Nelson, Navy, Nation: the story of the Royal Navy and the British people, 1688–1815

A new gallery exploring the Navy’s impact upon ordinary people.

New permanent gallery opens at the National Maritime Museum on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 2013

Nelson, Navy, Nation is a major new permanent gallery at the National Maritime Museum. Opening on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 2013, it looks at how the Royal Navy shaped individual lives and the course of British history over the tumultuous 18th century – a period when the Navy became a greater focus of public life than ever before and sea-faring heroes were national celebrities.

Taking visitors from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Nelson, Navy, Nation explores the Navy’s impact upon ordinary people while also providing a setting for the museum’s unrivalled collections relating to Admiral Lord Nelson. The gallery places this legendary figure within a broader historical context – making sense of his achievements and dazzling celebrity while telling a wider story about British society.

Nelson, Navy, Nation brings together over 250 objects from the Museum’s collections, including exceptional works of art such as Devis’s Death of Nelson and William Hogarth’s Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin; little known treasures like Gabriel Bray’s shipboard watercolours; and iconic items such as Nelson’s uniform from the Battle of Trafalgar.

From the bustling dockyards which were the greatest industrial enterprises of the age, to the ferocious sea battles where so many made the ultimate sacrifice – Nelson, Navy, Nation looks at every aspect of the naval story. Visitors can find out about what motivated those joining up – be it the promise of wealth, adventure and a decent diet, or the unwelcome intervention of the press gang. The realities of sailors’ lives are explored through personal possessions – the clothes worn to impress on shore leave, the love tokens sent to sweethearts and the letters written home in the hope of family news. The camaraderie of life below deck is covered, as well as the brutal punishments doled out to those who stepped out of line. Visitors can see a fiendish seven-barrelled volley gun that was as likely to set fire to your own sails as it was to discomfort the enemy, as well as the amputation knife, bone saw and bullet forceps that would have faced those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the surgeon’s table.

The Navy loomed large in the popular imagination of the period – defender of the nation and her interests, the protector of the British way of life. Nelson, Navy, Nation examines this rich, complex and creative inter relationship between Royal Navy and British people. From great heroes like Admiral Vernon – who featured on everything from crockery to ladies’ fans and for whom more medals were struck than for any other person in the 18th century, to the popular figure of ‘Jack Tar’ – the archetypal ordinary British seaman, widely depicted and caricatured, who was at once a figure of national pride and national ridicule.

It is only fitting that Nelson should be at the heart of the gallery and Nelson, Navy, Nation looks at his rise to fame, his sudden death and the personal and national grief that was left in his wake. Poignant objects on display include the last letter Nelson wrote to his daughter Horatia, and one of the mourning rings worn by close friends and family at his funeral. Weird and wonderful commemorative items which demonstrate the ‘Nelson mania’ that gripped the British people can also be seen, from a Battle of the Nile themed bulb planter to toy bricks showing scenes from Nelson’s funeral procession.

Taking in sailors as well as Admirals, landlubbers as well as seadogs, women as well as men and ordinary life as well as the heat of battle, Nelson, Navy, Nation tells the story of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, and in doing so tells the story of how British people saw themselves, and their place in the world.

Notes to Editors:

  • The National Maritime Museum holds the world’s largest maritime collection, housed in historic buildings forming part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. The National Maritime Museum is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which also incorporates the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Royal Museums Greenwich works to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. This unique collection of attractions welcomes over 1.5 million British and international visitors a year and is also a major centre of education and research. For more information visit

  • The Museum will host a major international conference 25–27 July 2013, addressing the interconnections between the Royal Navy and Britain. Keynote addresses will be given by: Professor Roger Knight, Professor Andrew Lambert, N.A.M. Rodger, Dr Jan Rüger and Professor Kathleen Wilson. For more information visit

  • The gallery is accompanied by a book published by Conway in association with the National Maritime Museum. Titled Nelson, Navy & Nation: the Royal Navy and the British People 1688–1815, this publication is a series of 11 illustrated essays with an introduction by N.A.M. Rodgers.

For further information or images, please contact:Jenny Stewart or Sheryl TwiggRoyal Museums Greenwich Press OfficeTel: 020 8312 6732 / 6790 | 07903 547 284 or Email: