For Admiral Horatio Nelson (September 29, 1758 – October 21, 1805), 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar who scored a number of decisive British naval victories, this was home. In 1801 he bought Merton Place with his lover and the mother of his young daughter Emma Hamilton… and her much older husband, he was 35 years her senior, Sir William Hamilton. Sir William was well-aware of the affair but supported the couple’s tryst and indeed facilitated it. Nelson was still at sea when he wrote to Emma asking her to find them “a little farm”, far enough from town to avoid society gossip but close enough to the Admiralty for him to be in easy reach. With these requirements, he left everything up to her. After one potential property fell through, she settled on Merton Place advertised as “an elegant and very commodious brick edifice”. The property, which came with 21 hectares (52 acres) of land, had been built about 1750 as Moat House Farm, by a man called Henry Pratt. It was put up for sale, for £9,400, following the death of the latest owner. An offer of £9,000 for the house and its contents was accepted and despite a surveyor’s report finding the house shoddy, damp and inconveniently arranged, the couple bought it. Writing to Emma about life at Merton, he told her: “We will eat plain, but will have good wine, and a hearty welcome for all our friends”. Emma moved into the property in September and wasted no time installing pigs and poultry, and stocking the moat, which they named The Nile. Nelson joined her a month later, on October 23, 1801. His unexpected early arrival avoiding the fanfare that might normally accompany a man of his status. For his part Nelson bought a further 47 hectares (115 acres) on the Merton side of the High Street, thus ensuring his privacy. The house was extensively refurbished. However the sums he needed to borrow to maintain this lifestyle became a bone of contention for the great naval hero and he complained to the Prime Minister. In March 1803 Sir William, now frail moved to his own house in Piccadilly, and died the following month. Meanwhile war again disrupted the family idyll and Nelson was called back to duty commanding the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Meanwhile Emma had leased a property in Clarges Street, running up even more debts, as she led the society life. Nelson was at sea fighting against the French for more than a year before he was able to return to Merton, arriving at at 6 am on Tuesday August 20, 1805. Between visits to the Admiralty and the Prime Minister he held family parties and caught up with old friends. Less than a month later, on September 13, a Friday, he returned to sea for what was to prove to be his final voyage. Engaging with the French fleet off Cape Trafalgar, in Spain, he won another decisive battle. But his success came at a terrible cost as he was shot by a French marksman and died on October 21. Emma received the news at Merton 16 days later. Initially grief-stricken she soon returned to her old ways, running up insurmountable debts. She put up the home she had shared with the great Naval commander but, despite its famous former occupant, it failed to sell. In the end a group of friends stepped in to buy the property from her but with mounting money problems, Emma was forced to flee debt collectors heading to Calais, where she died in poverty aged 49. The house, which stood empty, never did sell. Parcels of the land sold off piecemeal and in 1823 the property was pulled down and the last piece of land sold off. Most of the Wimbledon part of the estate was not developed until late in the 19thCentury, but much of the Merton part was soon covered with small cheap houses in narrow roads, collectively known as Nelson’s Fields. These have now gone.
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