The Epitaph of Frances Unwin 1726–1814
News of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and heroic death on board his ship was slow to reach England. On Wednesday November 6 1805 the first reports were published of the dispatches received at the Admiralty in the small hours of that morning. A palpable sense of national mourning, mixed with the triumph of naval victory, immediately sprang up. That evening, in the theatres of Drury Lane, Rule Britannia was played as the curtain rose, and reiterated, with the audience joining in the chorus, with “the most enthusiastic ardour”. In one theatre a hastily-composed poem was read from the stage, reflecting public sentiment in the lines
“For, whilst Britannia’s flag victorious flies, Who can repress his grief when Nelson dies?
Intense public interest followed the journey of the naval commander’s body from Gibraltar to Greenwich, where a hundred thousand people filed past its lying in state in the Painted Hall, and then to the funeral and final resting place in the vault of St Paul’s Cathedral early in January 1806.
For Frances Unwin, then a widow in her eightieth year, the news must have evoked a sharp and painful memory of events over half a century earlier. Then, news of another English naval captain’s death on the quarter deck in the course of war at sea in the Mediterranean had brought the first adventure of her own life, and all its hopes of future happiness, to an end.
It’s improbable that an elderly woman in 1805–6 would have travelled from her home in Bath to London in midwinter to join the great crowds at Greenwich or at St Paul’s Cathedral. But the Bath Chronicle of the following week carried a full report of “this grand national solemnity”, and in Bath itself the day of Nelson’s funeral was marked by the tolling of church bells during the day, and muffled peals rung in the evening. The Pump-Room band played several dirges and funeral marches, and the room was more crowded than on any former occasion. Perhaps Frances, with her memories, accompanied by her daughter and son-in-law, with whom she lived at a house in the Crescent (modern Royal Crescent), one of the best addresses in Bath, was among those present in that crowd.
Frances was born and baptised in Newcastle on Tyne in 1726, the third of the eleven children of John Stephenson and Elizabeth Bell. Earlier generations of Stephensons had been yeomen farmers at Crosslands, near Alston, high in the Pennines. John and his…