Downham Market is proud of its connection to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte KB. There are plenty of people who will tell you he went to school on Bridge Street. There’s even a green plaque marking the spot.
There’s more evidence for the Nelson/Downham connection in the distinguished pages of the Dictionary of National Biography. The entry for Captain G.W.Manby FRS – Gorleston resident and inventor of the breeches buoy – asserts that Manby and Nelson “formed a close intimacy” as school fellows in Downham. It points to the Preface to Manby’s own Description of the Nelson Museum as evidence. The detail is impressive. Manby recalls their teachers, a distinctive jacket the young Nelson wore, as well as games at the pump in the Market Place.
But there’s a problem here. Nelson was 7 years older than Manby. Nelson went to sea at the age of 12. So the close intimacy which developed between them must – on this account – have come to an end when Manby was 5. The window for their friendship shrinks even more when you allow for the fact that Nelson was at school in Norwich and North Walsham before he went to sea. And while Manby has a good deal to say about their friendship Nelson has nothing to say about it at all.
Both had strong connections to Great Yarmouth. In 1801 Nelson returned to Yarmouth in triumph after his success at the battle of Copenhagen. Manby was Barrack Master in Yarmouth – but not until 1803. Manby is in the right place to have become familiar with our national hero, but at the wrong time.
Manby was clearly obsessed with Nelson. You get a flavour in the full title of his guide to the Nelson Museum: A Description of the Nelson Museum formed at Pedestal House, Southtown, Great Yarmouth with historic remarks on the subject: to commemorate the glorious deeds and ever-to-be-lamented death of that heroic British Naval Chief Nelson and Bronte.
In fact the Manby’s Description is little more than a pamphlet and its Preface appears to be the sole source for the story of Nelson’s Downham connection:
Of all men now living I alone can claim the honour of his school and play-fellow-hood – we were friends in youth, born in the same county, our early instruction received at the same time, at the same school in Downham Market, kept by Thomas Nooks and William Chatham. Nooks for the elder children where Nelson was – Chatham for younger where I was. Well do I remember his pea-green coatee; and how he used to accompany me to my home in Denver from Saturday to the Monday following. Well do I remember his nautical sports at the pump in the market place, launching paper boats in the surface stream, and his commanding authority amongst the Boys to make way for them….
The Nelson Museum isn’t quite what you might expect either. It was Manby’s own house, a modest cottage on Gorleston High Road. Its exhibits were made up of Manby’s own collection of Nelson memorabilia.
It looks as if Manby’s obsession with Nelson led him to embellish if not to entirely fabricate an acquaintance with the great man. This obsession seems to have grown rather than diminished with age. He spent his last years surrounded by his curios in Pedestal House looking out on the Nelson Monument and the North Sea. When he publishes the Description in 1849 by which time he is 84 and Nelson has been dead for 44 years Manby, in a remarkable non sequitur, is still straining to establish a connection:
If my great prototype, Nelson, achieved such glories by the expenditure of human life (including his own), shall it not be said of me by posterity that I achieved some valuable glories for the human race, by establishing amongst the nations of the earth a mode of saving human life?
There is something desperately sad in the modest little book held in the Colman Collection of the Norwich Millennium Library and its assertion on the final page:
I cannot conclude without expressing a religious hope, that having devotedly collected memorials to illustrate the glorious deeds of Nelson, it may tend to associate my name with that of our Norfolk Hero, and thereby preserve it from obscurity
Manby had his own distinguished career. His invention of the Manby mortar and breeches buoy was responsible for saving hundreds of lives. He can also claim to have invented one of the first fire extinguishers – the extincteur – and to have been instrumental in founding the precursors of both the RNLI and the Fire Brigade. He didn’t need the reflected glory of Nelson to earn his place in history.
The Nelson Monument from Pedestal House today