Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson came to Harwich in his 32-gun frigate Medusa on 8 August 1801 to check on the formation of the Sea Fencibles, a local defence force. (1) He is said to have slipped off the ship to meet his lover Lady Hamilton at The Three Cups. Some insist, however, that Nelson stayed aboard the Medusa which was moored in the harbour in 1801, but others have pointed out that if he had come ashore for a tryst it would not have been recorded. He did go ashore to transact his business but in the King George’s cutter because local pilots, fearing the bad weather, refused to go out to Medusa.
In fact the story and the 'Nelson Room’ at The Three Cups, may have originated from a Nelson visit or visits which are now lost to history.(2) Reading some of Nelson and Lady Hamilton's 'coded' correspondence it is quite possible that he came ashore at Harwich in 1801 to meet her at The Three Cups. By 1801 Nelson and Emma were madly in love and that year their daughter Horatia was born. Their affair was the biggest scandal of the age and therefore Nelson took every opportunity to cover up the affair, even within their personal letters: ‘He may have been the nation’s greatest naval genius, but Lord Nelson perhaps wasn’t so assured when it came to conducting his affair with Lady Hamilton. In fact, the admiral’s efforts to be discreet appear positively clumsy.’ Take, for instance, a letter in which he pretends to write on behalf of a certain Mr Thompson – supposedly a young sailor and father on board his ship – to the sailor’s lover. This young lady is ever-so-conveniently staying with Lady Hamilton. Barely able to contain his yearning he writes: ‘Your friend is at my elbow and enjoins me to assure you that his love for you and your child is if possible greater than ever and that he calls God to witness that he will marry you as soon as possible.’ Nelson, aware of his mistress’s allure, adds: ‘He [Mr Thompson] desires you will adhere to Lady H’s good advice and like her keep those impertinent men at a proper distance.’ The note is one of four exchanges between the lovers, written between 1801 and 1806, loaned to the Nelson Museum in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Curator Hannah Bentley said: ‘People often say Nelson was quite cold and austere, but the letters reveal the intense relationship he had with Lady Hamilton.’
Nelson was going to extreme lengths to hide his affair, writing in 'code' to Lady Hamilton just in case his letters were intercepted. Why would he not go to greater lengths to hide the fact when he was actually meeting her? It seems logical for him to want to convince people that he did not come ashore when he arrived at Harwich in 1801 after action with the French, if he was going to have a secret liaison with Lady Hamilton at The Three Cups. He could then slip off the ship later that evening. Did he write to her that day to completely cover his tracks in case his correspondence was being intercepted?
To add fuel to thought, Nelson writes to Captain Bedford on HMS Leyden at the Nore, on 10 August 1801, just after arriving at Harwich: ‘I have just received your letter, and return you many thanks for your information regarding Flushing; but I must request that you keep everything as secret as possible, relative to my intentions, and take good care of your new Pilot until I see you, which I hope will be in twenty-four hours. I shall be glad to have some conversation with him, as from your account, I am in hopes he may be of infinite use’.
Was Lady Hamilton in Captain Bedford's care waiting for Nelson at Harwich, and is he pretending to talk about her as Bedford's 'new Pilot' in a similar fashion as he had previously talked about himself as 'Mr Thompson'? Why would he make secret arrangements to come off the ship and meet someone, then for no apparent reason stay on the ship after many days at sea? If you are a person of the sea you will understand how unlikely this would be...
After Nelson's visits, including his famous visit to Harwich by sea in 1801, the room where he stayed was turned into a museum. A postcard entitled "Nelson Room, Three Cups Hotel, Harwich" from the Harwich and Dovercourt set of six chromette cards was first issued 27 October 1906. They were distributed for sale throughout England. I have traced three different postcards and one photograph of the Nelson Room at the 'Three Cups'.
(Brett Hammond is chairman of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), owner of TimeLine Originals and founder of TimeLine Auctions. He lives at The Three Cups, Harwich).
1. An early ’Dad’s Army’ largely formed of recalcitrant and infirm elderly ‘volunteers’ against the threat of a possible French invasion.
2. ‘The Three Cups’, Essex Countryside, vol.17, no.151, August 1969, p.32-5.
3. Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, vol. IV, 1845 (repr. 1968), pp. 452-3.
Illus. 1. ‘The Nelson Room. Three Cups Hotel, Harwich’. Chromette card, 1906
Illus. 2. The Three Cups, originally a Tudor mansion c. 1500, then a pub which closed in 1995 is now a private residence. Its new sign by local artist Simon Sharman follows a previous one showing Lord Nelson between Lady Nelson and Emma Hamilton. An earlier sign when a pub depicted three silver covered standing cups
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