THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR, fought in 1805 in the waters off Cape Trafalgar on the Atlantic coast of Spain, was a major victory for British naval forces under the leadership of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). Sadly, it was after that battle that Nelson died, having been hit by a bullet fired from the French vessel “Redoubtable”. Most people are familiar with Trafalgar Square in central London, which commemorates the great victory. Fewer people might be familiar with a riverside hostelry in Greenwich, which also celebrates the battle.
The majority of visitors to Greenwich concentrate mainly on the Cutty Sark, the Royal Naval College, the Greenwich Meridian, the Naval Museum, and Greenwich Market. The Trafalgar Tavern is, I suspect, not on everyone’s list of things that must be seen on a visit to Greenwich. It is located on the riverbank immediately east (downstream) of the former Royal Naval College (now partly occupied by the University of Greenwich).
Before dealing with the tavern, let me digress a little about the origin of the name Greenwich. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, first written in the 9th century, the place was called ‘Grénawic’ or ‘Gronewic’, meaning ‘the green village’. The Scandinavian invaders of Britain might have given it a name meaning ‘the green reach’. The Domesday Book of 1086 lists it as ‘Grenviz’. In 1291, a document called it ‘Grenewych’, which is close to its current name. During the 18th century the hitherto principally naval town also became a popular resort.
The Trafalgar Tavern was built in 1837 to the designs of the architect Joseph Kay (1775-1847), who helped to design the centre of Greenwich, on the site of an older inn, The Old George Tavern. In 1830, the owner of the Old George had wanted to enlarge his premises, but his ideas were sabotaged by the architect he had employed, who could see great potential for the inn and then decided to acquire the pub for himself (www.trafalgartavern.co.uk/history). The new owners of the pub submitted numerous plans for enlarging it until at last in 1837, they got the go ahead to proceed. The elegant building, with bow windows covered with canopies, looking out over the river, that exists today is what they built and re-named The Trafalgar Tavern in 1837.
The tavern’s name was well-chosen. After Nelson was shot, his body was returned to England, where it landed at Spithead. Eventually, Nelson’s embalmed corpse was transferred to Greenwich Hospital, where it was examined (https://www.navyhistory.org.au/the-preservation-of-horatio-lord-nelsons-body/). On the 5th of January 1806, the body lay in state in the magnificent Painted Hall of the hospital. The pub’s name was chosen, according to the Trafalgar’s website, because of its proximity to this place, which is about 200 yards away. In accordance with his wishes, Nelson was buried at St Pauls Cathedral.
Writing in 1876, James Thorne noted that the Trafalgar and other riverside inns in Greenwich were “… all celebrated for their whitebait dinners…” The Tavern’s history website explains that the whitebait were cooked after being caught fresh from the Thames. From the late 18th century onwards it became the fashion for parliamentarians to travel by boat from Westminster to Greenwich to discuss politics discreetly over a dinner of whitebait at one of the riverside hostelries, including the Trafalgar, which was favoured by the Liberals and The Ship that was favoured by the Tories (www.foodsofengland.co.uk/whitebait.htm). The writer Charles Dickens visited the Trafalgar frequently. It is said that he based the wedding dinner scene in “Our Mutual Friend” in the inn. I did a word search of an online edition of the novel and failed to find the name ‘Trafalgar’. However, it has been noted that the dinner took place in “…a dinner at a hotel in Greenwich overlooking the Thames…” (https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mstone/44.html). Some of the other notable visitors to the Trafalgar include William Makepeace Thackeray, JMW Turner, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli.
After WW1, the Trafalgar became used as a home for retired sailors. Later, it was used as accommodation for serving naval officers. In 1968, the place was restored to its original Victorian glory and it became a pub once again. Since then, well at least until the covid19 pandemic, the place has been serving drinks and food including whitebait, although the source of this ingredient is unlikely to be the water flowing past the Tavern.