In my collection of London postcards, a curiosity is provided by two cards, one in colour and the other black and white, purported to show Lord Nelson’s house in Merton, writes Jan Bondeson.
The second card, stamped and posted in 1906, shows the house actually being demolished, surely a sacrilegious act to the memory of the naval hero.
There is no doubt that Nelson lived at Merton Place, the comfortable house that he left, for the final time, to go on his expedition to Trafalgar in 1805.
Several watercolours and drawings of Merton Place have survived in various nautical museums – but they show a different house to the one demolished in 1906.
Here was a fishy business indeed, and a mystery well worth investigating.
Nelson moved to Merton in September 1801, as The Morning Post announced, referring to the great naval hero by his Sicilian title: “The Duke of Bronte has purchased Merton Place, the beautiful villa of the late Charles Greaves Esq at Merton in Surrey.
It is quite appropriate to the Noble Admiral, for he is surrounded by his own element.”
The feeble pun is likely to have been inspired by a moat or canal running round the house. Nelson liked his new house very much. He improved it a good deal and purchased much land to create a proper park.
He was a good landlord, kind to the poor and needy; he planted trees and shrubs with his own hand and fished in the River Wandle.
Controversially, he invited the 28-year-old Emma Lady Hamilton, the love of his life, to share the house with him.
She brought with her Sir William Hamilton, her 71-year-old cuckolded husband.
The vivacious Emma also liked Merton and helped Nelson with his improvement work in the estate.
After Nelson’s death in 1805, his brother William inherited the majority of his estate.
For some reason or other, Emma and her illegitimate daughter Horatia received Merton Place, £2,000 and a pension of £500 per annum from the Bronte estate.
A foolish, volatile woman and a reckless spender, she was soon heavily in debt.
In June 1808 and March 1813, she put up Merton Place for sale by auction, but the estate failed to sell.
She escaped from her creditors in 1814 and took young Horatia with her to Calais, but drank herself to death in January the following year.
After Emma’s death, Merton Place was put up for sale in February 1815 but once more failed to sell.
It was put up for auction in May the same year, and again in May 1818, but the effects of long-standing neglect were setting in, making the house difficult to sell.
In July 1822, The Morning Advertiser contained the melancholy news that Merton Place had been pulled down.
The estate was now auctioned off as “The Delightful Situation for erecting one or more Villas.”
But what of the ‘impostor house’ of 1906, I hear you ask.
The truth is that already by the early 1890s, there were untrue newspaper stories that Nelson had lived not at Merton Place but at Merton Abbey, a large detached house still in existence at the time.
The Edinburgh Evening News of September 1893 even wrote that “Merton Abbey, the last home of Nelson, has been purchased by a member of the English bar.
It was once proposed to turn it into a Nelson museum, but the project was never carried out.”
The rationalists of course objected that Nelson had lived at Merton Place, wantonly demolished three quarters of a century ago, but nobody listened to them and the newspaper stories of Nelson’s house in Merton acquired their own life.
The Daily Mirror of February 1906 reproduced photographs of the eventual demolition of Merton Abbey, which is clearly the same house shown in my postcard stamped and posted on April 27 1906.
Modern suburban housing today stands on the spot, and Nelson’s real house and the bogus Merton Abbey have long since been forgotten.
Main picture: Merton Abbey being demolished