Trafalgar Day

Trafalgar Day is the celebration of the victory won by the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 and the formation of the Navy League in 1894 gave added impetus to the movement to recognise Nelson’s legacy, and grand celebrations were held in Trafalgar Square in London on Trafalgar Day, 1896. It was commemorated by parades, dinners and other events throughout much of the British Empire in the 19th century and early 20th century. It continues to be celebrated by navies of the Commonwealth of Nations. Its public celebration declined after the end of World War I in 1918. Perhaps the massive casualties and upheaval had changed the general public’s perception of war as a source of glorious victories to a more sombre view of it as a tragedy, for which the newly instituted Armistice Day on 11 November was created. However, Trafalgar Day was still marked as a public day each year. Around 1993, it was rumoured that the government might make it a public holiday in place of May Day and this plan was revived in the 2011 Tourism Strategy created by the then coalition government, but to date this has never happened. The year 2005 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Royal Navy led Trafalgar 200 celebrations. The 2005 International Fleet Review held off Spithead in the Solent on 28 June was the first since 1999 and the largest since our late Majesty The Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee.

On 21 October each year the commissioned officers of the Royal Navy celebrate the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar by holding a Trafalgar Night dinner in the Officer’s Mess. At a Trafalgar Night banquet or dinner, a speech is usually made by a guest of honour who ends it with a toast to “The Immortal Memory …” and the rest of the wording of the toast varies depending on what is said in the speech. On 21 October 2005, the 200th anniversary, the traditional toast was given by the late Queen Elizabeth II as “The Immortal Memory of Lord Nelson and those who fell with him”. Such dinners also occur each year on or around 21 October in locations other than Royal Navy ships. In addition, the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth hold a ‘Trafalgar Night Dinner’ each year on a date close to 21 October, whilst the British ambassador in Washington hosts such a dinner at which the guest of honour may be a senior officer in the United States Navy.

The Lord Mayor of Birmingham lays a wreath at Birmingham’s statue of Lord Nelson on Trafalgar Day in 2007

Here in the UK, our Sea Cadet Corps hold a youth cadet parade known as the National Trafalgar Day Parade on Trafalgar Square, London each year. The parade is formed with a platoon from each area, a guard and a massed band. This is held on the closest Sunday to 21 October. Units and Districts from around the country celebrate this day – usually with a town parade. Birmingham celebrates the anniversary with a ceremony at the statue of Lord Nelson, the oldest such statue in the United Kingdom, in their Bull Ring. The ceremony is led by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and involves men and women of HMS Forward, Sea Cadet units from across the West Midlands and various civic organisations, including The Nelson Society and the Birmingham Civic Society. Afterwards representatives of naval and civic organisations lay wreaths and a parade marches off to Victoria Square, the public square in front of the seat of local government, where the Lord Mayor takes the salute. Another aspect of the Birmingham celebration is that the statue is regaled with swags of laurel and flowers, possibly due to its location by the wholesale flower markets of the city. This tradition, marked through most of the nineteenth century, was revived in 2004.

Flags fly from the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill on Trafalgar Day.

The Nelson Monument is a commemorative tower in honour of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, located in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is situated on top of Calton Hill and provides a dramatic termination to the view along Princes Street from the west. The monument was built between 1807 and 1816 to commemorate Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and his own death at the same battle.

The Nelson Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh.

This monument was constructed at the highest point of Calton Hill, at 171 metres (561ft) above sea-level, replacing an earlier mast used to send signals to shipping in the Forth. The monument was funded by public subscription and an initial design prepared by Alexander Nasmyth. His pagoda-like design was deemed too expensive, and an alternative design in the form of an upturned telescope (an object closely associated with Nelson) was obtained from the architect Robert Burn. Building began in 1807, and was almost complete when money ran out the following year. Burn died in 1815, and it was left to Thomas Bonnar to complete the pentagonal castellated building, which forms the base to the tower, between 1814 and 1816. The tower was intended as a signal mast, attended by sailors who would be accommodated within the ground floor rooms, although by 1820 these were in use as a tea room. Public access was available from the start, for a small fee and the rooms were later used to house the monument’s caretaker. In 2009, as part of the ‘Twelve Monuments Restoration Project’, the tower was comprehensively restored, including repairs to stonework and metalwork. The monument is a category A listed building, it is 32 metres (105ft) high, and has 143 steps leading to a public viewing gallery. The design reflects the castellated prison buildings which stood on the south side of Calton Hill in the early 19th century. A plaque above the entrance to the monument carries the following dedication:
“To the memory of Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson, and of the great victory of Trafalgar, too dearly purchased with his blood, the grateful citizens of Edinburgh have erected this monument: not to express their unavailing sorrow for his death; nor yet to celebrate this matchless glories of his life; but, by his noble example, to teach their sons to emulate what they admire, and, like him, when duty requires it, to die for their country. AD MDCCCV”. Above the plaque is a stone carving of the ‘San Josef’, a ship captured by Nelson at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.

The Time ball on the Nelson Monument.

On top of the tower is a ‘time ball’, a large ball which is raised and lowered to mark the time. It was installed in 1853 and became operational in March 1854 to act as a time signal to the ships in Edinburgh’s port of Leith and to ships at the anchorage in the Firth of Forth, known as Leith Roads, allowing the ships to set their chronometers. The time ball was the idea of Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, and was originally triggered by a clock in the adjacent City Observatory to which it was connected by an underground wire. The mechanism was the work of Maudslay, Sons & Field of Lambeth, London who had previously constructed the time ball mechanism for Greenwich Observatory. The installation was carried out by James Ritchie & Son and who are still retained by City of Edinburgh Council to maintain and operate the time ball. This ball, constructed of wood and covered in zinc, and originally weighing about 90kg, is raised just before 1pm, and at precisely 1pm, is dropped from atop the mast. The commonly stated mass of 15 cwt (762kg) is a myth stemming from an exaggeration by Smyth in 1853. Later, in 1861, the One O’Clock Gun was established at Edinburgh Castle to provide an audible signal when fog obscured the time ball. The time ball was operated for over 150 years, until it was damaged by a storm in 2007 but in 2009, as part of the restoration of the monument, the time ball was removed and the mechanism repaired. The time ball was brought back into service on 24 September 2009. The mechanism is now operated manually, based on the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. In addition, the Royal Navy’s White Ensign and signal flags spelling out Nelson’s famous message “England expects that every man will do his duty“ are flown from the monument on Trafalgar Day each year.

I was pleasantly surprised in my research to find other memorials of Nelson. One was in the village of Dervock in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, has the only known memorial which takes the form of a stained-glass window depicting Admiral Lord Nelson just minutes before he was killed on board HMS Victory in 1805. It is thought that this is now the only memorial on the island, as Nelson’s pillar in Dublin (the earliest memorial to Admiral Nelson) having been destroyed in 1966, so in 2015 residents organised their first ever “Trafalgar Day”. Meanwhile in Gibraltar, the Trafalgar Day service takes place at the Trafalgar Cemetery, where the senior Naval Commander reads an extract from the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper, the first periodical to report on the battle. Some sailors died in Gibraltar of wounds received at Trafalgar; they are buried in Gibraltar. HMS Victory, with Nelson’s body on board, underwent repairs in Gibraltar prior to sailing for Britain. In the Isle of Man, John Quilliam, 1st Lieutenant of HMS Victory in 1805, is buried in the graveyard of Kirk Arbory, Ballabeg. An annual parade and church service takes place on Trafalgar Day. There are also other celebrations around the world as the victory is celebrated in Nelson, New Zealand, usually in Trafalgar Square and sometimes involves pupils from the local Victory Primary School. Many streets in Nelson are named after Trafalgar and crew members of Victory. The event is celebrated each year in the Australian town of Trafalgar, Victoria, in which the small town of 2,200 holds an annual Battle of Trafalgar Festival with the Trafalgar Day Ball held on the Friday or Saturday closest to 21 October each year.

I also found a further, unexpected link to Horatio Nelson in the form of the headmaster of my old school, the Sir Harry Smith school in Whittlesey. It is simply that the full name of my headmaster was Irving Nelson Burgess, who was born in October 1905, a hundred years after the death of Admiral Nelson.

This week…
Three words which sound the same but are very different.
Peak, Peek, Pique.

  1. You have to strive to reach the peak.
  2. If you look quickly at something, it is a peek.
  3. A feeling of irritation or resentment, like in the phrase “he left in a fit of pique”.

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