Flintlock sword-pistol once owned by Admiral Lord Nelson's close friend, for sale at Bonhams

Wealthy trader's roller coaster career included management of Nelson's financial affairs and two spells in prison

Antique Arms and Armour
25 Jul 2012
London, Knightsbridge

Bonhams is selling the pistol-sword of Alexander Davison, an intimate friend of Admiral Lord Nelson for 24 years, who subsequently spent time in Newgate Prison for financial irregularity. It will form part of the Antique Arms, Armour and Sporting Gun sale to held at Bonhams Knightsbridge on 25 July.

The unusual weapon estimated to sell for £10,000 to £15,000, is a fine and rare flintlock combined 54-bore box-lock over-and-under tap-action pistol and sword made by H.W. Mortimer, London, in the late 18th Century. It bears Birmingham silver hallmarks for 1782, and a maker's mark of Charles Freeth. The pistol has a 64.9 cm sword blade attached.

Alexander Davison (1750-1829) first met Horatio Nelson in Quebec in 1782 and he was to remain a constant figure in Nelson's life until 9 January 1806 when, as one of the four principal members of Nelson's household, he broke his white stave of office to be placed on the Admiral's coffin as it was lowered into the vault of St. Pauls', where it remains to this day.

Davison was of Scottish ancestry and built a fortune in Canada during the 1770s and 80s as a trader and ship owner during the American War of Independence. On his return to England he was appointed the Commissariat of the Duke of York's army in Flanders augmented in 1795 by his further appointment as agent to the Barrackmaster-General to the British army, General Oliver De Lancey. This was an attempt to rationalise the arrangements individual regiments followed when requisitioning equipment. Davison recovered a fee of 2½% on all purchases, a reward further enhanced when he purchased supplies from his own factories in Millbank and which helped finance the purchase of Swarland Park, Northumberland

Following Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 Davison was appointed, by a unanimous decision of the Captains of the Nile but clearly sponsored by Nelson, sole agent for the sale and distribution of the prizes taken during the battle, As a result of this Davison decided to commission medals for all those who had served in the action at a cost to himself of
£2,000 (the equivalent today of about £120,000). He also arranged for the production of the famous crocodile-hilted swords to be commissioned through the Royal goldsmiths Rundell & Bridge for the members of the 'Egyptian Club' established for the Captains who served with Nelson on the Nile.

In 1798 Davison acquired a mansion in St. James's Square where in 1800, on Nelson's triumphant return to England, he hosted a banquet in his friend's honour, attended by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, four cabinet ministers and the Prince of Wales. By this time Davison held power of attorney and seems to have been almost entirely responsible for managing Nelson's financial affairs.

In 1802 he sought election as member of Parliament for Ilchester, but was gaoled for six months in 1804 for electoral fraud. Following Nelson's death on 21 October 1805 the various valuables recovered from the Admiral's effects were examined at Davison's house in St. James's Square. In the presence of Nelson's brother, William, recently ennobled as first Earl Nelson, and William Haslewood, the Admiral's solicitor, both executors of Nelson's will, the various 'Money, Coins in Lord Nelson's Pocket, purse & when killed' were inspected, recorded and then entrusted to Davison as treasurer. Nelson bequeathed his 'turkish scimitar, gun and canteen' to Alexander Davison.

In 1807 a parliamentary committee was established to investigate irregularities in the Barrack-Quartermaster's accounts as a result of which Davison stood accused of falsifying purchase orders and receipts. He defended his business arrangements, which old General De Lancey recalled were agreed to insure supplies, and denied any falsifying of documents. However he was found guilty by special jury, ordered to pay £8,800 (about £500,000 today) and sentenced to twenty-one months in Newgate prison. On his release from prison he lived quietly in Brighton until his death on 7 December 1829.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

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