Alexander Davison (1750-1829) of Swarland Park, near Felton in Northumberland, erected this obelisk to Nelson in 1807. A closer look at the inscription reveals that he was not only celebrating the admiral’s victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, but more particularly their personal friendship. Davison had made a fortune supplying the government during the wars with America and France, but he was later charged with ‘public peculation’ – in other words the court believed he had his hand in the till.
Davison had travelled to Quebec as a young man and grew rich in the shipping trade and as a merchant during the American War of Independence. It was in Canada in 1782 that he first met Horatio Nelson. Davison further increased his wealth during the war with the French via lucrative government contracts to supply goods to the British Navy. After the Battle of the Nile in August 1798 he became Nelson’s agent, negotiating the best prices for the enemy ships captured as prizes. For this he was paid a commission, some of which he spent on producing medals for all the sailors who took part in the action.
A few years earlier he had bought the Swarland estate, between Morpeth and Alnwick in Northumberland. A new Palladian hall had been built only 30 years earlier, attributed to John Carr of York. Here, as the county historian Mackenzie wrote in 1825, Davison ‘greatly added to the appearance of the house and grounds by planting and other improvements which have rendered it one of the most handsome and commodious seats in the county.’
Things began to go wrong from around 1802 when Davison tried to bribe voters at an election, and was later imprisoned. There were also whispers that he was corrupt and embezzling funds, and in 1808 he was convicted and again sent to jail, leading to social and financial ruin.
In 1806 he had been asked to account for the whereabouts of missing subscriptions collected to erect a column in memory of Lord Nelson, but he denied all knowledge of the funds. It may have been in reaction to this that he commissioned this monument on his Northumberland estate, which was completed by the mason Thomas Robson in the spring of 1807.
The plaque on the needle of the obelisk is engraved with Nelson’s famous words ‘England expects every man to do his duty’, and below on the plinth is the simple wording ‘Victory 21 October 1805’.
But the wording on the pedestal makes clear that this is Davison’s personal tribute:
‘Not to commemorate the public virtues and heroic achievements of Nelson which is the duty of England, but to the memory of private friendship this erection is dedicated by Alexander Davison, Swarland Hall’.
In his inscription Davison was criticising the tardiness of the nation in building a national monument to Nelson. Although there had been appeals immediately after Nelson had lost his life at the Battle of Trafalgar, and individuals had commissioned their own tributes across the country, London would not have the column in Trafalgar Square until the early 1840s. Davison chose to build his obelisk in the most visible position on his estate – close by the Great North Road on the principal route between London and Edinburgh, where it was noted by travellers passing by.
Locally, the obelisk was seen by some as Davison’s attempt to detract attention from his crimes by trading on his friendship with the national hero. Local histories record these lines, said to have been penned at the Northumberland Arms in nearby Felton around the time the obelisk was built:
Can honour grace a mean and sordid mind,
Though slightly veiled in courtly ostentation,
Can patriot worth a kindred spirit find,
In the vile swindler of a freeborn nation.
Shall Nelson’s name thy character defend,
Thou public base calumniator,
The libel’s gross to call the Hero friend,
By the convicted public peculator.
The mansion at Swarland was demolished in the first half of the 20th century, after the estate had been dispersed. By the late 1990s, the owners of the land on which the obelisk stands had agreed to transfer it to Felton Parish Council. Working with the neighbouring Newton-on-the-Moor and Swarland Parish Councils, a successful bid was made for Heritage Lottery funding, and the Grade II listed obelisk was restored. It is easily accessible (subject to ongoing improvement works to the A1) on a short stretch of the old A1 east of Swarland.
With apologies for the shadows on the obelisk. The Folly Flâneuse has returned to this site in all seasons, and at all times of day, without every finding the perfect moment for a photograph.
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