By Duncan Steel 18/06/2020


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My blog post here has essentially nothing to do with space and astronomy, my usual subjects, but it concerns a little matter of history I thought I’d like to write about.

Once upon a time I wrote a long book about calendars, and as a consequence accumulated knowledge about many of the special dates in the year which could be used as an excuse for having a beer. Two days ago it was Bloomsday, a good reason for a Guinness (and also for giving flowers to someone: my doctor’s surgery staff kindly obliged me by accepting a bunch of yellow roses).

Although the hours are running out, today is June 18th, and so the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I imagine that many today know about it mainly from the song by ABBA, but the battle itself was (like all warfare) a ferocious, appalling matter. A painting by William Sadler depicted at the head of this post shows some of the terrible gore.

My pretence for connecting Wellington and Nelson here is that Arthur Wellesley (the Duke’s actual name) rode a horse called Copenhagen at the Battle of Waterloo. Indeed, I once attended a lecture in which the claim was made that Napoleon Bonaparte only lost that battle because haemorrhoids made it impossible for him to ride his own horse in comfort, and so he was unable to take proper command of the French troops. On such things do the courses of history turn.

The connection with Nelson is this. Lord Horatio Nelson won three famous naval encounters: the Battle of the Nile (1798), the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). And Copenhagen was the name of Wellington’s horse.

My pretence, however, is this. In fact Wellington gave that appellation to his mount not for the battle in which Nelson fought, but rather the Second Battle of Copenhagen, which took place in 1807. That later event involved the British fleet bombarding the city with cannon and rockets, but was preceded a week earlier by the (land) Battle of Køge, in which Wellington (then General Wellesley) led the British forces. Hence the horse’s name.

My motivation for writing this derives from the puzzlement I felt when I moved across the Cook Strait from Wellington to Nelson about five years ago. Nelson’s main shopping precinct is on Trafalgar Street, and Trafalgar Square wraps around Pikimai, or Church Hill. At right angles to it is Nile Street, which is long in the east and short in the west. Other roads are named for Lord Nelson’s fellow seamen, such as Collingwood Street and Hardy Street. But I could find no Copenhagen Street.

I would ask people: where is Copenhagen Street then? They would look at me in bafflement.

It is not that I am any expert in history. In fact the main reason I knew of the Battle of Copenhagen – the earlier sea battle – was because some decades ago I worked for the European Space Agency, and was based at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. To fly anywhere for a conference or somesuch I would need to go to Kastrup, Copenhagen’s international airport. This was before the bridge across the Öresund was built, and so I would need to take the ferry (slow) or hydrofoil (fast) from Malmö to the centre of Copenhagen, and then get a connecting bus to the airport.

This was a trip I did many, many times, generally accompanied by Swedes bent on taking advantage of the cheaper alcohol available on board. The thing is, as we entered Copenhagen harbour (and I note that the havn in the Danish København actually means harbour), and before we passed the statue of the Little Mermaid (which certainly is surprisingly little), we would sail by a sea fort built to protect the entry to the city (hah!) and known as Trekroner (three crowns). Looking at the brick ramparts that surround this artificial island one can see divots knocked out by cannonballs more than two centuries ago, though whether in the first (Nelson’s) Battle of Copenhagen or the second (Wellington’s) I must plead ignorance.

So why no Copenhagen Street in New Zealand’s city of Nelson? As no-one seemed to know why I was asking, it seemed unlikely that I would ever get an answer, and internet searches threw nothing up. Until. Until one day I was walking in Fairfield Park, which lies at the far southern end of Trafalgar Street, where the Grampian hills begin to rise and just across the road from Fairfield House and indeed Melrose House. From about 1851 this area was used as a cemetery, with around 200 graves having been mapped there beneath the trees and the ornamental gardens.

An informative historical display erected in Fairfield Park told me something extra. Soon after Nelson was founded in 1841, as the street plan was being laid out it was decided that this area of about six acres should be known as Copenhagen Mount, to commemorate Nelson’s sea battle, the renaming to Fairfield Park coming later. I suppose that, because the name had been used once, it was decided that it could not be employed again. At least and at last my puzzlement was laid to rest in that old cemetery.


Addendum, 20th June: It’s not like me to miss the chance for a terrible pun, but I did so in the final paragraph above. Copenhagen Mount was the name given to a part of Nelson soon after it was settled by the arriving pākehā; but Copenhagen was also the name of the Duke of Wellington’s mount at the Battle of Waterloo.