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Nelson's Navy in 100 Objects by Gareth Glover

Nelson's Navy in 100 Objects by Gareth Glover

The author, Gareth Glover, himself a former junior naval officer and now a military historian, who has studied the Napoleonic Wars extensively for many years and, interestingly enough for a sailor, is apparently especially well known both for his knowledge of the Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo, as well as carrying out battlefield tours of the latter. On a lighter note, this reminds me that I recall the first time that I went in search of the battlefield, I sought information from a local and, having carefully followed his directions, ended up at Waterloo station! Well, it was in pre satnav days.

Moving afloat, the book sets out to do exactly what the title says, namely providing by means of a series of 100 two to four page articles with fascinating glimpses of a miscellany of information about ships, boats, buildings and artefacts contemporaneous with Nelson’s Navy. Happily both for posterity in general and the reader in particular, many of the items described either exist or are still in use today, ranging from the sublime in the form of Nelson’s VICTORY to the corblimey of the plaintive sound of the bosun’s call. Even the sextant illustrated looks virtually identical to the one I possess. More fortunately, perhaps Bosun’s starts are no longer in use, used to “encourage” dilatory ratings to speed up or toe the line, and the “Rather a Fine Example Made out of Snake Skin” certainly looks like one for skivers to avoid.

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Even more happily, other items are no longer in use today, such as the pressgang cudgel and the cat of nine tails. Depressingly, for those old enough to enjoy their tot prior to Black Tot Day on 31 July 1970 - Cheers Admiral Hill-Norton! - there is of course an item on the subject. On the bright side, and provided that the precedent set at the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 is honoured, those aged 20 and over and still serving at the time of HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 should be able to look forward to “Splicing the Mainbrace” then. And yes, there is an article describing the circumstances in which women were allowed on board - officially - in Nelson’s day, stating that “….no women ever be permitted to be on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to, and the ship not too much pestered even with them”! The unofficial aspect is also covered, at least to a certain extent….

Several historic buildings with Nelson connections are included, and can all be visited today, such as Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital, better known now as the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, the Rope Walk at Chatham or, for those who can travel that far, the Royal Naval Dockyard at Ireland Island in Bermuda or Nelson’s Dockyard at English Harbour in Antigua. As well as HMS VICTORY herself, the 38 gun frigate HMS TRINCOMALEE, built in India in 1816-17, and which many may recall berthed on the Gosport side of Portsmouth Harbour between 1957 and 1987 as the FOUDROYANT, can be visited at Hartlepool by prior arrangement as a constituent part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, having reverted to her original name.

On a personal note, I was particularly interested by the very first “object” chosen, namely the Wind Direction Indicator in the very historic Board Room of the Admiralty, which I am fortunate enough to have entered several times whilst serving in the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall. This is an enormously atmospheric chamber, where the Admiralty Board met daily during Nelson’s time, where the “Tell Tale” wind gage would frequently have been consulted to enable Their Lordships to check the wind as they made their plans for the disposition of the Fleet. Now part of the home of the Department for International Development, I just hope that they appreciate the significance of the living history is in their midst.

There appears to be something for everyone, not surprisingly with frequent mentions of different aspects of HMS VICTORY, including a description of what are rather coyly described as the “Ship’s Toilets, HMS VICTORY”. Rather concerningly for a ship with a complement of over 800, this states that the forrard heads, as most sailors know them, consisted of only two seats on either side of the bowsprit, with urination performed through the adjacent gratings and absolutely nowhere else. Back aft, however, there was a one seater for officers and another for the admiral or captain. That was probably not the origin of the expression “RHIPee”…. Moving quickly on, it’s incredible to consider that the standing and running rigging in HMS VICTORY extended to nearly 27 miles in total, and that she had a set of 37 sails covering an area of 6500 square yards. Perhaps more worryingly, she carried 784 100 pound barrels of gunpowder, totalling over 35 metric tons.

One little gem, not actually recorded amongst the 100, but recorded in the Foreword, is a locket containing the lead ball thought to have been fired from the foretop of the French REDOUBTABLE and which mortally wounded Nelson, is complete with flecks of gold bullion from his epaulette embedded in it. Also in the foreword is the rather intriguing information that, contrary to what those of us who thought we knew our Nelson, is that he apparently never wore an eyepatch. In fact, following damage to his right eye from gravel thrown up by a cannonball at the siege of Calvi in Corsica in 1794, he did not lose an eye but suffered a damaged retina, which meant he could only differentiate between light and dark, but he did have a sort of peak added to his bicorn hat to protect his remaining vision. If only sunglasses had been invented sooner.

Well-written abundantly illustrated, and extremely well-researched, this book is presented in a very readable form, one to dip into rather than read, perhaps by taking one or two "Objects” at a time rather than reading it continuously. No one with any interest in the navy of Nelson’s time could possibly “object” to dipping into it, and we should perhaps just marvel and be grateful that so many of the 100 objects chosen still exist and are preserved in such remarkably good nick, safeguarding ships, boats, items and places, and indeed expressions, with which we are still familiar, perhaps at times overlooking or indeed forgetting their very significant and historic origins.

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