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The land where he was born is strange. Exposed to the North Sea, lighted by the curious water-skies that linger over the Wash and the Fens, Norfolk stands aloof from its neighbouring counties. Although the windmills which helped to grind the corn and drain the Fens have disappeared, Norfolk has changed little from the days when Nelson knew it as a boy. It has largely resisted the encroachments of the twentieth century. Above all, the dominant wind remains the same, the piercing cold easterly. It is its opposite, the westerly wind, which governs the climate of England, which brings the weather of the Atlantic, the great rolling seas that eat the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, the louring clouds that signal an advancing depression, and the rain-dropping nimbus with its darting offshoots of eddying wind that tear up trees. The westerly throws at the island those roaring Channel seas that have drowned many a hope. But the easterly is the bitterest wind that assails England's shores. It lashes into the great bight of the Wash and drives the North Sea fishermen ashore on that graveyard coast. At the same time, when in gentler mood, it brings the pale blue skies of East Anglia, and the shifting cloud-shapes that Constable recorded. It dominates the county, the home of the North Folk — descendants of those raiders who crossed from Germany in the fifth century and worked their way inland along the rivers, after they had secured their coastal bases behind them. Norfolk is a land of farmers built by sailors.
He was born on a fine autumn day, 29 September 1758, to the wife of the Rector of Burnham Thorpe, a village on the edge of the great salt marshes that fringe the Wash. He was the sixth child and the fifth son, although two elder brothers had died in infancy. His father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, was himself the son of a clergyman, and had been educated at Caius College, Cambridge. On both sides the family was well-born, something not necessarily to be expected of a country clergyman in that day and age, when the old term 'hedge priest' might still be applied to many of them (especially in northern England), and when livings could often be £50 a year or less. But the Reverend Edmund came from a family who at one time had been considerable landowners (something that counted in the Norfolk of then, and now), and he had married well. His wife was a Miss Suckling, daughter of a late prebendary of Westminster, and was the great-niece of Sir Robert Walpole who had been Prime Minister of England for twenty-one years. Sir Robert had represented the important Norfolk sea-port and market town of King's Lynn in Parliament until he was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Orford. It was from the Walpole family that the name Horatio derived, although the second bearer of the name, Horace of Strawberry Hill fame (who has also been called 'the best letter-writer in the English language'), preferred to be called Horace, 'an English name for an Englishman'. It would seem that the young Nelson felt rather similarly, for at the age of eleven, as one of the witnesses to a marriage, he signed himself in the registry at Burnham as Horace. His father altered the signature to 'Horatio', thus giving clear evidence of the fact that he had no wish to erase the eminent connection with the Walpoles. Indeed, at a later date, when the third Earl of Orford died, he instructed one of his daughters to put her family into mourning — as he had done his — since her great-grandmother and Sir Robert had been brother and sister.
A formal world, then, and a world where social relationships played a great part, was the one in which the young Horatio grew up. It was also, of course, overshadowed by the Church and by a quiet, loving father who might well have been the model for Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield: '[He] unites in himself the three greatest characters on earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and a father of a family.... Such as are fond of high life will turn with disdain from the simplicity of his country fireside; such as mistake ribaldry for humour will find no wit in his harmless conversation; and such as have been taught to deride religion will laugh at one whose chief stores of comfort are drawn from futurity.' As the Reverend Edmund himself wrote in one of his letters describing life at Burnham Thorpe: 'Variety, the Great Idoll, has no shrine here.'
Of Nelson's mother we know little except, as her son was to recall in later years, that she 'hated the French'. She died when he was nine years old, having given birth to eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. The Nelsons were poor, and the rector contemplated a widower's life with the quiet resignation that seems to have marked his character. Yet he faced what was clearly going to be a difficult future with the courage that he derived from his genuine faith and a strict sense of discipline, both qualities which Nelson was to inherit. (The Reverend Edmund, for instance, would not tolerate any slovenly behaviour and believed that, when one is seated, the spine should be kept upright and not allowed to touch the back of the chair.) As well as seven older children, he had a nine-month-old baby to look after. Nurse Blackett, later to become the wife of a Mr High, landlord of the Old Ship at Brancaster, undoubtedly played a large part in the life of the family from now on. There were two menservants, and maids from the village would have come in to help with the house. This, an old L-shaped building, formed out of two cottages, was pulled down a few years before Nelson's death. But contemporary pictures of the hero's birthplace have left us with an image of an unpretentious two-storeyed building with red tiles, sleeping under an East Anglian sky. It was a home of a type such as is still to be found all over this part of the world. Together with the house went some thirty acres of land, through which ran a clear swift stream. Nelson grew up a countryman, and many times throughout his career he hankered for the peace and quiet that he had known as a boy. Burnham Thorpe's parish church of All Saints was over a mile from the Parsonage. Despite some restoration, it still survives much as he must have known it, with its weathered old font, and its mid-thirteenth-century pillars supporting the nave. The most distinctive additions are the large rood and lectern both made out of oak taken from H.M.S. Victory. It is peaceful here, part of an unchanging England, a far call from the London where he lies. On a summer's day, away from the roads, the eternal face of the countryside presents itself as it did to Nelson, and to his father, who spoke lovingly of his 'charming open lawns and fields'.
School was soon to claim the growing boy. He went to three in all, the High School at Norwich, a school at Downham Market, and another at North Walsham. Here his presence is recalled by a brick into which are incised the initials H.N. Like all schoolboys, he wished to make his mark, though this first evidence of his desire to be remembered is touching and prophetic. His education was simple but sound — all the better for that. As G. M. Trevelyan wrote of the period: 'There was no large half-educated class, and therefore the intellectual and literary standard of our ancestors was in some respects higher than our own.... The modern as well as the ancient classics held a much greater place in the national consciousness than today. Shakespeare and Milton were familiar to almost all who could read and write.' A Prussian pastor, who visited England in 1782, described one aspect of the world that Nelson knew in his Norfolk boyhood: 'Those living hedges which in England, more than in any other country, form the boundaries of the green cornfields, and give to the whole distant country, the appearance of a large and majestic garden....' On the subject of education, he confirms that 'the English national authors are in all hands. My landlady, who is a taylor's widow, reads her Milton; and tells me that her late husband first fell in love with her because she read Milton with such proper emphasis.'
As in the case of all famous men, legends abound about Nelson's youth but, as the main source of these was his own family, they cannot entirely be discounted. The earliest describes how, as a small child, he was staying with his grandmother at Hilborough and wandered off bird's-nesting with another boy. When he had been lost for hours, with darkness approaching, alarm was felt in the house and people were sent out to look for him. He was found alone sitting beside a stream which was too wide for him to cross and brought back to his grandmother, who said to him: 'I wonder, child, that hunger and fear did not drive you home.' 'Fear', replied the boy, 'never came near me,' Whether one takes this as apocryphal, or as no more than a child's ignorance of what was meant by the word 'fear', the fact remains that in later life Nelson was not one of those blindly ignorant 'heroes' who rush into situations without being aware of danger. As he himself remarked: 'The brave man feels an anxiety circa praecordia as he enters the battle.'
Another anecdote concerns his time at school in North Walsham, where the headmaster 'Classic Jones' was noted for his generous use of the birch. Some fine pears growing in the garden aroused the natural greed of all the boys, but they were afraid of 'so keen a flogger' and left them carefully alone. Only Nelson, lowered down from the dormitory window at night on knotted sheets, would venture into Classic Jones's garden. Returning with the longed-for pears, he distributed them among the other boys, keeping none for himself for, as he said: 'I only took them because every other boy was afraid.' Next morning the large sum of five guineas was offered as a reward for anyone who would identify the thief, 'but young Nelson was too much beloved for any boy to betray him'. It is difficult not to dislike the element of sanctimonious priggishness implicit in such stories, but due allowance must be made for the fact that they were written in the early nineteenth century to embellish a national hero.
A story which his elder brother William was to tell of him with admiration in later years describes how he and Horatio were sent out on their ponies by their father one winter's day to make their way to school. When the snow, driven whirling by the North Sea wind, falls on that part of Norfolk it piles high in great drifts, obscures the guidelines of the hedges, and even today can leave villages cut off from one another for days at a time. In the eighteenth century, when it was only man and horse or, as in this case, boy and pony, roads could quickly become impassable, as the two young Nelsons now found out. Returning home, they told their father of the snow conditions, but he urged them to make one more try. If it was dangerous, then they should return, he said, but it was left to their honour not to come back without good reason. Off they set again and, after going some distance, William came to the conclusion that they should abandon the attempt. Horatio would not hear of it. 'Remember, brother, it was left to our honour.'
If the rest of the family were to live lives of quiet undistinction, so that we know of them only because of Horatio's subsequent fame, they were typical in many ways of hundreds of similar families living in eighteenth-century England. Maurice, who was five years older than Horatio, became a clerk in the Navy Office; then there was Susannah, three years older than himself, who married a Thomas Bolton of Suffolk; and William, closest to him in boyhood and only a year older, who ultimately took Holy Orders like his father. A younger sister, Anne, died in her twenties; Edmund, four years younger, died before he was thirty. Another younger brother, Suckling, good-natured but indolent, also took Holy Orders, became his father's curate, and died in his thirties. The youngest, Catherine, a favourite of Nelson's, who was nine months old when her mother died, was to marry George Matcham, a man of some substance but little purpose, and bear him a large family. Prior to this, at a time when it looked as if his father might die and Catherine be left homeless, Nelson wrote from abroad that if this occurred he would 'immediately come to England and most probably fix in some place that might be most for poor Kitty's advantage. My small income shall always be at her service, and she shall never want a protector and a sincere friend while I exist.' He was, in fact, prepared to give up his career in order to see that his young sister was properly cared for. In the eighteenth century the family bond and family obligations, especially among country people like the Nelsons, were very close and real.
The winters in East Anglia are harsh, long and cold. It was the custom of the Reverend Edmund Nelson, whenever he could, to travel across to the famous West Country spa of Bath during the winter to take the waters, enjoy the warmer climate, and — though he was well used to the quiet monotony of his Norfolk parsonage — to see a little of the great outside world. As he wrote in a letter, with his habitual self-disparagement, he had little to offer 'except a willingness to make my family comfortable when near me and not unmindful of me when at a distance, and as it has fallen to my Lott to take upon me the care and affection of double parent, they will Hereafter excuse where I have fallen short and the task has been too Hard'.
It was perhaps not without some relief that the Reverend Edmund received a letter while he was in Bath in the winter of 1770, written by his son William. It was not on his own behalf that he wrote but on that of young Horatio. The two boys had read in a local newspaper that their uncle Captain Maurice Suckling had been appointed in command of the Raisonable, a warship of 64 guns, which had been recommissioned in view of an impending war with Spain. Horatio's request that his father ask Captain Suckling if he would take the boy aboard his new command was met by Suckling with the jovial, if cynical, response: 'What has poor Horatio done, who is so weak, that he, above all the rest, should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come and the first time we go into action a cannon-ball may knock off his head, and provide for him at once.' Suckling was to become Comptroller of the Navy as well as M.P. for Portsmouth, and was to prove a good friend to the young Nelson, but he was certainly under no illusions about the latter's physique. All the Nelson boys appear to have been sickly, and Nelson was small-boned, undersized and, on the face of it, the least likely to survive in a world that called for almost superhuman qualities of strength and endurance. All his life, in fact, quite apart from his wounds, he was to suffer from ill-health.
At the age of twelve years and three months, Nelson was rated on the books of the Raisonable as midshipman. There was no examination — he had on the face of it no qualifications — but there was nothing unusual in this. His uncle was the Captain, and that was enough. He had in any case chosen his own destiny, and, though he must have been quite ignorant of what life was like aboard a man-of-war, something deep in his nature had made this choice. (He might in due course have opted for Holy Orders which, some aspects of his character reveal, might equally well have suited him.) In any case, he was to do one more term at school, for the Raisonable had not yet finished her refit. It was not until March 1771 that a small, bewildered boy saw London for the first time and heard the deep murmur of the capital, lying under its greasy cowl of sea-coal.
Excerpted from Nelson by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1977 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 6, 2001
This book is very compelling and engaging. It paints the picture of a very complicated, yet very straight-forward man, a man of unending contradictions and immeasurable valor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.