‘Some circumstances connected with the death of Nelson’

Between February and March 2022, we invited the Dickens Decoders to tackle a mysterious shorthand dictation exercise in the notebooks of Dickens’s shorthand pupil, Arthur Stone, held by the Free Library of Philadelphia. All that we had to go on was a longhand title, possibly (but not positively identified) as being in Dickens’s hand.

Longhand title that reads 'Nelson', with a double underline
The longhand title of a shorthand exercise headed ‘Nelson’. Image © The Free Library of Philadelphia [ref: cdc5890009]

We had an amazing response to this challenge, resulting in the near complete deciphering of the page and the identification of 54 symbols never previously transcribed. These new discoveries are credited on our ‘Roll of Honour’ and you can download a line-by-line transcript at the bottom of the page. Many thanks to everyone who took part!

What is ‘Nelson’ about?

We now know that this shorthand dictation exercise concerns the death of Admiral Nelson, who was fatally injured by a musket ball at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

The Death of Lord Viscount Nelson. K.B. (Horatio Nelson), by James Heath, after Benjamin West
line engraving, published 1811, NPG D13769, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Nelson loomed large in the nineteenth-century imagination. The phrase, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, signalled from Nelson’s flagship the HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, echoed throughout Victorian literature and culture – not least, somewhat ironically, in chapter 43 of Dickens’s own Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, references to Nelson are scattered across Dickens’s work, from the effigy that ‘looks like some famous admiral’, which Quilp attacks in chapter 62 of The Old Curiosity Shop, to the curious second-hand clothes dealer who young David Copperfield recalls ‘yelling in a frantic way, to his own windy tune, the “Death of Nelson”; with an Oh! before every line, and innumerable Goroos interspersed’ (chapter 13).

‘Phiz’, ‘Quilp Beating the Figurehead’, an illustration for chapter 62 of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web.

Indeed, as two of our eagle-eyed Dickens Decoders noted, on 27 July 1867 the magazine that Dickens edited – All the Year Round – published a long article about the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death, written by George Walter Thornbury as part of the ‘Old Stories Re-told’ series.

However, this shorthand exercise appears to offer something different, noting that ‘there are some circumstances connected with the death of Nelson’, which are interesting on the ground that they provide an alternative ‘picture of the events of the day’. Subsequently, the text focuses on Nelson’s officers warning him about the risk of snipers if he wore his full regalia, ‘making himself conspicuous to the meanest observation’. Nelson persists in wearing full naval uniform and is ultimately wounded.

The first page of this exercise seems closer in tone to Dickens’s jokey references to Nelson in his fiction, than Thornbury’s sober retelling of the Battle of Trafalgar. We might also detect Dickens’s wry critique of ceremonial pomp in the description of Nelson’s full uniform – ‘with gold lace, silk stockings and God knows what orders and decorations’. At the same time, there remain a number of questions to be answered. Is there a source text for this somewhat tongue-in-cheek account? Was ‘Nelson’ dictated from a written account, or perhaps partially extemporised (as informal phrases like ‘God knows what’ may indicate)? Should this text be attributed to Dickens, or someone else?

We will know more when we transcribe the second page, which is the focus of our April #SolveItDickens challenge. You can find out more about ‘Nelson’ part II here.

A gilt-framed portrait of Horatio Nelson in naval regalia
Horatio Nelson, pictured with ‘God knows what orders and decorations’ (as the shorthand exercise puts it)
Painting by Henry Pierce Bone, after Lemuel Francis Abbott 1840, based on a work of 1797, NPG 6294, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Download the line-by-line transcription below