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Tapping the Admiral. The Brandy that Pickled Lord Nelson

A museum in the historic city of Bath recently made a remarkable if macabre discovery in their collection – a 200 year old bottle of brandy once used to preserve the remains of British hero, Lord Admiral Nelson



The Brandy that Pickled Admiral Nelson
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Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, a name that still evokes images of courage and charisma, left a historical legacy not only for his daring exploits but also for the remarkable journey his body undertook to his homeland after his death in battle.  The Legend of ‘Tapping the Admiral‘ is a testament to his indomitable spirit.

Contrary to the British Navy’s tradition of burial at sea, Admiral Nelson had expressed his wish to be repatriated to England upon his death. In the absence of refrigeration techniques, his body was meticulously placed in a large barrel, known as a ‘leaguer,’ and filled with brandy to prevent decomposition. This careful preservation process, undertaken during a 44-day voyage on the HMS Victory, is a testament to the respect and honour accorded to the Admiral even if legend claims that the sailors were Tapping the Admiral (barrel) to get a quick shot of alcohol.

Battle of Trafalgar

On the fateful day of October 21, 1805, Admiral Nelson, at the helm of the British fleet, orchestrated a masterstroke during the Battle of Trafalgar. This battle, a pivotal moment in the Napoleonic Wars, shattered French plans to assail Britain. Despite being outnumbered, Nelson’s audacious tactics outmanoeuvred the French-Spanish fleet. Tragically, it was during this triumph that a French assassin sniper cut short his life.

Image Credit (WMC) Wellcome Library, London / CC-BY 4.0

The decision to preserve Admiral Nelson’s body, a task entrusted to the ship’s surgeon, William Beaty, was a meticulous process. The choice of brandy, with its higher alcohol content than rum, was believed to be more effective in halting decomposition. This decision was not only practical but also a nod to Nelson’s personal preference, as brandy was a favoured drink of the distinguished admiral and deemed more fitting for a man of his stature.

The Long Voyage Home, or Tapping the Admiral

Rumours spread and persisted that during the trip back to England, sailors had all been taking nips of the Admiral’s brandy while he lay in the same barrel. This tale of “tapping the Admiral” became a naval legend even if it was grotesque – and it was regularly commemorated by calling brandy “Nelson’s Blood.”

Tapping the Admiral - Nelson's Brandy

A Mysterious Brandy Bottle Uncovered

Recently, curators at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution made an extraordinary discovery: a tiny 200-year-old bottle of brandy was found in their collection. A sample of the brandy that was once used to pickle Admiral Horatio Nelson’s remains during the 44-day voyage back to England following the Battle of Trafalgar.

The inscription on the bottle reads, “Part of the liquor in which the body of Lord Nelson was kept after the Battle of Trafalgar.”

The Brandy that Preserved Admiral Nelson

It was presented to the institution in 1862 by the butler of a retired naval captain. This small piece of history was kept in the museum’s basement, among numerous other items.

According to research, the bottle of brandy once belonged to one Thomas Pickering Clarke, Esq., a retired naval captain who resided in Bath circa 1806 and raised eight children.

Although the young officer was not present at the historic Battle of Trafalgar, Pickering was serving as a 17-year-old Naval lieutenant aboard His Majesty’s ship Immortalité stationed with the Home Station Fleet and based in ‘The Downs’ close to the Thames Estuary at the time of HMS Victory’s homecoming.

More so, Captain Pickering recorded the momentous event in his ship’s log on Monday, December 16th.  The Immortalité saw the Victory with its flag half-mast in respect to the revered Lord Nelson and decided to lower their flag, too.   But how did the bottle come into Clarke’s possession?

Provenance for Tapping the Admiral

Research by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution has revealed that the HMS Victory’s renowned signal officer, John Pasco, also known for hoisting the famous ‘England Expects’ message, previously served as a first lieutenant aboard the Immortalité. This suggests that he and the young Pickering might have been friends. This would explain the origin of the brandy, which was probably a gift. This also suggests that Pasco may have kept at least one other bottle.

Small Bottle of Brandy that Preserved Admiral NelsonExperts from Bath University are currently verifying the authenticity of the brandy. However, despite the test results that are still pending, the museum is confident in this discovery’s credibility. This unique finding allows scholars to piece together the true nature of Admiral Nelson’s final voyage and sparks interest and excitement within the historical community as Nelson’s legacy is celebrated to this day.

Other Brandied Oddities

While the bottle of brandy is unique in so much as it contains the actual liquid, two other unusual artefacts are connected to this story through the same brandy.

The first is a small wooden box Bonhams auctioned in London’s Knightsbridge. It is said to be made from the brandy-infused wood of the barrel in which Nelson was pickled. It sold for eight times the expected price, going for £8,160 ($15,020).

A silver plaque inside the box is inscribed, “This wood once contained his sacred remains.”

Small medallions on the lid are inscribed “St. Vincent,” “Nile,” “Copenhagen”, and “Trafalgar,” which relate to Nelson’s victorious campaigns at the Battle of St. Vincent in 1797, the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and his last battle.

The second is Nelson’s actual sarcophagus and coffin, which are located in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The sarcophagus was initially made 232 years earlier and intended for Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolseley was disgraced and, some say, falsely accused of treason, he died en route to Leicester Abbey in 1530 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Admiral Nelson Tomb His Majesty George 3rd. King of England gave the sarcophagus to be used for Nelson’s entombment. According to some legends, the wooden coffin inside the sarcophagus was made out of the mainmast of the French flagship L’Orient, captured at the Battle of the Nile. It was soaked with brandy from the barrel before being sealed with Admiral Nelson inside.

One last unusual footnote to this story is the strange coincidence that the first ship to arrive back in Britain with news of the naval victory and the tragic death of Admiral Nelson was aptly named – The HMS Pickle.