This weekend was the Collingwood Society’s annual summer outing – less of an adventure this year than some years, as we were going to the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn, although still a bit of an adventure for me, as the easiest way to get there was train to Alnmouth and a wandering kind of bus south.
Of course, last year when we tried to meet outdoors it rained for most of the day, so this year when it was an indoor event the sun shone gloriously.
There were three different sets of records looked out for us from three different Northumberland families – letters to Admiral Robert Roddam, when he was Port Admiral at Portsmouth around 1790, along with a book where he had kept copies of letters sent and received at an earlier period when he was captain of the Colchester, letters to Francis Blake Delaval as a ship’s captain in the early 18th century, and letters from Collingwood to his father in law John Erasmus Blackett.
We were divided up into little groups and just chose a place to start – I was at some of the Roddam letters, a neat little pile folded into slips.
These were quite a variety – some plain logistics, but quite a few writing to request things, often for personal reasons – I mean, not asking things of the admiral because he was the admiral, but asking things of Roddam because he was Roddam. My favourite, though, was one which looked as if it had got in by mistake – a letter from a petty officer to a brother in Berwick, appointed to a new ship where he had had 24 shillings and a new jacket stolen from him, and wasn’t in the position where he had previously served, although he was hoping that would be remedied – maybe Roddam was to help in the remedy.
The Delaval letters were a flat pile, and mostly absolutely filthy looking – they looked like they’d been in a cellar or something for a while – but the written sides were clean enough, and mostly in good handwriting.
The part of the pile that I looked through was a nice set of practical letters, mostly instructions about a convoy to the Baltic, with orders about stores and manning, and about where to go and how long to wait for ships to join. Some of the details were wonderful – in one letter the ship was being sent ‘surgeon’s necessaries and a copper kettle’!
The Roddam letter book, which was the last thing I got to look at, was the same kind of thing, but with the captain’s requests and replies as well as the letters sent to the ship. We only glanced through it, being a bit lettered out by then, but one we enjoyed was about how the ship had requested flags that they needed to reply to signals, but when they had arrived, the commissioner had refused to let Roddam have them. I think a new set had to be sent!
The Collingwood letters I really only got to hear about – some people had collected wonderful turns of phrase from them, including a description of Nelson as ‘one of the finest creatures who ever floated on the sea’. They were also the only set of personal letters we had, so a much more general depiction of the war and the personalities involved than the service letters. But I had enjoyed the rest too much to really miss them – my problem is always with being interested in everything!