architecture, country house, garden history, landscape, Monument, Northumberland, Obelisk

Obelisk to Nelson, Swarland, Northumberland

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.

Alexander Davison. Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library. Public domain.

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.

The bronze edition of the medal produced by Davison for those who had served at the Battle of the Nile, 1798. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

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.’

Early 20th century view of Swarland Hall.

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.

Thank you for reading. Comments are very welcome – please scroll down to the foot of the page to add any thoughts or further information.

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13 thoughts on “Obelisk to Nelson, Swarland, Northumberland”

  1. Colin says:

    Thanks! Another wonderful, intriguing story! Did you try the nearby Nelson’s in the Park? A cafe well regarded for it’s cakes and coffee and deservidly trading successfully on an association with Nelson!

    1. Editor says:

      Morning Colin. As I have mentioned in previous posts my folly jaunts usually include a coffee stop. Sadly, in an attempt to photograph the obelisk in a better light, we were there before the cafe opened. Thanks for the tip and I will go there next visit.

      1. Gwyn Headley says:

        The type of gentleman who in 2020 would have been supplying PPE to the government.

        1. Editor says:

          Hello Gwyn. Indeed, public peculation is not a thing of the past. But hopefully today’s perpetrators will not be remembered with elegant monuments.

  2. Garance Rawinsky says:

    Shadows on monuments are perfectly acceptable to me, they do at least change as the sun moves around giving variety of colour and tone. So much better that graffiti tags which blight many such constructions – almost impossible to remove from stone and do nothing to enhance.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Garance. I’d like to have had better light on the inscriptions but can’t really complain about shadows on a lovely sunny morning. Thankfully, the obelisk has not been defaced by vandals and long may that remain the case.

  3. Andy belfield says:

    The back stories are equally as fascinating as the folly. The effort if very much appreciated.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Andy. I love the back stories, as I hope you can tell!

  4. Lisa Corby says:

    Beautiful photography as ever

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Lisa and thanks for the lovely comment. I think Mother Nature has to take the credit for the sunshine!

  5. Barbara Howard says:

    Lovely photographs with beautiful, blue sky, background. One to look out for on future A1 drives and with added cafe bonus. Even though I’m Norfolk born and bred I only relatively recently did a Nelson Burnham Thorpe Tour in northwest Norfolk but am very familiar with the statue of “Norfolk’s Own Lord Nelson” in The Close at Norwich Cathedral opposite his old school. Thank you, again, Editor.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Barbara, and thank you. I had a drink in the atmospheric Lord Nelson in Burnham Thorpe many years ago.

      1. Barbara Howard says:

        The pub definitely featured on my tour, too!

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