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Medway's links to Battle of Trafalgar

Today is Trafalgar Day - 214 years since the Royal Navy defeated the French and Spanish in the famous battle.

Admiral Lord Nelson had strong links with Chatham and learned much of his seamanship on the River Medway.

The heavily timbered Purser Place, Walter Burke's first Wouldham home (19542070)
The heavily timbered Purser Place, Walter Burke's first Wouldham home (19542070)

His flagship HMS Victory was built at Chatham. And a number of seamen who sailed into battle with him came from the Medway area.

One of the officers who knew him best was Walter Burke, purser aboard the Victory, who is buried at Wouldham. Nelson died in his arms.

As the Chatham-built HMS Victory prepared to lead its squadron into battle off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of October 21, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson turned to Walter Burke, and said: “Burke, I expect to see every man at his station, and if we succeed today, you and I will go to sea no more.”

Both found new berths ashore, Nelson a tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, and Burke, a heavily timbered house in Wouldham, near Rochester.

When the two men spoke again, Nelson was close to death. Burke had informed his Admiral that a glorious victory had been won. But Nelson had no doubts about his own fate. “It is nonsense, Mr Burke,” he said, “to suppose I can live. My sufferings are great, but they will soon be over.”

The Georgian style Burke House, the purser's second home (19542068)
The Georgian style Burke House, the purser's second home (19542068)

Walter Burke, who was to spend the remaining 10 years of his life at Wouldham, had reasons, other than the death of Nelson, to be sick of the sea.

His son and a younger brother had perished when HMS Seagull foundered in the English Channel a few months before Trafalgar.

Another son, Lieutenant Burke, was mortally wounded in an attack on the French ship Cheveretee.

Now aged 60, he was the oldest serving officer aboard Victory and the oldest purser in the Royal Navy.

It was time to hang up his sea-boots. A quiet life beside the River Medway in the rural parish of Wouldham must have seemed ideal. Instead of ships of war, he could look out on peaceful trading vessels as they plied the tideway.

Nelson's flagship HMS Victory was built in Chatham
Nelson's flagship HMS Victory was built in Chatham

The first house he bought was given the appropriate name of Purser Place. It was a heavily timbered cottage which stood in the High Street. Later he moved to what became known as Burke House, a Georgian style building which offered more space.

Burke seems to have turned his mind, if not his hand, to farming.

A month after his death there was an auction of his assets, which included a team of useful horses, eight valuable steers, a “capital” milch cow, unthrashed wheat, beans, barley and oats and two stacks of sainfoin. There were also various items of farm machinery.

Both of his Wouldham homes were pulled down in 1937, but they still exist. The materials of Purser Place were carefully recorded and the cottage reassembled in Maresfield, Sussex, where it still stands. Burke House was also disassembled and some of its materials used for an extension to the cottage.

Nelson statue over Union Jack in Trafalgar Square (19789630)
Nelson statue over Union Jack in Trafalgar Square (19789630)

Now modern houses stand on the High Street sites where his old homes existed. His name is commemorated at Wouldham by a new road, Walter Burke Avenue. And there is a Walter Burke Way in Chatham.

But the Irishman – he was born in Limerick – is buried in the churchyard at Wouldham. His headstone records that “in his arms the immortal Nelson died”.

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