Memorials to the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

By Michael Gordon, Project Assistant

Monday marked the 208th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led the Royal Navy to victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet on 21st October 1805. This momentous event settled the fears of invasion and assured Britain would “rule the waves” for years to come. As the battle commenced, Vice-Admiral Nelson gave the signal from HMS Victory that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. Nelson was killed during the battle, mortally wounded by a French sniper.

Bas relief of the death of Nelson, Nelson's Column, London (IWM WMA 11551, ©IWM)

Bas relief of the death of Nelson, Nelson’s Column, London (IWM WMA 11551, ©IWM)

We have recorded 36 memorials which commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar. Most of these are to individual commissioned officers and 19 are to Vice-Admiral Nelson himself.

At the time, memorials would have been the preserve of the wealthy and so only the families of commissioned officers were likely to be able to afford them. However, many of the memorials to the officers of the Battle of Trafalgar were funded by public as well as private subscription, reflecting the national hero status of participants of the battle.

Publicly funded memorials include those to Captain George Duff and Captain John Cooke , both in St Paul’s Cathedral, and Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, which has a bronze bas-relief depicting the death of Nelson on the plinth and a statue of Nelson on the column above. In Liverpool, a figurative memorial of Nelson receiving four naval crowns before death was erected by public donation and includes his quote encouraging duty.  Other ranks were rarely commemorated at this time, and only then in the form of a numerical casualty figure.

Memorials to individual officers give us an interesting insight into pre-First World War public perception and attitude towards the glory of dying for one’s country, and in particular the esteem given to participants of the Battle of Trafalgar. This is evident from dedications that describe how the individual heroically fought and died in the pursuit of honour, some going in to detailed and enthusiastic narrative.

Tablet in St Clements Church, Leigh on Sea (IWM WMA 22546 ©Keith Charmock)

Tablet in St Clements Church, Leigh on Sea (IWM WMA 22546 ©Keith Charmock)

One memorial, erected on the centenary of the battle in 1905, is a stone tablet in St Clements Church, Leigh on Sea, which honours Captain W H Brand who served onboard HMS Revenge as a Midshipman and who ‘was one of those who, in the momentous Battle of 21st October 1805, so amply satisfied their country that they had done their duty.’

Captain Brand survived the battle and for a further ten years he ’bore a gallant part in many dangerous engagements and enterprises, distinguishing himself by devotion to duty, daring and seamanship worthy of England’s naval traditions.’ 

The tablet also honours his brother, Lieutenant George Rowley Brand, who lost his life in 1806 while commanding HMS Unique. According to the inscription, he died ‘under circumstances publicly recognised as of heroic gallantry, going down on H.M.S. Unique, which he commanded with colours flying and himself covered with twenty severe wounds.’

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