Rare Nelson letters go on display to mark Trafalgar Day

Topic: Community Storyline: Museums

Rare intimate letters and documents penned by Nelson – many never on public display before – can be seen from tomorrow in Portsmouth.

For six months the National Museum of the Royal Navy is airing a collection of letters and personal papers by – or relating to – the nation’s greatest naval hero, spanning his victories from the Nile to Trafalgar.

Nelson: in His Own Words focuses on some 30 rare and unpublished documents, including 15 personal letters, provided by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, displayed alongside other personal items from the museum’s collections such as a betrothal ring given by Nelson to Emma Hamilton, miniature portraits, and a meat platter from HMS Victory.

Written with his left hand, after losing his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz, the letters are peppered with fascinating insights from everyday gossip and anecdotes to historic events, and breaking news of the Battle of the Nile. The letters take the reader through Nelson’s relationship with Emma Hamilton to just a few days before his death at Trafalgar on HMS Victory.

In one letter in the days leading up to the birth of their daughter, Nelson writes: “My Dear Lady Hamilton, When I consider that this day 9 months was your birthday, and that although we had a gale of wind, yet I was happy and sung ‘Come Cheer up Fair Emma’ even the thought compared with this day makes me melancholy, my heart somehow is sunk within me …”

The new display heralds the start of work with the foundation, which is a Greek cultural institution.

“The letters were written in the turbulent and troubled years which were the peak of Nelson’s fame,” explained Matthew Sheldon, Executive Director of the NMRN.

“They might be sent from the middle of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean; be written when rushing to get his furniture onboard HMS Victory or when chasing the French Fleet. We can imagine them being signed and sealed, despatched by boat, carried by ship and coach to the tables of his friends and family. 

“Through the letters we can hear Nelson’s voice in his own words; his emotions and energy always near the surface, as he jumps from the personal to the professional all in one sentence.”

The collection belongs to Greek shipping magnate and philanthropist Panos Laskaridis who “quickly became infatuated with Nelson” undertaking postgraduate studies at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich – he was the only civilian student among Royal Navy officers.

“The Laskaridis Nelson Collection aims to bring to light Horatio Nelson not just as a dedicated officer and great leader of men at sea in peace and war; but also, as a man in love, with personal feelings and anxieties, that do not diminish by any measure his being one of the greatest naval heroes of all times,” Mr Laskaridis said.

Visitors will be able to use the touchscreen to listen to extracts of the papers or read them in full. These documents are part of a larger archive, and the full catalogue has been published on the exhibition website www.nmrn.org.uk.  

The exhibition runs until April.

Through the letters we can hear Nelson’s voice in his own words; his emotions and energy always near the surface, as he jumps from the personal to the professional all in one sentence.

Matthew Sheldon