The Ben Burgess Nelson Memorabilia Collection

The Ben Burgess Nelson Memorabilia Collection comprises some five hundred and fifty pictures, prints, letters, books, documents, medals and artefacts relating to the life and times of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. The collection was formed over fifty years by the late Ben Burgess OBE, a Norwich businessman and agriculturalist. With his wife Jennifer, he donated the collection to a charitable trust (Registered Charity No. 1012599) with the aim of “establishing and maintaining the collection as a permanent entity for educational purposes, within the County of Norfolk“.

Visitors to Norfolk often wonder why the County contains no museum to it’s most famous son. There is a wealth of material relating to Nelson around the County including small displays at the Castle Museum in Norwich, the Maritime Museum in Yarmouth and the Lynn Museum, but they could hardly be said to do justice to someone of Nelson’s stature.

His achievements are well known and his image instantly recognisable. His enduring appeal is shown by the amazing hold he still has over the public imagination world-wide. Nelson’s life and character have been chronicled and commemorated in every medium since his earliest victories, but each anniversary adds fresh material to the legend and each decade new insights and interpretations.

One collection in Norfolk focuses particularly on the wealth and breadth of the public response to Nelson’s appeal. The Ben Burgess Nelson Memorabilia Trust administers one of the foremost Nelson collections in the country which already attracts visitors from across Britain and abroad. It is this collection which it’s Trustees and friends intend should be the focus for a Norfolk Nelson Museum.

The collection was begun by Ben Burgess, founder of the well known agricultural engineering business which bears his name and is presently housed in the company’s offices in Norwich. Two things fired Ben Burgess’s passion for Nelson. One was the fact that he went to Nelson’s school, the Paston at North Walsham. The other was a small book, a biography of Nelson, which was presented to Ben Burgess’s father as a school prize in 1869. This eventually passed to Ben himself and helped set off the collecting bug. His enthusiasm is infectious and it has seen the development of a collection which now numbers over 600 items ranging from original autographed letters to prints, paintings, charts, medals, models and commemorative china.

It is probably the autograph letters which bring us closest to Nelson, his contemporaries and their times. They include one from Nelson himself addressed to his former chaplain who was seeking a living in 1801. Other letters of importance are included in the Hoste and Matcham papers. Sir William Hoste, the son of a Norfolk parson like Nelson himself, was one of Nelson’s protégés and went on to have a distinguished naval career. The Matcham papers relate to the family of Nelson’s youngest and favourite sister, Kitty.

Immediately after Nelson’s death there was a huge public demand for images of the hero and depiction’s of his death, and contemporary engraved examples feature strongly in the collection. Of particular importance is a fine painting in oils by Samuel Drummond (1765 – 1844). It depicts, with almost religious reverence, the dying Nelson being carried below on board Victory. This painting was acquired in Ireland at auction but is not the only item to have come from overseas. A recent coup was the purchase in New York of the final manuscript draft of one of the greatest and most authoritative of Nelson biographies. This, the “Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain”, was written by Captain (later Admiral) Mahan and published in 1897.

Medals and medallions in the collection include examples of those presented by Nelson’s prize agent, Davison, to all the seamen who took part in the Battle of The Nile in 1798.

The main part of the collection is probably the commemorative china from the plain transfer printed mugs and jugs of the early 19th. century, with their naive and sentimental inscriptions to the more sophisticated collectors limited editions of the 1990’s. Staffordshire figure groups of the “Death of Nelson” stand side by side with pottery busts of the hero, plates, cups, jugs and vases. These are all part of an astonishing range of items produced in every conceivable medium and designed to cater for an apparently insatiable public demand for souvenirs of the hero.