Nelson and His ‘Band of Brothers’: Friendship, Freemasonry, Fraternity

  • Martyn Downer


‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’: writing to his agent Alexander Davison in February 1803, Nelson described these words ‘an old adage, but not the less true’.1 Davison and his family were marooned in lodgings at Calais, a tour of France during the Peace of Amiens truncated by the sudden illness of one of their children. Yet even in extremis Davison did not neglect the material needs of his ‘dear friend’ who was seeking funds to improve Merton Place, the house the admiral shared in Surrey with his mistress, Emma Hamilton. ‘Command the purse of your ever unalterably affectionate friend’, Davison had written without hesitation and with no certainty of being repaid.2 Although Nelson only needed a few thousand pounds — small beer to a man like Davison who estimated his fortune at £300,0003 — his agent’s casual offer of financial assistance was material proof of the deep well of affection that existed between the two men in the last years of the admiral’s life. They had met in Quebec twenty years before, during the American War of Independence. Nelson, then captain of Albemarle, was on North Atlantic convoy duty while Davison was running a successful business in the town supplying goods to the British troops arriving in Canada to fight the war as well as to the loyalist émigrés refugees who were pouring across the border from the colonies. Through his carefully nurtured contacts within government, Davison had also secured the lucrative agency to supply presents to the Native American tribes whose allegiance to the crown — so critical to the success of the Canadian fur and fish trades — was being severely tested by the blandishments of the American rebels. The idea of using sweeteners to secure loyalty was a lesson Davison learnt early in his career.


Palm Tree Male Friend Fish Trade Friendly Society British Troop 
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  1. 1.
    Nelson to Davison, 8 February 1803. N.H. Nicolas, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson (London, 1846), vol. V, p. 42.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Davison to Nelson, 3 February 1803. TJ. Pettigrew, Memoirs of the Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B. (London, 1849), vol. II, p. 282.Google Scholar
  3. 18.
    Davison to Emma Hamilton, undated, probably November 1804. A. Morrison, The Hamilton and Nelson Papers (1893), vol. II, p. 247.Google Scholar
  4. 19.
    J. Harland-Jacobs, ‘The Essential Link’: Freemasonry and British Imperialism, 1751–1918, unpublished D. Phil, dissertation (Duke University, 2000), p. 46n.Google Scholar
  5. 20.
    F. Smyth, ‘The Master-Mason-at-Arms: A Short Study of Freemasonry in the Armed Forces’, Ars Coronatorum, 104 (1991).Google Scholar
  6. 22.
    Nelson to William Haslewood, quoted in T. Pocock, Horatio Nelson (London: Bodley Head, 1987), p. 310.Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    In 1866 the medal was recorded in a family inventory by Davison’s son, Sir William Davison, as ‘the gold nile medal worn by the immortal Nelson when he fell 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar’. It was Lot 8 in The Alexander Davison Collection, Sotheby’s London, 21 October 2002 selling for £26,290.Google Scholar
  8. 25.
    Frances Nelson to Nelson, 11 March 1797, in G.P.B. Naish, Nelson’s Letters to his Wife and other documents 1785–1831 (Navy Records Society, 1958), p. 350.Google Scholar
  9. 43.
    Jeremy Taylor, A Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measure of Friendship (London, 1671), pp. 27–8.Google Scholar

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© Martyn Downer 2005

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  • Martyn Downer

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