The National Maritime Museum holds information about more than 20,000 Royal Navy warships from circa 1500 to 1950 and is now making this data available through the Warship Histories Project. This project involves the NMM partnering with Wikipedia to enhance our records as well as theirs in order to produce more accurate records for everyone. This is where we need you help!
Our data was compiled by a variety of people here at the Museum over many years and as a result is incomplete. We are asking for help to look at our data and improve or even create records for these vessels on Wikipedia which we will then use to improve our records and help people search our collections by vessels that they are related to.
We recognise how knowledgeable our audience are and we want to take full advantage of that fact. Please visit our project page to find out more about how you can contribute.
As part of the ongoing research for a new gallery, provisionally called ‘Navy, Nation and Nelson, 1688-1815′, I have recently been investigating the Museum’s collections relating to the Royal Navy in the 1740s. The simple premise is that by analysing what a nation read, bought and consumed during this period, we can begin to gauge how it thought about itself. During the 1740s a number of well-publicised naval victories struck a chord with the British national consciousness. Britain as a political and legal entity dated back to the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, yet the concept of ‘Britishness’ understandably took time to sink into the nation’s collective heart. As the museum’s collections demonstrate, British naval victories during this decade were celebrated by various sections of society, while the navy began to be used as an emblem of national identity.
This found its truest expression in the widespread and unprecedented celebrations that followed Admiral Vernon‘s victories in the Caribbean in 1739-40. Ceramics with Vernon’s image emblazoned on them were purchased across the country. In the NMM’s collections is a swathe of material culture from the period, hinting at a widespread public engagement with Vernon and the navy.
Plate showing the taking of Porto Bello by Admiral Edward Vernon (AAA4352)
Vernon’s victories overlooked regional loyalties, being celebrated across England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and North America. Prints, poems and ballads promoting Vernon as a British hero appeared across the nation. One poem implored, ‘Come loyal Britons all rejoyce with joyful acclamations’. This they did, in great numbers, by acquiring personal items that spoke loudly of a newfound patriotism. Many coins were produced in celebration of Vernon’s victories; indeed, more medals were stuck in Vernon’s honour than any other figure in the 18th century. The NMM alone has 219 medals related to Vernon.
Medal commemorating Admiral Edward Vernon (MEC0890)
Consumption crossed regional and class divides. Some of the medals were of cheap metal; although demonstrating poorer workmanship, they remained highly patriotic in sentiment.
Medal commemorating the capture of Porto Bello, 1739 (MEC0901)
Naval patriotism was not limited to ceramics and medals, and encroached onto a curious array of 18th century possessions. Echoing a modern day penchant for celebrity perfumes, Havana snuff that ‘came directly’ from Admiral Vernon was advertised widely. Who actually bought it is slightly unclear, but it is not too fanciful to imagine it being a helpful talking point at Georgian dinners. There was something for female consumers too; fans were produced prominently displaying Admiral Vernon and portraying him as a national hero.
An ivory and paper fan printed with a depiction of Vernon’s victory at Portobello, 21 November 1739, hand coloured, 1740 (OBJ0421)
Written on the fan was the verse:
‘How the Briton Cannon Thunders
See my lads six ships appear
Every Briton acting wonders
Strikes the Southern World with Fear…’
Words like ‘Briton’s’ and ‘Britain’ embellished a variety of material culture inspired by Vernon. In doing so the navy was assisting in the creation of a ‘British’ identity.
The use of naval figures to propagate patriotic fervour was not limited to Vernon. Admirals Anson and Warren were also celebrated in a wide range of prints, pamphlets and material culture. Anson’s capture of a Spanish treasure fleet made him a national hero, with the treasure triumphantly paraded through the streets of London, helping to restore national self-esteem. His victory off Cape Finisterre in 1747 elevated him still further in the popular mind.
Medal commemorating the Battle of Cape Finisterre, 1747 and Admiral Lord Anson’s voyage, 1740-4 (MEC1134)
Accounts of his exploits were vastly popular. Crucially, he was judged as upholding fundamentally British characteristics; after the battle of Cape Finisterre, the Gentleman’s Magazine (also to be found at the NMM) highlighted ‘that truly British nobleman’ who had fought so well. Anson made sure the most widely read literature recorded a favourable account of his exploits, and loaded it with patriotic language. The art of self-promotion was an important part of the naval officer’s skill-set.
George Lord Anson Vice Admiral of Great Britain, Admiral of the Blue Squadron of His Majesty’s Fleet, 1751(PAF3416)
Both Anson and Warren, were celebrated in song:
‘To Anson and Warren your Bumpers life high,
They’ll chase the French Squadrons beneath ev’ry Sky…
…O’erjoy’d they fail forth and come up with the Foe,
Determin’d like Britons to strike a bold Blow.’
Anson and Warren: A Song. Words by Mr Lockman, set to music by Lewis Granom Esq. Printed for J. Simpson, London, 1747
This was stirring stuff; self-consciously patriotic and undeniably popular. The navy was a national symbol capable of crossing regional and social divides. In doing so, it was to make a significant contribution to the process of cultural nation building during the 18th century.
The NMM is continually working to increase online access to its collections and, thanks to a grant to aid photography from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, over 400 drawings have just been added with often detailed commentary on what they show.
These drawings are from sketchbooks, mainly by Royal Navy officers as they sailed around the world, giving us views of tropical islands, exotic cities and native peoples. The works give a valuable and often humorous insight into life aboard ship during the 18th and 19th centuries and how the ability to draw a landscape was not just a pastime but also a means of intelligence gathering.
I hope you enjoy these drawings and that you are as intrigued by the content as I have been.
Lt James Henry Butt, Tombs of the 47 Ronins, Yedo (PAJ2063)
Two years ago the Arts and Humanities Research Council started to fund two collaborative projects between the National Maritime Museum and Newcastle University, examining children’s literature and the culture of exploration. I was the lucky recipient of one of these bursaries and, as a result, I’ve spent the last two years researching inter-war children’s writing. Probably like many other researchers I’ve found that the shape of my project is now substantially different to the way I initially envisaged it. Working in the museum this year has substantially improved my ability to formulate original arguments simply because of the wealth of fascinating material that I’ve had access to. I’ve also been able to work with my supervisor, Nigel Rigby, Head of Research, and have been helped enormously by Quintin Colville, Curator of Naval History.
At the moment I’m working particularly on how the Royal Navy was presented to children at the start of the 20th century. The museum’s Caird library has been an invaluable source of rare books that were produced for children around this time. After spending only a short amount of time with this material it soon became clear that a very specific portrayal of the Navy was emerging; this was one that, in the main, advocated a strong Naval presence, the argument being that this was vital in order to maintain trade routes, to protect Britain’s dominions and to continue Britain’s heritage as a maritime nation. It also emphasised the idea of Service as an integral aspect of Britain’s maritime heritage and looked back to Nelson for its inspiration.
Arnold White, Our Sure Shield the Navy (London: Macdonald and Evans, 1917), p. 79
Working out exactly why children were being told this has led me to look at some really interesting material. The museum holds a collection of Arnold White’s papers, a propagandist, who was a prominent member of the Navy League. Through reading White’s correspondence and looking at Navy League leaflets and publicity material (such as their famous maps, which appeared on many classroom walls) I’ve been trying to build a picture of how children’s culture was employed for specific ideological purposes. The Imperial Maritime League’s Junior Branch paper makes for equally fascinating reading. The museum archive holds a significant number of these, which offer a researcher a glimpse into the kind of imperial maritime community that children were encouraged to be part of. Letters from former members outline their progress through the Royal Naval colleges, or their adventures at sea and the League’s Junior Library grows with donations from ‘sea-minded’ adults. Added to this I’ve been looking at a wonderful collection, from 1919, of children’s letters to Admiral Beatty thanking him for his efforts in the war and describing the White Ensign they are contributing to buying for him. For anyone who remembers letter writing tasks in school, they make for wonderfully evocative reading – particularly when one boy tires of writing about the war and starts to ask Beatty if he’s had any snow recently!
So, at the minute I’m trying to tie all of this material together in order to demonstrate how writing about the Royal Navy for children, was part of a wider cultural desire to engage British people with the sea. I have a few weeks left in which to draft this part of my thesis and I’m still wrestling with the issue of how far the texts that I’ve been looking at function as propaganda? How far they reflect wider cultural values that the authors were unconsciously sharing with their readers? How far writing for children fuelled wider cultural representations of the Royal Navy, if at all. The answer to all of these questions is probably a combination of all of them. I’ll share my findings again when I’ve written the chapter!
This is one of five coats that belonged to Nelson that we have in the collection. It is a Royal Naval uniform undress coat of the 1795-1812 pattern made from a navy blue raised wool fabric that is rather felt like with a cream twill silk lining. The undress coat would have been worn by Nelson as everyday clothing. It is a relatively plain tail-coat with the two stripes of gold lace at the cuff denoting his rank of vice-admiral. His button-back lapels are decorated with his four orders of chivalry.
The coat is being conserved so that we can rotate it with another of our Nelson uniforms that is on display at Portsmouth Royal Naval Museum. We need to limit the length of time textile objects are on display because the light is so damaging to them.
The outer blue wool of the coat is in quite good condition with only one or two very small holes probably caused by previous insect attack. Unfortunately it is the silk linings that often suffer the most damage and this is no exception, the silk is very weak with lots of splits and holes throughout.
Because the whole lining is so weak we will put a new silk lining under the existing one. We do this by taking a pattern of the original lining, cut the exact shape out of the new silk and then pass it under the original trying to use existing holes and splits. We aim to do this without undoing any of the original stitching or further damaging the already weak areas. We like to leave all original stitching in place if at all possible as it is historic evidence of how the garment was constructed. Once in position with the weaves of both fabrics matching, the original lining is stitched down onto the new silk. Very fine needles and thread are used working in a laid and couched stitch; this is worked around all the holes, splits and weak areas following the direction of the weave.
When all sections have been supported in this way we will put an overall covering of a very fine gauze like fabric called silk Crepeline over all sections of the coat, again using the patterns taken earlier. This is stitched down around all the outer edges of each section and acts as a protective layer when the coat is handled. Because it is quite see-thru the original lining can still be clearly seen.
When working on a coat like this you often find out interesting facts about them for instance in the coats made for Nelson after he had the lower part of his right arm amputated following The Battle of Cape St Vincent 1797 he had a small loop sewn just inside the cuff so he could secure the empty sleeve onto a lapel button to prevent it from flapping about and getting in the way. We can also see that they only lined the right sleeve as far as the elbow, probably because fabric was so expensive at that time.
The conservation is likely to take over 200 hours of work to complete and will include a new conservation quality mannequin to display the coat on. It will be made-to-measure and then padded to provide an exact fit so the coat is well supported while on display, through this process we can also gain insight into Nelson’s height and build at the time he was wearing the coat.