The naming of Nelson


European settlers arrived in what was to become Nelson in 1842, a couple of years after one of the world's most famous landmarks, Nelson's Column, had been erected in London's Trafalgar Square. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson had defeated the French at Trafalgar in 1805, and was celebrated throughout the British Empire.

Horatio NelsonL.F. Abbott (1760-1802) Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson [National Maritime Museum]
Click image to enlarge

In February 1841, the New Zealand Company announced that Arthur Wakefield would lead the expedition to the 'Second Colony'. Arthur was linked with Admiral Nelson via his own former skipper, Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy - the recipient of the famous remark Nelson made on his deathbed: 'Kiss me (or was it kismet?) Hardy'.

Immortalised in street names

The death of Hardy the year before, in 1840, may have prompted Wakefield to suggest Nelson as a suitable name for the new town in the 'Second Colony", and to call one of the first streets Hardy Street. Streets with references to the great admiral include Nile, for the famous battle of that name against the French; Vanguard after his flagship at the Nile, and Collingwood (both the street and the Golden Bay town) for Cuthbert Collingwood who was second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Lord Nelson celebrated

Lord Nelson memorabilia is well represented in the city. A bust of Lord Nelson adorns the entry to the Council Chamber and an impressive painting of the Battle of Trafalgar hangs at The Bishop Suter Art Gallery.

Nelson - the coach connection

Interest ran high in the Battle of Trafalgar. A brochure from Newman's Coach Lines from the 1960s has information about Nelson City's connections with the famous Admiral, and tells how the Newman coaches came to carry names like Colossus, Thunderer and Minotaur. Newman's history in Nelson goes back to the very early days of stage coaches, replaced by 'mail-cars' from early in the 20th century. These vehicles were given unofficial names by their drivers, then for many years a numbering system was adopted. In 1965 the drivers suggested names instead of numbers. The firm agreed and it was decided to name the coaches after the ships that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar. The brochure continues:

"So it was arranged and each of the coaches in the Newman fleet now bears the name of a ship which was part of the illustrious fleet which Nelson led into the great battle. Thirty-three British ships took part. Of these we know the names of twenty eight; the remainder were three frigates and two brigs."

Gun power was, in those days, the gauge of size and power, and the list of ships ranges from the Victory at 100 guns, the Temeraire, Prince and Neptune with 98, to the Polyphemus, Agamemno and Ajax with 64 guns. The British lost 2500 men in the battle of Trafalgar, with the French loss calculated at 7000.

The brochure concludes: "It is to mark the valour of these British ships of old that Newman's coaches now bear such historic names and, as someone so aptly put it, 'Nelson's Fleet Cruises Again'."

Nelson's Prayer

Lord Nelson wrote a famous prayer just before The Battle of Trafalgar. He was asking that he would find victory in battle, not only for England but for all of Europe, and that all crew would act in an honourable way. This at a time when the spoils of war were part of the reward for the hardships of navy life. It could be said that Nelson was ahead of his time in seeing himself as a European. Nelson wrote:

"May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet.
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.  Amen amen amen."

The battle for Corsica and Nelson's lost eye.

In 1794, the British were at war with the French revolutionary government. They needed a base to fight and the obvious place was Corsica - already in revolt against the French. The keys to Corsica were the two fortress-cities of Bastia and Calvi on the east and west coasts.

The English dragged their guns ashore and heavily bombarded Calvi for several days in July 1794. On 12 July, Nelson was wounded. He had been watching the bombardment from a vantage point with a view of the battlefield and besieged city, when a shell burst on the rampart of sandbags, sending up a shower of stones and sand. Nelson's face was cut, the worst wound on his right brow.

Nelson wrote to his commander Lord Hood: "I got a little hurt this morning: not much, as you may judge by my writing."

Hood replied: "I am truly sorry to hear you have received a hurt, and hope you tell the truth in saying it is not much."

A few days later Nelson wrote to his brother William: "You will be surprised when I say I was wounded in the head by stones from the merlon of our battery. My right eye is cut entirely down, but the Surgeons flatter me that I shall not entirely lose my sight of that eye. At present I can distinguish light from dark, but no object . . . . Such is the chance of War, it was within a hair's breadth of taking off my head."

It took until 10 August 1794 for the French to surrender. Nelson had lost his eye, but Corsica was now a British possession. Incidentally the famous image of Lord Nelson wearing a patch is not accurate. He lost his sight but the eye was not disfigured and his letters show his relief that his appearance would not be marred.

Horatio was on continuous active service in the Mediterranean for most of the 1790s. He lingered for a year in Naples, which is where he fell in love with Lady Emma Hamilton. During his time in Naples, Nelson evacuated its Royal Family to Sicily and helped to crush an uprising.

Nelson to Nelson

This story makes another Nelson connection for us:

Vanguard Street is named after Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of the Nile. Hotel Nelson, which closed in the mid '80's, also had a small lounge bar called the Lady Hamilton Bar, wood panelled and decorated with paintings of one of the most famous heroines in romantic history.

School chums with the Admiral

One Nelson woman, Sarah Holman, can claim an alma mater link with Lord Nelson. She attended the same school as the hero of the Royal Navy, in North Walsham, Norfolk. Sarah was the secretary of the Nelson Heritage Advisory Group.

She recalls the role the Nelson tradition played in her school days. "The boys from Paston Grammar used to come to school in sailor suits on days when they were having cadet training, and we used to have a special church service on Trafalgar Day when we sang the Victory Hymn."

However, Sarah says because there is so much history in England, the link with the Admiral was quite understated and looking back she 'didn't really appreciate the greatness of it'.

This article was first published in Live Nelson, 2005. Updated Jan 2021

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