Collection of Nelson’s unseen letters goes on display for first time

The collection forms part of a new exhibition, Nelson in His Own Words, which opened recently at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Several intimate letters and rare documents belonging to Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson have gone on display – many of them for the first time.

The collection forms part of a new exhibition, Nelson in His Own Words, which opened recently at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) in Portsmouth.

Some of the letters belonging to Lord Nelson. They were often written from the middle of the Atlantic or Mediterranean and dispatched by boat to his friends and family in England. Image: NMRN

The exhibition includes some 30 rare and unpublished documents (15 of which are personal letters) from the collection of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, a Greek cultural institution.

These are displayed alongside personal items from the NMRN’s own collection, including a betrothal ring given by Nelson to his mistress Emma Hamilton, miniature portraits, and a meat platter from HMS Victory.

It was aboard Victory that Nelson commanded the Royal Navy to one of the great triumphs in its history, the Battle of Trafalgar of 21 October 1805. The battle, which took place off the coast of Spain, saw the combined force of the French and Spanish navies defeated by Nelson’s fleet, cementing Britain’s domination of the seas for a century. It was on the 217th anniversary of the battle last October that news of the exhibition was announced.

One letter that visitors will have the opportunity to look at was written to Emma Hamilton in the days leading up to the birth of their daughter. ‘When I consider that this day nine months was your birthday,’ Nelson wrote, ‘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 correspondence was written by Nelson using his left hand, after he famously lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz in July 1797. As well as anecdotes from naval life and everyday gossip, Nelson also wrote of major events with which he had been centrally involved, including the Battle of the Nile of 1798, which gave the British a dominant position over the French in the Mediterranean and also projected Nelson to the status of a national hero.

Image: NMRN

‘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 National Museum of the Royal Navy.

‘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,’ Sheldon added. ‘His emotions and energy always near the surface, as he jumps from the personal to the professional all in one sentence.’

The display, which runs until April 2023, is featured in the NMRN’s Nelson Gallery, which charts the Vice-Admiral’s life from his birth in rural Norfolk through to his untimely death at Trafalgar.

It represents the first collaboration between the NMRN and the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, which, according to its website, ‘works to promote Greek culture and especially Greek letters and historical and nautical research’.

And along with the new exhibition, visitors to the museum can also experience Victory Live: the big repair, which explores how the world’s oldest commissioned ship has been restored by highly skilled teams of specialist conservators and engineers using traditional craft and building methods.

The attraction allows visitors to climb aboard the scaffold that surrounds the ship to inspect the progress of the conservation work, including the first major re-planking to take place since the end of the last century.

Andrew Baines, project director of HMS Victory, said that the experience ‘gives visitors the chance to see some of the incredible and painstaking work taking place and hear from the expert team fighting to protect her’.