The John Goddard Collection of Important Naval Medals and Nelson Letters (24 November 2015)

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Date of Auction: 24th November 2015

Sold for £14,000

Estimate: £12,000 - £15,000

Nelson (Horatio, Lord), a fine and passionate autograph letter signed, to Emma Hamilton, dated aboard H.M.S. ‘Victory April 6th 1805’

‘My Dearest Emma Capt. Conn will give you this line and he will tell you of my present misery at not having yet fallen in with the French fleet, but if I do what happiness it will be to you and to me and we must hope for the best, I am all all yours and only yours I think of you for ever May God bless you for your only your Nelson & Bronte’

1 page, 4to, integral blank £12,000-15,000


Provenance: Sotheby’s, Pencarrow Collection of Autographs, 8 December 1999 (Lot 86).

Written some six months before Nelson finally caught up with the French fleet and was killed at Trafalgar, this letter is apparently unpublished; certainly it does not appear in The Letters and Despatches of Lord Nelson (Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, 1844), The Hamilton and Nelson Papers (Alfred Morrison, 1893), or in Nelson - The New Letters (2005), edited by Colin White; however, the latter omission maybe owing to the letter’s appearance in Thomas Pettigrew’s Memoirs of the Life of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson (1849).

Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765-1815), is of course best remembered as Nelson’s mistress, a love match that entertained the nation’s gossip columnists and cartoonists on account of her still being married to the diplomat, Sir William Hamilton. That scenario attained even greater status when the three of them moved in to Merton Place, Surrey in late 1801, a ménage à trois that Emma herself once described as Tria Juncta in Uno - Three Joined in One - a motto borrowed from the Order of the Bath, of which both Nelson and Sir William were knights. Sir William also retained a property in London and died there in April 1803. In the following month, Nelson’s and Emma’s young child, Horatia moved to Merton, shortly before he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was still so employed at the time of writing this passionate letter but did in fact get to see Emma - and his ‘dear, dear, Merton’ - on one more occasion in August-September 1805.

Captain John Conn (1764-1810), a member of the Irish family of that name from Mount Ida, Waterford, entered the Royal Navy in 1778 and became Lieutenant in 1793. He was Lieutenant of the Royal Sovereign in Lord Howe’s victory of the Glorious First of June 1794 and, having been advanced to Commander, was captain of the Discovery at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Having then commanded a division of mortar boats in the attack on the French flotilla at Boulogne on 15 August 1801, he gained advancement to Captain. Conn next commanded of the Canopus, in which ship he was present in Nelson’s force blockading Toulon 1803-5 but he was superseded aboard the ship in March of the latter year, when it became the flagship of Admiral Thomas Louis, with Captain Francis Austen (Jane Austen’s brother) as his Flag Captain.

Nelson meanwhile wrote to the Admiralty to recommend Conn’s immediate re-employment and the latter, on arriving off the island of Galita, due south of Sardinia, on 5 April 1805, transferred to the sloop H.M.S. Bittern  for passage to England. The following day, the date on which Nelson wrote the above described letter, H.M.S. Victory closed on Bittern, which according to the ship’s log ‘received an order to receive letters & c. & c. & c. for England’. Given Nelson’s personal reference to Captain Conn ‘who will give you this line and tell you of my present misery’, it seems likely he boarded the Victory and met Nelson in person. Be that as it may, Bittern departed for Gibraltar later on the same day and Conn eventually completed his journey home care of H.M. Ships Amphitrite and Active, the latter vessel arriving at Plymouth on 19 May 1805. Thence, via Nelson’s prize agent and friend, Alexander Davison, was the great man’s letter finally delivered to Emma Hamilton.

Remarkably, in many respects, Conn went on to command the Royal Sovereign and Victory before Collingwood and Nelson that very year but it was as captain of the Dreadnought that he went into action at Trafalgar. As described in The Trafalgar Roll, the Dreadnought served in Collingwood’s division and took some ‘hard knocks’:

‘She tackled the Spanish 74, San Juan Nepomuceno, which had already been severely handled, and although the ship was to some extent supported by the Spanish 112, Principe de Asturias, and the French 80-gun Indomptable, she ran on board the San Juan in little more than a quarter of an hour. ... The Dreadnought’s losses in the battle amounted to thirty-three killed and wounded. She had her masts cut with shot and her maintop sail-yard shot away.’