December 21, 1981 12:00 PM

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some, like Peter Nelson, have greatness of a sort thrust upon them. One day Nelson, 39, was a detective sergeant of the Hertfordshire police. His greatest passions were darts in the pub and Hill Street Blues on the telly. Then his Uncle George died, and Peter inherited one of England’s most revered titles: Earl Nelson of Trafalgar and of Merton.

The original wearer of the lordly mantle, of course, was Peter’s distant relative Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose defeat of the French and Spanish fleets in 1805 remains England’s most celebrated naval victory. (Nelson died of wounds received during the battle.) Unfortunately for Peter, however, the title comes with neither wealth nor property. The stately Nelson mansion was sold for taxes in 1949, when Peter was 8, and the family heirlooms have long since disappeared into museums. “If there were an estate to inherit, I would never be doing this,” Lord Nelson admits of his work as a police officer. “But that’s the way the cookie crumbles, as they say in America.” He adds philosophically, “Everyone has two names, and I’ve got a few more. There’s nothing I can do about it. I am now the Rt. Hon. Earl Nelson.”

Peter’s wife, Countess Maureen, is a 33-year-old assistant to an accountant. Deborah, 7, now has a vague sense that she’s a lady; and Simon, 10, knows that he’s a viscount. “The first day back at school Simon got teased,” says Peter. “But the second day he was a hero when I appeared on a children’s news program.”

Peter, a longtime student of his ancestor’s exploits, gives occasional lectures on the Admiral’s life. As the third-ranking nobleman in his county, the Earl has also inherited a heavy schedule of charity events, but won’t sit in the House of Lords: “It’s not compatible with my police work.” Still, some ambiguity pervades his role at the station house. “Address me as always,” he reassured his superiors. But he is aware that while they outrank him professionally, they fall well below him socially. “It’s difficult for me to divorce my other self at work,” he says. “But I know it’s a hereditary title—it wasn’t given to me because I’m the savior of mankind. It won’t change me overnight. At least I hope it doesn’t.”

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