The expert author explores the centuries-old history of Trafalgar Night celebrations, and the rather more recent Pickle Night tradition. A 10 minute read.
The Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson are commemorated every year, not just in the navies which once flew the White Ensign but by other navies too, including the USN and the Royal Swedish Navy, by celebrations of the hero’s humanity and leadership and the epic nature of the victory of sea power.
The first recognisable Trafalgar Night took place on Tuesday 17 December 1805 when, despite the early snows which made the roads in north Norfolk impassable, a grand ball and supper took place in the assembly rooms at Norwich. The event was described in detail in the Norfolk Chronicle. The theme was triumphal; the decorations of the rooms included: an allegorical figure representing the Genius of Britain, holding in one hand a black shield entwined with laurel bearing the motto “Nelson still lives though dead” and a trident in her other hand, on which the English union jack was flying over the French colours, while a naval crown appeared descending in rays of glory above her head. In another room there was “a whole-length portrait of Lord Nelson as large as life,” supported by Britannia and by Neptune. Some 450 of the county’s nobility and gentry attended the ball. The Norfolk Chronicle reported “the toast to the immortal memory of our illustrious countryman, Lord Nelson, being drunk with reiterated acclamations.”
The idea caught on, and in 1810 The Times carried the first of a series of regular notices to “the officers of the Navy, Army and Volunteer Corps and the Noblemen and Gentlemen in the vicinity of Blackheath” that “the annual commemorations of the victory at Trafalgar… [on] the anniversary of the above glorious victory will be celebrated at the Green Man on Blackheath [alas, no more!] … dinner on table at 5 o’clock precisely, tickets at one guinea each.”
The Naval Chronicle reported on one of these evenings: “On Monday the 21st of last October, about one hundred persons dined together, at the Green Man, Blackheath, to commemorate the anniversary of the victory of Trafalgar, and the remembrance of the lamented death of Nelson. Sir Edward Knatchbull was in the chair. After the usual toasts, complimentary to the Royal Family and Prince Regent had been drunk, the chairman gave ‘The Memory of Nelson.’ The toast was drunk in solemn silence, and its effect on the minds of all present was evinced by the dignified sorrow that was cast over every countenance. Amongst other toasts that were given in the course of the evening were ‘The Duke of York and the Army’ and ‘Lord Wellington and his brave followers.’ These were received with loud applause, but not more loud than marked the enunciation of The Lord Mayor and the City of London. Mr Alderman Atkins expressed his gratitude for the toast that had been given, and was convinced that the citizens of London would feel as he felt – grateful for the high honour that had been conferred on them by such a mark of respect. The beautiful Anthem of ‘God Save the King,’ and several songs – ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Britons Strike Home,’ ‘The Prince’ and ‘Old England for ever,’ &c. were sung in the course of the evening by [the highly regarded glee singers] Messrs. Taylor, Goss, Leete, King, &c.”
There was no modern political correctness about the visceral choice of songs. Henry Purcell’s Britons Strike Home, written in 1695 includes the line “Britons, strike home! Revenge, revenge your Country’s wrong”; The Prince also has ancient origins though it has been newly recycled; and Old England for ever says “For the French, they may boast, but their boasts are all my eye, my eye.” All are available on YouTube.
By the 1830s there were regular reports of reunions by officers to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, and on the 30th anniversary of Trafalgar in 1835 (predating Pasco by 11 years) there was a dinner onboard HMS Victory herself when Captain William Stanhope Badcock, who had been a 20-year-old midshipman in Neptune and was the only veteran present, proposed the Immortal Memory.
The venues varied widely, and on 21 October 1836 the Royal Naval Club of 1765, “David Foggo Secretary,” held its annual dinner to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar at the Piazza Coffeehouse, Covent Garden, while in the same year Admiral Sir Philip Durham, who had commanded Defiance in 1805, invited to a gala function in Admiralty House, Portsmouth, every officer in the area who had served at Trafalgar.
As for the toast, it was drunk in silence – a custom this author was brought up to do – and the National Museum of the Royal Navy has it quite wrong when it says on its website that this “first dates back to 1846 with Lieutenant John Pasco, who began hosting Trafalgar Night Dinners onboard HMS Victory.” It is also wrong in the claim by Colin White to have revived some original wording. In 1810 as in 1832 (see below), the toast was drunk in silence.
The officers were not alone in their celebrations: the sailors too had something to celebrate, and we can imagine how well Pickle’s crew caroused on their arrival in Plymouth on 5 November 1805, having witnessed an epic sea battle and suffered a rough passage on their journey home to tell the news. Three days later William Smith, Michael Connol and Samuel Hutchins reported sick to Assistant Surgeon Simon Britton, who duly described their symptoms of venereal disease in his medical journal.
As more men who had taken part in the Battles of Trafalgar and Strachan’s Action of Ortegal arrived home, there must have been reunions and reminiscences aplenty in the public houses of Plymouth, and at least one of these got out of hand. The local newspaper reported an incident in January 1806: “A most laughable incident took place in this town and dock, with a party of Trafalgarian and Ortegal naval heroes yesterday, ashore on leave. About 12 of them hired the largest hackney coach they could get on the stand, filled it inside and outside, and on the top; 4 occupied each corner of the coach on top, with two immense bowls of grog, with which they regaled themselves, and then changed places, handed the grog into the coach to their comrades, thro’ the windows; and tho’ the coach drove full gallop, they stood upright, huzzaing Nelson, Collingwood and Strachan, and dancing on the coach, with handkerchiefs as signals. They finished their career at Castle Rag and North Corner, without any accident whatsover.”
Thirty years later, ‘Nauticus’ wrote to the Morning Post about a dinner he had attended at the Champion public house (still there though rebuilt, in Goswell Road, East London) on Monday, 22 October 1832, organised “by a few of the brave sons of Neptune who had fought under Lord Nelson’s flag.” In the chair was Yorkshire-born Edward McQuire, who had been a 24-year-old able seaman in Victory and one of her foretopmen on the day of battle, and “many were present who were near his Lordship in his last moments.” After the Immortal Memory of Lord Nelson had been drunk in solemn silence, loyal and patriotic toasts were interspersed with some excellent sea songs, and “many a deed was recounted and the recital of heroic reminiscences enlivened the item and kept these brother tars together until an early hour in the morning.” “No public notice had been given of the intended meeting,” wrote ‘Nauticus’, “but it has most likely laid the foundation of a society that to the latest posterity keep alive the memory of man to whom Great Britain owed so much.”
The modern Pickle Night is slightly more salubrious. On 6 November each year, or thereabouts, in ships and shore establishments around the world, the warrant officers and chief petty officers celebrate the victory at Trafalgar with a Pickle Night dinner. It is unique because we know exactly when, where, how and why it began, and who invented it.
In 1974 the president of the senior rates’ mess of HMS Nelson, the Royal Naval barracks in Portsmouth, asked the commodore of the barracks for permission to celebrate Trafalgar Night in the same way as the wardroom. The then Commodore Lea thought this was a splendid idea, but saw the difficulty of introducing a new event into an already crowded calendar, and of finding a guest to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory when there were already several Trafalgar Night dinners spread either side of 21 October. Lea suggested that the warrant officers and chief petty officers should instead celebrate the arrival of the news of the battle two weeks later, by which time there might be guest speakers who were able to look another glass of port in the eye again.
The later Vice-Admiral Sir John Lea told the Navy News: “I noticed a reference to Pickle Night in your October issue, and thought you might like to know, for your records, how why and when it originated. I was Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks from 1972–75. In 1974 I was able to persuade the Admiralty to allow us to become HMS Nelson. This had unusual problems, because personal approval had to be sought from the Queen, as her great grandfather Edward VII had decreed that the new Barracks at Portsmouth was to be known as Victory Barracks. The name change took place in June 1974, on the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. The president of the Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers Mess, Mr Hetherington, came to see me for advice and approval for them to celebrate Trafalgar Night in 1974 in the same way as the Wardroom. I agreed with enthusiasm, but foresaw that there would always be difficulties in getting sufficiently prestigious guests to propose the Immortal Memory toast, as they would be in competition with the Wardroom. I suggested that they should instead celebrate the arrival of the news in this country in HMS Pickle, and so ensure no competition for important guests. I was delighted when the Mess president agreed and so started a tradition in WO and CPO Messes around the country and, I believe, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I have had the pleasure of being asked twice to propose the Immortal Memory toast in the mess in Nelson, the last in 1991, and I was most impressed by how the tradition and ceremony at the dinner has evolved.”
Already Pickle Night is celebrated in November each year around the globe, from church halls in Australia to the most prestigious of dinners at the New York Yacht Club, and in warrant and chief petty officers’ messes throughout the Royal Navy. Some have devised a special routine for such events, based not on silverware and candlelight and starched linen but on the mess tables which used to hang between the guns of Nelson’s ships, with the food being passed down the table; others dress in costume and decorate rooms to look like the interior of a sailing man-of-war. All who have attended such an evening will agree that, despite being of such recent invention, Pickle Night already feels like a proper, ages-old naval tradition.
 This article is an extract from the author’s definitive history of HMS Pickle. See Hore, P. (2015) HMS Pickle: The Swiftest Ship in Nelson’s Fleet at Trafalgar. 1st edn. Stroud: The History Press.
 Norfolk Chronicle, 21 December 1805.
 The Times, 15 October 1810.
 NC, vol. 26, 1811, p. 452.
 Vice-Admiral William Stanhope Badcock (1787–1859) assumed the surname Lovell in 1840 and under this wrote Personal Narrative of Events from 1799 to 1815 (London: W.H. Allen, 1879).
 Dublin Observer, 31 October 1835.
 The Times, 13 October 1836.
 Peter Hore, Nelson’s Band of Brothers (London: Seaforth, 2015), p. 139.
 National Museum of the Royal Navy. Available at: https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news/what-trafalgar-night-dinner (Accessed: 23 November 2023).
 ADM 101/112/8A, journal of HM Schooner Pickle
by S.G. Britton, Assistant Surgeon, for 23 January to 31 December 1805, during which time the ship was employed in the West Indies, off the Coast of Spain and Portugal.
 Trewmans, 2 January 1806.
 Morning Post, 24 October 1832.
 The author is grateful to Iain MacKenzie, formerly of the Naval Historical Branch, for bringing this to his attention.
 Navy News, 30 October 2003.