One of my favourite additions to the manuscripts collection during my time at the Museum has been the volume of papers relating to George Perceval, who joined the Navy as an 11 year old midshipman in 1805, just in time to fight at Trafalgar. George, though, was no ordinary midshipman – being the son of Lord Arden, a member of the privy council, and nephew of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.
The volume contains some 40 letters written by George to his parents over the first six years of his career, as well as letters from his commanding officers to his parents. As a whole, the letters give a real insight into the character of young George – his excitement at going into battle, the eagerness to get at the French, followed by the years of boredom as the British fleet blockaded the French in port, and life aboard became little more than dull routine.
In this first letter from the collection, George writes to his mother having just left home to join his first ship, the Orion, at Portsmouth. It is, in keeping with letters written by young boys under duress over the years, short and to the point to say the least! One the pleasures of the collection is as a record of how George grows and develops into an officer, who will be expected to report concisely to his superiors exactly what had occured.
Shortly after joining his first ship, in April 1805, George and the Orion were involved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and this letter, again to his mother, gives his account of the battle to his family. In it, he says he is “highly pleased in being in so glorious an action my first setting off in the service”. George’s pleasure in being in action is apparent “an hour afterwards was in the thick we had the pleasure of saving the Colossus from being raked by the Swiftsure…. we gave it to her hot and warm till she struck”.
Throughout the collection there are reminders of the fact that George was still a young boy. This letter, written shortly before Christmas in 1806, is an affecting one. He has just spent a period of leave at home, but is returning to a new ship – this letter is dated 21st December 1806 from Portsmouth. The confusion that George writes off regarding which ship this will be shows just how hard it was for families (even those as well connected as George’s) at home to keep track of sailor’s movements when they didn’t even know what ship he was on. George is obviously feeling a little homesick – at the end of the letter he has drawn a small face and writes to his mother “you must kiss this and think that it is my round face”.
The next letter in the collection is written on Christmas Day, and George was obviously greatly enjoying his wait for the new ship – the letter starts out in a fair hand, but the section in which he writes that he has “drunk all your healths” shows that he certainly has – and it would appear that the affects are showing in 12 year old George’s handwriting! The rest of the letters show how George grows into his role, developing as a young officer. Shortly before the end of the war, George is made captain, meaning that he will rise through the ranks for the rest of his life. Although very rarely at sea after 1815, George rose to become an Admiral and naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. Through inheritance, he claimed the titles of, first, Lord Arden, and then Lord Egmont, and unsurprisingly was one of the last veterans of Trafalgar to die, in 1874.
It has been a pleasure to work with collections like these – and to uncover the more hidden aspects of our history. For those of you who are familiar with films, George has always reminded me of the character Midshipman Blakeney from the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander. Its good to see that Hollywood can protray history accurately!