Walter Burke, Esq
Updated: Jan 27
Researched and written by Simone Reid, part of the research team for 'The Military Grave Restorer' run by Steve Davies.
Walter Burke was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1736, although some sources say 1745. Most researchers agree that he died aged 79 and that the date found on his headstone date is wrong; this has been confirmed by the local Vicar. He was related to Edmund Burke, the British Statesman, Economist, philosopher and at one-time Paymaster to the Forces. Walter Burke joined the Royal Navy due to having a family member already in the service and three of his sons died while also serving.
His son, Henry Burke, rose to the rank of Commander and captained HMS Seagull from June 1802. In August 1803 he retook the East Indiaman, 'Lord Nelson' which had been captured by the privateer Bellone a few days previously. Henry and his younger brother were lost with the entire complement of Seagull when it disappeared in the English Channel in February 1805.
Another son, Walter Burke Jr, rose to the rank of Lieutenant. He was mortally wounded during the boarding of the French ship, Chevette, in July 1801 and died in hospital a few days later.
Walter was a Purser and, at this time, would have been a standing officer of the Royal Navy and he would have been responsible for the handling of all monies on board, as well as purchasing food, supplies and the ensuring maintenance of ship and sails. The Purser would have stayed with the ship in port between voyages as its caretaker, supervising repairs and refits.
As Purser aboard HMS Victory during The Battle of Trafalgar, at 69 years old he was the oldest man on the ship and the oldest Purser in the Royal Navy at this time. Walter was famously depicted in Arthur William Devis' painting, "The Death Of Nelson;" he is on the right, dressed in a red waistcoat holding the Admiral as he died. The story goes that when Nelson was carried into the cockpit, mortally wounded, he sent Burke to find Hardy.
The Purser ran to the deck and returned to tell Nelson that Captain Hardy was on his way.
He tried to reassure the Admiral that he would survive but Nelson would have none of it and is said to have replied, "It is nonsense, Mr Burke, to suppose I can live. My sufferings are great but they will soon be over."
Walter retired to Wouldham in Kent where he had two houses, Purser Place and Burke House. In 1937 both houses were dismantled and the materials taken to Marsfield, Sussex to form part of a newly-built house which was named Purser Place. Walter died in Wouldham on 12th September 1815 and was buried in the local cemetery. Although his grave was later "lost," it was rediscovered in 1894 and restored. During later renovations to his grave in 1955, the headstone was lifted and inscription was re-carved and the mistakes were carried over from original side; this now means the original front is now on the back of the stone.
The church, All Saints, Wouldham, has MOD dispensation to fly the White Ensign from 0800hrs until sunset on Trafalgar Day. Flying the White Ensign is normally only permitted by commissioned ships of the Royal Navy, including shore bases, and the penalties for flying the Ensign without permission are severe. Furthermore, it has become customary for the children of Wouldham CofE Primary School to come to the church on Trafalgar Day for a service and to lay flowers on Walter's grave. The children still come from the local school to honour him on 21st October,
His Will states that he, 'Desires to be buried without pomp or expense at wherever he happens to die...' and he directs his trustees to sell his houses and all his personal effects as soon as possible. This was to be done after the payment of debts and funeral expenses, and the money was to be divided equally in half. The first half was to be given to his son, William Augustus, who was living in the Isle de France. The other half was to be invested in public funds and interests, and to be used towards the education and maintenance of the children of his late daughter. If they died before their 21st birthday their share went to his son.
The NRWGC is grateful for Steve Davies for his work in restoring Walter Burke's grave, which was funded by the NRWGC, and for his permission in sharing this research, which was conducted by Simone Reid.