Horatio Nelson? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Horatio Nelson was a famous British naval hero who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Apparently, he believed that advance readiness was crucial to his success. He said that he owed everything to always being fifteen or twenty minutes early. Would you please help me to find a citation for this remark?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “The Hermit in London: Or, Sketches of English Manners” by Felix M’Donogh in 1819. Horatio Nelson delivered the line while conversing with a tradesman. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
. . . I commend and highly esteem the principle and plan of the late immortal Lord Nelson, who held promptitude of measures and exactness as to time as most valuable qualities, and who, when he recommended a tradesman to send off some articles for him so early as 6 A.M., on the man’s saying “Yes, my Lord, I will be on the spot myself by six o’clock,” mildly touched him on the shoulder, and with a very significant look added, “Mr. —–, a quarter of an hour before, if you please.” The tradesman seemed astonished; but stammered out, “Surely, my Lord, if you wish it; yes, a quarter before six; yes, a quarter before, instead of six!” “Right,” said his Lordship, “it is to that quarter before the time that I owe all the good I ever did.”
This anecdote above was recounted fourteen years after the death of Lord Nelson reducing its credibility. Nevertheless, the saying and its attribution achieved popularity during the ensuing decades. Perhaps an earlier citation will be discovered by future researchers.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The tale was reprinted in other periodicals such as “The Ladies’ Literary Cabinet” in New York 2 and “The Edinburgh Monthly Review” of Scotland 3 in 1820.
In 1823 a collection called “The Percy Anecdotes” included a version of the tale under the title “Punctuality”. The tradesman was an upholsterer, and the quotation was a bit different: 4
When Lord Nelson was leaving London, on his last, but glorious, expedition against the enemy, a quantity of cabin furniture was ordered to be sent on board his ship. He had a farewell dinner-party at his house; and the upholsterer having waited upon his lordship, with an account of the completion of the goods, was brought into the eating-room, in a corner of which his lordship spoke with him.
The upholsterer stated to his noble employer, that every thing was finished, and packed, and would go in the waggon, from a certain inn, at six o’clock. “And you go to the inn, Mr. A., and see them off?” “I shall, my lord; I shall be there punctually at six.” “A quarter before six, Mr. A.; (returned Lord Nelson) be there a quarter before six. To that quarter of an hour I owe every thing in life.”
In 1827 a London publication called “The Cottager’s Monthly Visitor” prefaced the anecdote with the following: 5
King George the Third, it is said, was never a minute beyond his time at any of his appointments. He was ready beforehand. Lord Nelson said that he owed all his success in life to being always ready a quarter of an hour too soon.
In 1836 “The Guide to Knowledge” edited by W. Pinnock printed a variant story based on twenty minutes instead of fifteen: 6
Lord Nelson, that great man of whom England is so justly proud, attributed his success in life far more to his punctuality than to his genius; and yet we would suppose that even the least modest of those who affect to undervalue so old-fashioned a virtue as punctuality, would not for a moment scruple to compare themselves, as to genius, with the greatest man this country ever produced!
His lordship, when about to leave England on his last glorious expedition, had occasion to order some articles of furniture for his cabin, and the tradesman to whom he gave the order promised very emphatically to be “exact to the moment.” “Not so,” replied the hero, “not so—be twenty minutes before the time; to being always twenty minutes before my time I owe all that I have on earth!”—a lesson that, which no really moral or well-inclined young man should ever for a moment lose sight of.
In 1845 “A Summer at De Courcy Lodge by Jane Bourne contained the following: 7
Lord Nelson used to say he owed all his success in life, humanly speaking, to being ready for anything he had to do, a quarter of an hour before the time appointed.
In 1848 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” printed this version: 8
When he was on the eve of departure for one of his great expeditions, the coachmaker said to him, ‘The carriage shall be at the door punctually at six o’clock.’ ‘A quarter before,’ said Nelson; ‘I have always been a quarter of an hour before my time, and it has made a man of me.’
In 1859 Samuel Smiles published a pioneering and influential book of “Self-Help with Illustrations of Character and Conduct”. Lord Nelson’s guidance was included: 9
An economical use of time is the true mode of securing leisure: it enables us to get through business and carry it forward, instead of being driven by it. On the other hand, the miscalculation of time involves us in perpetual hurry, confusion, and difficulties; and life becomes a mere shuffle of expedients, usually followed by disaster. Nelson once said, “I owe all my success in life to having been always a quarter of an hour before my time.”
Almost one hundred years later, in 1955, the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude contained a section on “punctuality” with a very similar statement: 10
I owe all my success in life to having been always a quarter of an hour before hand. – LORD NELSON
In conclusion, a statement about early readiness was ascribed to Horatio Nelson fourteen years after his death. The phrasing of the expression has been highly variable. QI has not found any competing attributions. The evidence is substantive, but some uncertainty remains. QI suggests using the 1819 citation.
Image Notes: Clock faces from geralt at Pixabay. Portrait of Sir Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott located at the National Maritime Museum; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Joel S. Berson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to discussant Dan Goncharoff. In addition, thanks to Nigel Rees and Fred R. Shapiro for previous research.)
- 1819, The Hermit in London: Or, Sketches of English Manners by Felix M’Donogh, Volume 1, Too Late for Dinner, Start Page 39, Quote Page 50, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1820 February 26, The Ladies’ Literary Cabinet, Volume 1, Number 16, Edited by Samuel Woodworth, Anecdotes, Quote Page 126, Woodward & Heustis, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1820 October, The Edinburgh Monthly Review, Volume 4, (Book review with excerpts of “The Hermit in London; or, Sketches of English Manners), Start Page 411, Quote Page 414, Printed for Waugh and Innes, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1823, The Percy Anecdotes: Original and Select by Sholto and Reuben Percy (Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery, Mont Benger), Volume 18 of 20, Punctuality, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10 and 11, Printed for T. Boys, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1827 September, The Cottager’s Monthly Visitor, Volume 7, Punctuality, Start Page 401, Quote Page 402, Printed for C. & J. Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1836, The Guide to Knowledge, Edited by W. Pinnock, Volume 4, The Importance of Regular Industry and Punctuality, Start Page 171, Quote Page 172, Published at the Office of W. Pinnock, Wellington Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1845, A Summer at De Courcy Lodge by Mrs. Bourne (Jane Bourne), Quote Page 76, Printed by Charles A. N. Rollason, Coventry, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1848 December, The Gentleman’s Magazine, (Book review of “Life of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton” by (His son) Charles Buxton), Start Page 563, Quote Page 577, John Bowyer Nichols and Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1859, Self-Help with Illustrations of Character and Conduct by Samuel Smiles, Chapter 8: Economy of Time, Quote Page 199, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: punctuality, Quote Page 324, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy of third Printing of May 1956) ↩