Quilting the Thames Part Five: Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach

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Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach: “O greatest sailor”

I have now reached Greenwich on my trip down the river for my Thames Quilt. For this panel, I am rekindling my interest in Lord Nelson, who has inspired a number of my past projects, including the Nelson Quilt.

I became fascinated by Nelson when researching a silent film biography made in 1918 by British director Maurice Elvey. One of many people involved in this film was Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, an expert on Nelson, who advised on the scenario. After many months of shooting and editing, Kerr was happy that Elvey’s film was right and, on January 30 1919, the cinema trade magazine The Bioscope reported that Kerr had said that as “a devoted student of Nelsonalia …. he was especially happy to be able to say that he could find absolutely nothing to criticise in the film.”

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In 1932, Admiral Kerr published a book – The Sailor’s Nelson – which includes a long poem about the death of Nelson. This is a short extract:

The Embodiment of Duty and Britain’s Naval Strength, / The Victor of a hundred fights, his hour had come at length. / And fitly ‘mid victorious cheers and sounds of ebbing strife / He placed the Crown Immortal on his glorious suffering life. / O greatest sailor since the sea was named, / O truest patriot that the land has known. / Beyond all other Sea Kings loved and famed, / Rising alike to Fortune’s smile and frown. / Where lay thy power? What thy mystic charm?

I quilted a phrase from this poem – O greatest sailor – on the Greenwich Reach panel, not because I particularly like the poem (in fact it isn’t really to my taste being highly patriotic and heroic in tone) but because I wanted to mark Admiral Kerr’s contribution to Elvey’s Nelson film.

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The Symmetry of Greenwich

Greenwich has played a significant role in building the myth of Nelson. It was to Greenwich, on December 23 1805, that Nelson’s body was brought after his death almost three months earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s death was followed by an outpouring of public grief, culminating in an extensive funeral. On January 4 1806, dignitaries viewed Nelson’s body lying in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. On January 5, 6 and 7 thousands of members of the public visited the Painted Hall to pay their respects. And on January 8 and 9 Nelson was taken on his last journey from Greenwich to his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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The Painted Hall at Greenwich

On January 8, Nelson’s body was taken by river up the Thames from Greenwich to Whitehall in a two-mile long, carefully planned River Procession. The formal order was published in The Times that day as follows:

  1. Capt Ludlam, Harbour Master
  2. Capt Wood, Harbour Master
  3. Water Bailiff
  4. Rulers of the Company of Watermen &c
  5. Chaplain and Staff of River Fencibles
  6. Boat with drums muffled
  7. Officer commanding gun-boats (10 gun boats in all)
  8. Row boat with Officer
  9. Row boat with Officer

PROCESSION OF STATE BARGES

  1. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  2. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  3. Barge with the Body
  4. Barge with the Chief Mourner
  5. His Majesty’s Barges
  6. Barge with the Lords Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral
  7. The Right Hon the Lord Mayor’s Barge
  8. Barge with the Committee specially appointed by the Corporation of London on the occasion of Lord Nelson’s Funeral
  9. Barge with the Committee of the Corporation for improving the Navigation of the River Thames
  10. Barge of the Drapers’ Company
  11. Barge of the Fishmongers’ Company
  12. Barge of the Goldsmith’s Company
  13. Barge of the Skinners’ Company
  14. Barge of the Merchant Taylors’ Company
  15. Barge of the Ironmongers’ Company
  16. Barge of the Stationers’ Company
  17. Barge of the Apothecaries’ Company

According to the Bury and Norwich Post (January 15 1806)  the Barge with the Body was covered with black velvet, and surmounted with black feathers. In the centre was a Viscount’s coronet, and three bannerolls were affixed to the outside of the barge. In the steerage were six trumpets and six Lieutenants of the Royal Navy. The other barges were rowed by picked men from the Greenwich Pensioners. They had all their flags hoisted half staff high. As the Procession moved from Greenwich, minute guns were fired. Not a vessel was suffered to disturb the Procession. The decks, yards, and rigging of the numerous ships on the river were all crowded with spectators; the number of ladies was immense.

Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to see the Procession. Such was the commercial value of good viewing places that The Times carried numerous advertisements such as these from January 6: A good view of the Grand Procession of Lord Nelson, at the Sign of the Turk’s Head, Union Stairs, Wapping or Those ladies and gentlemen who are desirous of seeing to advantage the grand and solemn procession by water of the late lord Nelson, may be accommodated with seats in a spacious loft, fitted up for the occasion. For particulars enquire at the Angel, Upper-ground-street, Surrey-side of Blackfriars Bridge, where tickets may be had at 5s each.

Nelson's Coat

Nelson’s coat at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich – one of the Nelson relics

When the procession arrived at Whitehall Steps at 3.00pm, Handel’s Dead March (from Saul) was played, and Nelson’s body was taken on to land. At this moment the sunshine disappeared – Dark and heavy clouds came on, and instantly succeeded a tempestuous hail storm, which fell until the Body was landed, when the hemisphere again was clear. (Bury and Norwich Post, January 15 1806)

Nelson’s body lay at the Admiralty until the following day. Then, on January 9 1806, a solemn procession led by the Duke of York and closed by a party of sailors bearing the three flags of HMS Victory went from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral where Nelson was buried with great ceremony.

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My Nelson Quilt, July 2015

Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames* must have been one of the largest events ever to take place on the River, and I wanted to include it in my Thames Quilt. Nelson has been such an inspiration to my quilting work over the last two years and I am pleased I have been able to commemorate him once again in stitch.

* Many items relating to Nelson’s funeral can be found in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Funeral directors, A France and Son provided the state coffin, and their office at 45 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1, still features a window display dedicated to Nelson’s funeral (and my thanks to Ken the Old Map Man, of  London Trails, for bringing this to my attention).

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