On 3 July we held our annual AGM onboard HQS Wellington and what a perfect location it was. Built at Devonport Dockyard in 1934, Wellington was one of 13 Grimsby class vessels built for service in the Commonwealth and spent time patrolling the waters of New Zealand.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, HMS Wellington was recalled to perform convoy escort duties in the Atlantic. During six years of wartime service she rescued over 450 Merchant Navy seamen and was active at both Dunkirk and the North African landings.
Our first speaker, Mark Porter, covered the ships built by Francis Baylie, a shipbuilder in Bristol c1650 – c1680. Pepys called him an illiterate, unable to draw a draught of a ship but Baylie was known for producing ships which regularly and consistently out-performed those built by Master Shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards. Despite this, he is relatively unknown and so Mark has looked through around 300-400 letters mentioning Baylie, all in The National Archives at Kew or in Bristol. Mark hopes to write and submit an article about Francis Baylie for possible inclusion in a future volume of the NRS, or the ‘Mariners’ Mirror’.
After Mark, we heard from Barbara Rich, currently working on research and a book about Captain Edward Wheeler (1721/2-1761). The son of ironmasters, Wheeler entered the Service in 1736 at the age of 14, and was commissioned around 5 years later at Port Royal by Admiral Vernon. He served in the Caribbean, was court martialled court-martialled and dismissed his ship for disobeying orders and disrespecting his Captain, and the court martial records show that he defended himself by complaining that the Captain did not use his officers like gentlemen. He later took part in a three-year voyage to West Africa and Jamaica.
In early 1755 he was sent to Newcastle as Regulating Captain, and there met Frances Stephenson, the woman who became his mistress. Later in 1755 he was given the command of the ship, Isis (50), of which he remained captain until his death in the course of an engagement with the French ship L’Oriflamme off the Barbary Coast on 1 April 1761, having been fatally wounded by a cannonball fired across the quarter deck which killed two of his officers.
He was unmarried and had no children, and his will expressed strong and sometimes unconventional views about his mistress and her family, his family, his friends and about the rights of women and of illegitimate children to inheritance.
Our third speaker was Derek Nudd, author of Castaways of the Kriegsmarine, which examined the interrogation of German naval prisoners of war in early 1944,covered the development of the interrogation of German naval prisoners of war from 1914-1948.
Interrogators’ essential techniques – and most of their initial staff in 1939 – were inherited from the section created by Lt Cdr Vivian Brandon and Major Bernard Trench RMLI in the First World War.
His current project looks at the development of the service and its increasing sophistication across both wars and the immediate post-war period. He has been utilising diaries from Major Trench, the Admiralty Telephone Directory at the National Museum of the Royal Navy and interrogation reports in the ADM 137 series at The National Archives in Kew, which track the section’s growing professionalism and impact.
Our final speaker on research was Sunny Mandich, who discussed WWII British-Yugoslav joint naval operations from Vis.
The British presence on Vis is not widely known when considering the war in the Mediterranean, due to it being outside the traditional sphere of influence, but British and Yugoslav forces conducted joint operations against German and Italian occupation there. The Yugoslavs carried out several seaborne landings on neighbouring islands with help from the Royal Navy and Commandos. The British used Vis sporadically as a military base for the Land Forces Adriatic, which included several British Commando units, the 2nd Bn. The Highland Light Infantry and other troops, with the Royal Navy operating from two ports. Marshal Tito used Vis as the political and military centre of the liberated territories until 1944.
These joint naval operations provide insight into the combination of regular and irregular methods of warfare for successful seaborne operations.
Sunny is researching how the British influenced political negotiations with Tito; how the Yugoslav forces transitioned from partisans into a naval force before the end of the war; and how the Yugoslavs were able to liberate the coast. In order to do so, she will make use of a range of sources now available for research both in the UK and the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the military archives from Croatia and Serbia.
After a short break, talks continued with Dr Catherine Beck, Pearsall Fellow: Institute of Historical Research who spoke on insanity in the Royal Navy 1740-1820. With a limited time of 15 minutes, Dr Beck covered as much as possible in what was an absolutely fantastic talk. Her research aims to cover incidences of mental derangement and nervous disorders, the behaviours the navy either expected or thought unacceptable and where this division lay and the pressures on those at sea in dealing with these issues.
One memorable example was a man who was disciplined, leading to his mental health issues being discovered when fellow mess mates spoke for him, declaring the problems they knew him to have been dealing with for months. It’s certainly interesting to consider whether this was more commonplace than thought and we look forward to following this research as it progresses.
Our final talk of the evening was from Professor Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College. Covering the formation of the Navy Records Society, a little on its “politics” at the beginning and a little on one of our founder members – Sir John Laughton. Laughton was arguably the first to argue for the importance of naval history as an independent field of study and frequently corresponded with incredibly well-known names such as Mahan. Mahan started his career as an instructor for the Royal Navy, before becoming Professor of Modern History at King’s College London. Over his lifetime he wrote the biographies of over 900 naval personalities.
Professor Lambert explained about what was or wasn’t chosen for the Navy Records volumes to begin with, and mentioned that if you look at the historical documents being penned and written up, they will match closely with what was happening politically at the time. What could be saved that would prove useful for officers, and defence officials in terms of lessons to be learned, for example.
It was a fantastic evening, with a good number of members in attendance and we look forward to next year’s event!
On Monday 24th June we hosted our second archive visit, this time to the National Museum of the Royal Navy Library in Portsmouth. This followed on from our successful visit to Greenwich earlier in the year. The Library at the NMRN is an excellent resource for the study of British naval history and includes naval biographies, social history, operational history, navigation, naval architecture, naval science, and ship, port & station information 1856-1914, as well as documents from the Second World War.
Our Navy Records Society trips are a chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ – and behind the scenes we went! The Library at Portsmouth is currently undergoing quite a few changes, including the amalgamation of their current collection with that of the Royal Marines Museum in Eastney and the Submarine Museum in Gosport.
The NMRN Library is within the Naval Base, adjacent to the Museum and Historic Dockyard, within what was once a naval storehouse – the perfect location for anyone researching naval history! We were given a tour on arrival of the bookstore, which is environmentally controlled in order to preserve the documents being held there. Racks upon racks of wonderful documents meant some of our members were very easily distracted. We were then taken upstairs, which currently sits empty but is about to have a full renovation. Upon completion there will be a photography & conservation area, as well as more racking for storage of documents and artefacts. One of the major concerns with amalgamating collections is that documents will be lost, move on elsewhere or even be ‘thrown away’ as one of our members stressed. The curators and library staff were adamant that this would not be happening, and this is why there is the need to expand into the upstairs area, to create space for these collections.
After a tour, we were taken back down to the reading room, which can seat around 24 people, where they had laid out a number of wonderful documents for us to look at from a variety of time periods. We saw ship plans for the Victory and the Horatio, diaries from men serving on the Victory at the time of Trafalgar in 1805, eighteenth century tattoo designs, letters from John Jellicoe and even one of Winston Churchill’s famous cigars. There were a number of photos of the London Volunteer Naval Reserve around the time of the First World War as well as photographs and plans from naval operations during the Second World War.
We were then taken into the new Jolly Roger exhibition within the NMRN, where members were free to wander as they pleased. A few sat and discussed their research projects and shared resources. We then finished with a brief visit to The Ship Anson pub to discuss our discoveries in a building filled to the rafters with naval paintings, photographs and cap tallies.
If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘to take the King’s shilling’, The Ship Anson pub is right next to where this expression supposedly originated. The story goes that a lady named Louisa Walcott ran a pub called the London Tavern and dropped coins into unwary customers’ tankards. Traditionally, once they drank, they had taken the King’s shilling and were recruited into the Navy. According to some reports, she recruited 26,572 men into the Royal Navy this way. It’s a great story, if nothing else…
We had a wonderful day, and our next trip is in the planning stages, so make sure you check your emails from the Society and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!
This year will see the Navy Records Society’s inaugural summer party where members will get together in a fabulous maritime setting to celebrate the society’s and our members’ achievements over the past year.
This year the party will be held on board HQS Wellington a historic ship moored on the Embankment in London. The Wellington is the last surviving member of the Grimsby Class of sloops which served the nation with much distinction in World War Two. She has been moored on the Thames since 1948 during which time she has been the home of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, a City of London Livery Company.
All members, especially new members, are invited to attend the AGM, at 5.00, which considers finance, governance, and related matters, and then at 6.00 the cash bar opens.
From 6.30 to 7:15 two leading naval scholars and members of the Society will give fifteen-minute talks on their works in progress, with five minutes each for questions. This is an opportunity for members to have an insider’s view into how naval historians of international standing prepare, organize, and conduct their research. The speakers will be Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, on ‘Laughton, Mahan and Rozhestvenski: shaping the NRS in the 1890s’, and Catherine Beck, Pearsall Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, on ‘Madness, Mobility and Ships at Sea: Mental Disorder in the Royal Navy, 1740-1820’, research that ‘seeks to develop a new model of what constituted naval insanity in the long eighteenth century’.
These will be followed by three talks from members, especially new or unpublished members, who are conducting research. These will be five minutes each with five minutes for discussion: an opportunity to raise awareness of your current publication and/or research projects with a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience and to make connections in the naval history and naval history publishing industry. The society invites interested members to send a short proposal to the secretary by Friday 21 June.
Note: these are informal talks, without audio-visual equipment.
1400 Finance Committee
1530 Council meeting
1800 Vistors invited to mingle (Cash Bar)
2000 Close of Formal Proceedings
On 18 February, members of the Navy Records Society were given the chance to visit the Caird Library & Archive at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
We were greeted by archive staff and given a short presentation on the history of the Caird Library, its relocation from what is now the Pacific Encounters exhibition at the museum, and the processes involved in selecting or approving documents to be kept for future generations and researchers. It is a longer process than many of us had imagined, especially once we were told about the sheer number of documents being offered regularly from private collections. It was interesting to find out how cataloguing worked and how many people are involved in the process.
Around 5000 people visit the Caird Library every year to consult documents from 6,025m of archive & original documents, 4,683m of printed books and 1,247m of maps and charts! One recent acquisition by is a selection of papers from the Colville family. These include the letters of Admiral Colville, who took on the young James Cook as Master of his flagship, the Northumberland. The cataloguing of these papers will take around eighteen months and, as such, these documents have not yet been seen by the research community. We felt very privileged to be allowed a ‘sneak peak’!, especially as some of our members are currently working on topics mentioned in these journals and letters. Excerpts from Colville’s journals will appear soon in our Online Magazine.
We were also shown some letters from the lower deck including a petition from a German seaman on the Foudroyant in 1799, judged as fit to serve, but wanting to go home. Another was from a Marine, wanting to appeal his disciplinary charge. Seeing these documents gave us an insight into the priorities of some of these men, and a brief glimpse into their lives.
After the tour was concluded, members headed to The Trafalgar Tavern to swap notes and research stories. It was a wonderful afternoon, and many have said they are already looking forward to the next, to be held at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth later this year. We hope you can join us!