The National Maritime Museum and Greenwich

By Txllxt TxllxT Wikimedia Commons

Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London.  I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.

The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world.  It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatory and 17th-century Queen’s House In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.

Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian since 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day.  Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.

The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelson and Captain James Cook.

Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain.  In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.

The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich.  The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.

In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium designed to introduce the world beyond the night sky.

The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history.  A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.

Figureheads, National Maritime MuseumThe gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India.  I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.

Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond.  I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.

Naval Heroes, National Maritime MuseumOther galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story.  I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.

The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things.  Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.

If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order.  Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this.  With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.

I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside.  I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.

The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories.  It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it.  Going aboard was even better.  The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea.  I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.

Greenwich Foot TunnelWe used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich.  The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards.  The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily.  We used to count the steps at each end.  There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.

The Cutty SarkA visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane.  The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier.  But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend.  There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did.  I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.

The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.

An Unwilling Alliance – coming in 2018

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

When Hugh Kelly left Mann aged 16 he expected never to return. His parents were both dead, the family farm repossessed and the navy seemed like a good option for a penniless lad with big ambitions and no prospects. Fourteen years later he returns as a Trafalgar veteran with a healthy amount of prize money and his own command in refit at Yarmouth. He is in search of land and a home and a wife to look after them when he goes back to sea.
Roseen Crellin is determined not to give in to her father’s efforts to find her a good husband. The man she wanted has sailed away and she has no interest in a marriage to a man who sees her a convenience rather than a woman.
It seems a courtship with little future but fate intervenes unexpectedly and as Hugh sets sail to join the Royal Navy on it’s way to Copenhagen he is forced to reassess his feelings towards the girl he had not bothered to get to know, while Roseen discovers a world beyond the hills and glens of her island home and a side to herself she had never known existed.
An Unwilling Alliance is the first of my books to be set partly on the Isle of Man where I live.  It is also the first set in the very different world of the Royal Navy.  I’ve been wanted to do a Manx setting for a long time, but since I write historical novels I needed to find the right time period.  I have considered, and am still considering, a novel set in the English Civil War but I haven’t studied that period since University and it will be a lot of work.

In the end I decided to stick with my current period, helped by reading the story of Captain John Quilliam, the Manxman who served with Nelson aboard the Victory.  This is not his story but there are parallels between his progress and that of Captain Hugh Kelly, and like Quilliam, Kelly comes home to his island with his pockets well-lined with prize money and in search of a home and a wife.

I hope that An Unwilling Alliance will be published early in 2018 and will be followed by An Untrustworthy Army, book five in the Peninsular War Saga.

Tynwald Day- the Manx national day

Tynwald Day: the Manx National Day
Tynwald Day

Tynwald Day, the Manx national day, is held each year on July 5th and is a celebration of Manx independence and Manx culture. I wrote this post last year and am re-sharing it along with a free promotion of my most recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, which is set on the Isle of Man and in Denmark in 1806-7 and features a Manx hero and heroine.

Tynwald is the Parliament of the Isle of Man and no other parliament in the world has such a long unbroken record.  It has been going since Viking times, more than 1000 years and governs a tiny island in the Irish sea.  I had never heard the word Tynwald until I moved to the island fifteen years ago and I’m not sure I had really grasped the fact that the Isle of Man is an independent country with it’s own laws and its own Parliament.  The island is not part of the United Kingdom, but a Crown Dependency with the Queen acknowledged as Lord of Mann.

The ceremony held at St John’s on Tynwald Day has changed in the details but has basically been going on for more than 1000 years.  Back then the island was a collection of Viking settlements and an annual sitting of their Parliament was held around midsummer where people gathered to hear their laws proclaimed aloud, to seek justice and to air their grievances.

The Vikings or Norsemen first came to Mann around the year 800AD, and ruled the Island for four-and-a-half centuries before finally ceding it to the King of Scotland in 1266. By then they had firmly imposed their own administrative system, which continued even while the Island’s ownership passed between Scotland and England, to the Stanley family of Lancashire (Lords of Mann from 1405-1736), and to their kin the Dukes of Atholl, who held it until it was re-vested in the British Crown in 1765.  The custom of Tynwald Day has continued throughout all these changes.

On Tynwald Day, Tynwald meets at St John’s instead of the usual parliament building in Douglas, partly in the Royal Chapel of St John the Baptist and partly in the open air on Tynwald Hill, a small artificial hill nearby.  The meeting is known as Midsummer Court and is attended by both branches of Tynwald, the House of Keys and the Legislative Council.  The Lieutenant Governor presides as the representative of the Lord of Mann, unless the Queen or another member of the Royal Family is present.

All bills which have received the Royal Assent are promulgated on Tynwald day and if this does not happen within 18 months of passing the bill it ceases to have effect.  Other proceedings can include the presentation of petitions and the swearing in of public officials.  There is a formal procession which includes the Lieutenant Governor, Members of the House of Keys and of the Legislative Council, the Deemsters who are the highest judicial officers, any guests of honour from other nations, clergymen, leaders of local governments and any other state officials of the Isle of Man.  Members of the general public attend the ceremony as do local constabulary and military.  It is a highly formal affair.

Before Tynwald sits, the individual presiding inspects the guard of honour and lays a wreath at the National War Memorial.  There is a religious service in the chapel at 11am and then Tynwald proceeds to the adjacent Tynwald Hill. The path is strewn with rushes following the celtic custom of pleasing the sea god Mannanan with bundles of rushes on Midsummer’s Eve. The path is lined with flagpoles, which fly the national flag and the parliamentary flag.  The laws are proclaimed from Tynwald Hill which has existed from at least the end of the 14th century.  Once this is done, Tynwald reconvenes in the Chapel and quill pens are used to sign certificates documenting the promulgation of the laws.

Once the captioning of the acts has concluded, the Lieutenant Governor and the Legislative Council withdraw, leaving members of the House of Keys for a session of their house.  Once Tynwald Day is over there are three more sittings of Tynwald before the government adjourns for the summer until October.

Traditionally, Tynwald Day was marked by a fair and market; these customs still continue with stalls, demonstrations, music and dance throughout the day and on into the evening.  The village of St John’s is packed with people and the following week, known as Manx National Week, usually hosts a series of concerts, displays and other events related to Manx culture.

For the first few years we were on the island it was an annual event to go to Tynwald Day.  I admit I was fascinated by the history, the idea that this ceremony, in some form or another, has been going for so long.  It is very different to the British opening of Parliament and Queen’s speech which is very much a Parliamentary event.  This is an event for the people, and the tradition of people bringing their grievances before Tynwald on this day really happens, I know people who have done it.  This year, as an example, several Manx women staged a silent protest dressed in Handmaid’s Tale type red cloaks and bonnets to show their support for reform of the island’s highly outdated abortion laws.  Democracy moves slowly at times, but it does move and Tynwald Day is a traditional forum for protests like this.

The actual reading of the laws is long and boring and I’m not sure how many people really listen.  But it’s an important part of the day.  The officials are in full robes and wigs and there’s a real sense of ceremony and national pride.

I’ve not been to Tynwald Day for years now.  It’s the day after my daughter’s birthday so it’s often difficult.  But I think I’d like to do it again at some point.  In the past, when the children were younger it was all about the fair and the activities and the market stalls.  But I think I’d like to attend from the point of view of a historian, to read about the ceremonies of the past and feel the sense of continuity which shines through the day.  The island is a small nation but has a deep sense of pride and community which I’ve a suspicion we could all learn something from.

Many thanks to Heather Paisley for use of her photographs.

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