Chosen: Nelson’s Brandy

Chosen was a project in 2018, in which selected guest curators were invited to choose, research, and interpret an object or group of objects from Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution Collection. These naratives were brought together and the objects mounted to present an exhibition.

Richard Wyatt chose a small bottle with a big story. Talking of his entusisam for Nelson he says:

I was brought up on heroes – men and women who were admired for their courage and outstanding achievements.

Perhaps Horatio Nelson is one of the first – deserving the title – to enter the public consciousness at a time when Britain stood alone against the military might of Napoleon.

The values of valour, courage, compassion and honour might seem old fashioned – and we have run out of dragons to slay – but to me it’s still relevant to stand up for what you believe in – whatever the opposition.

Richard Wyatt earned his living as a journalist for ITV and the BBC and has an MA in Art History. Richard edits a daily blog of local history and heritage called Bath Newseum.

The label on this little bottle has faded but it reads ‘Part of the liquor in which the body of Lord Nelson was preserved – after the Battle of Trafalgar.’ If it’s genuine, it takes us back to the most murderous and bloody sea battle in British history – the last and biggest to be fought between wooden sailing ships.

On October 21st, 1805 our already battle-scarred Vice Admiral master-minded an attack upon Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet. He routed the enemy at the cost of his own life and that of thousands of other seamen.

The British Navy normally committed its dead to the deep but Nelson had made it clear he wanted his body brought back to England. With no refrigeration, it was decided to place his remains in a large water barrel – called a ‘leaguer’ – which was then filled with brandy to preserve it. The journey home – in which the Victory was towed via Gibraltar and back to England – took 44 days.

Victory had given Britain supremacy of the seas and removed the threat of invasion, but it resulted in the loss of an already celebrated naval commander who now reached national hero status. Nelson was buried in St Paul’s – a commoner given a state funeral Britain had never seen before.

Nelson, his father, and estranged wife Fanny were regular visitors to Bath – but how did this little bottle get here? It belonged to a retired naval commander called Thomas Pickering Clarke who came to Bath around 1806 and raised a family of eight. He was a founder member of the BRLSI in 1826 and his death in 1862 was mentioned in the annual report. That same year the little bottle features amongst donations to the museum. It was brought in by Captain Pickering’s ‘man servant’ Josiah Cook – who also just happened to be sexton at Bath Abbey for 25 years. His master was not present at Trafalgar. He was a 17 year old Naval lieutenant on board His Majesty’s ship Immortalité, part of the Home Station Fleet, and moored on ‘The Downs’ to one side of the Thames Estuary when the Victory arrived home. Captain Pickering mentioned its return in his ship’s log for Monday, December 16 when it was sighted ‘bearing the flag half mast high of the ever-memorable Lord Nelson – (we) hoisted ours half mast as did all the Fleet.’

It’s doubtful the captain visited the battered vessel, but there is a connection. Thanks to Tony Noon, a volunteer on board the Victory at Portsmouth, l discovered the ship’s signal officer John Pasco – he who hoisted the famous ‘England expects’ message – was formerly a first lieutenant on board the Immortalité, and would have known Captain Pickering.

Had he syphoned off some brandy to give to him when the body was transferred to its coffin?

None of the museums or authors of Nelson biographies l spoke to have ever seen an artefact like this. Is it genuine and unique, or do you – the viewer – know differently?