Trafalgar Day

30th September 2005 at 01:00
There is a well-established tradition of marking Trafalgar Day with special ceremonies and celebrations. By the 1840s, it had become the custom to decorate HMS Victory - then at anchor in Portsmouth harbour - with laurel wreaths at her mastheads and another surrounding the plaque on the quarterdeck marking the spot where Nelson fell.

In 1846, John Pasco, who as a lieutenant had supervised the hoisting of Nelson's famous flag signal, "England Expects That Every man Will Do His Duty", was appointed her captain. He held a special Trafalgar dinner on board at which a toast was drunk: "To the immortal memory of Nelson and those who fell with him."

Later, in the 19th-century, it became the practice to fly the "England Expects" signal from all Victory's available masts and yards.

Similar customs were to be found elsewhere in Britain. In 1895, the Navy League - a patriotic pressure group formed to campaign for a stronger Navy - began the custom of holding a special commemorative service in Trafalgar Square, for which the column and lions were festooned with flags and laurel.

In Penzance in Cornwall, which still vies with the neighbouring port of Falmouth for the honour of being the first place in Britain where the victory was proclaimed, a service was held in the old parish church to commemorate the arrival of the news.

Many of these traditions continue today. A service of remembrance is still held every Trafalgar Day on board HMS Victory, which is still decorated with laurel wreaths and the flags of "England Expects". In the evening, a dinner is held in Nelson's cabin and the main toast after the meal is still "The Immortal Memory".

Indeed, recently, Trafalgar Night dinners have become more common than ever before. They are now major annual events, not just in naval ships and establishments, but in many sea-related organisations, both overseas and in Britain. This autumn, the bicentenary of Trafalgar is being commemorated by a country-wide Trafalgar Festival, which is part of a bigger, year-long celebration of Britain's relationship with the sea - SeaBritain 2005.

Starting with the spectacular fleet review at Portsmouth on June 28, the festival has now rolled out all over the country, with events of all types, sizes and styles. It will culminate in the Trafalgar Weekend, from October 21-23.

The programme has been co-ordinated by the Official Nelson Commemorations Committee, which started planning more than five years ago. A key aim of the ONCC is that the festival should leave a lasting legacy, especially among young people, as well as a heightened awareness of the importance of Britain's maritime heritage. A key legacy initiative is the Woodland Trust's Trafalgar Woods scheme. This involves planting 33 new woods - each named after one of the British ships at Trafalgar - and schools are being closely involved with each one.

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