Nelson’s Five Years Ashore 1787 to 1793

By the late Rev. Cecil J. Isaacson

The five years Nelson was to spend in shore-leave on half pay is the period often called his ‘five years on the beach’. It was a time when he felt very frustrated, often despondent and it was only ended by his appointment to the command of HMS Agamemnon in 1793.

Besides the certain delight that this home-coming would give to the Rector, Nelson’s father, it must have stimulated considerable interest amongst the villagers, but, before settling to make the Rectory their home, Nelson and his wife, Frances, travelled a good deal around the country, and it was several months before very much was seen of them in Burnham Thorpe. Appointments had to be kept at the Admiralty to settle matters of dispute which had arisen in the West Indies. Visits were made to associates and friends and Christmas 1787 was spent with Mr. Herbert, Frances’ uncle who was President of Nevis at his London home in 5, Cavendish Square. Whilst Nelson was still hoping for an early appointment to a new command they thought of setting up their own home and, typically, family and friends made suggestions; brother William sent details of a house in Bodney, Norfolk “cheap for its size” and Captain Locker hoped they would come to be near him in a house he recommended in Kensington in west London. The reply to this was that nothing in that area could be considered because “Mrs. Nelson’s lungs are so much affected by the smoke of London”.

The grounds of Burnham Thorpe Parsonage as laid out by Nelson with his frigate shaped pond in the foreground

The grounds of Burnham Thorpe Parsonage as laid out by Nelson with his frigate shaped pond in the foreground

Nelson’s brother, the Reverend William, helped in the finding of a Boarding School for Josiah, Frances’ son by her first marriage, now seven years old. Nelson sent his sailor servant, Frank Lepee, who was still with him at the time, to take the boy to Hilborough, and he was to “stay two or three days till the child becomes reconciled”. At school the boy was to have the “same allowance as the other boys and whatever else may be proper for him”.

After Christmas in London the Nelsons did a tour in the West Country visiting Bath where Frances stayed whilst Nelson accepted an invitation to join festivities at Plymouth welcoming Prince William home as Captain of HMS Pegasus. Nelson and the sailor prince had first met in 1782 in the West Indies, the Prince being on duty-watch as a midshipman when Nelson, Captain of the frigate HMS Albemarle came to pay a duty visit to Lord Hood in his flagship. The prince described Nelson as “the meerest boy of a captain I ever beheld”. He became, however, so attached to this diminutive captain that at Nelson’s marriage five years later he insisted on being there to give the bride away and toasted her as the “principal favourite of the island”. The prince’s home-coming was a memorable royal occasion for Plymouth, his two brothers coming down from London to join in the welcome. To take part in these celebrations in the beautifully illuminated Dockyard and Marine Barracks must have done much to lift the spirits of Nelson who, with the heavy feeling of rejection at his failure to secure further employment had even talked of resigning his commission and “taking care never to set foot on one of His Majesty’s ships again”. At another time when he expressed his frustration his wife noted that he talked of joining the Russian Navy !

At Home in the Rectory

When they finally began to make their way to Norfolk it appears that there were some feelings of apprehension in their minds and, indeed, also in the mind of the Rector. He was looking forward to having ‘Horace’ home again, but he was unsure about the suitability of the Rectory as a home, and remote Norfolk as an environment for Frances. She had played an important part as her uncle’s housekeeper in Nevis, with all the interest and social contacts that life at the Presidency would bring. Frances had written to introduce herself to him, with gentle courtesy, but he formed an impression of a lady too grand for him and his style of life. And he was feeling the burden of age and infirmity …. writing to his daughter Catherine about these worries he said “perhaps you may introduce her by and by, every power of mine is in decay. Insipid, whimsical and very unfit for society”.

All Saints church at Burnham Thorpe

All Saints church at Burnham Thorpe

So it was that they approached Burnham Thorpe by degrees, staying first with with Nelson’s sister Susannah (Bolton) and her husband and young family. Then to the William Nelsons at Hilborough Rectory, and, leaving Frances there Nelson went over to Burnham to see his father, and, no doubt was able to build up his assurance and confidence.

After a visit to his sister Catherine, now married to George Matcham, at Barton Hall, they came to Burnham Thorpe on the understanding that they would “cast their anchor” there for a while. The Rector found that he really need not have been so fearful about how his daughter-in-law would react to him and the place. This arrival must have aroused great interest in the village. Already things were changing at the Rectory. Under the artistic planning of George Matcham the unpretentious “cottage style” garden was being transformed by the laying out of a rose garden, with trees from Barton Hall, and an ambitious feature was to divert water from the Burn to form a pond. The account in Catherine Matcham’s diary, though terse, seems breathless with excitement. She describes how, beginning on August 6th. to ‘turn’ the stream, they continued on the 7th., 8th., and 9th., and says that on the 10th. they “finished in the morning. Mr. and Mrs. Bolton arrived in the afternoon”. And, no doubt, many friends and neighbours came to admire ! More style was added on September 8th. when they planted the Laylocks and dug the Ha! Ha!

A memo in the Church register, written in 1907 by the Rev. Hon. J. Horatio Nelson, who at eighty-two years of age came to preach in the Church, tells how, when he was Rector of Belaugh from 1857 to 1872 he was repeatedly told, by an aged parishioner named Williamson, this story:

That he, Williamson, when a boy, used to clean the knives and boots at Burnham Thorpe Rectory, and that he also “helped dam the rivulet … sufficiently to fill up a small portion of ground which Lord Nelson had made into the size and shape of a man of war so as its possible to float a model ship in it”.

Winter 1788 – A Cold Reception:

The extreme severity of the 1788 winter was an unfortunate introduction for Frances, used only to the climate of the West Indies, to Norfolk. They may well have been glad that they abandoned an idea of visiting France for French rivers were frozen, including the Seine, cattle died, and people rioted in their struggle for bread. The Rector noted that “Horace has been unwell for some days, Mrs. N. takes large doses of the Bed”; but he seemed to award himself a small credit for toughness … “My Self, more accustomed to the climate, gave no heed to small Illconveniences”.

As winter gave way to spring, villagers would observe Nelson’s activity in helping to farm the glebe acres. He worked systematically at the garden where his early biographers say he sometimes was seen to be digging so hard, “as it were for the purpose of being wearied”. [It is worth noting that although Nelson and Frances were newly married, they bore no children throughout these five years].

For gentle relaxation he renewed his childhood pastime of collecting birds eggs, in this he involved Mrs. Nelson by having her to carefully take the eggs as he removed them from the nests. Local gossip must have indulged itself a little derisively about Nelson’s lack of competence with a gun. He said himself, “Shoot I cannot, so I have not taken out a license”. He was in fact spoken of as a “dangerous companion” because of an occasion when he had been persuaded to join a shooting party and shot a partridge, creating alarm by “his habit of carrying his gun at full cock and firing as soon as the bird rose without bringing the gun to his shoulder”.

Another story is told of Captain Nelson joining the villagers in their “beating of the bounds of the parish”. When they came to the stream, one of the labourers carried Nelson across on his back. When putting him down he said “I reckon I’ve done about the right thing !” “No”, said Nelson, “You should have dropped me, and then everyone would have remembered the occurence”.

December 1789 brought the village into involvement with mourning at the Rectory. Edmund, Nelson’s younger brother by five years died there. Nelson handled details for the funeral, arranging for the body “to be carried by the six oldest parishioners who are to receive a crown apiece after the funeral and, instead of gloves, each man to have a handkerchief for their wives of the same price”.

The Rector’s ‘Town House’

In the autumn of 1790 the Rector decided to make a cosy home for himself in a cottage near Ulph Church (now called Sutton Church). He gives an intimate glimpse into its interior when he writes: “I shall have one clean, spruce room … and I will thank you if you are shopping … to buy me a small neat pair of Girandoles, for each side of the chimney, to hold one candle each, about a guinea price”. These candlesticks duly arrived but there was a little domestic tragedy before they were in use. He writes, amusingly, from my ‘Town Residence’ and says, “After showing the chairs etc into their destined places I turned my thoughts toward the ornamental part of the room, and summoned Tom Sutton to open the Box which came from London, with all possible caution. But to our Great concern found the very Hansom Girondoles so broke, scattered and shattered by bad packing that no art of ours can repair them. Am therefore under the necessity of sending them back, the tradesmen will put them again in order”. He later wrote apologising that “These fine costly gingerbread ornaments have given you troble, and I am justly punished for aspiring at such an expensive piece of Nonsense”.

He appreciated living in a less remote situation than Thorpe Rectory saying “My town residence is nearmy chappell of Ease, warm and in the vicinity of what is useful in food, cloathing and physick, and most likely by and by a little Sociall chatt may take place”. There is also on record the plan which operated on Sundays when the service was in Ulph Church … “the sermon used to continue in steady progress until the vestry door was seen to be quietly opened by his housekeeper”. This was the sign that his meal was ready and the sermon was quickly concluded.

By the move into this cottage the Rector made Thorpe Rectory available for Nelson and Frances for so long as they needed it. They still kept a careful watch over his well-being. He told Catherine to allay her anxiety for him and wrote of the “convenience of sitting quiet at Home and enjoying many blessings, not the least of which are those I derive daily from Thorpe Parsonage”.

There is a modern ring about this comment concerning what use to make of the Rectory if Nelson and Frances no longer needed it. Rumours of war were in the air, and he says “If it is peace your Bro. I hope will find himself happy there. If war, I must dispose of the house furnished, which is the only chance of letting anything upon so uncertain a Tenure”. In the event, when Nelson and Frances had left, he put a labourer and his wife into the house as caretakers.

Political Unrest and Poverty in The Land:

Moving as he frequently did amongst the rural gentry of Norfolk, Nelson would hear both sides of the political divide, Whig and Tory, at Holkham and Wolterton.

More intensely he was moved by the distressing poverty he found in the working people and their homes that he knew in Burnham. It was on their behalf that he decided to plead by putting their case to his friend, Prince William, the Duke of Clarence. He wrote that the poor labourer had “been seduced by promises and hopes of better times”. Then, as now, the cost of living was rising but their poverty, he said “has arose from the neglect of the Country Gentlemen, in not making their farmers raise their [the labourers] wages, in some small proportion, as the price of necessaries increased”. He enclosed a balance sheet he had made out, which he headed “An Account of the Earnings and Expenses of a Labourer in Norfolk, with a Wife and Three Children, Supposing he has not been kept from One Day’s Labour in the Whole Year”.

The man’s total earnings for the year (including £1.05 for the woman’s gleaning in the harvest field) would be £23.05 and he listed costs of clothing, heating and lighting, leaving £14.35 to buy food for the year for five people. “Not quite two [old] pence a day for each person” he said, and “to drink nothing but water”.

Nelson on half pay was by no means well off at the time. In later years he regularly gave help to needy parishoners. Meanwhile, the reduced Navy pay was eight shillings a day in addition to which he received £100 per year from his uncle, William Suckling, and Frances had £100 per year from her uncle, Mr. Herbert, in Nevis. Frances seems to have hoped for the benefit of paid employment and a position of good standing when she persuaded Nelson to write to Prince William discreetly suggesting that the prince might put in a word on her behalf with a view to securing her a lady-in-waiting position to the Princess Royal who was believed to be having a Household appointed to her. But Frances’ hopes were not fulfilled.

Recalled to Active Service:

Events in the New Year 1793 swiftly brought about Nelson’s recall into active service. By the end of the first week of January he had been appointed to command HMS Agamemnon. King Louis XVI was executed in Paris on 21st. January and France declared war on Britain on 1st. February.

News of Nelson’s appointment stimulated lively interest in Norfolk and beyond; there was a response of volunteers from the Burnhams and Wells (he regarded a Norfolk volunteer worth two other men). At least three local clergymen’s sons came to serve under the son of the Burnham Thorpe Parsonage; they were: William Hoste, son of the Rector of Tittleshall; Thomas Weatherhead, son of the Rector of Sedgeford, and William Bolton, whose father, the Rector of Hollesby, was brother-in-law to Nelson’s sister Susannah. Nelson’s stepson, Josiah, now thirteen, was also beginning his sea-going career as a member of Agamemnon’s crew.

The Plough Inn (renamed The Lord Nelson in 1806)The Plough Inn (renamed The Lord Nelson in 1806)

The Plough Inn (renamed The Lord Nelson in 1806)

The village must have been buzzing with every latest piece of news and, to bid farewell to his friends, Nelson invited them to a party at the village pub then called The Plough [renamed the Lord Nelson in 1806 and still preserved as he would have known it]. Amongst a group of village lads outside the pub was a boy called High, whose mother, before marriage, named Blackett, was children’s nurse at The Rectory, and therefore the chief person outside the [Nelson] family who had had close contact with Nelson in his childhood. It was probably this thought in his mind that made him express his disappointment that he had not been invited to the party. His companions jeered and laughed at him so much that he set about the leader of them ‘tooth and nail’ and received his abundant reward when Nelson, who had witnessed the fight declared that it had been a ‘right valiant fight’. For the rest of his life the lad was known as ‘Valiant High’.

Thus, the five years ‘on the beach’, so frustrating for Nelson, came to an end.