Downing Street has seen some quirky encounters but none quite as quirky as one on September 18, 1805 at the Colonial Office, which was located at the end of it at that time (see image above). Sir Arthur Wellesley – not yet the Duke of Wellington – fresh from his victory at the Battle of Assaye, had come to report to the secretary of state. For some unexplained reason he was running late and the person who was due to see him before Wellington was still in the waiting room.
Wellington immediately recognised that person as Lord Nelson (clue: he had only one arm and one eye) but Nelson did not recognise the Wellington as they had never met before and there were, of course, no photographs around in those days.
What happened next is best described in Wellington’s own words as recorded by the diarist John Wilson Croker some years later:
“He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and in really a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman.”
The conversation continued for nearly three quarters of an hour. Wellington said he had never had a chat that had interested him more and never before seen “a more sudden and complete metamorphosis” of a person. If the secretary of state had not kept them waiting he would have had a completely different view of Nelson. What on earth he was doing that made him keep two of Britain’s most successful military commanders waiting can only be guessed at.
The pair would never be offered another opportunity to meet. The then Wellesley went on to greater things, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo. Nelson died a month later at the Battle of Trafalgar, the most successful naval encounter in Britain’s history.
The Colonial Office has long since been demolished but one memento of the historic meeting that took place in it remains. In the map room of the Ministry of Defence the actual mantelpiece at which the two great men conversed has been conserved, though it is not open to public view.
Vic Keegan’s Lost London instalments 1-96 can be found here.
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