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Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Cornwallis Remembered Celebrations: John Whitby and the Death of Nelson

As part Cornwallis Remembered Celebrations to take place in July, the Milford on Sea Historical Record Society have provided this article on 'The Third Admiral'.

John Whitby and the Death of Nelson

Barry Jolly, Editor of the Occasional Magazine published by Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society, writes:
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Captain John Whitby, who died at Newlands the home of Admiral William Cornwallis on 7th April 1806, is mentioned only rarely in naval histories. His one apparent claim to fame was a letter sent to Cornwallis in 1804 criticising Nelson’s operation of the blockade of Toulon, which he said was no blockade at all. Schooled by Cornwallis in the close blockade of Brest, Whitby did not understand Nelson’s willingness to allow the French fleet to put to sea where he hoped to deliver a decisive battle.

Whitby did, though, provide two services to Nelson after his death. The news of Trafalgar arrived at the Admiralty at 1.00 am on the morning of 6th November 1805, and was in print in the London Gazette by 8 o’clock. Letters had already been sent to George III, William Pitt the Prime Minister and Lady Nelson. In official circles, Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, was ignored completely.

Only one person thought of her, and that was Cornwallis, who sent Whitby to Merton with the devastating news. Lady Hamilton herself described the scene, recalling Whitby’s rather nervous entrance before she fainted as he delivered the fateful message.

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Nelson’s body was still in the barrel of brandy in which it had been preserved after Trafalgar. It now needed to be transported to Greenwich before the final road journey into London for the funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. Whitby was again chosen for the task, which again can only have been at the behest of Cornwallis. Landing at Greenwich on Christmas Eve, the barrel was about to be rolled ashore unceremoniously when John Tyson, a former purser and friend of Nelson’s and now Clerk of Survey at Woolwich dockyard, intervened. The effect was that the body was transferred to a coffin, and then carried ashore attended by three people: Tyson himself, Nelson’s chaplain the Reverend Doctor Scott (who had maintained a solitary vigil with the corpse all the way from the scene of the battle), and John Whitby.

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The actions of Cornwallis, Nelson’s friend and a man whom Nelson revered, and of John Whitby stand out in stark and proud contrast to the official miasma.

Whitby was only 31 when he died. Although a Captain since the age of 18, he did not live long enough to achieve the distinction his early advancement promised. He is remembered in Milford largely on account of his widow and daughter whose subsequent ownership of Newlands lasted for over sixty years. Nonetheless, the humanity he displayed in these two private, final, and very personal, services to Nelson secure his place – alongside Cornwallis, Man and Peyton - as one of the four significant senior naval officers of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars buried at All Saints, Milford.
 

To find our more about all of the Cornwallis Story and the Cornwallis Remembered celebrations, please click here.

Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society: www.milfordhistory.org.uk

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Cornwallis Remembered Weekend: 

Friday 5th July 2019: includes a family friendly celebration on Milford on Sea village green and much more. Keep the date free!



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