On 21st October 1805, William Holburne, one of Bath’s greatest benefactors, was an eleven-year old Midshipman on board HMS Orion, which was about to join battle with the French Fleet off Cape Trafalgar. As Holburne’s ship closed with the enemy battleship, Intrepide, his Admiral’s wife, Frances, Viscountess Nelson & Duchess of Bronté, was in Bath on holiday and doing her best to avoid the pitying stares of Bath’s bon ton, all of whom knew that, since 1798, her husband had been keeping his feet (and his other remaining body parts) warm on the voluptuous form of Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British Minister at the Bourbon Court of King Ferdinand of Naples & Sicily.
Since 1781, the Nelsons had been frequent visitors to Bath starting when, accompanied by his father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, the partially paralysed Horatio had boarded at the house of the apothecary, Joseph Spry, at 2 Pierrepoint Street. It was from this address, now marked with a bronze plaque, that Nelson fils ‘took the cure’ to help with his recovery from the malaria he had contracted on active service in Nicaragua the previous year.
The upwardly-mobile sailor accompanied by his new bride, Frances, stayed with Spry again in 1788, whilst on a holiday to meet Fanny’s relations in Bristol, and returned once more in 1797, by which time the apothecary had moved to Argyle Buildings. On this occasion, Nelson was hoping that the waters would ease the pain of the stump of his right arm, which he had lost at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
The last time that the Nelsons visited Bath as a couple was in early-1798, this time to attend to the Reverend Edmund who had taken to wintering at 9 Pierrepoint Street. The one-armed and one-eyed sailor, who started his affair with Lady Hamilton shortly after his victory at the Battle of the Nile later that year, never set foot in the city again. But, on-and-off until 1815, Frances continued to spend time in Bath, caring for Nelson’s elderly father after the breakdown of her marriage until the old man’s death in 1802, and it was in the city that she learned of the news of her husband’s victory at Trafalgar and her new status as a naval widow.
Although there is no evidence that Sir William Holburne ever met the Nelsons, there is a connection between the future philanthropist and England’s most famous sailor: a small wooden snuff box currently residing in a display case at the Holburne Museum.
Bath is a city remarkably uncluttered with the memorabilia of war. Its souvenirs of the Crimean War, a pair of large Russian cannons, were taken away in 1941 for conversion into munitions to drop on the Germans, whose retaliation in 1942 echoed down the years when a 500lb Luftwaffe bomb was found in 2016 in the grounds of Mary Berry’s alma mater at Hope House, Lansdown. But, like the Russian guns, the bomb was taken away and destroyed, leaving Bath once again unencumbered with the materiel of war – providing one overlooks the Holburne’s wooden snuff box.
According to the inscription on a gilt metal plaque on the lid, the box was made from an oak companion ladder on HMS Victory down which the mortally wounded Vice Admiral was carried at the height of the Battle of Trafalgar. While there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the snuff box’s provenance, there are almost as many relics of Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar as there are hooves of Napoleon’s charger at Waterloo and surviving fragments of the True Cross.
Indeed, it is a wonder that the famous 104-gun, First Rate Ship-of-the-Line, which has been in a dry dock in Portsmouth harbour since 1922, has any original fittings left after the depredations of the French, termites, barnacles and souvenir hunters. Even Victory’s White Ensign, which was flown during the battle in 1805 and which covered Nelson’s coffin at his State Funeral, did not survive the trophy hunters: it was torn to shreds by the Royal Navy bearer party, who – it is alleged – had previously consumed the spiced brandy from the barrel in which the Admiral’s body had been pickled after his death.
How or why the snuff box was acquired by Sir William Holburne is not known, beyond the assumption that he wanted it as a souvenir not only of the battle in which he had fought, but also as a memento mori of his late Commander-in-Chief. However, whilst Holburne’s legacy is omni-present in Bath, but largely unknown outside, the reverse is true of the Nelson whose presence in the city is limited to the Holburne Museum’s snuff box, the brass plaque at 2 Pierrepoint Street, and several buildings of varying age and quality, the very best of which are the magnificent early-19th century Nelson Place West, Nile Street and Norfolk Crescent named, respectively and in commemoration, after the late Admiral, his first great victory over the French and his home county. Sadly, for Bath’s romantics and lovers of urban myths, the so-called Trafalgar iron balconies to be found on many buildings in the city are named after the architectural features on the houses which originally surrounded Trafalgar Square, not after the battle itself.
Christopher Joll is an acclaimed author, and official historian of the Household Cavalry. His latest book is Spoils of War: The Treasures, Trophies and Trivia of the British Empire.