baptized Thomas Allen on
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
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)
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
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
It was to
be a long campaign in the
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.
about this time, off
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)
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
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
later Nelson again led an attack barely surviving an action off
promotion Tom had gained three years before was now confirmed on their return
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.
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.
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)
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)
were paid to Tom, £100 on
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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
The other major tribute to Tom is contained in an Appendix to
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:-
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:-
Official Records are:-
Nelson biographies have found other material:-