Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The George and Its Patrons – Lord Nelson, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower

by Margaret Muir

Lord Nelson
The George Hotel in Portsmouth was long regarded as a prestigious establishment providing rooms and meals for weary travellers arriving by coach from London. It was frequented by admirals and sea captains alike, including Horatio Nelson who stayed there on several occasions. The most notable was his last day on English soil before embarking on HMS Victory.

While factual history fixes the George on the map, nautical fiction authors, Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester used the venue to colour the exploits of Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower respectively. Patrick O’Brian refers to the George at least 10 times in his 21 books, and CS Forester not only made several mentions of the famous coaching inn, but (in ‘Hornblower and the Hotspur’) chose the hotel’s coffee-room to host the wedding breakfast following Hornblower’s marriage to Maria.

Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey

Because of the intriguing connections existing in both fact and fiction, when I planned a 5-day visit to Portsmouth (from Australia), there was only one hotel I wanted to stay at – the George. But in the words of Robert Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley’.

On arrival at the hotel, full of anticipation, I was confronted by a building dating back to 1781. And for a visitor, it was ideally located only a stone’s throw from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. But this was neither the original George Hotel, nor the one I had come looking for. I soon learned that the famous coaching house had been severely damaged by German bombs on 10 January 1941 and subsequently demolished. Disappointed but not undaunted, I set about to locate the site where the original George had stood and, if possible, secure an image of the old hotel.

Having ascertained the coaching house was located near Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, I headed for the High Street and found a pair of post-war lamp posts gracing the curb where a pair of gas lamps had one stood. They marked the spot where the London coaches came to a halt outside the George’s front entrance. It was here Lord Nelson had stepped from his post-chaise from Merton and entered the building. It was here, in fiction, that Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower had entered the premises to spend many a happy hour.

Today, on the pavement between the two lamp posts is a bronze plaque that reads: ‘Lord Nelson rested at this old Posting House on 14th September 1805 before embarking on his flagship H.M.S. Victory’.

Because of the devastation caused by the WW11 air raids, the site was levelled and, in 1954, an uninspiring block of flats arose in its place. It was named "George’s Court". On the wall of the latter-day building is another plaque paying tribute to Nelson’s visit.

But my search had not been for the ghosts of the past but for the building that had accommodated them. While the first hotel on this site had been a thatched-roofed house called the “Waggon and Lamb”, I can only presume the name George Hotel was adopted during the reign of George I, when the new building, with its Georgian façade, was constructed.

At that time, High Street was a busy thoroughfare, not only with horse-drawn carriages, coaches and carts, but sailors, soldiers, local traders and pedestrians.

In 1739 a Town Hall and Market House had been constructed in the centre of the road. This seemingly odd location created a thriving hive of shops, stalls and offices, but it also created a massive bottleneck to the traffic passing along the street. For that reason, it was eventually demolished in 1837.

Also situated on High Street, only a cable’s length from the hotel was the Church of St Thomas à Becket or St Thomas of Canterbury (now Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral). It was here CS Forester’s characters Horatio Hornblower and Maria were married before repairing to the George for the wedding breakfast.

Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral
Continuing along to the end of High Street brought the visitor to the fortifications that had defended the town since the reign of Henry VIII to one of the sally ports and the beach. But when Nelson left the George in the early afternoon of the 14th, he did not head down the High Street; instead, to avoid the already congested thoroughfare and the well-wishers who were eager to accompany him, he slipped out of the hotel’s back entrance into Farthing Street.

As a further means of avoiding attention, from Fighting Cock Lane (Pembroke Road), he detoured across the garden of the Governor’s residence. At the time, this was part of the complex occupied by the Garrison Church – a building dating back to 1212. Sadly, the Church’s nave was also badly damaged in the war-time bombings.

Accompanied by George Rose, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and George Canning, the Treasurer of the Navy, Nelson headed across a narrow bridge over the moat to the triangular shaped fortification – the Spur Redoubt, which protruded into the sea, and to the beachfront beyond. There, with pebbles crunching under his feet, he was able to gaze across Spithead and see the fleet gathering for departure to the Cadiz Road.

Nelson’s diary entry of Saturday, Sept 14th, 1805 reads, “… embarked at the Bathing Machines with Mr Rose and Mr Canning at 2: got on board Victory at St Helen’s; who dined with me; preparing for sea.”

Mermaids at Brighton,
William Heath, 1829
As an aside – I find it hard to imagine bathing machines, normally associated with the Victorian era, being present on the beach in Nelson’s time. They are described in Outon’s Traveller’s Guide of 1805 as:
“four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Goodbye, My Lads! by Fred Roe
Fred Roe’s 1905 stylized painting “Good bye, my lads” depicts Lord Nelson, with a ship-of-the-line in the background, waving farewell when he departed Portsmouth. It is a far cry from the image I conjure in my mind of a senior naval officer standing on a shingle beach with bathing machines and swimmers in the water nearby.

Nelson’s final hours on English soil had been busy and included two visits to the George Hotel. But they were to be his last. The hotel long remembered the Admiral’s visit with pride and preserved his room for the next 136 years until the hotel, like the British admiral, fell to enemy fire during an unforgettable conflict that would long be remembered.

Note: this follows an earlier post – “The Portsmouth Road aka the Sailor’s Highway

Images to blog post.

1 – Admiral Lord Nelson – statue in Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich

2 – Jack Aubrey - Russell Crowe from Master and Commander: www.imdb.com

3 – Two street lamps on High Street mark the old coaching stop

4 – Plaque on wall of George’s Court.

5 – The George Hotel (Pre-war image – taken from plaque outside George’s Court.)

6 – Town hall and Market Place from Portsmouth Image Town Hall images

7 – Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral

8 – Pembroke Road and the Garrison Church

9 – ‘Mermaids at Brighton’ by William Heath 1829

10 – ‘Good-bye, my lads’ Fred Roe - 1905

Photo images by Margaret Muir (2012)


Margaret Muir is author of 4 historical fiction novels set in Yorkshire (her birthplace) and a nautical fiction series written under the by-line M.C. Muir. Inspired by her love of tall ships, Muir’s latest adventures are set during the Napoleonic sea wars. The first 3 books in the series have been published as an e-book boxed set: “The Oliver Quintrell Trilogy”. Book 4 is due later this year. Other individual titles are available from Amazon.


  1. Thank you, Margaret. As a great fan of anything having to do with Nelson, I was keen to read about the place he spent his final night ashore - and of your subsequent detective work to locate the actual site. And I too was surprised to learn that bathing machines were in use so early; one imagines them linked only to the prudery of the later 19th c, not the relatively open physicality (at least for women) of the earlier decades, so I thank you for that as well.

  2. Research does turn out some very interesting snippets and I sometimes think we have not changed a lot over the centuries, though often our images of the past are slightly distorted.
    Thank you for your comment, Octavia.


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