October 2014

Nelson’s lying in state - January 1806  
By Brendan McCarthy, Chief Exective of The Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College

News of the battle and Nelson’s death finally reached London two weeks after the event, on 6th November when Lieutenant John Lapenotiere of the Pickle, schooner reported the news to the Admiralty. The country immediately went into mourning.  Deaths in battle were normal but no-one anticipated that of the acclaimed commander. On being told, King George III is said to have commented: “We have lost more than we have gained”. That was certainly high praise considering what had been achieved was the devastation of much of Napoleon’s navy, the ending of the possibility of invasion, and (it could be argued) British dominance of the world’s oceans for the following century. George III and the Government agreed Nelson’s should be a state funeral, the first awarded to a commoner. 

Plans began for the funeral, with various parties involved, including King George, the Admiralty, the Home Office, the Office of Works, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dean of St. Paul’s - and Nelson’s brother William. The King chose the royal undertaker, the ironically named Mr. France, to carry out some of the arrangements. 

When it was decided that the funeral should be at St. Paul’s, the decision was also taken that Nelson should lay in state at Greenwich.

Following the Battle of the Nile, Nelson had been presented with the main mast of the French flagship L’Orient, which he had stored at his chosen undertakers to be used to make his coffin upon his death. Sadly, it was to be needed much sooner than he or anyone anticipated.

After Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was encased in a large casket called a leaguer. This was then filled with brandy, camphor and myrrh and lashed to the mast of the Victory as it sailed back to Gibraltar where the ship underwent repairs.  Whilst there, the brandy that had not been absorbed by the corpse was replaced by spirits of wine for the journey home to Britain.   The ship continued to Portsmouth, a journey which took four and half weeks due to bad weather and then progressed to the naval station at the mouth of the River Medway.  It was there that a doctor removed the fatal bullet from the body before it was transferred into the casket made from the L’Orient’s mast. This was then sealed in an outer lead coffin and the body transferred from Victory to the Chatham yacht for its remaining journey up river.  It was now 23 December 1805.

The next day, after anchoring overnight below Woolwich, the Chatham yacht departed for Greenwich arriving at about midday.  The weight of the coffin (at nearly 4 cwt) together with the tide, prevented the unloading until high tide at about 5pm. Covered in the colours of the Victory, the coffin was lowered into a boat and transported to the Water Gates.  On reaching the steps a party of the Victory crew carried the coffin across Grand Square, up the steps into the Painted Hall and placed it in the Record room – now known of course as the Nelson Room. Here, the lead coffin was placed inside a much grander outer coffin made from mahogany and decorated with some ten thousand gilt nail-heads forming pictures of Nelson’s achievements. The date for the Funeral on 9 January was confirmed.

From 5 January to 7 January 1806, Nelson's coffin lay in state, here in the Upper Painted Hall.  Black hangings covered the walls.  Shields and coats of arms gleamed in the glow from hundreds of candles.  The coffin, surrounded with trophies, including captured French and Spanish flags was covered by a large canopy.

Ten official mourners appointed by the Lord Chamberlain also attended, two on each side of the coffin and three either side of the canopy, the former standing the latter sitting, all dressed in deep mourning with black scarfs, hair fully powdered and wearing bag wigs. The Rev Mr Scott, Chaplain of the Victory, who had attended the body since the moment of death, sat, it is said, drooping at the head of the coffin as Chief Mourner.

A partition ran the length of the Lower Hall, again covered in black drape, to enable access and egress in an orderly fashion. The windows were blacked out and even the dome had a black drape hung across it to block the light through the high level windows.  A crescent shaped railing with lanterns fixed to the top was erected around the coffin. 11 black ostrich plumes were arranged beneath the canopy.

On Saturday 4 January at around lunchtime, the first mourner was the Princess of Wales, who paid a private visit and stayed, it is said, for some hours.  After her departure, the Governor of the Hospital admitted a few other notable visitors and then the Painted Hall was closed. Mr Scott and the King’s upholsterer, a Mr Beckwith, remained with the coffin through the night.

On Sunday 5th January, large crowds began to arrive in the early morning but had to wait until 11 am before being allowed in.  The Times newspaper recorded events in the following days edition: “Before eight in the morning, every avenue from the Metropolis to Greenwich was crowded with vehicles of every description till past eleven, exhibiting a scene of confusion beyond description; but the approach to Greenwich Hospital Gate (west gate adjacent to the buildings at that time) a little before that hour must baffle the conception of those who did not witness it. When the gate was thrown open, above ten thousand pressed forward for admittance.”

And so it went for the following two days.  Altogether, it is said that some 30,000 mourners came.  Again, the Times newspaper of 8th  January faithfully recorded the events of the previous day in wonderful prose: “The steps leading up to the Great Hall, was the principle scene of the contest; and curiosity, the ruling passion of the fair sex, rising superior to all the suggestions of feminine timidity, many ladies pushed into the crowd, and were so severely squeezed, that several of them fainted away, and were carried off, apparently senseless, to the colonnade; we were, however, highly gratified to learn , that they were rather frightened than hurt, and that no injury occurred more serious than a degree of pressure not altogether so gentle as could be wished.”

At about 4pm on the 7th January, the Brig Elizabeth and Mary hove into view on the river.  On board were a chosen band of 46 seamen and 14 marines, all from the crew of Victory who were intended to be part of the funeral procession the next day.  Their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Brown, came ashore to take orders as to how to proceed.

After consultation between the Hospital Governor and Lord Hood, the crew  were brought ashore at the water gates, as reports indicate “amidst the warm greetings and grateful acclamations of the surrounding throng.” They stowed their bags and were escorted to the Painted Hall for a private moment with their Commander. The Times once more noted the events in the following day’s paper. It said: “They eyed the coffin with melancholy admiration and respect, while the manly tears glistened in their eyes, and stole reluctant down their weather-beaten cheeks.  On the return of this brave band to the parade in front, they were again warmly greeted by the multitude; and even in the eyes of beauty, everywhere glittering amidst the crowd, beamed on the rough and hardy crew, the radiant glances of approbation and sympathy.”

On the 8th January the 'Grand River Procession' from Greenwich to the Admiralty Building at the end of Whitehall took place in readiness for the funeral in St Pauls Cathedral the following day.  A large flotilla was assembled, including barges owned by the City Livery Companies. They were resplendent with their carved and gilded decorations and colourful banners.  Nelson's coffin was placed in one of the royal barges, originally made for King Charles II, its gilding and paint shrouded in black velvet.  A large canopy erected over the stern was surmounted by black ostrich feathers.

Slowly, the long line advanced up the river, with the barge rowed by the crew from the Victory who had arrived the previous day.  Fifty Greenwich Pensioners also rowed in the procession.  The escorting vessels’ fired their guns at intervals - to mark the barge's passage. 

Fancy to attend this year's anniversary Trafalgar Night Dinner at ORNC? See here for details.  

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