The Great Nelson Robbery

Ever since his glorious death in 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson has been one of England’s big-hitter heroes. He’s just never lost his shine. Hell – there can’t be many people who have been dead 200 years and still have not one but two fan clubs (the Nelson Society, for whom I have no contact details, and the 1805 Club, if you’re interested…)

Of course that all means that anything to do with the man himself is like gold dust – and has been a veritable magnet to ne’er-do-wells down the ages.

For years, a whole bunch of memorabilia was kept at the Painted Hall, which was used as an art gallery. The Victorians hated poor old James Thornhill’s murals, considering them, in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black fashion, ‘vulgar,’ so they covered as much of them (and, bizarrely, the windows) up as possible with maritime paintings and Nelson treasures.

Of course the value of these Nelsonic bits and bobs hadn’t escaped the local toughs and the morning of the 9th December, 1900, was probably not the best one that the President of the Greenwich Naval College had ever had. Overnight, burglars had half-inched a haul of highly sought-after memorabilia still missed today.

It seems that the thieves had hidden in the Painted Hall when the gallery closed for the day, pinched a whole load of stuff, then escaped through a pantry window, its cord cut from the inside.

The Bag O’ Swag amounted to quite a haul. Gold, jewels, medals, watches, and a golden sword-hilt, all belonging to The Man Himself. They certainly knew what they were taking. It was all stuff that would fetch a good price to dodgy Nelson-fanatics, though they left behind anything it would be hard to carry – or that they couldn’t melt down if things got hot…

Both the local and national press were up in arms – the Mercury said that the robbery “from the point of view of any decent self-respecting Englishman, must be described as sacrilegious.” A large reward was put up but the trail went cold.

Three years later, though, some of the loot ‘mysteriously’ turned up, through frankly nefarious means that show the cloak and dagger underworld of art-theft and recovery is hardly a modern phenomenon.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. Anthony Cross, of the 1805 Club (and, if memory serves, something to do with Warwick Leadlay Gallery?) has written a fantastic article about the recovery of Nelson’s watch and seal, where he has pieced-together sundry newspaper features, police reports – and the memoirs of a certain Inspector Arrow of The Yard, written much later on his retirement in the 1920s.

After a long-winded investigation and trial, one William Alfred Carter was sentenced to seven years for robbery. But not all the loot was recovered then, nor has it ever been found since. Anthony Cross isn’t actually convinced that the real culprit was sent down – and now the many of the records themselves are as lost as the rest of the relics. He even half-wonders about the innocence of Inspector Arrow himself.

In 2005, the bicentenary of Nelson’s death, the Nelson Society struck a replica of one of the most important of the lost medals. It apparently shows “Victory crowning Britannia on the prow of a galley with the Union Jack in the background, symbolising British triumph in maritime conflicts.”

But the original? It’s probable that the rest of the swag went into the melting pot – but it’s just possible that some items were sold on – and remains snuck away in someone’s secret collection to this day.

So. If any of you had a Great Uncle George who happened to be into naval history and didn’t mind doing a spot of receiving from time to time, I’d get up into your attics now…


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