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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Early life

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Horatio Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in the parsonage at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England, three miles from the coast. He was the sixth child of eleven and was named after his godfather Horatio, second Baron Walpole. He was publicly baptised on 15 November 1758, having been privately baptised 10 days after his birth owing to fears about his weak health.

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Nelson’s family tree

Little is known about Nelson’s childhood before he joined the Royal Navy in 1770. His father, Reverend Edmund Nelson, kept a family register that makes no reference to Horatio until he was aged 13. Horatio, supplying information about his life to a biographer in 1799, described his own childhood in 23 words.

Nelson’s family was neither poor nor wealthy. Edmund Nelson was left an inheritance by his father, which meant his family could live comfortably. He could afford to employ servants at the parsonage and, on account of his weak health, spend winters in Bath, Somerset, England which boasted a milder climate than Norfolk. Edmund followed a long line of clergymen. His mother was a baker’s daughter. There was nothing remarkable about his side of the family.

Horatio’s mother, Catherine Nelson née Suckling, came from a more prominent and wealthy family. This could guarantee ‘interest’- an influence that could be used to start, promote and enhance someone’s position in life. The pursuit of ‘interest’ and its use often played a crucial role in 18th-century Georgian England society. Her grandmother was Sir Robert Walpole’s sister. He was Britain’s first prime minister who served in the reigns of George I and George II. Walpole helped obtain jobs for Catherine’s brothers, William Suckling, as a customs house official, and Maurice Suckling, in the Royal Navy. Suckling, as captain of HMS Dreadnought along with two other ships, gallantly distinguished himself in a naval action against seven French ships off St Domingo in the Caribbean on 21 October 1757 during the Seven Years War. Although not alive at the time of his uncle’s heroics, such deeds must have inspired Horatio, given he recalled them when preparing his own ships to engage the combined Franco-Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. Moreover, Suckling could boast of ancestral ties to a Captain Galfridus Walpole who had served in the Royal Navy with distinction and who lost his right arm in a naval battle against the French in Vado Bay in March 1711.

Horatio Nelson, in the space of 11 days, had to cope with the deaths of his mother, on 26 December 1767, and his grandmother, Ann Suckling, on 5 January 1768. Family and friends rallied to help Edmund Nelson and his eight children. The task of being a double parent, caring and providing for his children, was hard, particularly in respect of the eldest boys who were seen as future bread-winners. Maurice, the eldest son, aged 15, left home in 1767 and, with his uncle William Suckling’s help, obtained a clerkship in the Board of Excise. Maurice Suckling, on arriving at Burnham Thorpe to attend his sister’s burial and arrange that of his mother, offered to help one of the elder boys.

Sometime in 1768, Horatio was sent with his older brother, William, to King Edward VI’s Grammar School in Norwich, boarding there during term time. Nelson was then transferred to Sir William Paston’s School, North Walsham, in 1769, returning to Burnham Thorpe during school holidays.

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A miniature portrait, believed to be of an eight year old Nelson

One can only speculate how these traumatic events psychologically affected a 9-year-old Nelson. The loss of two of the most important women in a young boy’s life must have been a tremendous blow. Nelson stated later that one of his few memories of his mother was that ‘she hated the French’. The distancing of his father, and the move from his close-knit family and the small world of Burnham Thorpe to having to fend for himself in a school in Norwich, at the time the second largest city in England, must have been a testing time for Nelson. His constant seeking of attention and approval, which underpins many actions in his later personal and public life, may be traced back to his early youth. These events may have also contributed to developing Nelson’s sense of independence, self-reliance and confidence in being able to cope in making his own way in the world. This sentiment may have been fostered by his father, who, talking about some relatives, the Blands, stated ‘they began the world with but very little but by industry and trade they acquired considerable fortune’ (Pocock, 1999, page 11).

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