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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