TOM ALLEN - His Story
(annotated to original sources)


Tom Allen was a native of Nelson’s own home area of Burnham in north Norfolk.(17,18,19)

He was baptized Thomas Allen on 23 Dec 1771 at Sculthorpe Parish Church. Both his father, a day labourer on the land, and his mother, left a pauper, had died when he was young.(19)


Nelson, who once remarked that ‘a Norfolk man was as good as two others’(25) sought local men from Burnham to join him for his command of HMS Agamemnon at the beginning of the war with France. Tom joined as a 21 year old volunteer on 21 Feb 1793. He was graded Ordinary Seaman.(17)


It was said that ‘from his earliest years’ Tom had been ‘in the service of the Nelson family’(4) but he was not personally known to Nelson’s wife Fanny before the voyage, as Nelson in a letter to her referred to him not by his name but simply as a ‘Norfolk ploughman’. (11)

His grading as an Ordinary Seaman, not a Landsman, ought to suggest some previous experience at sea. It is possible that as a man on the north Norfolk coast he could have been a seaman/fisherman as well as a ploughman. Or perhaps he received an over-grade for being a volunteer from Nelson’s home town.


Nelson already had a long-established personal sailor-manservant appointed for the campaign, Frank Lepée.  Frank was almost part of his family, having served Nelson for many years in the West Indies. This was where Nelson had met and married Fanny, and Frank’s help had been greatly appreciated looking after Fanny’s young son Josiah by an earlier marriage. (10,11)


It was to be a long campaign in the Mediterranean. Frank Lepée began to have drink problems and eventually had to be discharged. Nelson tried another local man, Samuel Porter, but this did not work out. So it was in some desperation that Nelson turned to Tom- the Norfolk ploughman-to fill the post of personal servant. (7,10,11,17)


Tom was a rough country character, without education, clumsy and outspoken, and ordinarily would not have been considered for the post. (1,4 ) But in the years that followed--the continuing strenuous and unrelenting Mediterranean campaign--he and Nelson were to establish a special relationship. It seemed that Tom possessed those qualities that Nelson always valued above all others from himself and his men—an unquestioning loyalty and a strong sense of duty.


First mentioned in Nelson’s letter to Fanny on 5 Dec 1794, (11) Tom was formally appointed servant 20 Oct 1795, then promoted to Able Seaman 11 June 1796 on the move to a new ship HMS Captain. (17)


It was about this time, off Leghorn on the Italian coast, that Tom claimed later to have witnessed a personal meeting between Nelson and Napoleon on board Nelson’s ship to discuss a truce.

It is universally agreed the two great men never did meet- and the writer of the article wondered if Tom might have been mistaken- but the time and place for such a historic meeting-- before either was famous-- are not implausible. (5)


After years of vainly seeking out his enemy for a major confrontation, Nelson at last secured his first famous victory at the Battle of St Vincent on 14 Feb 1797. He controversially broke the line of battle, rammed two Spanish ships San Josef and San Nicolas into each other and took the lead at the head of his men in the successful boarding of both ships.

Tom was one of the sailors fighting at Nelson’s side but he fell badly wounded. According to his later pension record, the wound was in his ‘Privates’. (1,4,18)


He recovered-- though perhaps left disabled with a walk ‘like a heavily laden ship rolling before the wind’(1,3)  There was no respite and no return to England for Nelson and his crew and Tom kept his post in the musters.

Five months later Nelson again led an attack barely surviving an action off Cadiz. This was followed quickly by the failed raid on Santa Cruz (24 July 1797) when Nelson was brought back to his ship with a serious wound to his right arm. Tom held the arm as it was amputated (4), then took particular ‘tender’ care of his captain for the journey back to England. (1,3) This involved attaching a cord to Tom’s shirt-collar that Nelson could pull if he was too weak to call. (4)


The sudden promotion Tom had gained three years before was now confirmed on their return to England. He was introduced to Fanny and taken into the Nelson household, as Frank Lepée had been before. (Interestingly Frank was still to be named in Nelson’s new Will of 21 Mar 1798). (11)

Tom now also had money which was substantial enough to be deposited with Nelson’s own agents, Marsh and Creed. (12)


It was not long before they were back at sea for a new campaign in the Mediterranean on board HMS Vanguard. (17)  Nelson this time had a ‘retinue’ as a Rear-Admiral including Tom, aged 26. Letters back and to between Nelson and Fanny refer to Tom’s part in the domestic preparations for the voyage. (11,12)


On 1 Aug 1798 Nelson won his second great victory at the Battle of the Nile.

Tom again took his turn in the action, being as usual stationed at ‘one of the upper-deck guns’,(4)  but his providential contribution to this battle was an inadvertent one.

Before action commenced Nelson’s hat had been too loose-fitting. Tom had sewed in a special pad and this saved Nelson’s life when he took a shot to his head- so serious Nelson believed himself mortally wounded. (5)


After the victory, which secured for Britain control of the Mediterranean, Nelson received congratulations from one and all. None more so than from Emma, Lady Hamilton, at Naples, where her husband Sir William Hamilton was ambassador to the court. Her devoted praise turned into a love affair.

On 26 Dec 1798 the court had to flee Naples to Palermo and in the worst storm Nelson could remember Tom helped Emma care for the royal family unused to such hardship. (12,13)


At Palermo, Tom found himself sharing the comforts and privileges of court and was the natural trusted person, now on HMS Foudroyant, (17) to deliver love-letters to and from Lady Hamilton. (11,12,13,14,15)

He became so involved that he could later joke that ‘he might have married either of the princesses, had he been so minded’. (4)

This was the time of the famous moment he refused to kneel before or kiss the hand  of the King of Naples, when he came on to the Foudroyant for a royal visit.  Instead Tom heartily shook his hand with the rough greeting ‘How d’you do, Mr King’.  As for not kneeling Tom explained, ‘he never bent his knee but in prayer and he feared that was too seldom’. (1,3)


He was similarly out of line on 14.2 1800 at a St Vincent anniversary dinner, when he joined in conversation as if on equal terms with one of the guests, Captain Coffield, asking after the health of a shipmate. Nelson dismissed him from the cabin for his ‘impudence’, though only to accept Tom interrupting later to suggest he had drunk too much wine, and thus ‘the greatest naval hero of the day was led from his own table by his faithful and attached servant’. (1,2,3)


Tom never felt unequal in his elevated surroundings. He later reminisced that ‘had he but been a scholar, he might have been as high as Sir Thomas Hardy or any of the rest of them’.(5)

He was more than once threatened with dismissal—‘a threat so often used that it was at length disregarded’. Said Tom on one occasion-‘He ma’ talk about turning me awa’, if he likes, but you know he awes me thirty pounds and more’(8,26)


In the end Tom’s loyalty and attentiveness were more important to Nelson than his unruliness. ‘Next to Lady Hamilton, Tom Allen possessed the greatest influence with his heroic master,’ witnessed Parsons (1,3)


Another story was told at this time of how, when the Foudroyant steered too close to the coast of Malta and cannon-fire began to threaten the decks, Tom ‘interposed his bulky form between those forts and his little master’. (1,3,4).


When a coffin was presented to Nelson made from a French wreck from the Battle of the Nile- the mainmast of L’Orient- Tom insisted it be removed from his cabin, as he said it would bring bad luck. (10,20,26).  “It always puts me in mind of a corpse”, said Tom. (9a)


Meanwhile Nelson and Fanny were still exchanging letters and one of Fanny’s included a love-letter for Tom himself. (11) Tom’s clumsiness was also mentioned- he had overset the ink’, as he busied himself in Nelson’s cabin. (11,13,14,15)


In the middle of 1800, Nelson was forced finally to return to England. He took a land-route through Europe, which became an almost regal celebration. Emma, now pregnant, accompanied him.

Tom is mentioned once as warning Nelson not to drink too much champagne. (21)


Once they were back home, the separation from Fanny began, as Nelson spent as much time as he could with Emma. While Nelson and Emma were being entertained for Christmas at Fonthill, Tom took the opportunity to return to Norfolk to marry Jane Dextern at Docking on 31 Dec 1800. (19) Jane was the sister of Elizabeth Dextern, who had married Tom’s brother William Allen some years earlier.

Tom had more money- a draft for £95 just given to him, (12) as well as his share of the 100 ounces of silver the King of Naples had donated to Nelson’s servants. (10)

Soon Tom would also be mentioned in Nelson’s new Will of 16 Mar 1801, to be given £50 and all his ‘cloaths’. (12)


Now a Vice-Admiral, Nelson joined HMS San Josef on 17 Jan 1801 in readiness for his next great campaign in the Baltic. (17)

Before setting off, Tom was recorded to have accompanied Nelson on a furtive visit to see Nelson and Emma’s new baby daughter, Horatia, being cared for by a Mrs Gibson (22). Later in life Tom would be quizzed on what he knew of this secret birth.


On 2 April 1801 Nelson fought and won his third famous victory -the Battle of Copenhagen. Once again Tom played his part by insisting at the pre-battle conference the night before that Nelson took rest. An eye-witness Hon. Col. Stewart noted that Tom ‘assumed much command on these occasions’. (10,20)

It was a battle Tom later was reluctant to talk about, for reasons he did not explain. (4)


After the battle Nelson and Emma took a holiday at Staines. Emma received there a poem from Lord William Gordon, which included a mention of Tom’s bravery and recording also how before Copenhagen Tom had taken special care of Emma’s portrait that took pride of place in Nelson’s cabin. (13)

“Nor, by our Muse shall Allen be forgot

            who for himself nor bullets fear’d nor shot…”


In August 1801, when fear of an invasion by Napoleon was at its height, Nelson and Tom took to sea again, defending the Channel coast. (17)

There is a firm record at this time of Nelson seriously losing his temper with Tom. A case containing all Nelson’s papers and £200 was mislaid. It was soon recovered but Nelson claimed that Tom ‘never says truth’. ‘He will one day ruin me by his ignorance, obstinacy and lies’.(13)


Despite this, Tom was to be part of the new household that Nelson and Emma were establishing at Merton. Peace with Napoleon was being negotiated and Nelson was looking forward to his retirement.

Tom’s new wife Jane had come down from Norfolk and she was to be the dairymaid. (11)

Jane got on well with Emma pleasing her on one occasion by remarking that Emma and William Nelson’s wife were both ‘like so many Venuses’.(23)


In the last months on board, Tom’s letters to Jane were being enclosed with Nelson’s letters to Emma.(12,13,15)

As a farewell present Captain Sutton gave Tom a goat. (15)


At Merton, Tom became butler for a short time and in one of his reminiscences Lt. Parsons describes a visit he made to Merton to request a favour from his old captain. Tom and Emma conspired to help him gain Nelson’s cooperation. (1,2)


On 9 Feb 1802 Tom, now 30 years old, left Nelson’s service, returning home to Norfolk with Jane to start a family. This meant he had to be discharged from the Navy and Nelson wrote accordingly to Captain Sutton. (10,17)  Later that year their first son was baptized at Fakenham—Horatio Nelson Allen- on 10 October. (19) It was said Nelson was his godfather. (4)


Two drafts were paid to Tom, £100 on 19 Nov 1801 and £30 on 11 Feb 1802 (12) and at this stage there is no sign that Tom left on bad terms.


However all the sources agree that the two men quarrelled at some point. (4,7)

This appears to be the time of the quarrel as shown by the next mention of Tom, two years later when Nelson was back at sea.  In a letter to Emma from his ship on 13 Oct 1804, Nelson reported that Tom-“poor foolish man”- had written for a reference. (15)  Similarly on 30 Aug 1805, when briefly back at Merton, Nelson responded to another request for a reference on Tom received from Rev Glasse- Tom had applied to be his steward- and Nelson’s language is more critical-  Tom ‘did not make a very grateful return’ and ‘would not be able perform such a service well’ (16)


The usual account in the original sources was that Tom became reconciled to Nelson. So reconciled, he was intended to be at Trafalgar but was left behind on shore accidentally when Nelson left hurriedly to rejoin HMS Victory on 14 Sept 1805. It states ‘Tom was left at Merton with orders to join his master as soon as possible’ but ‘the last ship had sailed before his arrival in Portsmouth’. (4,5,6,9)


However Tom was never on the Victory Ship’s Muster (17), and given the now known letter to Rev.Glasse –only recently published--, the usual account seems most unlikely. The letter was dated only two weeks before setting sail and would have required a complete change of heart by Nelson within only days of his writing it.


Another source is worded differently. It says that ‘on his Lordship’s obtaining the command of the Mediterranean, Tom Allen said that his Lordship wrote to him to go with him again.’ Tom, it went on, missed Nelson leaving London, missed him again at Portsmouth, was offered a place on the next passage, but changed his mind and returned to his wife, Jane. (8)

This makes more sense because the date would be much earlier-May 1803- when Nelson first sailed and would explain Nelson feeling let down, hence the problem he had giving Tom a reference.

(In another copy of this source there is an additional footnote stating ‘on very good authority’ that Nelson did not write to Tom.) (7)

Finally there is a memory in Tom’s family of a critical letter from the Admiralty, implying Tom missed Trafalgar due to intoxication. (16a)


Tom was certainly eager to return to sea- this is proved by his subsequent rejoining the Navy in 1809.

But his reluctance to leave Jane is understandable—she had a second son baptized at Fakenham on 16 Feb 1804 (19)  (interestingly named Henry-Emma’s pet name for Nelson) (22).


The conclusion seems to be that Tom made some effort to be with Nelson for his last campaign-though in 1803 rather than 1805- either with or without Nelson’s knowledge- but he did not see it through.


The popular account, depicting Tom left on the quayside as Nelson sailed to his death, fitted the earnest debate in the sources as to whether Nelson died only because Tom failed to be with him at Trafalgar. In earlier battles Tom had insisted on Nelson wearing modest uniform. On the deck of the Victory at Trafalgar, wearing dress uniform instead, Nelson was more conspicuous and, in the hour of his greatest victory, fell mortally wounded to a sniper’s bullet. (All)

Tom later said “I never told anybody that if I had been there, Lord Nelson would not have been killed: but this I have said, and say again, that if I had been there, he should not have put on that coat. He would mind me like a child”.(9a)


His family (two boys) now complete, Tom did go back to sea, four years after Trafalgar, volunteering on 26.11.1809 for HMS Circe. He served just over two years off the coast of Spain in the Peninsular War, before being invalided out on 14 March 1812. (17,18)


The next we hear of Tom is back home in Burnham—about 1817- when he became a personal servant to Sir William Bolton—Nelson’s close relative. (4,5,7,8,9) It was while he served the Boltons that Nelson’s daughter Horatia came to live with them. Horatia married the local curate Rev. Philip Ward and started a family. (Tom’s niece, Bet Allen, was around this time appointed the nursemaid (24). She remained so until her death in 1860, when Horatia provided a headstone in gratitude, still standing in Burnham Sutton churchyard).


Having started her family Horatia began to research her mysterious past and took the opportunity to question Tom about what he knew of the scandal of her birth.

Horatia had always known Nelson to be her father but never publicly accepted Emma to be her mother. Later Emma’s parentage was not questioned but at the time there was much public controversy.

If there was one person who could help it should have been a close servant such as Tom Allen, but his contribution simply added further mystery. He said his memory was of a quite different pregnant woman enquiring of Nelson at the time and that he had recognized her to be the sister of a merchant they had met at Genoa. His statement only added to the confusion, as did yet another quite different story from Sir Thomas Hardy(10).  Perhaps out of loyalty to the hero both men were fending off the interest.



When Sir William Bolton died in 1830, Tom was aged 58 and facing hardship. A local Norwich gentleman Page Nicol Scott, an ex-naval surgeon, took up his cause, writing to both Sir Thomas Hardy and Sir William Beatty to arrange Tom’s admission as an In-Pensioner at Greenwich Naval Hospital. (4) Perhaps Scott had been a friend of Sir William Bolton but there was also another connection, -- Scott, Nelson and Tom had been freemasons. (8)

On 19 October 1831, Tom was duly admitted to Greenwich and employed as a gardener by the Lieutenant-Governor Sir Jahleel Brenton. (4)

He was aged 59 but his entry record stated he was much older at 66/67 years old. All subsequent Greenwich records, including his memorial stone and the memorial card above these notes assumed this higher age. It is not known if this was a simple error, or a deliberate way of easing in his entry as an In-Pensioner. (18)


On 19 June 1837, Sir Thomas Hardy himself became governor and Tom was promoted to Pewterer. This gave him a handsome salary of £65 p.a. and also gave him an apartment in the West Hall for himself, his wife Jane and his granddaughter, Susan. (4,18)


Nelson’s memory had always been revered since Trafalgar but around this time there was a particular revival of interest, especially seeking the reminiscences of the dwindling band of those who had sailed with him. Tom became something of a celebrity and his life was used, broadly, as a model for a popular novel of the day- Captain Chamier’s ‘Ben Brace, the Last of the Agamemnons’. (1,3,4,5,6,7)

Tom was also employed by Hardy for a particular task in September 1837 in attending an enquiry at Southwark to identify some jewels of Nelson that had been deposited by Lady Hamilton’s executor. (4)


When Tom died 23 November 1838, Sir Thomas Hardy arranged a monument, (4) still standing today in Greenwich Park. A memorial card was printed and circulated by Scott to raise funds for his widow Jane, (4) who returned to Burnham and ended her days there.


Much of the original source material was written around the time of Tom’s death in 1838.

It was 30 years since Trafalgar and there was a growing appetite to record memories of Nelson’s exploits from the dwindling band of those who had sailed with him.

1.      Nelsonian Reminiscences (1843)—Lt. G.S.Parsons

Republished as I Sailed with Nelson (1973), Lieutenant Parsons was a young midshipman on HMS Foudroyant 1799-1800 and was an eye-witness to many colourful stories of Tom’s close relationship to Nelson and Lady Hamilton. His reminiscences had appeared earlier in

2.  Metropolitan Magazine Vol 19 1837 and

3.  Metropolitan Magazine Vol 28 May-Aug 1840.


The other major tribute to Tom is contained in an Appendix to

4. 1840 Edition of Clarke & M’Arthur’s The Life and Services of Horatio Viscount Nelson  

This contains some of the earlier Parsons material and the Appendix is then itself reproduced in Parsons (1843)


Much of the above was repeated in other publications but other material is added in:-

5. United Service Journal & Naval & Military Magazine Feb 1836

6. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction 9 Nov 1839

7. United Services Journal Oct 1839

8. Freemason’s Quarterly Review 31 Dec 1839

9. Extracts from the Norwich Papers Dec 1st and 8th 1838 ( National Maritime Museum ref. PHB/P/180)

9a. Notes and Queries- Nov 15 1856 and July 16 1864.

These were reminiscences of the Catholic writer Dr F.C. Husenbeth, priest near Sir William Bolton’s final home at Costessey, who “ met Tom almost every day.. and got into chat with him about his brave and noble master”.


Earlier there were many mentions of Tom in Nelson’s own correspondence, published in:-

10 The Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson- Nicolas (1845)

11. Nelson’s Letters to his Wife and Other Documents—Naish (1958)

12.  The Hamilton & Nelson Papers- Morrison (1893/4)

13. Memoirs of the Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson- Pettigrew (1849)

14. Faber Book of Letters, ed. Felix Pryor

15. Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton- Anon (1814)

16. Eastern Daily Press 10.11.1995 and the Times 31.10.1995, etc.

16a. Eastern Daily Press 1.1.2005


Official Records are:-

17. Ship’s Musters at PRO Kew

18. Greenwich Hospital Records at PRO Kew

19. Parish Registers


Nelson biographies have found other material:-

20. The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson- Southey (1810)

21. Horatio Nelson- Pocock (1994)

22. Nelson and the Hamiltons- Jack Russell ( 1969)                 

23. Emma- Mollie Hardwicke (1969)                                                   

24. Horatia Nelson- Winifred Gerin (1970)                                         

25. The Sailors Whom Nelson Led- E.Fraser (1913)

26 Life of Lord Nelson- Joseph Allen (1843)


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