The Link Between Pontefract and Trafalgar Square

by Thomas Smith

Within the historic rooms of Pontefract’s 18th century Town Hall hangs a very special work of art that links Pontefract with Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Those of you who are familiar with the Town Hall’s interior might have guessed it – it’s the plaster-cast relief of the Death of Nelson at Trafalgar, which is installed in the charming (and aptly named) Nelson Room.

The plaster-cast relief originally served as the mold upon which the final bronze relief, found on the pedestal of Nelson’s Column, was cast. Of course, the bronze relief (and its plaster-cast forbearer) are now part of one of our country’s most famous and recognisable monuments.

Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, stands 169ft 3in tall when measured from the base of the pedestal to the tip of Nelson’s hat. The statue of Nelson that stands atop the column and gazes down upon Whitehall is itself 18ft tall. The monument was erected in 1843 to commemorate Horatio Nelson, Vice-Admiral of the British Royal Navy, who died aboard the HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars. The battle (and Nelson himself) was key to ending Napoleon’s campaign to invade England, dealing a decisive defeat to the combined Franco-Spanish fleets. The confrontation took place in the Atlantic Ocean, west of the Cape of Trafalgar, just off the south-west coast of mainland Spain. At the end of the battle, the combined Franco-Spanish forces lost 22 of 33 ships whilst the British forces lost none.

During the fighting, a bullet from a French Musketeer, firing from 50ft away, pierced Nelson’s left shoulder and passed through his spine and several vertebrae, lodging a few inches below his right shoulder blade. Knowing that he had been dealt a fatal blow, Nelson issued his final battle commands, professed his love for his mistress Emma and uttered the now famous last words, “God and my country”. He died three to four hours after the Frenchman’s musket shot. At the return of Nelson’s body to England, a full state funeral was conducted and his body buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The relief Death of Nelson at Trafalgar was designed by Irish sculptor John Edward Carew (c. 1785 – 1868) and installed upon the Whitehall-facing side of the pedestal of Nelson’s Column in 1849. Carew’s was the first of four bronze reliefs (each 18ft2) to be mounted upon the monument, each commemorating famous battles of the Napoleonic Wars, including The Battle of Copenhagen, The Battle of the Nile, and The Battle of Cape St Vincent. Interestingly, the bronze used for the reliefs was in fact cast from captured French artillery cannons. Now, if that’s not rubbing your enemy’s nose in it, I don’t know what is.

Now, you would be right to ask just how this work of art ended up in Pontefract’s Town Hall. The plaster-cast of the Death of Nelson was in fact gifted by Benjamin Oliveria, who was an MP for Pontefract from 1852 through to 1857. As an influential Victorian MP, Oliveria was a close friend of the sculptor Carew and offered the piece as a gift to the Corporation of Pontefract. 

So in conclusion, if you ever find yourself in London and walking across Trafalgar Square, you can take heart and know that you are not too far from home when you set your eyes upon the Death of Nelson at Trafalgar, as you will be reminded that the very same work (albeit in plaster-casting) hangs in Pontefract’s Town Hall and has done so for well over a century and a half.

Reproduced by kind permission of Pontefract Heritage Group.

This article was featured in Issue 3 – April 2019.

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