18 December 2014

Lord Nelson & Mr. Pitt: Anecdotes from Nelson's nephew

In the early 1860s, Lord Nelson's nephew briefly corresponded with Lord Stanhope, Pitt's biographer, regarding the character of his famous uncle. He wrote of his fond reminiscences of times spent with Nelson, at Merton and elsewhere, and one of these letters to Stanhope was printed in The Times newspaper on November 6, 1861. Nelson's nephew was named Nelson George Matcham [1].

Writing from The Athenaeum Club, he recalled visiting his uncle twice during the short periods in which he was on shore - once in 1801, during his journey to Wales, when Nelson was received at Oxford and other places, and a second time at his house at Merton in 1805. He apparently stayed at Merton with Nelson and Emma Hamilton for the three weeks up to the 13th of September 1805, when Nelson left to embark at Portsmouth. He was then on his way to the fateful Battle of Cape Trafalgar.

Nelson's nephew recalled several interesting anecdotes of his illustrious uncle:

“Lord Nelson in private life was remarkable for a demeanour quiet, sedate, and unobtrusive, and anxious to give pleasure to every one about him, distinguishing each in his turn by some act of kindness, and chiefly those who seemed to require it most. During his few intervals of leisure, in a little knot of relations or friends, he delighted in quiet conversation, through which occasionally ran an undercurrent of pleasantry not unmixed with caustic wit. At his table he was the least heard among the company, and so far from being the hero of his own tale, I never heard him voluntarily refer to any of the great actions of his life." [2]

He also spoke in the highest terms of Nelson's last meeting with Mr. Pitt before leaving the final time. His nephew had the benefit of being at Merton at the time of the occurrence:

"On his [Nelson's] return from his last interview with Mr Pitt, being asked in what manner he had been received, he replied that he had reason to be gratified with his reception, and concluded with animation, “Mr Pitt, when I rose to go, left the room with me, and attended me to the carriage,” - a spontaneous mark of respect and admiration from the great statesman of which, indeed, he might well be proud." [3] 

He also defended his late uncle against claims of drunkenness and excessive indulgence: 

"It would have formed an amusement to the circle at Merton if intemperance were set down to the charge of the master [Nelson] of the house, who always so prematurely cut short the sederunt of the gentlemen after dinner. A man of more temperate habits could not, I am persuaded, have been found." [4]

Lastly, Matcham gave several descriptions of the man himself:

He was not a “little man, but of the middle height and of a frame adapted to activity and exertion," and “he was, it is true, a sailor, and one of a warm and generous disposition; yet I can safely affirm that I never heard a coarse expression issue from his lips." [5]

It was a fitting tribute to the memory of a great naval hero.


1. U1590/S5/C60/15. Letter from a nephew of Admiral Lord Nelson, The Times, November 6, 1861 & further correspondence with Lord Stanhope thereupon. Pitt MSS: The Kent History & Library Centre.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.


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