Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol

Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol was written as a Christmas gift to my very good friends Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone, but I know they’ll be very happy to share it. It’s very silly, but it probably does reflect something of the way I see and write these two characters in fiction. I hope you enjoy it. Grateful thanks to Charles Dickens whose work I have shamelessly used. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.

Sir Home Popham

It is Christmas, and Captain Sir Home Popham, the well-known genius of navigation, cartography, communications, amphibious operations and driving people up the wall, is settling down in his London lodgings for the night under the supervision of Able Seaman Glossop (aka Gloomy Glossop) his trusty valet.

“Well, well, well, Glossop, Christmas tomorrow, eh? It’s a shame I didn’t make it home to be with my wife and the children, but I had so much to do here. I’m sure she’ll understand. I wrote her a long letter explaining the circumstances.”

“I’m sure you did, sir.”

“Although she’s not replied yet.”

“She’s probably still reading it, sir.”

“Yes, yes. Very probably. And did I tell you I received an invitation to dine with several City gentlemen tomorrow? They are still very grateful about the excellent work I did in South America, and…”

Glossop backs up hastily. “Very good, sir. Goodnight.”

For a long time, nothing can be heard in the room but the sound of Popham snoring. He is in the middle of a very satisfying dream about the Admiralty burning down with most of its occupants and any incriminating paperwork pertaining to himself, when a strange noise awakes him. The room is filled with a peculiar light, and at the foot of the bed, a woman in an old-fashioned gown.

“Who the devil are you, ma’am? And why on earth are you dressed up like that? Have you lost your way home from the Victuallers Fancy Dress Ball?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“I don’t care who you’re meant to be, you’re in the wrong room. Bugger off.”

“I am not in fancy dress, I am the REAL ghost of Christmas Past, and I’m here to see YOU Sir Home Popham. Your activities have displeased the Powers That Be, and you need to mend your ways. You will be visited by three spirits…”

Popham gets out of bed and reaches for his robe) “This is outrageous! I knew I was being persecuted by the Admiralty, but to send a message with fresh accusations on Christmas Eve, and via a female who has clearly strayed from a Masquerade Ball is too much! I shall write a letter of complaint in the morning, worded in the strongest terms, and if this is about the business in the Red Sea again, I have irrefutable proof that I wasn’t even there!”

“The Admiralty? What on earth has this to do with the Admiralty?”

“Well you said the Powers That Be, and I hardly think you’re here from His Majesty, you wouldn’t get past the gates dressed like that. They’ve no standards at the Admiralty, so…”

“Oh for God’s sake, will you stop talking, this is going to take all night and we’ve two more ghosts to get through yet! Look, I’ll break it down for you, Dumbhead. I’m a ghost. We’re going on a trip to show you what you’ve been doing wrong in the past. Hopefully, you’ll repent. Got it?”

“Dumbhead? Did you just call me Dumbhead? Well, I must say…wait, where are we going?????”

After a blur and a flash of light, Popham opens his eyes and looks around him. After a moment, his expression brightens.

“Ahhh, the good old Etrusco. I’d know her anywhere. What a fine ship.”

“I’m glad you recognise her, Sir Home.”

“Of course I do. But what on earth are we doing here? I thought this was about things I’d done wrong.”

“Sir Home, you seem to have forgotten a few things. During your time with the Etrusco, you were accused of carrying contraband and infringing the East India Company’s monopoly. Both were illegal. People suffered because of you. People got into trouble. People lost money…”

“Ahem.”

“What do you mean, ahem?”

“I was trying to attract your attention.”

“You’re supposed to be repenting.”

“Well of course, I’d like to oblige. But in this case, you’ve been misinformed. As it happens, I wasn’t even aboard the Etrusco…”

“Yes, you were. The Powers That Be can see all…”

“Well before they make a final decision, The Powers That Be need to read this.”

“What is it – a book?”

“No. Although I did pay to have it professionally published. It is a memorandum, explaining very briefly, over two hundred concise pages, why all the accusations against me with regard to the Etrusco were complete and utter nonsense.”

The ghost looks confused. “Nonsense?”

“Absolute balderdash. That document proves it.”

“I see. Well I’ll have to take this back…”

“Do so immediately.”

“Aha! You’re trying to get rid of me! I see through you, Sir Home Riggs Popham!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the ghost, not me. What next?”

“Right. Hold on to your hat. We are going to…..”

“Ahhhh – Buenos Aires. Now those were the days!”

“So you admit it. Those were the days when you took off from Cape Town to effect an entirely illegal and unauthorised invasion of South America which completely failed.”

“I was exonerated.”

“No you weren’t. You were court martialled, found guilty and…”

“And then what?”

“You were censured.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Well…they said you’d been bad.”

“Oh boo, hoo hoo. As if that meant anything. Being censured is the same as being given a slap on the back and told to hide the bodies better next time. I did nothing wrong. Do you seriously think I’d be daft enough to do something like that without a nod or a wink from a Man who Knows?”

“Knows what?”

“It’s clear you’re not a politician, my good woman. Anyway, just in case you’re in any doubt, read this.”

“What is this?”

“A three hundred-and-eighty-six page document which I had privately published, proving that I did nothing wrong in South America. The Powers That Be need to read it. It’s riveting. Now, is there anything else?”

“Well…errr…there was some dodgy stuff at Walcheren.”

“Take this. A hundred and eighty pages.”

“Well what about when you were in Russia, then?”

“Two-hundred and twenty pages. With personal recommendations and footnotes. Do you need any help carrying those?”

“No. I should be getting back, since it’s clear that the Powers That Be will need a bit of time to study all this.”

Popham waves his hand airily. “Oh, tell them to take all the time they need, ma’am. No hurry. Now you said something about some other ghosts?”

“Yes. Shortly, you will be visited by the ghost of Christmas present.”

“Right. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll get some sleep while I’m waiting. Busy day tomorrow, you know.”

Back in his bed, Popham is dreaming about Lord St Vincent being disgraced over an embarrassing incident with a chamber maid when he is once again rudely awoken. This time, an enormous man in a green cloak, with an impressive beard and a holly wreath on his head is standing at the foot of the bed.

“Sir Home Riggs Popham, I am the ghost of Christmas present, and I have come to show you…”

“Dear Lord, it’s difficult to get any sleep at all. I feel like the Earl of Chatham when his valet mistook the time and brought him breakfast at ten minutes to noon. Well, what is it this time?”

“I have come to show you the effects of your actions in the present day.”

“Get on with it then. Where first?”

There is a flash of light and Popham finds himself in an elegant drawing room. There is a reception in progress and the room is ablaze with candles, and filled with elegant people. A middle aged couple stand at the end of the room greeting their guests. She looks drawn and a little tired, but is very well dressed, and is talking to two officers in red coats. He is engaged in an enthusiastic conversation about hunting.

“Do you recognise this man, Sir Home?”

“Of course I do. It’s the Earl of Chatham. And that’s his wife. She’s been very ill, but I’d heard she was a little better. Where is this?”

“They are at home, entertaining some family and friends for the Christmas season, Sir Home. Of course had you not deliberately lied at the Walcheren inquiry, wrecking both his military and political career, he might have been serving his country overseas.”

“Two things. Firstly, take this. It is a three hundred page document demonstrating without any shadow of a doubt, that I was wholly innocent of any wrongdoing at Walcheren. I was merely the Captain of the Venerable. Hardly involved at all. Secondly, look at them. Don’t they look happy? She’s been ill for years. Now she’s having a brief spell of better health. If he was overseas, he’d be missing it, and it might cause her to deteriorate again. Even if I was involved in the destruction of his career, which of course I wasn’t, wouldn’t you say this is good for them in a way?”

“Errr….I don’t know. Three hundred pages, you say?”

“Give or take. Right, what’s next?”

“Very well. Do you recognise this man?”

“Of course I do. It’s Lord Melville. Now, I’m glad to see him, because I wanted to speak to him about…”

“Lord Melville no longer holds office, Sir Home. But when he did, you persecuted him.”

“I did not. Lord Melville and I were on the best of terms. I wrote him many letters…”

“Do you see the boxes before him. Those are your letters, Sir Home. Dozens and dozens of them. Even after he left office, you did not cease.”

Popham looks happy. “Well. I am glad to see he’s kept them all, I must say. Right, who else?”

“We could visit your wife, who is alone without you this Christmas.”

“Oh, nonsense, she has the children, she’s perfectly happy.”

“That’s true actually, I checked on her earlier.”

“You see? Who can you find, in this present day, who has actually been harmed by me. I mean, seriously harmed.”

“Your correspondents?”

“Pooh. They need to toughen up, man, they’re only letters. Right, if that’s it, I’m going back to bed. I’m going to be shattered tomorrow.”

Popham was deep in dreamless sleep when the third and final ghost appeared, a faceless figure in a dark cloak which actually managed to make him jump when he awoke to find it standing at the end of his bed.

“Good God, you might have knocked. For a moment, I thought that Gloomy Glossop had been off on one of his drinking spells and was waking me up to cry about the girl he left in Middelburg. I’m guessing you’re ghost number three, then? The ghost of Christmas future?”

The ghost nods without speaking. This is supposed to be terrifying, but for Popham, it is a gift.

“Not much of a talker, eh? Never mind. Right, where are we off to now? I must say, I’m excited. I’ve been wanting to know what happens next in my fabulous career. Obviously, I’m off to Spain shortly, where I’m sure I’ll be invaluable to Lord Wellington and to the Spanish guerrillas. After that, I imagine they will finally see sense and offer me a position at the Admiralty. If it hadn’t been for St Vincent constantly blocking me, I’d have been there years ago. Now in case you need any information about the constant persecution I’ve endured from that man and his acolytes at the Admiralty, I’ve a four hundred-and-twenty-one page document here giving full details. Please take it. Right, good man. What’s next?”

In a swirl of light, Popham is transported to a quayside. A hot sun beats down on him, and up on the hillside, there is a sombre little procession. Popham observes it for some minutes.

“A funeral, eh? Well, where is this place? Nothing to do with my life so far. Is this a future posting? Hold on, I’ll find out. I say, my good man, let me see that notice you’re holding if you please? A sale to be held in…oh. Oh, I see. Jamaica.” Popham looks at the ghost. “So I’m at the Jamaica Station. Commander in Chief? Yes. Good. Well that’s an honour, of course. But still – an unhealthy place, the Indies.”

There is a long period of quiet, as Popham follows the funeral procession up to the graveyard. The ghost waits in silence. After a while, Popham returns.

“There is another grave up there, Ghost.”

The ghost nods.

“My son and my daughter. Both died out here.”

The ghost nods again.

“That’s hard. That’s very hard. I love my children very much. My wife…I saw my wife up there. It broke her heart.”

The ghost nods again.

“And what about me? Do I also succumb to the unhealthy climate of this place? Do I make it home again?”

There is another flash of light, and Popham finds himself in a small churchyard, in front of a monument. Popham looks around.

“The church of St Michael and All Angels. Is this where I’m buried? And this is my grave. My monument.”

There is a long pause.

“It’s very big. I mean, pleasingly big. I must say I’d hoped to live longer than 57 years, I suppose it was that dreadful last posting. I wonder who at the Admiralty suggested that for me? I have my suspicions, they were always out to get me. All the same, I’m pleased to see that I’ve been remembered. Several of my finest portraits scattered about, and I discover that on Twitter, there is an entire community dedicated to talking about me. There is a fine biography by a family member, and another being written by a young woman whom I am personally supervising. Plenty of people will be able to read about me, me, me, me. On the whole, despite my early death, I am not displeased, Spirit.

“Now, have you finished? I have an important dinner engagement tomorrow, and a large number of letters to write. For all you tell me what my future is to be, I say it is nonsense. I have friends in high places, they would not allow me to be sent off to some ghastly posting in the Indies, they could not possibly manage without me. Why don’t you pop off now, and visit somebody else? There must be somebody needing some spiritual guidance. What about Lord St Vincent? He’s probably a little bored these days…”

The following morning, Popham awakes as Gloomy Glossop brings his tea into the room. He puts it down and retreats fast, but doesn’t make it out of the door in time.

“Good morning, Glossop, and what a fine one it is by the look of it. A very Merry Christmas to you, although by your expression, I should say that isn’t very likely. Tell me, did anything odd happen during the night?”

“Like what, sir?”

“No disturbances in the house. Nobody tried to break in?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. You were talking in your sleep when I passed earlier, but there’s nothing unusual in that, you generally talk all night.”

“Really? I…”

“And all morning.”

“Yes, but…”

“And all afternoon and evening. But nothing unusual.”

“Just as I thought. The whole thing was nothing but a foolish nightmare, and I shall knock off the cheese board at dinner and think no more of it. Now before I go out, I must write to Lord Melville.”

“Yes, sir. Er – why?”

“Well, it’s Christmas Day, Glossop, it will cheer him up to get a letter from his old friend. It may have been a dream, but it made me realise how much he must value all those letters I sent him over the years. That will be all, Glossop.”

The Duke of Wellington

It is Christmas, 1835 and the Duke of Wellington is sleeping peacefully at his London home, when he is awoken by a strange sound. A woman in old-fashioned dress is standing at the foot of his bed.

“Who the devil are you? Did I send for you, Madam?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, your Grace.”

“Utter nonsense. I don’t believe in ghosts. What are you doing here?”

“I am here to take you to scenes of your past life, to teach you things you need to learn.”

“Can you not just send a memorandum? I am in need of sleep, I am dining with my brother’s family tomorrow, which is always exhausting.”

“The Powers That Be do not send memoranda, your Grace.”

“Poppycock, they send them all the time, most of them complete drivel, not worth my time. Very well, if you insist, I shall accompany you. But do not be all night about it, if you please, I am a busy man.”

There is a flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in a brilliantly lit ballroom, watching a dance in progress. A young couple are dancing in the middle of the set, laughing and whispering every time they come together. Wellington watches them for a while.

“Do you know where you are, your Grace?”

“Of course I do. Dublin. Kitty Pakenham. I had forgotten how pretty she was when I first met her.”

“You did not always think her pretty.”

“She did not always think me kind, and we were both right. Although at the end, I found that I felt very close to her again. She was the mother of my sons, and I realise now that has more meaning than any fleeting encounter. And she was a good woman.”

“You remember her fondly then.”

“Naturally. Just as I remember all the times I was not kind to her. Is that what this is intended to teach me? If it is, you are wasting your time. I was a poor husband, ma’am. What next?”

In another swirl of light, Wellington is transported to a sunny room overlooking a harbour. Several men are seated around a long table, talking, looking over a document.

“Do you recognise this, your Grace?”

“You seem to think I have succumbed to senility, ma’am. It is the palace at Cintra. Dalrymple and Burrard. And myself, of course. We were discussing the peace terms with the French.”

“The Convention of Cintra. A shameful peace. Which you signed.”

“I was exonerated by the inquiry.”

“I wonder what might have happened if you had not agreed to such generous terms. Would the rest of that long, bloody war even have occurred?”

“Are you perfectly well, ma’am? Do you know, I have been thinking that this was a dream, brought on by some very bad port at the Arbuthnots yesterday, but I see that I was wrong. Even my worst dreams have never been this nonsensical. In the first place, as I was junior to both these men, my agreement was irrelevant. In the second place, how would harsher terms have prevented Bonaparte running rampant through Europe for the next six years? All it might have done would have been to deprive him of some equipment and some men. He would have found more. He always found more, until the end. Nothing I did that day could have prevented that war, and if I was economical with the truth afterwards, what of it? If I had not been given command, we may have ended up with the Earl of Chatham in command in Portugal, and that would have been a very different outcome. Really, if this is intended to make me regret aspects of my younger life, you are doing a very poor job of it. Is there more?”

“One more visit, your Grace.”

Wellington finds himself outside Parliament in London. Members are making their way inside while a noisy crowd of protestors chants and yells insults at them.

“Do you know…?”

“The Reform Act. A poor piece of legislation, in my opinion. But it passed.”

“Against your fervent wishes.”

“I have never denied it.”

“Your stubbornness brought down your premiership.”

“An office to which I was patently unsuited. What lesson, pray, am I expected to learn from this? That a man should sit quietly in a corner and say nothing controversial?”

“Perhaps that a man should pay more attention to the opinions of those he commands?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, one cannot do that in command of an army, nothing would ever get done!”

“Parliament is not an army, and you were not its general, your Grace.”

“What a pity that was, since it would get through a great deal more business with a great deal less fuss. I have had enough of this nonsense and intend to return to my bed.”

“You will be visited by…”

“Pray tell them not to bother. I will tell my housekeeper not to admit them.”

When the ghost of Christmas present arrives an hour later, he is somewhat baffled to find that the Duke is not in his bed. Wandering through the house, he finds him in his study, writing letters by lamplight.

“Ah, there you are. I was beginning to think you had decided not to bother, but I suppose you had committed your forces and could hardly draw back now.”

“You should be asleep, your Grace.”

“So that you could wake me up? As I was awake already, I decided to make use of the time. I hope you have this properly planned, for I can give you no more than half an hour, I wish to finish this letter regarding the next stage of draining the moat at the Tower of London, before…good God, man, what are you wearing? You look like Harry Smith in the Light Division Amateur Theatrical performance back in 1812, and that is a sight I hoped never to see again. Never mind, let us go.”

The scene is a country park. Half a dozen children are playing under the supervision of a governess. Wellington watches them for a while.

“Do they remind you of your own children, your Grace?”

“You know perfectly well that I hardly knew my own children, ma’am, I was never there. These are some of my godchildren. I am very attached to them. Is it your point that I am a poor father as well as a husband? I do not deny that either. Where next?”

“You seem in a great hurry, your Grace.”

“I wish to get this piece of nonsense over with, so that I may return to my desk. I have a great deal to do. So, where next?”

“I was intending to take you to Spain, your Grace, where the country is…”

“The country is engaged in a civil war, which may be seen to negate my achievements during the late war. I am aware of it, no need to travel there. Next?”

“To France, where…”

“Where the Bourbon restoration proved less than satisfactory. I have no wish to go there either. Am I also to be held account for that?”

“Your Grace, I am trying to show you that…”

“All you are showing me is that no one man can be held responsible for the fortunes of the world. He might well, however, be held responsible for the fortunes of his own family. I have done the best I can with both and have had both successes and failures. These journeys are unnecessary and a waste of my time. I intend to return to my desk.”

One hour later, Wellington is still working when a shadow falls over his desk. He looks up to see the cloaked, hooded figure of the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

“You are late. I expected you fifteen minutes ago.”

The figure nods slowly.

“Well, it makes no difference, I suppose. As I told your predecessor, I can spare you only half an hour, so if you have a point to make, make it quickly.”

There is the usual flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in an elegant salon, crowded with people. A very young woman in a white gown stands at the far end, with a gentleman bowing to her.

“Good God, that is me. And not so very far in the future, by the look of it. And is that…it’s little Alexandrina Victoria. So we avoided a regency, did we? Thank God for that.”

Wellington pauses, then looks at the ghost in some alarm. “Wait – I’m not Prime Minister again, am I? No? What a relief, I hated the job. I hope I live for a while longer though. She’s very young, she’ll need an advisor. Very well, let’s move on.”

The Duke of Wellington by Antoine Claudet from Wikimedia Commons

The next room is very familiar to Wellington. A much older version of himself sits at the head of the table, talking to a group of children.

“The breakfast room at Stratfield Saye. And more children. I don’t recognise…wait. Are these my grandchildren?”

Wellington watches for a while longer. “They seem very happy to be here. Very talkative. Very…very much as I always wished it had been with my own boys. Almost like a second chance. Spirit – this is a good future. I was rather expecting something gloomier. Have you more to show me?”

The scene is in London, and it is clear that a great event is taking place. The streets are crowded with people, and some kind of procession is going past. Wellington finds himself on a balcony overlooking what is obviously a state funeral.

“What in God’s name is this? Oh, don’t tell me the queen died before I did? What was it? Childbirth? An illness? Or…oh, wait…”

The procession moves slowly on. Wellington recognises soldiers from regiments who fought under him, including the green jackets of the rifles. The family are directly behind the impressive funeral carriage, and suddenly, Wellington realises who they are.

“A state funeral? Surely not. Whoever thought that this was a good idea? If they had asked me, I would have told them…I suppose they could not ask me, could they? Damn it, what an infernal waste of time and money.”

The final scene is in a crypt, a dim, quiet room with guardsmen on duty beside an enormous granite tomb. Wellington walks forward and touches the lettering.

“Arthur, Duke of Wellington. What year is it? No – you can’t tell me of course, and I don’t want to know. I saw myself with the children…I looked older there. A long life, then. And this tomb. I loathed all that pomp and ceremony, but this…this feels right. Thank you for bringing me, Spirit. I’ve no idea if this was intended as a lesson, a warning or whether you really are the product of Charles Arbuthnot’s damned bad port. But I’m glad to have seen this.”

The following morning, Wellington is still at his desk when a visitor is announced. Wellington rises to greet him.

“Good morning, General van Daan.”

“Morning, sir, and Merry Christmas. I can see you’re throwing yourself into the Christmas spirit as usual. I want a word with young Fraser, I gave him explicit instructions to lock this room for Christmas Day to keep you away from your desk.”

“I know where he hides the key.”

“He needs to hide the ink, then. Are you all right, sir, you look tired?”

“I did not sleep well. I had a ridiculous dream. Really, there must have been something wrong with Charles’ port yesterday.”

“It didn’t affect me, I slept like a baby. What was it about?”

“Ghosts, escorting me on a journey through my life. Past present and future.”

“Where precisely did this journey end?”

“Where you would expect, General. At my tomb.”

“Jesus, no wonder you’re tired. I hope it was a very handsome tomb, sir.”

“It was very appropriate. An utterly ridiculous dream. But I feel oddly comforted.”

“Comforted enough to enjoy dinner with your brother?”

“Good God, are you mad? I would rather undertake a Grand Tour with imaginary spirits than spend an afternoon at Richard’s table. But I am fond of his wife, so I will do my best. I will escape as quickly as possible, so expect me early.”

“We’re looking forward to it, sir. Happy Christmas.”

London, Christmas 1842, Three Spirits Meet…

“So are you ready for tonight? I’m told it’s a tough one. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is the meanest old goat in London.”

“That’s all right. I sent his old partner, Marley, to soften him up a bit. You remember Marley?”

“Any friend of Marley is going to be hard work.”

“Not the worst though.”

“No. Oh no. Which do you think?”

“Wellington. Definitely Wellington. The man had an answer for everything.”

“Rubbish. Do you remember how much Popham talked? And talked and talked and talked…”

“He was convinced Lord St Vincent had sent us. Kept going on and on about being persecuted.”

“And those publications. Pages and pages and pages of drivel about how hard done by he was. The Powers That Be nearly cried.”

“I nearly cried carrying them back. Yes, Popham was definitely the worst. What was that, number three?”

A sepulchral voice emerges from under the dark hood. 

“Wellington was by far the most difficult. Do you not remember, number two, that he did not even complete your part of the journey? He informed you that he wanted to go home, and you took him. I do not believe that has ever happened before.”

“No. Well. He just gave the order, and I found myself obeying it. Couldn’t seem to help it.”

“I imagine he had plenty of practice. And of course he is still with us. Enjoying his retirement and spoiling his god-children and his grandchildren. Just as we said.”

“And Popham? I never really felt anything we said made any difference to him.”

“No. That was as we predicted too. But we had to try. And now it is Scrooge’s turn. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll give us as much trouble. Are you ready, number one?”

As the cold winter sun sets over the roofs of London, three spirits move silently through the darkening streets towards the house of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge…

By John Atkinson Grimshaw from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Home Riggs Popham sings Gilbert and Sullivan

For the idea of Sir Home Riggs Popham sings Gilbert and Sullivan, I am blaming Ross Venner, who is a fellow member of the Historical Writer’s Forum. I posted an excerpt yesterday from This Blighted Expedition, featuring Sir Home Popham, and during the following discussion, Ross suggested that Popham would make a good subject for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

One of the things only my family and my oldest friends know about me is that I love Gilbert and Sullivan and in my younger days at school and at University, I took part in many amateur productions, singing most of the alto or mezzo-soprano solos at different times as well as practically having a season ticket to D’Oyly Carte at Sadlers Wells. Once Ross mentioned it, it was obvious to me that Popham’s proper place was in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and the rest was inevitable. For those who need reminding, this is the original.

Here it is then, ladies and gentlemen, Sir Home Riggs Popham sings Gilbert and Sullivan, an Easter treat from Writing with Labradors. Happy Easter to everybody, I hope you’re all safe and well.

Sir Home Riggs Popham sings Gilbert and Sullivan

I am the very model of a Navy man in general
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and all Naval fights historical
From Ostia to Tenerife, in order categorical
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters cartographical
I understand the tides, the moon and matters navigational
About matters of politics, I’m teeming with a lot of news
With many cheerful facts about the patron I should really choose
I’m very good at knowing who to flatter and to toady to
I know which ministers and MPs I should write a letter to
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of Navy man in general

I know our naval history, King Henry and Sir Francis Drake
I wouldn’t work for either for I think they’d give my belly ache
I love to work with signals using flags to get my point across
And if they sometimes miss it, then it’s their fault and it’s not my loss
I’ve been to South America and then they called me back from there
And sent me for Court Martial which you must agree just wasn’t fair
Then I can write a long report and argue why I wasn’t wrong
They generally give up because these documents are just too long
So then I’m off to Denmark feeling smug because I’m off the hook
And Walcheren was Chatham’s fault because of all the time he took
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a Navy man in general.

In fact, when I know what is meant by tactful and diplomacy
When I can keep my mouth shut when my boss is getting cross with me
When I stop driving Melville mad with letters coming by the hour
And stop upsetting Wellington, my press releases make him sour
If I could be less paranoid about the good old Admiralty
And get used to the fact that Lord St Vincent’s not that fond of me
I need to learn to treat poor Keith as if he has some good to say
And stop telling my business to every journalist along the way
Though my scientific knowledge is the best around from West to East
When I start in on politics I waken up a savage beast
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a Navy man in general

This Blighted Expedition

JAN ANTHONIE LANGENDIJK (1780-1818) The Bombardment of Flushing, 13/14 Aug 1809. drawn 1809

This Blighted Expedition: Book 2 in the Manxman series, coming this autumn…

It is 1809. Austria is back in the war and London has committed to a new campaign in Europe in support. A force of 40,000 men and 600 ships gathers along the south coast of England. Their destination is Walcheren; a lightning strike against the French dockyards on the Scheldt.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN finds an old adversary at the centre of the campaign and realises that Sir Home Popham never forgets a perceived slight. Meanwhile his wife, Roseen, waits in England, but news of victory at Flushing is quickly clouded by more sinister reports and as the troops begin to arrive home, it is clear that something has gone badly wrong with Lord Chatham’s Grand Expedition.

Lieutenant Alfred Durrell finds himself on a temporary secondment as Popham’s aide, a posting which places him at the heart of the campaign as relations between the army and navy begin to deteriorate.

Lieutenant Giles Fenwick is broke and tired of serving under the worst captain in the 110th infantry and longs for a chance to prove himself. As the campaign drags on, Giles faces a stark choice between regimental loyalty and personal integrity with a potentially heavy price to pay.

Captain Ross Mackenzie is newly promoted as captain of the light company and tries hard to fit in, but finds himself pitted against a fellow officer whose personal problems could bring disaster down on the second battalion.

Katja de Groot runs the business she inherited from her husband and is raising three children when the British invasion takes over her home and threatens her livelihood. Katja finds unexpected happiness in her growing friendship with the captain of the light company, but can it survive the horror of war?

As the campaign begins to crumble under bad weather, poor planning and divided leadership, it seems that retreat may be the only option. But in the damp, mosquito-ridden dykes and canals of Walcheren, the British army faces an enemy more deadly than the French…

An excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

When the work was done, Hugh stood on the quarterdeck looking out over Ter Veere. He was feeling slightly sick and he wondered how his other officers were feeling. He could not confess his discomfort to anybody other than Durrell. Durrell had been with him at Copenhagen and knew how Hugh had felt watching the bombardment and burning of the city. Hugh had been relieved at the time that he had not been called upon to participate; most of the work had been done by land batteries on that occasion. This time, Lord Chatham’s army had not had time to land all their guns and Fraser’s division had only five 9-pounders and a howitzer. Reducing Ter Veere would be the job of the navy.

The Iris was the largest of the ships called into action; most of the others were small gunboats. Hugh wondered about that. With fire coming from the town, the Iris was going to present the best target. He knew that Chatham rather than Strachan had given the order for the gunboats to engage and he was not sure that the Earl knew one ship from another, but Sir Home Popham was Chatham’s constant companion and Hugh suspected the list of ships had come from him. Hugh found it hard to believe that Popham would deliberately risk a ship of the line to settle an old grudge, but he had also always suspected that Popham could hold a grudge for a long time.

Hugh had tried to minimise the risk to the Iris by positioning her at an angle where the guns could still direct accurate fire but would be less vulnerable. It was the best he could do. In a skirmish at sea he was an expert at manoeuvring his ship out of danger but there was no way to do so when bombarding a target on land.

General Fraser, having given plenty of time for a message of surrender, gave the order and Hugh relayed it to his crew. He stood at the ship’s rail watching as the first of the guns boomed out. There was some movement among the gunboats to find the best range and the town walls were hit. Almost immediately, the town guns returned fire and a deafening cannonade drowned out everything else. Hugh gave no orders to move the Iris. He had the range and his guns were doing damage to the town walls. Some of the smaller boats were moving in closer to fire barrages over into the town itself, but Hugh kept his position. He was following his orders to the letter and could truthfully answer any questions about his actions but he had no intention of risking his ship for the glory of slaughtering innocent citizens.

The noise was deafening. Firing a naval cannon was a complicated process which required endless practice to ensure a quick turnaround, and Hugh’s men had practiced until they were expert. Some of the youngest boys were employed as powder boys, running gunpowder up from the magazine below to keep the guns supplied. The number of men in each gun crew depended on the size of the gun with the largest manned by twelve men. It was hot work and the crews worked stripped to the waist, labouring to haul the enormous guns back after each recoil. 

Listening to the guns, Hugh thought his men were firing more slowly than usual. In battle they could usually manage a shot every two minutes, but this was a more steady pounding. Some of the gunboats were firing more quickly. Hugh thought about sending a midshipman below with orders to speed up and then changed his mind. He remained in place, his eyes fixed on the town walls which were being reduced to rubble and silently prayed for a signal of surrender.

It was becoming more difficult to see now, as clouds of black smoke rolled across the water. Hugh could smell it, felt it in his throat and his nose and instinctively changed his breathing to accommodate it. Below his feet the deck shuddered as another broadside crashed out. Hugh felt it as well as heard it, the whizzing sound as the heavy shot flew through the air and hit the target. At one end of the town wall a small tower had been tilting over for some time and suddenly it collapsed as if it were made from a child’s building blocks, folding in on itself and disappearing in a cloud of brick dust.

None of the return fire had touched the Iris, but not all of the gunboats remained unscathed. Two had already retired out of range with damage to masts and rigging. Through the morning the wind had increased and Hugh kept a wary eye on the weather. He did not know the tides in this water at all but it was clear that some of the smaller vessels were beginning to struggle and he watched for a signal, hoping that the barrage would be called off.

One of the gunboats on the starboard side of the Iris appeared to be in some trouble. Hugh had been looking out towards the town, which was more visible now that the wind was blowing away the black clouds of smoke which had hovered above the waves for the past few hours. Lieutenant Greene’s voice made him turn.

“She’s in trouble, sir.”

Hugh went to join him. The gunboat had lost its mast and given its lurching progress on the tide, Hugh suspected its wheel as well. Gunboats were generally small un-decked vessels which carried between one and three cannon depending on size. This was one of the smaller versions, a single-masted boat with one cannon and a swivel gun mounted on the railing. It was listing badly and Hugh could see a dozen crewmen frantically manning the oars, trying to bring the little boat under control. She was drifting wildly, tossed on the increasingly choppy sea, and two men trying hard to bail out were fighting a losing battle.

“Launch boats,” Hugh said. “Let’s get them out of there, she’s going down.”

Greene spun around, shouting the order and Hugh’s men raced towards the ship’s boats. As with all the ship’s routines they were well practiced. Hugh stood on the quarter-deck watching the progress of the stricken gun-boat.

The first of the Iris’s boats had barely touched the water when an enormous crash made Hugh stagger and almost fall. He turned back to the town just as a second shot hit, smashing into the port railing. A seaman staggered out of a cloud of black smoke clutching his upper arm which was soaked in blood. An enormous splinter protruded just above the elbow and he looked stunned.

“Get him down to the surgeon,” Hugh yelled furiously. “Are the boats launched?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get those men off the gun-boat. Mr Perry, check for casualties. Mr Greene, bring her about, we’re a sitting target here, let’s make it hard for them to aim.”

As the Iris moved smoothly into her new position, Hugh stood watching his boats. It was difficult to row with the gusting wind and against a strong tide and progress was slow. Beyond them, he could see the gunboat low in the water. Suddenly she tilted and the single cannon began to roll.

The crew abandoned all attempt to salvage her and jumped to safety. Several of them began to swim strongly towards Hugh’s boats. The gun-boat upended with her bow pointing towards the sky and then she was gone, a black shadow visible for a while through the slate grey water until she vanished from sight.

Another barrage from Ter Veere crashed out and one fell just short of the Iris, sinking harmlessly into the waves. Hugh thought he was out of range now, but was taking no chances. He was trying to balance the safety of his ship but at the same time remain within reach of the returning boats. They had reached the first of the stricken crew now and were hauling them up into the first boat while the second rowed on into the litter of smashed wood which was all that could be seen of the gun-boat. Several crew members clung to pieces of wreckage and Hugh realised he was holding his breath. He was out of range of the guns but his boats were not and a lucky shot would send them instantly to the bottom with all hands lost.

“Sir, signal to retire,” Greene called, and Hugh took a long breath and then another. He had been waiting for it; the wind and tides were making it impossible to continue the bombardment from sea.

“Get them aboard, Mr Greene and get us out of here,” he said.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in the Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly RN and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell. Have you read the first book yet? An Unwilling Alliance is also book 1.5 in the Peninsular War Saga and forms a bridge between the two series.

Readers of the Light Division romances may also be interested to know that Giles Fenwick, hero of The Reluctant Debutante, is one of the main characters in This Blighted Expedition. Giles also features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation and is the hero of my ghost story, An Exploring Officer which is free to read here. Giles also features in several books of the Peninsular War saga and might very well have a starring role in book six, An Unrelenting Enmity which is due out at the end of this year or early next year.

An Unwilling Alliance (Book 1 of the Manxman series)

It is 1806.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife.

Roseen Crellin is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.

Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

An Unwilling Alliance is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museum

Sir Home Riggs Popham, who features in my recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about during my research and I am completely unable to make up my mind how I feel about him. As a novelist rather than a historian, I need to be able to present a historical figure in a way that is believable and fits in with the perspective of my fictional characters, but in the case of Popham I find my heroes as ambivalent as I am.

Popham had a wide and varied career and was the subject of much controversy during his lifetime. He was the subject of one court martial and several different investigations, none of which seemed to hold back his career to any great degree. He was a naval officer who seemed more comfortable with the army and was both admired and disliked by contemporaries. The Duke of York applauded his ability while Lord St Vincent seems to have loathed him. He was ambitious, talented and clearly very intelligent but seems to have had the kind of personality that made enemies as easily as friends.

Popham was born in Gibraltar in 1762 to Joseph Popham, consul at Tetuan. His mother died giving birth to him and his father later remarried. Between his two wives, Joseph Popham had a large number of children; sources seem to vary as to the number. Home Riggs Popham was educated at Brentford School and then at Westminster and may have been admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, although it is not clear how much time he actually spent there. In 1778 at the age of 16 he entered the navy as a captain’s servant on board the Hyaena.

Popham’s early career in the navy was fairly typical. He was involved in a number of skirmishes and spent a few months as a prisoner of the French in 1781. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1783. Aboard the Nautilus in 1786 he was responsible for surveying the coast of south-west Africa, building a reputation as an excellent hydrographer.

Progress in the navy was often slow. There were more officers than good commands and many excellent men were unemployed and on half-pay awaiting a ship, including Popham in 1787. Obtaining leave from the Admiralty, he bought his first ship and sailed for India as a trader. He operated to and from India for several years, marrying the daughter of an East India Company officer, Elizabeth Prince, in 1788. During these years he continued with his surveying work, later publishing A Description of Prince of Wales Island with charts. He also discovered a new channel between the island and the mainland through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company’s fleet to China and he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also strongly commended him both to the directors and the Admiralty.

Popham’s commercial activities, however, were causing some suspicion and in 1791 his ship was seized by an English frigate as a prize of war, brought into the Thames, and condemned as a droit of Admiralty for having traded in contravention of the East India Company’s charter. The case was far from clear and Popham appealed, eventually receiving £25,000 over a period of time, which left him with considerable losses. There were rumours that he had been smuggling. He had also failed to renew his leave and was consequently temporarily struck off the lieutenants’ list although he was reinstated in 1793.

In September of that year, Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the campaign in Flanders under the Duke of York. It was a job to which he was ideally suited, with his excellent organisational skills and understanding of logistics. He formed a corps of sea fencibles to defend Nieuport and distinguished himself to such a degree that on 27 July 1794 the Duke of York requested of the Admiralty that he be appointed superintendent of inland navigation and promoted to commander, an honour which earned him the nickname of ‘The Duke of York’s admiral’.

When the Allied forces retreated in 1795, Popham was in charge of the evacuation and proved himself so competent that in March of that year the Duke wrote to the First Lord requesting that Popham be promoted to the rank of post captain. It is very likely that this rapid promotion at the request of the army engendered some resentment among Popham’s naval colleagues.

During the invasion threat of 1798, Popham set up and commanded a district of sea fencibles. In May he submitted a plan for destroying the Saas lock at Ostend and was given, command of the expedition. The lock was destroyed, but because of worsening weather, the troops under Major-General Eyre Coote could not be re-embarked, and were obliged to surrender. The following year, Popham was sent to St Petersburg to attempt to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. He took the tsar and his family sailing which they apparently enjoyed so much that they presented Popham with a gold snuff-box and a diamond ring, and the tsar made him a knight of Malta. Popham secured the force needed and returned to England.

Later that year Popham was once again involved in inland navigation as an allied force under General Sir Ralph Abercromby landed on the Helder peninsula. It was poorly supported by the 10,000 Russian soldiers sent by the tsar and the campaign ended with another evacuation which Popham managed with his usual flair. He was awarded a pension of £500 a year and send back to Russia to try to mollify the tsar although Paul, furious at the failure of the campaign, refused to see him.

Back at sea, Popham began working on another project; the signalling system for which he is perhaps best known. His Telegraphic Signals, or Marine Vocabulary, provided ships with a flag system containing letters, words, and common phrases and enabled captains to communicate effectively. Popham’s code, was used by Nelson and his frigates at Trafalgar. It did not immediately supplant the official Signal Book for the Ships of War but was used to supplement it. Popham continued to improve the code over the next twelve years and it was widely used, finally being officially accepted by the Admiralty in 1812.

At the end of 1800 Popham commanded a troop ship with Abercromby’s army invading Egypt. Once there, he was commissioned by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. Popham was successful only with the Sultan of Aden. In addition he continued his surveying work, later publishing an excellent chart of the Red Sea.

On his return to England in1803 Popham found himself at the centre of another controversy, accused of having incurred ‘enormous and extraordinary’ expenses on repairs to his ship, the Romney in Calcutta. A series of investigations followed, during which Popham published A concise statement of facts relative to the treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea to rebut the charges. It appears that the case may have been fabricated by Lord St Vincent’s secretary, Benjamin Tucker, in the hope of currying favour and trading on the First Lord’s well-known dislike of Popham. The matter finally went to a select committee of the House of Commons which reported that the figures had been grossly exaggerated and Popham was innocent.

Popham had political ambitions and hoped to become a lord of the Admiralty. He served as a Pittite MP in several different constituencies between 1804 and 1812 and some of his naval appointments were undoubtedly the result of political favour. With his wide variety of interests, Popham became interested in the invention of ‘submarine bombs’ which proved unsuccessful in practical use. He also took an interest in the idea of attacking the Spanish colonies in South America, an idea which had been debated for some years, and in 1804 submitted a paper on the subject to William Pitt, after meeting the Venezuelan patriot, Francisco Miranda.

At the end of 1804 Popham was appointed to the Diadem and in August 1805 he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird. The operation was a great success, with Popham leading his marine battalion during the attack, and the Dutch surrendered the colony. The squadron remained in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack.

At this point, Popham conceived the idea of making an attack on the River Plate. Presumably he assumed that with the Tories, led by William Pitt, his patron, in power, he could expect tacit approval, particularly if he were successful. Reluctantly Baird allowed him to take 1200 men; the squadron sailed and at St Helena, Popham ‘borrowed’ a further 180 men. There he heard that Pitt was dead, but not who had replaced him.

 On 25 June 1806 the small force under the command of Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford landed near Buenos Aires. With the addition of the marine battalion it totalled 1635 men. The Spanish were surprised and there was very little immediate resistance. The city surrendered on 2 July and Beresford took possession. Popham sent an enthusiastic open letter to the merchants of England announcing this lucrative new market for their goods. He had spoken too soon, however. By 10 August a force of 2000 Spaniards entered the city, overran Beresford’s men and took them prisoner. Popham and his squadron could do nothing but blockade the river and wait for reinforcements.

On 3 December, with reinforcements arriving, Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling arrived to with orders for Popham to return to England. On his arrival on 20 February 1807 he was put under open arrest to await court martial on two charges: of having withdrawn his squadron from the Cape without orders; and of having launched his Argentine enterprise ‘without direction or authority’.

Typically for Popham, this incident received a mixed reception. In Argentina, Popham is often seen as the catalyst of the independence which followed the invasion. To the Admiralty he was an officer who had acted improperly; to the City of London he had made a bold attempt to open up new markets, and he was presented with a sword of honour. He was tried at Portsmouth in March 1807, was found guilty and severely reprimanded.

Surprisingly, Popham’s career does not seem to have suffered from this. In July he was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier in the expedition against Denmark, and this is where we meet him in An Unwilling Alliance. Several other captains, including Hood, Keats and Stopford apparently protested at this appointment although it was probably Popham’s experience in joint operations which caused Gambier to ask for his appointment. Popham was one of the three officers appointed to negotiate with Denmark at the end of the bombardment, along with Wellesley and Murray.

Popham’s next command was of the 74 gun Venerable during the disastrous Walcheren campaign. Popham’s role in this particular fiasco was interesting, since he seems to have been heavily involved in the planning of the expedition. The blame for the failure of the campaign, which should probably have been shared between the army, the navy, the planners in London and sheer bad luck landed squarely on the shoulders of the army commander Lord Chatham even though the enquiry officially exonerated him, but there may well have been some issues with the planning of the expedition from the start.  Dr Jacqueline Reiter, who has written a biography of Lord Chatham, points out in this post that although there was inevitable recrimination between the army and the navy after the campaign, Lord Chatham seemed to consider the Admiralty planning of the expedition responsible for the disaster, something with which Popham was undoubtedly involved.

Whatever the truth of the Walcheren fiasco, Lord Chatham’s active military career was over while Popham, still in command of the Venerable, was sent to northern Spain to assess possibilities for co-operating with the guerrillas and conducting a kind of naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham seems to have received very little recognition for this achievement much to his disappointment. There is speculation that his controversial career had finally caught up with him. At the end of the war he was promoted to rear-admiral and made KCB but he was not employed on active service again. He seems to have lost whatever political influence he had once had and had made too many enemies during his colourful career.

From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief in Jamaica. They were not good years for Popham. He suffered badly from yellow fever and lost one of his daughters to the illness. His son, Home, also died of some kind of pulmonary illness. In 1818 Popham was made KCH but his health was failing. In June 1820 he suffered a series of strokes and wrote to the Admiralty asking to be relieved of his command.

Sir Home Riggs Popham and his wife sailed for England on 15 June. They arrived at the end of July and on 11 September, at Cheltenham, Popham died of a third stroke at the age of only 58. He was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Sunninghill in Berkshire, close to his home, Titness Park. His wife died in Bath, aged ninety-four in 1866. They were considered to be a devoted couple.

The brief sketch I have drawn of Popham in An Unwilling Alliance is not enough to give a full picture of the man and I have a feeling I have a lot more to learn about him. Popham was clearly an intelligent and inventive officer whose achievements are quite remarkable. His work on naval communications was ahead of his time, his work at the Admiralty on the chart committee helped establish the excellent reputation of Admiralty charts. He was a scientific officer with a considerable talent for organisation and often worked better with the army than with the navy. He was a good captain, a loving husband and an affectionate father.

And yet there is always something else about Sir Home Riggs Popham. Suspicion and accusation dogged his entire career. Some of his exploits are extraordinary but I have the sense that he must always have been looking over his shoulder, waiting for his past to catch up with him. He received high praise for many of his achievements, but he does not seem to have been generally liked.

It is difficult to know whether Popham’s reputation as a “damned cunning fellow” is based on his actions or simply on a difficult personality. His achievements are remarkable but in an age when the ideal of a naval officer was Horatio Nelson, a scientist and surveyor who specialised in joint operations with the army was unlikely to become a national hero and it is ironic that some of Popham’s finest moments seem to have involved the evacuation of troops from difficult situations.

Whatever the truth of it, Sir Home Riggs Popham – elusive, enigmatic and controversial – is a gift to any historical novelist and I am looking forward to revisiting him during the Walcheren campaign.

An Unwilling Alliance is a novel of the 1807 Copenhagen campaign, available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon.  My next book, This Blighted Expedition, following the Walcheren campaign, will be published later this year.

 

 

 

 

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – a review

HMS VictoryThe Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth is more than just a museum.  It is a site containing a collection of museums, all of them connected to the Royal Navy and Britain’s maritime heritage and you need more than one day to do all of them.  Since we only had one day and since the aim of my visit was to soak up some background information about naval warfare and life in the 19th century navy, I was very specific about the museums we chose but we had time for one or two extras and I will definitely be back to do the rest.  This place is absolutely brilliant.

Aboard the VictoryHMS Victory

We went first to visit HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.  She is looking a little odd at the moment since a new phase of restoration and conservation is taking place, and the top half of her masts is missing.  Despite that, there is no way that this ship can look anything other than impressive and beautiful.

HMS Victory left the Chatham Royal Dockyard in 1765.  Over an unusually long time in service she would lead fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War and in 1805 she achieved lasting glory as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar when Britain defeated the French and Spanish fleet in what is often seen as Britain’s greatest naval victory.

In 1808 the Victory was re-commissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic.  Four years later, no longer required in this role she was relegated to harbour service as a residence, flagship and tender.  In 1922 she was saved for the nation and placed permanently into dry dock where she is today visited by millions of visitors from around the world; a museum of the sailing navy and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

For me, the Victory was a chance to step aboard a warship of the age.  My current work-in-progress, An Unwilling Alliance, is about a Manx sea captain who survived Trafalgar and has just been given command of his own warship.  The Iris, Hugh’s ship, is not as big as the Victory, being a third rate 74 gun ship, but there is still a strong sense of what life might have been like aboard such a ship and the task of writing about the Iris and its crew suddenly feels more manageable.

The Victory is set up to give a very good sense of life aboard a warship.  Sections of the lower deck have hammocks set up and some of the tiny officers and midshipmen’s cabins are furnished as they would have been at the time.  You can see the captain and admiral’s quarters and it is fascinating to see how the crew slept and lived alongside the guns.  With a battle approaching, furniture would be cleared away and the entire area would become a battleground.

Naval battles at this time were not just about the pounding of heavy guns.  Ships fought close together and sailors and marines fired muskets and pistols at the enemy crew as if in a land battle.  Nelson’s fatal wound at Trafalgar was caused by a shot down from the enemy rigging which shattered his spine.  Once ships were close together the aim was to board the enemy ship and close and savage hand to hand fighting with sword, bayonet and axe would ensue.  The ship’s guns did not fire exploding shells, they acted as battering rams, smashing the enemy ship to pieces, and a lot of the wounds treated by the ship’s surgeon came from wooden splinters which could be lethal.

One of the big assets of this museum are its guides.  Most are volunteers, often former navy personnel and their knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject is very impressive.  These are not people who have done a bit of background reading on the subject; they know it all.  We spent a fair bit of time chatting, not just about the Victory and the Napoleonic wars but about other ships and other combats.  It would be easy to spend a day just talking to them.

If there is a downside to the Victory, it is the lack of written information.  There is a guidebook and an audio-guide.  I’m not a fan of either as I find wandering around with a book in my hand or listening through headphones detracts from the experience for me, so initially I found the complete absence of any kind of information boards irritating.  I quickly realised that there was always a guide close by to ask, and they always know the answer, but if you’re not one to start talking freely to complete strangers, make sure you get a guide of some kind before you board or you’ll miss out.

The other thing to be aware of, is how low the lower decks are.  We were told that some of the warrant officers were six feet or more and it must have been an enormous strain working below decks at that height.  At 5’6” I had to stoop a fair bit and my 6’ husband had a backache by the end of the tour.

Having said that, it was a completely brilliant experience and I would recommend it to anybody.

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museumNational Museum of the Royal Navy

There is a lot of this, it needs plenty of time.  The museum is in two parts, one dedicated primarily to Nelson and his war and the rest covering the history of the Royal Navy up to modern times, including a fabulous exhibition about women and their role in the navy, especially the history of the WRENs.  It’s a great museum, well-set out with a huge amount of information and something for everybody.  We had to rush some parts of it, so be warned and give it time.

Queen Elizabeth, taken from the boatHarbour Tour

This boat trip around the harbour is included in the price of the museums and is well worth doing.  It takes about 45 minutes and looks at the history of Portsmouth as a naval base as well as taking a look at any modern Royal Navy vessels that happen to be in port at the time.  This was a treat for us as it gave us the chance to get a very good look at the brand new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier which is astonishing.  There were a couple of great photo ops including the Victory – the old and the new navy side by side.  Well worth doing but wrap up warmly if you’re doing it in January…

The Mary Rose Museum

This was my bonus treat of the day.  Completely out of my period, but the skeletal remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, raised from the Solent and preserved along with many artifacts, is one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen.  The museum is very new and combines the history of the ship and its sinking with the story of its recovery very effectively.  The technology used to display the ghostly hulk of the Mary Rose, with images of its daily life projected onto it, is impressive.  I can remember following this story as a history student back in the eighties and what they’ve done since then defies belief.  Along with the Victory, this has to be the highlight of the Dockyard and is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, so atmospheric.  Go and see it.

The Mary Rose was the end of our day.  I plan to come back and spend a few days in Portsmouth.  I want to see the rest of the historic dockyard: there is a lot more to see, including the Victorian HMS Warrior, the Submarine Museum, HMS M.33 and several other attractions that I didn’t have time to explore.  This would be an excellent place to visit with children, they have their own dedicated play areas but the exhibits themselves are very much designed for all ages.  Mine are older now but they would have loved this place.  I would also like to spend time looking at the town itself.  I definitely got what I came for, but I want more.

I’ve been worried about taking on the mammoth task of writing about the navy in 1807 when I feel so much more comfortable with the army, but Portsmouth Historic dockyard is a big step forward for me.  After months of reading and making notes I suddenly feel that I’ve got a sense of my locations in the same way I did when I stood on the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  Writing the navy is very different; although they lived and loved on shore, when they went to work they did it in a small space, bound by wooden walls but with the ocean all around them.  That must have shaped the character of the men who fought and died with Nelson and I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them better.

An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018.

 

 

 

 

Copenhagen 1807 – the Navy meets the Army, an Excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance

Old Haymarket, Copenhagen

In Copenhagen, 1807 the British army under Lord Cathcart and the Royal Navy under Admiral Gambier cooperated to seize the Danish fleet to stop it falling into the hands of the French.  Denmark was a neutral country and the bombardment of Copenhagen, although it achieved its aim, was not universally popular.

The army reserve was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, keen to return to the field from his position as Chief Secretary in Ireland, and in An Unwilling Alliance a meeting of the various commanders brings together Captain Hugh Kelly, the Manx commander of the Iris and a young army major on the rise, serving under Sir Arthur Wellesley, Major Paul van Daan…

Hugh turned at a sudden noise from the stable yard.  The commanders had left their horses in charge of a groom and the man had roped them to a long wooden bar outside the stables.  There was no sign of him now but one of the horses, a solid piebald with knots in his mane and a thick neck, had broken loose from the rail and was backing up across the yard.  His freedom was making the other horses restive and they were pulling on their tethers.  Hugh swore softly under his breath and made his way outside.

Another man was ahead of him, one of the escort who had arrived with the army commanders.  He was tall and fair, an officer in a red coat, his back to Hugh as he approached the piebald, placing himself between the horse and the way out of the yard.  Hugh went to the bar where the other horses were tied and inspected the ropes.  As he had suspected, every one of them was poorly tied, ready to be loosened with a determined tug.  Hugh sighed and released the first of them, retying it.

The officer spoke, his voice a clear baritone which was hard to place.  The accent spoke of privilege and wealth and the purchase of a commission but the phrasing and words were slightly unusual, as if this man had lived a varied life in many places.

“Stand still, you cross-eyed Danish bastard, I’m not chasing you halfway across the city because a groom can’t tie a knot.  Come here.”

He caught the loose rein and then moved in confidently as the horse reared up in fright, putting a soothing hand on the ungroomed neck and running it down the horse’s shoulder.  “All right lad, I know you’re scared.  No need to be.  Come on, let’s get you back where you should be and fed and watered.  And by the look of you a brush wouldn’t go amiss.  Come on.”

He was holding his body against the horse, steadying him, and the animal quietened immediately, soothed by the confidence in both voice and body.  Hugh watched in reluctant admiration as the man turned, leading the horse back into the yard.  He was wearing the insignia of a major and looked several years younger than Hugh with fair hair cut shorter than was fashionable, especially in the army or navy, and a pair of surprising blue eyes.  The eyes rested on Hugh for a moment, then the major led the horse back to its place at the rail and began to tie him up.  Hugh watched him in surprise for a moment, recognising the knot and then looked up into the major’s face.

“I doubt he’ll break away from that,” he said in matter-of-fact tones, moving on to re-tie the next horse.

The major did the same.  “How to tie a knot that stays tied was one of the only two useful things the bloody navy taught me,” he responded, pleasantly.

“What was the other?” Hugh asked.

“How to kill people.  I got very good at that.”  The major tied the last knot and surveyed Hugh’s handiwork to ensure that it was properly done with an arrogance which both irritated and amused Hugh.  Then the man looked up and saluted.  “Major Paul van Daan, Captain, 110th first battalion.  I’m here with Sir Arthur Wellesley.”

“Sir Arthur Wellesley might have been walking back to his lodgings if you’d not been as quick,” Hugh said, returning the salute.  “You’d think a groom would be better at tying up horses, wouldn’t you?”

“A Danish groom, this week?  What do you think, Captain?”

Hugh grinned.  “I think a pack of British commanders having to walk through town because their hired horses have buggered off might be a small victory but very satisfying,” he said.  “Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris, Major.  How did you end up in the army, then?  Navy didn’t suit?”

“I was fifteen and I didn’t volunteer, Captain.  Put me off a bit.”

Hugh shot him a startled glance.  “Christ, you don’t sound like a man who ought to have been pressed.”

“They don’t always play by the rules.  But it was definitely educational.”

“How long were you in?”

“Two years.  Made petty officer, fought in a few skirmishes and at the Nile.”

Hugh felt his respect grow.  “I was there myself,” he said.  “Let me buy you a drink.  They’ll be a while, I suspect.  You on Wellesley’s staff?”

The major grinned.  “Not officially, although he bloody thinks I am.  Let me have a word with that groom and I’ll be with you.”

Hugh watched as he went to the stable door and yelled.  The man emerged at a run and stood before Van Daan, his eyes shifting to the neatly tied horses in some surprise.  He looked back at the major, his expression a combination of guilt and defiance.

Van Daan reached out, took him by one ear, and led him to the horses as if he had been a misbehaving schoolboy.  He indicated the newly tied knots, spoke briefly and then clipped the groom around the head, not very hard.  Hugh saw him point to the feed troughs and water pump, using gestures to make up for the language difficulties.  He then pointed to the piebald’s tangled mane and muddy coat and gestured again.  The groom was nodding, his sulky expression lightening a little.

Having given his orders, something with which Hugh observed sardonically that Paul van Daan seemed very comfortable, the young major reached into his coat pocket and took out two coins which he held up.  The groom’s eyes fixed on them and Paul van Daan pointed to the horses and spoke again.  The man nodded.  The major handed him one coin and put the other back into his pocket.  Then he smiled, the first real smile Hugh had seen him give, and it transformed his face.  The groom smiled back as though he could not help it, and the major put his hand on the man’s shoulder, laughed, and then ruffled the dirty hair with surprising informality as if he were a younger brother or cousin.  He released the groom and went to the ugly piebald horse, stroking his neck.  The animal nuzzled his shoulder and Van Daan smiled, reached into his pocket and took out a treat.  He stroked the horse as he fed it and Hugh watched him and wondered if the small drama he had just watched played out was regularly enacted with Van Daan’s men.  If it was, he suspected the man was an asset to the army.

“Major van Daan!”

The voice was cold, clipped, it’s tone biting, coming from an upstairs window of the inn, the room where the commanders were dining.  Van Daan turned and looked up.

“Is there a reason why you are in the stable yard socialising with the grooms when the man I have sent to search for you is combing this establishment looking for you?  Or are you under the impression that I asked you to accompany me in order to give you a day off?”

Major Paul van Daan saluted with a grin to the upstairs windows where the dark head of Sir Arthur Wellesley protruded.  “Sorry, sir, didn’t think you’d need me for a bit.”

“It appears that the secretary provided speaks very little English and I would prefer to have this meeting fully documented in a language that the cabinet in London understands.  Sir Home Popham appears to be of the opinion that no minutes are needed at all which makes me all the more determined to provide them.  Try to write legibly for once.”

“On my way, sir,” Van Daan said.  Wellesley withdrew his head and the major gave one more nut to the piebald, called a word to the groom who was filling water buckets with considerable speed and joined Hugh at the door.  “I’m sorry, Captain, we’ll need to postpone that drink, it appears I am now a secretary as well as a battalion commander.  Thanks for your help with the horses.”

“You’re welcome,” Hugh said.  “You in trouble, Major?”

“Wellesley?  Jesus, no, that’s him on a good day,” Van Daan said, laughing.  “I’d better go before he causes serious offence.  Good afternoon.”

An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018.  An Unconventional Officer, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th infantry is available on Amazon.

 

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