An officer from the Napoleonic Wars had his pension paid until 1951.

  • Lieutenant Nelson
Lieutenant Nelson
Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

Horatio Nelson is one of Great Britain’s most legendary war heroes. The Royal Navy vice admiral led several key victories during the Napoleonic Wars with France — including his final battle near Cape Trafalgar in Spain, where he died after being shot by a sniper. At the time, it was not unusual for the British government to grant perpetual pensions to the families of war heroes, and Nelson’s family was given £5,000 a year, upwards of £500,000 today. The practice ended in 1887, and most families receiving such pensions took a buyout offer soon after. But the pension reserved for the Earls Nelson (the family was given the title of earl in honor of the naval hero) didn’t end until 1951, with the death of the fifth earl. By the 1940s, most of the pension money was used to maintain the family estate, which the family wished to sell but was not able to since it had been purchased with public funds after Horatio’s death. So in 1947, the British Parliament voted to end the arrangement — the family wouldn’t receive a pension, but they’d be allowed to sell the property. 

It’s somewhat ironic that Nelson’s pension lasted the longest considering it wasn’t actually distributed to his descendants. His beloved daughter Horatia, his only child, was born out of wedlock to his mistress and lifelong love Emma Hamilton — and although he asked with his dying breath that Hamilton be taken care of, his pension went to his older brother William, who did not carry out his wishes. The pension passed down to William’s descendants, and Hamilton raised Horatia in poverty. Given this, one member of Parliament, Michael Foot, speculated that Horatio himself would have voted to end the pension. While discussing the bill in Parliament, he said: “This House, 140 years ago, behaved meanly towards the memory of Lady Hamilton, and when there is a vote [to end the pension], it will be a vote to wipe out the wrong which was done 140 years ago.”

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