Nelson’s Secret Room…

The Painted Hall

Back in 1805, The nation was in mourning, just as they should have been celebrating. Trafalgar was won – but at the cost of their blue-eyed boy.

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson deserves several posts – Heaven knows, he’s inspired hundreds of books and a fan club that exists to this day (I must go to a Trafalgar Dinner one day. A friend of mine belongs to the 1805 Society and it sounds an extraordinary experience…) I want to spend much more time on Our Horatio over the coming months but for now, I’d like to look through the keyhole of one of Greenwich’s little secrets – hidden right under the noses of the thousands of tourists who visit the Painted Hall.

But back to 1805. Nelson’s body was brought back to England, pickled, as legend has it, in a barrel of brandy, from which his men snuck the odd tipple along the way (drinking to his memory, I’m sure…) He was brought to the Painted Hall, where the morticians were given the uphill task of getting him into a fit condition to lie in state before he was buried with full military honours in St Pauls Cathedral.

It wasn’t going to be easy. For starters, the brandy had been “refreshed” in Gibraltar with even stronger stuff, and by the time he’d arrived back in Chatham, he’d been dead for, ahem, some time, bundled into a recycled coffin made out of his old bed. They couldn’t just dump him in the middle of the Painted Hall like that. He must have smelled like a distilllery for starters…

It was decided the best thing they could do was to use a little room at the side of the hall, which was currently used as a dumping ground for the sort of old tat that we all have knocking around some nasty cupboard somewhere. They had a Life Laundry moment, decluttering the old Archive, finding ‘somewhere else’ for the piles of books and ledgers; chucking out the shelving. The body, having arrived inconveniently on Christmas Eve, was taken inside, and put under armed guard, while everyone else enjoyed the festive season. I have such images of the poor sods standing outside that room over Christmas.

“Leg or breast, Private Jones?”
“Funny, Sir, I seem to have lost my appetite.”
“A sip of brandy, then? It is Christmas, after all, man..”
“Ho, Ho, Ho, Sir.”
(Nelson turns in his barrel)
“Did you hear that knocking sound, Jones..?”

With the holiday period over and 1806 rung-in, the rest of the place became a flurry of jet-black ostrich plumes, satin, coats of arms, gilding and escutcheons. Elsewhere, the undertaker, ironically, one Mr France, built a fabulous coffin, decorated with ten thousand brass nails, and took the opportunity of displaying it in his shop window.

The Hall was draped in extravagant sobriety – plumes, feathers and regalia, dominated by a great catafalque, heavy with symbolism, where the great man’s body lay, but Nelson himself, dead for well over two months by now, was easily the star of the show.

For three days, lit by sconced candles, England’s hero lay in state. No one knows exactly how many people strained against the crash barriers outside to file past, but even the measliest estimate is 15,000. Many reckon it was double that. They came by boat, by cart, by foot (no railway then.)

The funeral flotilla that accompanied the national hero along the Thames up to the City was recreated back in 2005 (they bodged the date a bit, making it, for some strange reason, happen on neither Trafalgar Day nor Nelson’s real funeral anniversary) and although it was spectacular, it was also perishing cold, and, as with the original funeral, horribly held up whilst they waited for sundry bigwigs to arrive. The school party I was standing next to waited for hours in the freezing cold and then had to go home without seeing anything. I waited to the bitter end and it was worth it, even if I did begin to wonder whether the whole thing had been cooked up to get people to visit the cafe to warm up afterwards.


But one very good thing that came out of the bicentenery was the restoration of that little side room. Despite its illustrious fifteen minutes (or days) of fame, the Nelson Room went back to being a store cupboard and became largely forgotten. The fabulous little annex, part of the original design of the Painted Hall, was spruced-up with tasteful shades of paint, it’s elegant little domed roof restored to perfection. In an original niche, which had always been empty, a giant (modern) statue of Nelson was placed, along with paintings and memorabilia, and as the centrepiece, a model of the Painted Hall as it looked for those heady three days in 1806 was added for good measure.

It was open to all during 2005 (or was it 2006? No matter – it’s not now…) but for some strange, extremely arcane reason that was explained to me once by a tour guide, the only way to see it today is to go on one of the guided tours of the Old Royal Naval College. (The ORNC would like to open it for free, but, due to some charity/tax/obscure financial-type reason, they have to charge for something…) The tours are by the way, well worth it – they also include the skittle alley and crypt.

The guide will point out all the good bits, but there’s one thing visible from the window, that you shouldn’t miss. For this is also the very best way to see the Nelson Pediment, which – and you’ll be used to this by now – I will write about another day.

I leave you with one last thought. Stevie sent me an intriguing picture this morning, which could throw an interesting light on the whole affair. Take a look at this plaque. A close look.

Just what was in that barrel again?


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