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Next week, on the 18th January, Bonhams the auctioneers are holding an interesting sale at their London salerooms. The Gentleman’s Library Sale is offering some very eclectic items but some are of interest to us. There are four piece of Nelson Memorabilia, and I thought you might like to see them, especially as we know that Frank Austen, Jane Austen’s brother was very highly thought of  by the Admiral.

The first is a snuff-box thought to have been owned by Nelson and which was given by him to his secretary, George Unwin.

The box, made of tortoiseshell composition, is decorated with a view of the incomparable Amalfi coast, contains a note written by George Unwin’s son:

My Father had either lost his own snuff box on going ashore or in some shop in Palermo and upon mentioning the circumstances at Lady Hamilton’s table where Lord Nelson was one of the party his Lordship handed over to him this identical box and desired him to keep it until he could get a better one.

Next is another of those glass paintings, similar in style to the ones we saw commemorating the death of Princess Charlotte earlier in the week.

This one commemorates Nelson’s funeralTo be strictly accurate the glass painting shows Nelson’s coffin lying in state at Greenwich, prior to the funeral. The inscription on the painting is as follows:

Representation of the BODY of the Late Illustrious ADMIRAL LORD NELSON laying in STATE in the Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital

The next item is one I covet: a small pearlware commemorative bowl, circa 1805:

It is inscribed with Nelson’s famous message to the fleet, given just before the Battle of Trafalgar:  England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty

And finally, a very special mourning ring:

This is reputed to have been given to Surgeon Beattie, the man who attended Nelson when he was dying on HMS Victory. The sale catalogue tell us that:

Beattie, a native of Eskdale was buried in Canonbie Churchyard in Dumfries. Acquired by Dr Carlyle of Langholm, Dumfries, from a patient and thence from him to Mr Alex Scott of Arkinholm and then by descent.

The catalogue also remarks that:

Some 58 original recipients are listed for these mourning rings, although slight differences in the style of examples surviving, suggest that more may have been made. Two similar examples are in the National Maritime Museum collection.

The sale estimate is between £8,000 and £12,000. Last March a similar ring sold at Bonhams for £14,400.

We celebrated Trafalgar Day only a few weeks ago, and a few days ago a  Nile medal,  shown below,  was sold at  Peter Wilson auctioneers, of Cheshire, for £9,000. I thought you might like to know some more about this medal and the association with the battle of the Nile, which took place in the summer of 1798, for the battle has connections with Frank Austen, Jane Austen’s brother.

The medal that was auctioned was a sliver medal, one of the kind awarded to officers. This particular example was awarded to Thomas Atkinson.  Mr Atkinson was the Master of H.M.S.Victory at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. He also served in the Battle of the Nile and this made him eligible to be one of the recipients of the Nile Medal. The auctioneers website gives his history, and I will quote a little from it:

The Nile medal was given to Thomas Atkinson, Master of Nelson’s flagship the Victory. Atkinson joined the Navy at the age of 20 in 1787 and rapidly promoted to Ships Master. In 1797 Atkinson became Master of the Theseus and served under Nelson during a failed assault on Santa Cruz, where Atkinson by family legend is said to have supported Nelson whilst his arm was amputated.  The Theseus acted in the Battle of the Nile 1798 where she was fourth ship to round the French van and attack them from an inshore position. In 1799 Atkinson distinguished himself when he helped prevent an onboard fire caused by an accidental explosion at Acre in Egypt which killed the ship’s Captain. In 1801 Atkinson was Master of the St George which performed in the Battle of Copenhagen. Here Atkinson earned written praise from Nelson recommending him as ‘one of the best Masters I have seen in the Royal Navy’.

Before the Battle of Trafalgar Nelson wrote to Atkinson requesting he be Master of the Victory. During the Battle a shot destroyed the wheel of the Victory rendering her without steering, Atkinson went below deck and with the help of John Quilliam steered the ship from the gun room throughout the battle, rigging up ropes so the tiller could be used again from the deck. Before the battle of Trafalgar Nelson promised Atkinson promotion, however this promised couldn’t be fulfilled due to the untimely death of Nelson. Atkinson brought back Nelson’s body from Trafalgar and wrote the full account of his death in the ship’s logbook which was sold by the Atkinson family at Sotheby’s in 1911. In 1809 Atkinson was appointed King’s Harbour Master of Portsmouth, a post he held until his death in 1836. Atkinson is represented (top right beside the signal flag) in the painting ‘The Death of Nelson’ by Benjamin West, 1806, (Walker Art Gallery Liverpool)  

Here is a link to that portrait, and here is  the Key to it. The Master of the Victory is marked as being figure number 51 ( do click on this to enlarge it: I am having difficulty locating the figure of Mr Atkinson but the key does assure us that he is there!)


The medal was not awarded by a grateful government. No, its design and distribution was the brainchild of  Alexander Davison, below. He was  a friend of Nelson and his family. He was also the man who was appointed by Nelson as sole prize agent after the battle of the Nile in 1798, after which he made a considerable amount of money . According to the account in the fascinating book, Nelson Purse by Martyn Downer, his impulse to create and award a “thanksgiving medal ” was not wholly philanthropic:

Davison who was eager to cement his relationship with Nelson and to bathe publicly in his friends glory,launched into  a truly spectacular round  of present- giving. First he arranged for prints to be made after his portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Abbott. Copies were presented to the king, the royal princes, Nelson’s “gallant” captains and the heads of all official departments:” to show them the sense I have of your friendship towards me”.  Cheaper versions sold like hot cakes on the  Strand.

Davison then proposed a far grander scheme, one which appealed in equal measure to his patriotism, his philanthropy and his self-interest. He approached the government with an offer to pay for medals to be struck for every man- all six thousand of them-who fought in the battle alongside Nelson.This novel and eye-catching idea was attractive to a government keen to make political capital out of Nelson’s victory without setting an expensive precedent for future actions; so Davison’s offer was accepted, on condition that the government was involved in the design of the medal….On the face of it this arrangement seemed to consign Davison to the role of mere paymaster.But it gave the medals valuable official standing while enhancing Davison’s own reputation by publicly binding him closer to government,the fount of his wealth. He hoped too that so extravagant a gesture might purchase loyalty intern fleet the next time a large agency was awarded.

The medals were tone struck by Matthew Boulton

at his famed Soho manufactory in Birmingham

Davison’s original design was full of Masonic imagery. He was a freemason and wanted to included as many references to Freemasonry in the medal as possible, possibly as a means of providing some helpful propaganda for the movement. His original designed was

Obverse: Hope crowned with Oak and Laurel with the Olive Branch in her right hand and the medallion of Lord Nelson supported by her left, as it appears in the design, and her forefinger pointing to his bust.The anchor should appear exactly also as it is sketched; the foot of the figure in a sandal, should also be seen and the drapery to fall in the most graceful manner.Hope should also appear to be standing on a rugged shore…

Davison wanted the reverse of the coin to show the French fleet at anchor on the Bay of Bequeire and the British fleet under sail, advancing to the attack.

Matthew Boulton  gave the task of improving on Davison’s sketch to Robert Clevely  who was a marine artist in London. It’s interesting to note that there is much dispute about the correctness of the naval scene that was actually engraved. The die of the medal was cut by Boulton’s best engraver, Conrad Kuchler. Here is a gold version of the final medal:

Davison wanted the medal to be produced in five different medals: one for each of the four classes of officers and one for the ordinary seamen. His original order to Boulton confirmed this:

Of 7,000 medals, 25 would be in gold, 150 in silver, 300 in copper gilt, 525 in copper and 6,000 in “bronze” meaning copper applied with Boulton’s special purple-brown “bronzed” finish.

It is interesting to note that as he needed only 15 gold medals for the captions involved in the battle, the other ten were for Davison’s personal use. Eventually the scheme was simplified and after many, many quarrels with Davison about the design Matthew Boulton insisted on a very simple wording on the medal, for, as he tartly observed to his client:

A man may be a Johnson a Pope or a Dryden and yet he many not be a critic in the language of medals.

The wording eventually greed upon was as follows On the Obverse:

EUROPE’S HOPE AND BRITAIN’S GLORY. Above: REAR-ADMIRAL LORD NELSON OF THE NILE.

On the Reverse:

ALMIGHTY GOD HAS BLESSED HIS MAJESTY’S ARMS. In exergue: VICTORY OF THE NILE/AUGUST.1.1798.

Around the edge was inscribed:

FROM ALEXr. DAVISON ESQr. St. JAMES’S SQUARE- A TRIBUTE OF REGARD.

This is all very well, I hear you say in your accustomed manner…but what of Frank Austen? The Battle of the Nile was important for him because his first command, The Canopus, was one of the ships captured from the French in that battle. As we are told in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H and Edith C Hubback:

For a little over a year Francis Austen was Flag-Captain in the Canopus. This ship, which had been captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile, had originally been called Le Franklin, and was one of the best built vessels in the Navy of that day, carrying eighty guns.

This is the order of sailing, written by Nelson,  in 1805 for the British Fleet,who were engaged in chasing Admiral Villeneuve across the Atlantic before the Battle of Trafalgar. You can clearly see The Canopus under the command of Frank. This is also taken from my copy of the Hubback’s book

So there you are, Frank’s ship with all  its strong associations with the battle of the Nile , all bought to mind by the sale of this medal, with its intriguing history.

Today, the 21st October, is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.  This decisive sea battle between the French (and their allies the Spanish) and English fleets took place  in 1805. Jane Austen lived through this perilous period, and makes one  direct reference  to this battle in Persuasion. It is in Chapter 3 when Anne Elliot, while helping Mr Shepherd explain who is destined to be Sir Walter Elliot’s  tenant, also reveals to us her keen interest in the fortunes of all the members of her beloved Frederick Wentworth’s family:

“And who is Admiral Croft?” was Sir Walter’s cold suspicious inquiry.

   Mr. Shepherd answered for his being of a gentleman’s family, and mentioned a place; and Anne, after the little pause which followed, added —

   “He is rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he has been stationed there, I believe, several years.”

Chapter 3

Jane Austen, of course, was vitally interested in the fortunes of Nelson’s navy, not only as a patriotic Englishwoman, but because her brothers Frank and Charles were naval officers. Frank, below, served directly under Nelson as one of his captains. Indeed, Nelson wrote admiringly of him:

I hope to see [Captain Austen] alongside a French 80-gun ship, and he cannot be better placed than in the ‘Canopus’,  which was once a French Admiral’s ship, and stuck to me. Captain Austen I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.

(quoted in Jane Austen: A Family Record by DeirdreLe Faye, page 151)

For most of  1805 Frank was involved in chasing the French fleet and its commander, Admiral Villeneuve, across the Atlantic to the West Indies and then back again to the entrance of the Mediterranean  near the Straits of Gibraltar. Below is a scan of my copy of Kelly’s map of Spain and Portugal dating from 1816, which you can enlarge to see  the detail:

This is a section of it showing the position of Cadiz and the Straits of Gibraltar:

Villeneuve and his fleet were kept blockaded in Cadiz by the British during the whole month of September. Nelson arrived on The Victory on September 28th and then Frank was ordered to Gibraltar to “complete supplies”, and then on to Cartagena to help protect a convoy which was en route to Malta, further into the Mediterranean to the east.  As a result, he missed the action at Trafalgar, a circumstance he had feared might occur, as is revealed in this later to the woman who was his fiancée and future wife , Mary Gibson. Note this letter was actually written on the day of the battle:

Our situation is peculiarly unpleasant and distressing, for if they escape Lord Nelson’s vigilance and get into the Mediterranean, which is not very likely, we shall be obliged, with our small force, to keep out of their way; and on the other hand, should an action take place, it must be decided long before we could possibly get down even were the wind fair, which at present it is not. As I have no doubt but the event would be highly honourable to our arms, and be at the same time productive of some good prizes, I shall have to lament our absence on such an occasion on a double account, the loss of pecuniary advantage as well as of professional credit. And after having been so many months in a state of constant and unremitting fag, to be at last cut out by a parcel of folk just come from their homes, where some of them were sitting at their ease the greater part of last war, and the whole of this, till just now, is particularly hard and annoying.

“You, perhaps, may not feel this so forcibly as I do, and in your satisfaction at my having avoided the danger of battle may not much regret my losing the credit of having contributed to gain a victory; not so myself!

“I do not profess to like fighting for its own sake, but if there have been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious one of my life.

And so it was: Frank missed the action, the decisive sea battle victory over the French, and regretted it bitterly, as he told Mary  in his next letter to her , dated 27th October, a letter which was first published in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H. and E .C. Hubback:

Alas! my dearest Mary, all my fears are but too fully justified. The fleets have met, and, after a very severe contest, a most decisive victory has been gained by the English twenty-seven over the enemy’s thirty-three. Seventeen of the ships are taken and one is burnt; but I am truly sorry to add that this splendid affair has cost us many lives, and amongst them the most invaluable one to the nation, that of our gallant, and ever-to-be-regreted, Commander-in-Chief, Lord Nelson, who was mortally wounded by a musket shot, and only lived long enough to know his fleet successful. 

And that was the rub, the bitter in so much sweet. Nelson died as a result of injuries sustained in the battle. Frank Austen paid tribute to him in the same letter:

In a public point of view, I consider his loss as the greatest which could have occurred; nor do I hesitate to say there is not an Admiral on the list so eminently calculated for the command of a fleet as he was. I never heard of his equal, nor do I expect again to see such a man. To the soundest judgment he united prompt decision and speedy execution of his plans; and he possessed in a superior degree the happy talent of making every class of persons pleased with their situation and eager to exert themselves in forwarding the public service. As a national benefit I cannot but rejoice that our arms have been once again successful, but at the same time I cannot help feeling how very unfortunate we have been to be away at such a moment, and, by a fatal combination of unfortunate though unavoidable events, to lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience; but, as I cannot write upon that subject without complaining, I will drop it for the present, till time and reflection reconcile me a little more to what I know is now inevitable.

Nelson’s body was returned to England, and lay in state at Greenwich. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, with all the pomp of a state funeral. This is a picture of his tomb in the crypt :

Today in Britain, Trafalgar Day is not celebrated as a public holiday as it was during the mid 19th century, though recently politicians have tried to revive the idea that  the Monday nearest the date be reinstated as a bank holiday. But the Sea Cadets do celebrate it on theSunday nearest the 21st October.  Members of the Sea Cadets all over the country parade in towns to celebrate the great sea victory still .In London 500 sea cadets parade in Trafalgar Square under the beady eye of Nelson’s statue on his column in the square. This square, and its commemorative column did not, of course, exist in Jane Austen’s day. But I daresay her sentiments regarding the battle, especially knowing that Frank escaped injury, may have been similar to how she expressed her feelings on hearing of deaths in battles in the Peninsular War

How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!

(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 31st May 1811)

Longwood House on the island of St Helena, Napoleon’s final home, shown above , is in vital ned of repair and the French Government has launched an appeal to raise money to fund  the restoration. The repairs and restoration of the house are estimated to cost approximately €1.5million, and the French Government is hoping that at least half of the funds needed will be funded by private sources and the public. If you go here you can find the link to the appeal and details of how to donate.

Jane Austen’s brother, Frank knew St Helena and visited it on duty in October 1807 while he was serving as captain on board HMS St Albans.

He wrote about it and his vivid  impressions of the island are included in the book, Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H Hubback and Edith C. Hubback. I shall quote them here as they make for fascinating reading. Do remember that at the time Frank was writing the island had no connection with Napoleon at all:

This island being in the hands of the English East India Company, and used by it merely as a rendezvous for its homeward-bound fleets, where during time of war they are usually met at stated periods by some King’s ship appointed to take them to England, has no trade but such as arises from the sale of those few articles of produce, consisting chiefly in poultry, fruit, and vegetables, which are beyond the consumption of its inhabitants, and a petty traffic carried on by a few shopkeepers, who purchase such articles of India and China goods, as individuals in the Company’s ships may have to dispose of, which they retail to the inhabitants and casual visitors at the island.

“The inhabitants are chiefly English, or of English descent, although there is a considerable number of negroes on the island, which with very few exceptions are the property of individuals or of the Company, slavery being tolerated here. It does not however appear that the slaves are or can be treated with that harshness and despotism which has been so justly attributed to the conduct of the land-holders or their managers in the West India Islands, the laws of the Colony not giving any other power to the master than a right to the labour of his slave. He must, to enforce that right, in case a slave prove refractory, apply to the civil power, he having no right to inflict chastisement at his own discretion. This is a wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England, or colonised by her subjects. Every person who is above the rank of a common soldier is in some shape or other a trader. A few acres of ground laid out in meadow, or garden ground, will seldom fail to yield as much produce in the year as would purchase the fee-simple of an equal quantity in England, and this from the extravagant price which the wants of the homeward bound India ships (whose captains and passengers rolling in wealth, and accustomed to profusion, must have supplies cost what they may) enable the islanders to affix to every article they raise. To such an extent had this cause operated, that a couple of acres of potatoes, or a garden of cabbages in a favourable season will provide a decent fortune for a daughter.”

All changed in 1815 when Napoleon was imprisoned on St Helena, living at Longwood House untill his death in 1821. He was first buried on the island but his remains were removed to the spectacular surroundings of Les Invalides in Paris in 1840.

After Napoleon’s death the ownership of Longwood  House reverted to the  East India Company , and then  some years later reverted to the British Crown. Napoleon III of France acquired it from the British Government in 1854, and his purchase included the  piece of land where Napoleon’s body had originally been buried.

I’m not sure what Jane Austen would make of this appeal, but  I thought you might be interested to hear of the appeal to restore the house where England’s great enemy during Jane Austen’s lifetime lived and died..

I thought you might be interested to learn the  details of a talk to be given by Diana Shervington at the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum on Saturday 12th February, at 2.30p.m. It will be on the subject of Jane Austen and her two naval brothers, Frank, below

and Charles, also shown below.

The talk promises to be fascinating as Diana Shervington is a descendant of Jane Austen, and is also a patron of the newly formed South West branch of the Jane Austen Society.

If you do go you might be interested to also see the Museum’s new winter exhibition which is about Mary Anning , the great finder of fossils, who had as we have learnt , a slight connection to Jane Austen. The exhibition is entitled Mary Anning and the Men of Science and according to the museum’s website…

explores Mary’s relationships with the great men of science of her day – William Buckland, William Conybeare and Henry de la Beche. It includes unique Mary Anning material on loan from other museums and features the newly-conserved coprolite (fossil dung) table owned by Buckland.

For fun, there is a 3-D re-creation of de la Beche’s famous vision of ancient Dorset Duria Antiquior, created by artist Darrell Wakelam in partnership with local children.

It all sounds fascinating, don’t you think?

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