Nelson Myth & Reality at The Three Cups

Next to St Nicholas Church in Church Street, Harwich, stands the onetime Three Cups Hotel. According to local legend this was where Admiral Lord Nelson stayed on his visit to Harwich in 1801, and—on some versions—where his glamorous mistress Emma Hamilton slept with him. The gable end facing the church still has rather gaudy paintings of these famous folk. Years ago patrons of the inn were shown, for a small fee, the wood-paneled room where they supposedly stayed. Till they were removed in 1913 the room allegedly housed several relics of the great man. An 1885 issue of the Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine says that at the inn “Nelson sipped his punch and made merry with his captains”. A 1906 letter advises a visitor to see “The Nelson Museum…at the Three Cups”. A 1912 edition of the Railway Magazine again mentions the Nelson Room and its relics. In her 1913 book Nelson in England, Esther Meynell states that Nelson often visited Harwich and stayed in the inn. The same year the Great Eastern Railway Magazine goes further and says Nelson and Emma stayed in the inn after he returned home from his victory at the Battle of the Nile (the battle was in 1798, but the couple actually came back over two years later). Nelson, Emma, the Three Cups and the room go on appearing in print right up till recent years, for example in the 1990 East Anglia Visitors Guide. A website about old Harwich pubs admits that Nelson’s stay was not officially recorded, but suggests that he slipped ashore secretly for a “tryst” with Emma at the inn.

However all of this is a myth. On his 1801 visit to the harbour Nelson did not come ashore (to the disappointment of the crowd on the Quay), and Emma wasn’t with him. We can be certain of this because he recorded it in his correspondence, some of it written to an absent Emma, and all of it published a century after his death. Possibly the legend was a confusion with Nelson’s visit to Yarmouth a year before, when he had stayed ashore in a hotel with Emma—after setting foot on British soil for the first time since the Nile. Since most of the publications which place Nelson and Emma at the Three Cups were written for travellers or tourists it seems probable that the whole story was an advertising ploy.

However, the Three Cups had a remarkable true story during the 1793-1815 wars with France.

Together with the nearby White Hart, it was the place where Continental travellers broke their journey between London and Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Russia, and vice versa. Some had come off, or were about to board, warships or troopships. Others were passengers on the “packet boats” owned by the Post Office and now employed in carrying officials and government messages. Waits of several days were often necessary at the Harwich inns because bad weather or contrary winds delayed the ships. Harwich was crucial to the war because for long it was only through it that contact could be kept between Britain and her allies in Eastern and Northern Europe. The Three Cups’ guests therefore included army and naval officers, diplomats, couriers, bankers, merchants, refugees and secret agents of many nationalities. Some were fleeing from the French, some were going in the opposite direction to fight or negotiate alliances against them. Others were adventurers who cared little for either side but were there for profit. Their host was innkeeper William Bull, a jovial and patriotic, but also diplomatic and patient, character nicknamed “John Bull”. It is an odd thought that a publican in one small Essex town met more famous men of the age than almost anyone else in Britain. If he ever kept a guest book it ought to have been preserved!

I will pick out just a few incidents which he witnessed or was involved in.

On 24 June 1797 the Excise cutter Viper, commanded by Robert Adams, landed the crew of the French raiding ship L’Espoir (Hope). Espoir was not a regular naval ship, but a privateer—that is, a craft manned by civilians and licensed by the French government to capture British merchantmen and their cargoes. She had been captured that morning just off the beach at Walton-on-Naze, probably after being driven ashore by the easterly wind. Like many of the enemy privateers in the North Sea she was from Dunkirk, the greatest and oldest of their bases. Three of her crew were interrogated in the Three Cups parlour by Harwich Mayor James Pulham, Navy (civilian) Commissioner Robert Culpack, William Bull—who wrote down the conversation, and interpreter Thomas Warboys—probably a local schoolmaster. The French captain, Pierre François Codderin, and his second-in-command, Langlois, were questioned first. Codderinsaid that his crew consisted of nine Frenchmen, three Danes, three Americans and one Italian. But the third man questioned, the late middle-aged George Jay, was not one of the Americans, as his captors had already guessed from his accent. He freely confessed that he was instead an English East Coast merchant seaman. He admitted that after being captured by the French during a voyage from Ipswich, and after stays in prison and hospital, he had volunteered for Codderin’s crew. From that moment on his fate was sealed. 

Only ten days later the captain of another captured Dunkirk privateer, Les Graces, was brought to the Three Cups by Adams and questioned by the same quartet. He was Guilliame Gaspard Malo, and his too was a remarkable story. Though not English himself, he was married to an English woman, from Suffolk, who he must have met while visiting East Anglia on a merchant or fishing vessel pre-war. He and his crew had been captured onshore, between Clacton and Thorpe, after their ship had ran ashore on Clacton beach and they had fled inland. Malo and most of his men had been caught by Adams’ own crew, who had followed them ashore, but others had been rounded up by the Harwich press gang, which probably operated from the Three Cups. News of the landing had spread to Colchester, the army’s East Anglian headquarters, and had at first been taken for an actual invasion. French invasion was feared in North East Essex for much of the war (it was later the reason for the Martello Towers), but throughout the whole of it Malo and his crew were the only armed enemies ever actually to set foot there.

Both captured crews were locked up in the cellar of the Harwich Guildhall, opposite the inn. Eventually they were marched out under guard by militiamen. Codderin and Malo were freed on parole. Most of their men went via Ipswich and Yarmouth to the new prison camp at Norman Cross, near the Fens. There were two exceptions, one from each crew, who were taken via Colchester and Chelmsford gaols to Newgate in London. What finally happened to Malo’s man is unknown, but George Jay was tried for treason and piracy at the Old Bailey. In 1798 he was sentenced to hang by Sir John Marriott, the senior Admiralty judge who was also MP for Sudbury and a wealthy Essex landowner. He died at Execution Dock, Wapping, in front of a huge crowd. Why he had deserted to the French and helped them raid his own countrymen was never recorded. Perhaps they had won him over with kind treatment, perhaps going back to sea seemed preferable to shore prison, and perhaps he sympathised with the “liberty, equality, fraternity” of the French Revolution—at this early period before great naval victories stirred up popular patriotism in Britain and when the British Government, its war, and its naval press gangs, were still loathed by many East Anglians. Most likely Jay had been promised an extra share of his crew’s prize money for piloting them through the East Coast sandbanks which were so familiar to him. Not once during his captivity in England did he lose his composure.


The two paroled captains got back to France in due course. Malo and family became Dunkirk celebrities. On his privateering profits is son later bought up the land east of Dunkirk and built the seaside resort which still bears their name—Malo-les-Bains. Like many old inns the Three Cups was said to be haunted. If the supposed ghost was not George Jay’s, there were other candidates. One evening early in 1799 a naval sloop lieutenant who a year or so before had fought the Dutch in the Battle of Camperdown, a Scot named Renton, was seated in the parlour dining, drinking and playing cards with fellow officers while their various ships were in harbour. Without explaining himself, he suddenly stood up and went outside. Seconds later a pistol shot was heard. Renton had killed himself. Later that same year the corpse of the colonel of one of the Guards regiments involved in the unsuccessful Allied invasion of Holland was laid out at the inn: he had died of his wounds on the way back home. 


In 1804 Napoleon, dictator of France for the last five years, made himself emperor. The British sent agents over to assassinate him, and the following year two of these stayed at the Three Cups. Both were French, but their true identities are uncertain. One was named Lesimple, the other was sometimes known as Bonard, or turned it backwards and called himself Dranob. While waiting for the packet boat for Germany, they fell out. Grabbing knives from the dining room table, they went out into St Nicholas churchyard. Bonard, who was perhaps a double agent paid by the French to shadow Lesimple, was slashed in the side. In spite of this he boarded the ferry with Lesimple, but on arrival reported to the French governor of Hamburg, showed him the gory wound, and denounced his companion.

Julian Foynes, The Harwich Society Magazine, Sping 2017, p.20-22, extract taken from East Anglia Against the Tricolor, 1789-1815, Poppyland Publishers, 2016