Nelson & His World

Discussion on the life and times of Admiral Lord Nelson
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 Post subject: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Mon Dec 13, 2010 6:52 am 
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I recall that Terry Coleman, in his biography of Nelson ( a very negative and biased one, in my opinion, and one that I do not give space to on my shelves) claims that the story of Nelson placing the telescope to his blind eye at Copehagen is a fiction. However, Nelson's own account of the incident appears in the notes that Mr Lock, Lord Nelson's hatter, always made whenever he had a meeting with Nelson. It is hard to believe that he was making this up.

'He [Nelson] looked at me, and with a broad smile on his face, enquired, 'Shall I tell you about the time I turned a blind eye, Mr Lock?'

I could not resist and he continued thus: 'The incident occurred during the battle of Copenhagen when I was in a strong position and knew I had to continue the attack. My signals officer, Lt Foley, drew my attention to a signal from my Commander in Chief, Sir Hyde Parker, which read, 'discontinue the action.' Well, Lock, would you stop when all the advantages were with you? No, of course not. So I said to my Signal Lieutenant: 'You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes'. So I put the telescope to my right eye and said, to him, 'I really do not see the signal'.

We both laughed. I sensed his Lordship wanted to go on, but I hastened to thank him and remind him that his Commander in Chief, Sir Hyde Parker, was a very old and respected customer of mine. He smiled and nodded.'


[Quotation from: 'Mr Lock: Hatter to Lord Nelson and his Norfolk Neighbours' By Dr Kenneth Cliff. Wendy Webb Books 2000]

This rings true, I think, - apart from the fact that Foley was a captain at Copenhagen, not a lieutenant. A landlubber's mis-remembering, perhaps?

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Mon Dec 13, 2010 10:01 am 
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Anna, I know you are trying to provoke me into one of my rants about the rampant plagiarism that sweeps through so much writing about Nelson, whether by modern historians or 19C hatters. I'm not sure whether I should oblige...

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Mon Dec 13, 2010 11:21 am 
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Anna,

Well, it seems that you, at least, have read Terry Coleman! (what did you do with his book by the way, throw it out, have it on your shelves somewhere else, or just borrow it?) I haven't read it, perhaps I should, just to see what he has written – and perhaps it should be required reading for all Nelson devotees, just to paint the other side of the picture! I did look it up on Amazon and read the comments but, as is usual, it had mixed reviews, although I think mostly adverse!

As to the 'blind eye' question (and also not particularly wanting to provoke one of Tony's 'rants') I feel sure that (without any direct references) this has been questioned by other modern writers, not only Coleman. This is not to say of course that the incident didn't take place, but perhaps it is just another of Nelson actions where many of today's historians have questioned the traditionally accepted view of events.

In passing, as you say, I doubt very much that Nelson would forget the name of his ship's captain, Foley, at Copenhagen - and he may even have remembered the name of the signals officer – so it would seem likely that either Lock remembered it wrongly, or there is some other explanation. Can we confirm the actual words from other sources?

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Mon Dec 13, 2010 2:19 pm 
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I haven’t read Terry Coleman’s book, but I have read the couple of pages where he analyses the origins of this story, and he provides a detailed account of the sources which seems fairly comprehensive to me (and avoids the need for my own rant!).

The first sources date from immediately after the battle, and were a letter and a separate journal by Colonel Stewart which describe Nelson ignoring the signal, but with no mention of his blind eye or telescope.

The next was an account by Ferguson, the ship’s surgeon, which Harrison included in his Life of Nelson in 1806. In this, Nelson’s words were: Foley, you know I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind when I like; and, damn me, if I’ll see that signal!. (Coleman justifiably queries why the surgeon would have been walking the quarterdeck with the Admiral in the middle of the action.)

This was followed in 1809 by an account in Clarke & M’Arthur, which was later shown by Nicolas to have been written specially for them by Colonel Stewart. This goes: “He also observed, I believe to captain Foley, 'you know, Foley, I have only one eye, I have a right to be blind sometimes;' and then with an archness peculiar to his character, putting the glass to his blind eye, he exclaimed: ' I really do not see the signal.' This remarkable signal was, therefore, only acknowledged on board the Elephant, not repeated.” Coleman suggests that Stewart had added the details from Harrison into his own account to produce this third version.

Finally Southey combined Clarke & M’Arthur’s version with further detail from Harrison’s (which brings together the blind eye, the telescope and nailing Nelson’s signal to the mast) and attributed it to Ferguson. This goes: ‘Then shrugging up his shoulders, he repeated the words--"Leave off action? Now, damn me if I do! You know, Foley," turning to the captain, "I have only one eye,--I have a right to be blind sometimes:" and then putting the glass to his blind eye, in that mood of mind which sports with bitterness, he exclaimed, "I really do not see the signal!" Presently he exclaimed, "Damn the signal! Keep mine for closer battle flying! That's the way I answer signals! Nail mine to the mast!"’

It would seem to me that Mr Lock has appropriated Nelson’s words directly from Clarke & M’Arthur or Southey, and somewhat carelessly at that, confusing the captain and the signal lieutenant! I assume that Captain Foley was not one of his customers!

I therefore put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury (I hope I may now be allowed to address you directly), that Mr Lock did not keep notes of his meetings with Lord Nelson (other than those needed to fulfil his orders for hats), but rather wrote them at some later date, perhaps with a copy of Clarke & M’Arthur or Southey by his side to jog his memory.

A further giveaway is his attribution of the phrase turned a blind eyedirectly to Nelson himself. If true, this is a real scoop! While the phrase may relate to Nelson’s actions, phrases.org.uk states that the first recorded use of the phrase in the form we normally use it today is in 'More letters from Martha Wilmot: impressions of Vienna, 1819-1829', reprinted in 1935 and that this quotation is recorded as being sent by Ms. Wilmot in 1823: "turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvellously well."

The earliest use of the phrase that I can find in Google Books is 1830. Interestingly, 'turn a deaf ear' is a much earlier expression, going back to the 17th century.

But then I haven't read the book about Mr Lock, Lord Nelson's hatter, so you may be able to turn all this entirely on its head, Anna.

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Mon Dec 13, 2010 6:45 pm 
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Ah, wait a minute - not so fast, Coleman… This is important - and a turn up for the books!

I have found something that doesn’t let Mr Lock off the hook, but adds credibility to Harrison’s version (as so often proves to be the case), and hence to Nelson’s ‘right to be blind when I like’. :D

Harrison and all subsequent accounts describe Ferguson as ‘Surgeon of the Elephant’, and Coleman therefore dismisses Ferguson’s account on the grounds that the ship’s surgeon would not have been on the quarterdeck during the battle. But I think Ferguson has been incorrectly identified. Instead of ship’s surgeon, I believe he was Staff-Surgeon William Ferguson of the Rifle Brigade, and hence could have been on the quarterdeck rather than on duty below. The Elephant suffered 10 killed and 13 wounded, so perhaps the ship’s surgeon was not in need of extra assistance.

The evidence is:
    (1) Mariner’s Mirror, 58:2 (1972), p224, in which W E May states in a query about all this: ‘The Muster Book of the Elephant shows that both Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart (it spells his name Stuart) and Dr Ferguson were on board with the Rifle Brigade from 31 March to 3 April.’
    (2) Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 18. Google Books snippets show that on p 109, ‘Staff-Surgeon William Ferguson’ of the Rifle Brigade is listed as present at Copenhagen on board the Elephant.

If Ferguson was in the Rifle Brigade under the command of Stewart, then this also puts a more favourable slant on Stewart combining Ferguson’s account with his own in his version for Clarke & M’Arthur.

Do we have a case for restoring this legend to the history books?

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Tue Dec 14, 2010 10:15 am 
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I have no emotional capital tied up in this, but would make the following observations

1. Nelson history is full of heroic anecdotes many, of which on investigation, are shown to be post facto embellishments to an already legendary career
2. Given the well known vain and self-promoting facets of Nelson’s personality, that he should boast and/or exaggerate the incident (even to his hatter) in this way is entirely believable
3. If the ‘I see no signal’ incident did actually happen on the open quarterdeck, why did no-one else report it? Insubordination and public defiance of the c-in-c of this order must have been astonishing (possibly alarming) to all who heard or witnessed it and, if true, would surely have become a hot and widespread topic for gossip in the fleet both immediately and thereafter.

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Tue Dec 14, 2010 9:52 pm 
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Well, it seems we'll never know for sure! But the whole thing has a definite ring of truth about it - didn't Nelson make a rather self-mocking remark about a pub called, in his honour, the Nelson's Arms? (something like 'how ridiculous when I only have one!' but no doubt, one of you knows the full anecdote!) The telescope/blind eye story is totally in keeping with what we know of Nelson's character - why can't we just believe it? We don't have to go through history trying to pick through and destroy some of the best, most interesting anecdotes!

Anyway, Happy Christmas everybody - I've bought my husband a boxed set of Hornblower so there'll be plenty of 'repeats' in our house this Christmas!

Caitlin


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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Wed Dec 15, 2010 12:12 pm 
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Cricket wrote:
The telescope/blind eye story is totally in keeping with what we know of Nelson's character - why can't we just believe it? We don't have to go through history trying to pick through and destroy some of the best, most interesting anecdotes!

Caitlin,

I don't think that anybody is questioning the fact that the blind eye/telescope incident never happened, and of course it makes an interesting anecdote, but I think it is right to question 'historically accepted fact' and what is written about both this incident and other moments in history. Further, the motives behind various authors interpretations should also be questioned.

To my mind this is not 'destroying some of the best, most interesting anecdotes', but amplifying them in attempting to get at the truth. Thankfully, most historians today have that angle, rather than just repeating the 'traditional accepted' viewpoint as many did in the past. They also have the means to achieve that, since most archives and documents are rather more accessible for study these days than they were previously. What they make of all that information is another matter, since it can be slanted in the way an author thinks it should (Terry Coleman?), but I believe most authors probably attempt a fair assessment of their subject – although of course, not everyone will agree!

In the same way, members on this site surely want (and get!) healthy debate on all aspects surrounding Nelson and His World. :wink:

A Happy Christmas to you and your husband too, Caitlin! :D I hope he enjoys the Hornblower boxed set, a present I received from my wife a few years ago. They are good viewing, even if the producer has taken a few liberties with the books! :shock:

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Wed Dec 15, 2010 7:29 pm 
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Looking again at the booklet about Lock’s the hatters, I find that it is a very confusing document indeed. The current managing director of Lock’s writes in his foreword that he hopes the author ‘has captured a small part of Lord Nelson’s personal life and those of his Norfolk associates from the unique source of Mr Lock’s surviving ledgers.’

The author then gives the history of the business but says that he will ‘let the persona of James Lock narrate the chapters in the book relating to famous customers.’

Lord Nelson’s arrival is recorded and the Day Ledger for 1800 is given as a reference. Conversations with Lord Nelson are noted e.g.: ‘Mr Lock, a hat if you please. After all my years at sea away from England my hats are in a bad state. You have been recommended to me as providing the finest hats in town.’ Some conversations, though not all, give a reference to a published source. For example, he gives Carola Oman as a reference for the blind eye incident. I assumed that the author provided these simply as corroboration of Mr Lock’s account, particularly as Oman’s version is expressed in a markedly different way from Mr Lock’s.

I am now wondering whether some or all of these conversations are elaborations and/or inventions based on the entries in the Day Ledger that recorded Lord Nelson’s visits and his business?

It is really very difficult to tell. There is one incident where Nelson plays a trick on him and tells Mr Lock’s assistant that The Duke of Bronte wishes to speak to him. Of course, when Mr Lock appears Nelson laughingly explains the joke – that he does enjoy the title of Duke, granted by the King of Naples. It is just the sort of good-natured but boastful prank that Nelson would play.

Does anyone have a copy of this book? If so, I’d be grateful for an opinion.

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Wed Dec 15, 2010 11:58 pm 
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Happy Christmas, Caitlin, and to everyone else too. Sorry to be such a pedant, but how do we know Nelson’s character unless we distinguish fact from fiction? I don’t want to base my understanding on the exaggerations and embellishments of others. I think too, it is worth remembering that until recently, the Nelson legend had the tragic effect of relegating so many others to obscurity. And perhaps we can still enjoy the Nelson legend while understanding it for what it is?

In this case, we cannot damage the legend any further. That has already been done. Even Roger Knight, in ‘The Pursuit of Victory’, dismisses the telescope and ‘I really do not see the signal’ episode as a myth.

But I don't think that all of it can be dismissed so lightly.

Brian, to answer your third point first, immediately after the battle there was of course much gossip in the fleet about Nelson’s disobedience of Parker’s order. Colonel Stewart, writing immediately after the battle, said it was ‘a source of much conversation in our fleet now’. There was also discussion of whether Nelson’s offer of the truce to the Danes was a dishonourable ruse de guerre, so there was plenty to go at without having to include the precise details of the words Nelson may have used about his CiC’s order.

As to why no one else on the quarterdeck reported the incident, the answer is first that some of it certainly was witnessed and reported, and second that not all the incident would have been heard by others in the din of battle. In Colonel Stewart’s very first letter written shortly after the battle, he wrote that Nelson “expressed his astonishment” at the signal “in a most animated manner”, and Colin White also identified an account by signal midshipman John Findlayson which confirms Nelson’s incredulous reaction to the news of the signal.

But I am sure you are right to suppose the incident is likely to have been exaggerated or embellished.

The final version of the anecdote divides into various stages which would have been visible or audible to different people. First there is Nelson’s astonishment at Parker’s signal and the instruction to keep the signal for close action flying. That much would have been visible and audible to the signal lieutenant and others, and indeed seems to be beyond dispute. Next, after he paced the deck for a while considering things, there are Nelson’s comments to Stewart and/or Ferguson, which would probably have been heard only by them. Finally, there is Nelson’s aside to Foley, ‘I really do not see the signal’, probably audible to only Foley, Stewart and Ferguson, but if accompanied by the pantomime with the telescope, visible to others.

Coleman dismissed Stewart’s final account because it had added detail missing from his first account. He asserted that Stewart could not have resisted including the full story, but he entirely missed the point that Stewart had very good reason indeed to omit detail from his first account. Nelson’s reputation had been damaged by his disobedience to Keith’s orders in the Mediterranean, and he had now again disobeyed his commander in chief. According to Roger Knight, immediately after the battle the reaction in the fleet was not to celebrate a great victory and that there were some in the fleet that considered it had been won at too great a cost. Nelson needed all the allies he could get, and Stewart was one of them. Stewart wrote to his friend Sir William Clinton, aide-de-camp to the Duke of York, and this letter was therefore a ‘public’ letter, designed to be read in high places, and to bolster Nelson’s reputation. The letter was designed to prompt scorn for Hyde Parker’s order of recall, and to portray Nelson as salvaging honour from the impossible situation that it created for him. It would have been utter madness to have included details of Nelson’s expletives against his commander in chief's signal, or indeed anything that could be construed as a petulant and insubordinate outburst. The reader was therefore left to draw his own conclusions on the likely form of Nelson’s animated (and clearly justified) expression of astonishment at the signal.

Stewart and Ferguson left the ship the day after the battle, perhaps without divulging what they had heard, and Foley is unlikely to have felt it appropriate to tell his junior officers exactly what Nelson had said. As far as I know, although Foley lived until 1833, there is no known record of him ever confirming or denying the story. Or does anyone know any different?

By the time Harrison published in 1806, there was of course no need for restraint, and it is his version that I think perhaps rings the most true. But in his version, Nelson merely points towards Parker’s signal, and there are no theatricals with the telescope. Those appeared only in Stewart’s final polished up account in Clarke & M’Arthur, and perhaps this is where the story has been embellished. And, as Brian pointed out, it is difficult to suppose that others would not have witnessed and understood this part of the incident. And if we are to doubt this part of Stewart’s account, we must also doubt his version of Nelson’s words: ‘I really do not see the signal’ (where clearly expletives have been deleted!). Personally, I feel more comfortable with Harrison’s version from Ferguson: ‘‘Foley, you know I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind when I like; and, damn me, if I’ll see that signal!’"

Interestingly, Stewart’s account contained another reference by Nelson to his blind eye. This occurred on shore several days later during ongoing negotiations with the Danes, when the possibility of renewing hostilities was mentioned: “His Lordship then proceeded to a grand dinner up stairs, the Prince leading the way. Lord Nelson, leaning on the arm of a friend, whispered, 'Though I have only one eye, I see all this will burn very well :' he was even then thinking more about the bombardment than about the dinner.” Is this a further fiction by Stewart or does it indicate that Nelson was at that time in the habit of referring to his blind eye? Perhaps it is relevant that only two months previously, Nelson was having such problems with his good eye that he had consulted a fleet physician.

Sorry for such a long post – I seem to have got a bit carried away with this!

But I do think Coleman's analysis may be seriously flawed on two counts.

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2010 8:46 am 
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Many thanks, Tony, for that impressive and thought-provoking post.

Re: legends about famous figures: there are two sorts of legends: anecdotes about the person narrated by others - Churchill and Nelson, for example - which - like the 'telescope to the blind eye incident' may or may not be true, but serve to confirm the impression we have of them; and legends narrated by the subject him/herself - for example, the Prince of Wales's claims that he had fought at Waterloo and that he had sighted Emma as an unknown beauty - one which we know to be untrue and one which may or may not be true, but each serves to confirm our picture of him as a fantasist.

I was intrigued by Dr Cliff's account of Nelson narrating the 'blind eye' story to Mr Lock. Even if it had been an invention/elaboration of the incident on Nelson's part, it served to confirm what we know of Nelson - that he could be playful about his injuries (he had written to Fanny that the eye wound had left his 'beauty unimpaired') and that he like to talk about, and maybe elaborate, his successes. If, in fact, the writer is inserting fabricated conversations woven from the bare facts in Lock's ledger (the records do note that Nelson ordered a hat with a green shade and are accompanied by a sketch of the proposed item) then I do think it is rather a strange, not to say misleading, device to use in a booklet that records the history of the company. If the 'blind eye' incident, which had a reference to Oman, had quoted her exactly, I would probably have twigged that the story was 'lifted' from the well-known narrative. It was the variation, and the mistake about Lt. Foley being the signals officer, that made me think that this was truly Mr Lock's inaccurate but contemporary account, noted in the Day Ledgers, that Dr Cliff had found generally corroborated in published sources.

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2010 10:36 am 
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[quote="Tony"] Brian, to answer your third point first, immediately after the battle there was of course much gossip in the fleet about Nelson’s disobedience of Parker’s order. Colonel Stewart, writing immediately after the battle, said it was ‘a source of much conversation in our fleet now’. There was also discussion of whether Nelson’s offer of the truce to the Danes was a dishonourable ruse de guerre, so there was plenty to go at without having to include the precise details of the words Nelson may have used about his CiC’s order.

Tony!

Once again, I stand astonished by the amazing depth of your knowledge and impressed by the soundness of your analysis. I hope my current feeling of humility does not deter me from contributing further posts on this site!

Brian


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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2010 2:21 pm 
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brian wrote:
I hope my current feeling of humility does not deter me from contributing further posts on this site!
Oh no, Brian! That would be disastrous (and absurd, coming from yourself) - it was you who steered me onto a rather safer course here. And that's the really great thing about the interaction on this forum.

Anna, thanks for the heads up on this book. I had spotted it a while ago (or did you mention it here?) and had wondered whether to buy it to find out whether it contained anything of interest, as there was certainly nothing in what little blurb was available to hint that it might contain any fictionalisation. But from what you say, it sounds as though the question of plagiarism should be directed to the present day author, rather than Mr Lock himself. And I wonder whether including source references can really exonorate overt copying, unless perhaps the author has added something (other than fictionalised dialgoue) to the information from his sources? But I suspect the phrase 'persona of James Lock' may be a rather veiled admission that the narrative is fictionalised. Another clue is the rather crude device he uses to bring Nelson's anecdote to a close at the point his source material runs out. And anyway, how many times did Mr Lock have to see Nelson before he got his hat measurement correct? I wouldn't have thought an order in the ledger necessarily involved a personal meeting with Nelson himself. I will of course eat my hat if I'm wrong...

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Wed Jan 19, 2011 7:11 pm 
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It seems that the blind eye story was doing the rounds in London as early as May, 1801. Anecdotal, but the source should have been in the know and on the cutting edge of what was happening both at Court and in the political arena. At least from her Royal Box on the sidelines.

Lady Mamlesbury (wife of the Earl who - as Ambassador to Russia some twenty five years earlier - had handled the first Armed Neutrality whilst managing to remain on good terms with Catherine the Great) wrote on 19th May:

Quote:
"Nelson is made a Viscount, Sir Hyde passed over. The cause is supposed to be his having made repeated signals during the engagement to Nelson to desist from the attempt.

I was told yesterday that an officer told Nelson of these signals, to which he replied that he could not see them, for he had but one eye and that was directed to the enemy."

It's another of those a friend of a friend of a friend stories, but interesting that the news of Nelson's 'blind eye' comment was circulating around London so soon after the battle.

Lady M was also Lord Minto's sister-in-law and one of the few 'Court' ladies who occasionally found herself in the company of Lady Hamilton.

But who might the officer who told Nelson of the signals and reported the anecdote be?

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 Post subject: Re: 'I do not see the Signal'
PostPosted: Sun Jan 23, 2011 10:33 pm 
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That is most interesting, Mira, and firmly removes the 'blind eye' part of the story from the creation of Nelson's legend after his death, and puts it into contemporary gossip at least!

As to who might be the officer who told Nelson of the signals and reported the anecdote, it is possible that the third hand story has rolled more than one participant into one officer, but the quarterdeck was apparently unusually crowded. Ferguson and Stewart are obvious candidates for reporting the story, because they returned to England very soon after the battle, but neither would be the one that told Nelson of the signal. According to Colin White, the following were present:

    Captain Foley
    The Elephant's officers, including signal lieutenant and/or midshipman
    Colonel Stewart
    Captain Frederick Thesiger
    Lieutenant Langford (Nelson's signal lieutenant from the St George)
    Signal Midshipman Gill from the St George
    Thomas Wallis, Nelson's secretary
    Commander Edward Parker
    Midshipman Finlayson of the St George arrived on board as the signal in question (39) was flying
    Captain Beckwith, Rifle Brigade
    Surgeon Ferguson, Rifle Brigade

Take your pick!

Midshipman John Finlayson later recorded that when he arrived on board the Elephant, Nelson asked him 'if the signals said to be flying from the London were correct?', to which he answered 'yes'. [Colin White citing his own article 'A Signal Midshipman at Copenhagen', The Trafalgar Chronicle, vol 10, 2001, p 90]

It turns out that my observation about the credibility of Ferguson's account has been made before:
Quote:
Harrison mistakenly said that Ferguson was the surgeon of HMS Elephant, which has led some biographers to cast doubt on the accuracy of his account since, as the ship's surgeon, his battle station would have been below in the cockpit and not on the quarterdeck. However, it has recently been established that Ferguson was in fact the surgeon of Colonel Stewart's detachment of the Rifle Brigade (Eric Tushingham and Clifford Mansfield, Nelson's Flagship at Copenhagen, The Nelson Society, 2001, p 158). Since the Elephant's casualties were comparatively light, it is unlikely that Ferguson's service would have been required below, so it seems fair to assume that he was on the quarterdeck and close to Nelson as he claims.

Source: Colin White and the Inshore Squadron, 'The View from Nelson's Quarterdeck', Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - 200 Years (ed Stephen Howarth), 2003
I am reassured he drew the same conclusion!

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