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The Story Of Nelson's Boyhood


Horatio Nelson, son of Edmund and Catherine Nelson, was born September
29th, 1758, in the Rectory of Burnham Thorpe, a village in the county of
Norfolk, of which his father was rector. The maiden name of his mother
was Suckling: her grandmother was an elder sister of Sir Robert Walpole,
and Horatio was named after his godfather, the first Lord Walpole. Mrs.
Nelson died in 1767, leaving eight, out of eleven, children. Her
brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, of the navy, visited the widower upon
this event, and promised to take care of one of the boys. Three years
afterwards, when Horatio was only twelve years of age, being at home
during the Christmas holidays, he read in the county newspaper that his
uncle was appointed to the Raisonnable, of sixty-four guns. "Do,
William," said he to a brother who was a year and a half older than
himself, "write to my father, and tell him that I should like to go to
sea with Uncle Maurice." Mr. Nelson was then at Bath, whither he had
gone for the recovery of his health; his circumstances were straitened,
and he had no prospect of ever seeing them bettered: he knew that it was
the wish of providing for himself by which Horatio was chiefly actuated,
and did not oppose his resolution: he understood also the boy's
character, and had always said, that in whatever station he might be
placed, he would climb, if possible, to the very top of the tree.
Accordingly, Captain Suckling was written to. "What," said he in his
answer, "has poor Horatio, who is so weak, done, that he above all the
rest should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come, and the
first time we go into action, a cannon ball may knock off his head, and
provide for him at once."

It is manifest from these words that Horatio was not the boy whom his
uncle would have chosen to bring up in his own profession. He was never
of a strong body; and the ague, which at that time was one of the most
common diseases in England, had greatly reduced his strength; yet he had
already given proofs of that resolute heart and nobleness of mind,
which, during his whole career of labour and of glory, so eminently
distinguished him. When a mere child, he strayed a-bird's-nesting from
his grandmother's house in company with a cow-boy: the dinner hour
elapsed; he was absent, and could not be found, and the alarm of the
family became very great, for they apprehended that he might have been
carried off by gipsies. At length, after search had been made for him in
various directions, he was discovered alone, sitting composedly by the
side of a brook which he could not get over. "I wonder, child," said the
old lady when she saw him, "that hunger and fear did not drive you
home." "Fear! grandmamma," replied the future hero, "I never saw fear:
what is it?" Once, after the winter holidays, when he and his brother
William had set off on horseback to return to school, they came back
because there had been a fall of snow; and William, who did not much
like the journey, said it was too deep for them to venture on. "If that
be the case," said the father, "you certainly shall not go: but make
another attempt, and I will leave it to your honour. If the road is
dangerous, you may return; but remember, boys, I leave it to your
honour." The snow was deep enough to have afforded them a reasonable
excuse; but Horatio was not to be prevailed upon to turn back. "We must
go on," said he; "remember, brother, it was left to our honour!" There
were some fine pears growing in the schoolmaster's garden, which the
boys regarded as lawful booty, and in the highest degree tempting; but
the boldest among them were afraid to venture for the prize. Horatio
volunteered upon this service: he was lowered down at night from the
bedroom window by some sheets, plundered the tree, was drawn up with the
pears, and then distributed them among his schoolfellows without
reserving any for himself. "He only took them," he said, "because every
other boy was afraid."

Early on a cold and dark spring morning Mr. Nelson's servant arrived at
this school at North Walsham, with the expected summons for Horatio to
join his ship. The parting from his brother William, who had been for so
many years his playmate and bed-fellow, was a painful effort, and was
the beginning of those privations which are the sailors' lot through
life. He accompanied his father to London. The Raisonnable was lying
in the Medway. He was put into the Chatham stage, and on its arrival was
set down with the rest of the passengers and left to find his way on
board as best he could. After wandering about in the cold without being
able to reach the ship, an officer observed the forlorn appearance of
the boy, questioned him, and, happening to be acquainted with his uncle,
took him home and gave him some refreshments. When he got on board,
Captain Suckling was not in the ship, nor had any person been apprised
of the boy's coming. He paced the deck the whole remainder of the day
without being noticed by any one, and it was not till the second day
that somebody, as he expressed it, "took compassion on him."

The Raisonnable having been commissioned on account of the dispute
respecting the Falkland Islands, was paid off as soon as the difference
with the court of Spain was accommodated, and Captain Suckling was
removed to the Triumph, seventy-four, then stationed as a guardship in
the Thames. This was considered as too inactive a life for a boy, and
Nelson was therefore sent [on] a voyage to the West Indies in a merchant
ship, commanded by Mr. John Rathbone, an excellent seaman, who had
served as master's mate under Captain Suckling in the Dreadnought. He
returned a practical seaman, but with a hatred of the king's service,
and a saying then common among the sailors--"Aft the most honour;
forward the better man." Rathbone had probably been disappointed and
disgusted in the navy; and, with no unfriendly intentions, warned Nelson
against a profession which he himself had found hopeless. His uncle
received him on board the Triumph on his return, but he had not been
many months on board when his love of enterprise was excited by hearing
that two ships were fitting out for a voyage of discovery towards the
North Pole. In consequence of the difficulties which were expected on
such a service, these vessels were to take out effective men instead of
the usual number of boys. This, however, did not deter him from
soliciting to be received, and by his uncle's interest he was admitted
as coxswain under Captain Lutwidge, second in command.

They sailed from the Nore on June 4th; on the 6th of the following month
they were in latitude 79 deg. 56' 39'', longitude 9 deg. 43' 30'' E. The next
day, about the place where most of the old discoverers had been stopped,
the Racehorse was beset with ice; but they hove her through with ice
anchors. Captain Phipps continued ranging along the ice, northward and
westward, till the 24th; he then tried to the eastward. On the 30th he
was in latitude 80 deg. 13', longitude 18 deg. 48' E., among the islands and in
the ice, with no appearance of an opening for the ships. The weather was
exceedingly fine, mild, and unusually clear. Here they were becalmed in
a large bay, with three apparent openings between the islands which
formed it; but everywhere, as far as they could see, surrounded with
ice. There was not a breath of air, the water was perfectly smooth, the
ice covered with snow, low and even, except a few broken pieces near the
edge, and the pools of water in the middle of the ice fields just
crusted over with young ice. On the next day the ice closed upon them,
and no opening was to be seen anywhere, except a hole or lake, as it
might be called, of about a mile and a half in circumference, where the
ships lay fast to the ice with their ice anchors. They filled their
casks with water from these ice-fields, which was very pure and soft.
The men were playing on the ice all day; but the Greenland pilots, who
were further than they had ever been before and considered that the
season was far advancing, were alarmed at being thus beset.

The next day there was not the smallest opening, the ships were within
less than two lengths of each other, separated by ice, and neither
having room to turn. The ice, which the day before had been flat and
almost level with the water's edge, was now in many places forced higher
than the mainyard by the pieces squeezing together. A day of thick fog
followed: it was succeeded by clear weather, but the passage by which
the ships had entered from the westward was closed, and no open water
was in sight, either in that or any other quarter. By the pilots' advice
the men were set to cut a passage and warp through the small openings to
the westward. They sawed through pieces of ice twelve feet thick; and
this labour continued the whole day, during which their utmost efforts
did not move the ships above three hundred yards, while they were
driven, together with the ice, far to the north-east and east by the
current. Young as he was, Nelson was appointed to command one of the
boats which were sent out to explore a passage into the open water. It
was the means of saving a boat belonging to the Racehorse from a
singular but imminent danger. Some of the officers had fired at, and
wounded, a walrus. The wounded animal dived immediately and brought up a
number of its companions, and they all joined in an attack upon the
boat. They wrested an oar from one of the men; and it was with the
utmost difficulty that the crew could prevent them from staving or
upsetting her, till the Carcass's boat came up, and the walruses,
finding their enemies thus reinforced, dispersed. Young Nelson exposed
himself in a more daring manner. One night, during the mid-watch, he
stole from the ship with one of his comrades, taking advantage of a
rising fog, and set out over the ice in pursuit of a bear. It was not
long before they were missed. The fog thickened, and Captain Lutwidge
and his officers became exceedingly alarmed for their safety. Between
three and four in the morning the weather cleared, and the two
adventurers were seen at a considerable distance from the ship,
attacking a huge bear. The signal for them to return was immediately
made: Nelson's comrade called upon him to obey it, but in vain; his
musket had flashed in the pan, their ammunition was expended, and a
chasm in the ice, which divided him from the bear, probably preserved
his life. "Never mind," he cried; "do but let me get a blow at this
devil with the butt-end of my musket, and we shall have him." Captain
Lutwidge, however, seeing his danger, fired a gun, which had the desired
effect of frightening the beast; and the boy returned. The captain
reprimanded him sternly for conduct so unworthy of the office which he
filled, and desired to know what motive he could have for hunting a
bear. "Sir," said he, pouting his lip, as he was wont to do when
agitated, "I wished to kill the bear that I might carry the skin to my

A party were now sent to an island about twelve miles off (named
Walden's Island in the chart, from the midshipman who was entrusted with
this service) to see where the open water lay. They came back with
information that the ice, though close all about them, was open to the
westward, round the point by which they came in. They said also, that
upon the island they had had a fresh east wind. This intelligence
considerably abated the hopes of the crew: for where they lay it had
been almost calm, and their main dependence had been upon the effect of
an easterly wind in clearing the bay. There was but one alternative,
either to wait the event of the weather upon the ships, or to betake
themselves to the boats. No time was to be lost; the ships had driven
into shoal water, having but fourteen fathoms. Should they, or the ice
to which they were fast, take the ground, they must inevitably be lost,
and at this time they were driving fast towards some rocks on the
north-east. Captain Phipps had sent for the officers of both ships and
told them his intention of preparing the boats for going away. They were
immediately hoisted out and the fitting begun. Canvas bread-bags were
made, in case it should be necessary suddenly to desert the vessels; and
men were sent with the lead and line to the northward and eastward, to
sound wherever they found cracks in the ice, that they might have notice
before the ice took the ground; for, in that case, the ships must have
instantly been crushed or overset.

On August 7th they began to haul the boats over the ice, Nelson having
command of the four-oared cutter. The men behaved excellently well, like
true British seamen: they seemed reconciled to the thought of leaving
the ships, and had full confidence in their officers. About noon, the
ice appeared rather more open near the vessels; and as the wind was
easterly, though there was but little of it, the sails were set and they
got about a mile to the westward. They moved very slowly, and were not
now nearly so far to the westward as when they were first beset.
However, all sail was kept upon them, to force them through whenever the
ice slacked the least. Whatever exertions were made, it could not be
possible to get the boats to the water's edge before the 14th; and if
the situation of the ships should not alter by that time, it would not
be justifiable to stay longer by them. The commander therefore resolved
to carry on both attempts together, moving the boats constantly, and
taking every opportunity of getting the ships through. A party was sent
out next day to the westward to examine the state of the ice: they
returned with tidings that it was very heavy and close, consisting
chiefly of large fields. The ships, however, moved something, and the
ice itself was drifting westward. There was a thick fog, so that it was
impossible to ascertain what advantage had been gained. It continued on
the 9th; but the ships were moved a little through some very small
openings: the mist cleared off in the afternoon, and it was then
perceived that they had driven much more than could have been expected
to the westward, and that the ice itself had driven still farther. In
the course of the day they got past the boats, and took them on board
again. On the morrow the wind sprang up to the north-north-east. All
sail was set, and the ships forced their way through a great deal of
very heavy ice. They frequently struck, and with such force that one
stroke broke the shank of the Racehorse's best bower anchor; but the
vessels made way, and by noon they had cleared the ice and were out at

The ships were paid off shortly after their return to England; and
Nelson was then placed by his uncle with Captain Farmer, in the
Seahorse, of twenty guns, then going out to the East Indies in the
squadron under Sir Edward Hughes. His good conduct attracted the
attention of the master (afterwards Captain Surridge), and, upon his
recommendation, the captain rated him as midshipman. At this time his
countenance was florid, and his appearance rather stout and athletic;
but when he had been about eighteen months in India he felt the effects
of that climate, so perilous to European constitutions. The disease
baffled all power of medicine; he was reduced almost to a skeleton; the
use of his limbs was for some time entirely lost; and the only hope that
remained was from a voyage home. Accordingly he was brought home by
Captain Pigot, in the Dolphin; and had it not been for the attentive
and careful kindness of that officer on the way, Nelson would never have
lived to reach his native shores.

Soon after his return, on April 8th, 1777, he passed his examination for
a lieutenancy. Captain Suckling sat at the head of the board; and when
the examination had ended, in a manner highly honourable to Nelson, rose
from his seat, and introduced him to the examining captains as his
nephew. They expressed their wonder that he had not informed them of
this relationship before; he replied that he did not wish the younker to
be favoured; he knew his nephew would pass a good examination, and he
had not been deceived.

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