Navy leaves a legacy of literature

August 7, 1998

"You are to send, at six o'clock this morning, two boats each to the ships named in the Mayfair, for the purpose of conveying them on board the Medusa and Discovery."

The order book entry, dated August 14, 1801, is signed "Nelson & Bronte".

It is part of a unique collection of naval books and manuscripts, most of which have never been available before to the general public, housed in a new centre for naval history in Portsmouth.

Cataloguing of the material is beginning to reveal such gems as a 1514 set of accounts relating to work carried out on the king's ships, including the Mary Rose, and a stormy set of correspondence between John Fisher, First Sea Lord until 1909, and his political opposite number Lord Tweedmouth, First Lord of the Admiralty.

Matthew Sheldon, curator of manuscripts, said the papers need particularly careful treatment because they were mainly the organic product of an office and relatively random.

"You need an understanding of what processes created them and the events and structures behind them," he said.

Rather than being comprehensive, the collection provided "some pieces of a jigsaw that have been missing in the past and that we are now just beginning to put together".

Among other treasures are:

* a rare original copy of Jenkins Naval Achievements, which details each minor and major engagement of the Napoleonic war

* a 1676 copy of The Longitude Found, given to Nelson by his uncle and inspiration Captain Suckling, and inscribed by Nelson himself. It is a treatise explaining how sailors can more accurately pinpoint their position at sea

* a small book of common prayer that Captain Locker gave to Nelson. He in turn handed it on to Lady Hamilton, who has written her name inside

* a 1757 letter from judges at the trial of Admiral Byng, shot for cowardice, pleading for clemency for him

* a 1640 treatise on the law and policy of ship-money, a tax then levied in wartime on ports and maritime towns, cities or counties to provide ships for the monarch

* a Latin dictionary, the oldest book in the collection, dated 1544.

The collection was established early in the 19th century and supervised by the secretary of the admiralty.

Ten years ago, the library transferred to the ministry of defence but responsibility for it was restored to the navy soon afterwards, while decisions were taken about its long-term future.

By now, the collection was very large and it was therefore divided into three. A core collection remained in London, looked after by the Naval Historical Branch. The specialist hydrographic/navigational elements of the collection went to the Hydrographic Office Archive at Taunton. The remainder - including journals, biographies, naval and military history and the Admiralty Library's collection of manuscripts and rare books - was destined for Portsmouth.

Now merged with the King Alfred Library of the Royal Naval Museum, this part of the collection is housed in an old naval storehouse that overlooks Portsmouth harbour.

It is part of a Pounds 10 million redevelopment of the museum, designed to make it an international centre for research into naval history.

But papers such as those of Earl St Vincent in the Napoleonic wars, who took his name from the 1797 Battle of St Vincent, will also strike a chord with non-specialists. His lavish lifestyle and spending on food, tableware and entertaining must have kept Portsmouth grocers in the money for months.

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