This article looks at Baring-Gould's book 'Life of Nelson' published to mark the centenary of the Batlle of Trafalgar in 1905.


Touching on Nelson

Sabine Baring-Gould on the Trafalgar Centenary


As the heritage industry grinds into top gear to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, I have taken a step back to the Centenary to look at Sabine Baring-Gould’s contribution to that earlier celebration. This was his ‘Life of Nelson’ published by Skeffington and Son in 1905 *. The simple title was amplified inside to ‘A Memorial of Horatio Lord Nelson’ and the book was dedicated to Vice-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who had himself written a biography of Nelson eight years earlier. 

In this little book Baring-Gould attempts to “…sum up in small what has been written by others at large ..”. He is also frank about accentuating the positive by disregarding matters that he does not feel need consideration. In his introduction he says:

“Every man has his blemishes. The moon has two sides, one shining, the other black, and she shows us her bright face only, but even on that there are scars. Let us look at the bright face of Nelson, and forget that there were stains in it. Above all, do not let us peer round corners in quest of blackness where there is so much light”

He means, of course, that he does not write about Nelson’s extra-marital relationship. In fact the words ‘Lady’ and ‘Hamilton’ appear next to each other only once in the entire book. He nails his colours firmly to the mast when he talks of Nelson’s first visit to Naples when he ‘formed relationships there which were to blot an otherwise blameless life’.  

No matter. This is a book about heroism and a heroic life. It is also a surprisingly good leadership manual and a study of Nelson’s skill in human relationships. He acknowledges that he has borrowed from the numerous biographers that had gone before saying ‘to write an original biography of our great hero is out of the question’. He has not, though, given us a simple précis of others work. As ever, Sabine focuses on the anecdote that illustrates the character of the man. He starts with tales from Nelson’s childhood that inform us on the development of character, courage and honour. He describes the young Nelson being let down by a sheet from his school dormitory to plunder pears from the schoolmaster’s garden when no other boy dared, for example. He moves on through his naval career and follows Nelson’s progress from midshipman to senior officer carefully picking out the points that demonstrate Nelson’s strength of character.

There are some little surprises that he has gleaned. I was amused to learn that Nelson was a poor shot, though he enjoyed shooting. His friends were not keen to join him since he always carried his gun on full cock and fired recklessly whenever a bird rose. The one occasion on which he actually hit and killed a partridge was reckoned, by his family, to be one of the most remarkable events of his life. I also learned, for the first time, about the contribution of Mr Snodgrass, a surveyor with the East India Company who proposed a means of strengthening our tired old ships with a system of diagonal braces and double planking that made them fit to meet the enemy at Trafalgar. Without Snodgrass’ invention the ships might well have foundered before they ever reached Trafalgar and would certainly have been unable to stand the shocks of battle.

Baring-Gould’s descriptions of the sea battles sound authoritative and accurate. This is, of course, a hallmark of his writing. No matter what the topic Sabine could sound like an expert. No-one would think to ask when he wrote “The mizzen-topmast had been shot away; every studding-sail boom on the foremast had been torn off close to the yardarm” whether he had the faintest idea whether he knew which bits of a ship he was actually describing. His confidence makes it sound right. In respect of the detail of the battles you feel that he has picked out the events that matter. His description of Collingwood breaking the French line at Trafalgar is masterly and, at the same time, has the warmth of human detail that Baring-Gould uses to make his account appealing to his audience. This book would have been aimed primarily at schoolboys and this was an audience that Sabine understood well.

There are dozens of biographies of Nelson that deal with his life in tremendous detail. I have read and enjoyed many of them and will probably read a few more of the several that are being published this year. They deal with his naval career in much more detail, dissect his ships from topmast to keel, worry about his love-life and analyse his personality to sixteen decimal points. This is a simple book. Like the old broadside ballads about Nelson that were the principal communication to the general public at the time of his life and death, it conveys the essence of what made Nelson an enduring hero to the English people. This book will probably not get a mention in the official celebrations. It is, though, one of my favourites, both as a memorial to Nelson and as one of personal ‘top ten’ of Sabine Baring-Gould’s books


Martin Graebe

May 2005

 * S. Baring-Gould, 'Life of Nelson: A Memorial of Horatio Nelson', London: Skeffington and Son (1905)