. Blah blah blah is of course my expurgated version of what it was – what it is – that has no conscience. But I think there’s a certain somewhat politer euphemism that doesn’t do badly as an understudy.

Namely, ‘an unruly member has no conscience.’ Which in turn puts me in mind of Lord Chesterfield’s dictum about sexual congress: “the pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, the expense is damnable.” The expense for Prince Andrew so far for that ridiculous position and moment of pleasure is £12 million. Well, not for him, for his mother. And doubtless we’ll see whether that cool 12 million will have to be topped up. For something momentary, this one’s got a long shelf life. And inevitably there’s a London Walks connection. On my Belgravia pub walk we stand right in front of the little bijoux house where the deed was done and the photograph was taken, beaming faces, arms around waists, Ghislaine, Andrew’s procurer, smirking away.


You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of  the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks All-Star team of guides includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians,

university professors,

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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