Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The George Hotel and its patrons - Lord Nelson, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower

The George hotel in Portsmouth was long regarded as a prestigious establishment providing rooms and meals for weary travellers arriving by coach from London. It was frequented by admirals and sea captains alike, including Horatio Nelson who visited on several occasions - most notably on his last day on English soil before embarking on HMS Victory and heading for Trafalgar.

While factual events fix The George on the history map, nautical fiction authors, Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester used the venue to colour the exploits of their heroes, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower respectively. Patrick O’Brian refers to The George at least 10 times in the canon.

CS Forester not only made several mentions of the famous coaching inn but, in Hornblower and the Hotspur chose the hotel’s coffee-room to host the wedding breakfast following Horatio's marriage to Maria.

Because of the intriguing connections existing in both fact and fiction, when I planned a 5-day visit to Portsmouth (from Australia), there was only one hotel I wanted to stay at – The George. But in the words of Robert Burns, The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley. 

On arrival at a hotel named The George Hotel, full of anticipation, I was confronted by a building dating back to 1781. And for a visitor, it was ideally located only a stone’s throw from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. But this was neither the original George Hotel, nor the one I had come looking for. I soon learned that the famous coaching house had been severely damaged by German bombs on 10 January 1941 and subsequently demolished. Disappointed but not undaunted, I set about to locate the site where the George Hotel in question had stood and, if possible, secure an image of the old hotel.

Having ascertained the coaching house was located near Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, I headed for the High Street and found a pair of post-war lamp posts gracing the curb where a pair of gas lamps had one stood. They marked the spot where the London coaches came to a halt outside the original George Hotel’s front entrance. It was here Lord Nelson had stepped from his post-chaise from Merton and entered the building. It was here, in fiction, that Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower had entered the premises to spend many a happy hour.

Today, on the pavement between the two lamp posts is a bronze plaque that reads:  Lord Nelson rested at this old Posting House on 14th September 1805 before embarking on his flagship H.M.S. Victory.

Because of the devastation caused by the WW11 air raids, the site was levelled and, in 1954, an uninspiring block of flats arose in its place. It was named, George’s Court. On the wall of the latter-day building is another plaque paying tribute to Nelson’s visit.

But my search had not been for the ghosts of the past but for the building that had accommodated them. While, the first hotel on this site had been a thatched-roofed house called the Waggon and Lamb, I can only presume the name George Hotel was adopted during the reign of George 1, when the new building, with its Georgian façade, was constructed.
The original George Hotel - note the two lamp posts on the pavement

At that time, High Street was a busy thoroughfare, not only with horse-drawn carriages, coaches and carts, but sailors, soldiers, local traders and pedestrians.

In 1739 a Town Hall and Market House had been constructed in the centre of the road only a stone's throw from the George Hotel. This, seemingly odd location, created a thriving hive of shops, stalls and offices, but it also created a massive bottleneck to the traffic passing along the street. For that reason, it was eventually demolished in 1837.

Also situated on High Street, only a cable’s length from the hotel was the Church of St Thomas à Becket or St Thomas of Canterbury (now Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral). It was here CS Forester’s characters, Horatio Hornblower and Maria were married before repairing to The George for the wedding breakfast. 

Continuing along to the end of High Street brings the visitor to the fortifications that had defended the town since the reign of Henry V111, to one of the sally ports and to the beach. But when Nelson left The George, in the early afternoon of the 14th, he did not head down the High Street, instead, to avoid the already congested thoroughfare and the well-wishers who were eager to accompany him, he slipped out of the hotel’s back entrance into Farthing Street.

As a further means of avoiding attention, from Fighting Cock Lane (Pembroke Road), he detoured across the garden of the Governor’s residence. At the time, this was part of the complex occupied by the Garrison Church – a building dating back to 1212. Sadly, the Church’s nave was also badly damaged in the war-time bombings.
The Spur Redoubt

Accompanied by George Rose, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and George Canning, The Treasurer of the Navy, Nelson headed across a narrow bridge over the moat to the triangular shaped fortification – the Spur Redoubt, which protruded into the sea, and to the beachfront beyond. Here, with pebbles crunching under his feet, he was able to gaze across Spithead and see the fleet gathering for departure.

Nelson’s diary entry of Saturday Sept 14th 1805 reads, “… embarked at the Bathing Machines with Mr Rose and Mr Canning at 2: got on board Victory at St Helen’s; who dined with me; preparing for sea.”

As an aside – I find it hard to imagine bathing machines, normally associate with the Victorian era, being present on the beach in Nelson’s time. They are described in Outon’s Traveller’s Guide of 1805 as:
 “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Fred Roe’s 1905 stylized painting Good bye, my lads depicts Lord Nelson, with a ship-of-the-line in the background, waving farewell when he departed Portsmouth. This, however, is a far cry from the image I conjure in my mind of a senior naval officer standing on a shingle beach with bathing machines close by and swimmers splashing about in the water.

 Nelson’s final hours on English soil had been busy and included two visits to the George Hotel. But they were to be his last. The hotel long remembered the Admiral’s visit with pride, and preserved his room for the next 136 years until the hotel, like the British admiral, fell to enemy fire during unforgettable conflicts that would long be remembered.

 Note: this follows an earlier post – “The Portsmouth Road aka the Sailor’s Highway

References: The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Portsmouth Road and Its Tributaries”, by Charles G. Harper, 1895 AND “The Story of Nelson’s Portsmouth” by Jane Smith

THE TRAFALGAR SAIL - a legacy of the Battle

Referred to as The Trafalgar Sail, HMS Victory’s foretopsail (the second largest on the ship’s 37 sails) is the largest single surviving object from the Battle of Trafalgar (apart from the ship itself). It reveals the 90 shot holes it suffered on 21st October, 1805.

Though Victory was launched in 1765, the sail was only two years old, having been made at Chatham in 1803. It would have taken around 1,200 man-hours for the sailmakers to stitch it. Measuring the size of a tennis court (80ft at its base, 54ft at its head and 54ft deep), it weighs a third of a ton.

Following the immense damage the ship sustained at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was towed into Gibraltar for temporary repairs. After a week, she was returned to Portsmouth and later to the Chatham Dockyard for a complete refit. Here, the sail remained and was displayed at the yard for almost a century before being returned to the ship in 1905.

After becoming lost for three decades, the dilapidated sail was re-discovered in 1962 in a naval gymnasium hidden beneath a pile of mats. It was returned to Victory but signs of deterioration were evident and a decision to preserve it was made. Conservation began in 1993, a process which took twelve years.

Today, The Trafalgar Sail is on display to the public under environmentally-controlled conditions in Storehouse 10 at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It is regarded as Britain’s most important marine historic textile.
HMS Victory continues to be flagship of the Second Sea Lord and is the oldest naval ship still in commission.

Refs: National Museum and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Images include:  Hand-stitching a sail in a sail loft in the late 18th century and The Trafalgar sail at the 1891 London Naval Exhibition. Other sources supplied on request.

HMS Victory and the aftermath of Trafalgar

Seven days after the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was towed into Gibraltar Bay for sufficient repairs to be undertaken to enable her to return to English waters. The first-rate was in a sad and sorry state, but at least she was still afloat. 

 "The hull is much damaged with shot in a number of places, several along the water line. Several beams and riders, knees shot through, and a broken starboard cathead. Timbers of the Head and Stem full of shot with lots of parts damaged. Chains and Channels shot away, the Mizzen mast shot away nine foot above the deck, bulwarks shot away, the main mast was full of shot and sprung, the Main Yard gone, the main Top-Mast cap shot away. The Main Topsail mast yard shot away. The Foremast shot through in many places, the Foreyard shot away, Bowsprit, Jib Boom and cap shot-away. Spritsail yards and Flying-jib boom gone. Fore and Main Tops shot away and the ship taking in 12 inches of water an hour."
After a difficult journey, Victory arrived back in Portsmouth on 4th December. From here she was destined to sail to her birthplace, Chatham Naval Dockyard for the second major refit of her long career.

Victory’s fore topsail accompanied the ship home and had been preserved to this day. (see The Trafalgar Sail blog post)
The wheel, which was shot away during the battle, was replaced with one bearing the words of Nelson's famous signal: ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY.

 Ref The Contemporary Sculptor: Image:  Portsmouth Historic Dockyard - 2012 (MM)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Early European exploration and the legacy of Zheng He

In December 1497, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed into the Indian Ocean, he met little opposition. Instead, he discovered a sea of enormous potential. Fortunately for the Europeans, the great Chinese armada of Admiral Zheng He no longer existed, though it had left a lasting legacy. That legacy was the sea-routes, markets and ports of a functioning trading system first established by the Arabs and reinforced by the Ming dynasty.

If China’s maritime might had still ruled the waves, Vasco da Gama and the European adventurers who followed him would have faced fierce opposition from the massive Chinese fleets and the history of European globalization in the Indian Ocean would have been very different.

Why did the Chinese embark on maritime trade?

Drought, floods and famine, combined with the rule of a ruthless Mongol dynasty, saw fourteenth century China wilting under the effect of on-going economic misery. But in 1368 the Ming dynasty emerged ousting the Mongol rule. Having lost some of its overland trade routes, the new Emperor turned his attention to the sea and the trading opportunities it offered and, from 1405 a period of Chinese maritime expansion began.

 Zheng He
Emperor Zhú Di nominated the eunuch, Zheng He, to command his fleet. Standing seven feet tall, the admiral was a Chinese Muslim who could speak both Arabic and Chinese.  It was a judicious choice ‘to send a Muslim to lead expeditions into sea-lanes dominated by Arab merchant sailors and into countries that were in many cases Muslim’.

But the fleet’s purpose was neither discovery nor warfare because, ‘Ming Confucians preferred persuasion to coercion’. The fleet’s mission was one of diplomacy, to establish foreign relations, exchange gifts and impress other lands with Chinese produce and technology. It achieved this, through enforcing a system of tributes on the countries bordering the Indian Ocean including West Africa.

The Treasure Fleet
The Chinese fleet numbered over 300 vessels. Compared to the tiny carracks of the Portuguese explorers, Zheng He's treasure ships were mammoth ships, the largest measuring 440 feet in length with nine masts and four decks. Each ship was capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, including navigators, sailors, doctors and soldiers, as well as a massive amount of cargo in its huge hold. It is not surprising that for thirty years the might of the Middle Kingdom dominated the sea-lanes of the Western Sea.

Inside a reconstruction of a treasure ship (Vmenkov) 
But besides acts of diplomacy, the fleet was also an armada, transporting a mighty force of soldiers that could be landed at any port. It was written that the fleet was a terrifying sight to behold, striking terror into those who witnessed it and creating such fear that the enemy would capitulate without conflict.

Fighting, however, was occasionally inevitable with a Treasure ship carrying up to 24 cast-bronze cannons with a maximum range of 240 to 275m (800–900ft). However, the ships were primarily considered luxury trading vessels rather than warships. But in one battle, Zheng He destroyed the pirate fleet of Chen Zuyi killing 5000 men. He also established a network of military allies.

Model of treasure ship at Nanjing (Vmenkov)
The end of an era

Suddenly, in 1433, the Chinese fleet was withdrawn and all evidence of it and the ships and its voyages were erased. The Emperor had decided it was time to halt the enormous costs being spent on the Treasure Fleet. It was time to consolidate, to secure China’s frontiers and to concentrate on an agrarian economy in order to feed a rapidly growing population. The Emperor succeeded in making the Ming dynasty one of the wealthiest economies on earth.

From 1405 to 1433, the Chinese fleet had dominated the Indian Ocean but the disappearance of the largest and most powerful naval force ever seen left a lasting legacy. When China withdrew from its mercantile trade to concentrate on a purely domestic economy, it left the established sea-routes and commercial ports wide open to the emerging maritime nations of Western Europe. The Portuguese were the first to take advantage of it.

References supplied if required

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Portsmouth Road aka The Sailors' Highway

Old Portsmouth - Thomas Rowlandson the British caricaturist (1756–1827)
The Portsmouth road was the direct link between London and England’s greatest naval port and, because it was frequented by seaman from foremast Jacks to Admirals, it was dubbed The Sailors' Highway.

In 1805, there was no glamour or romance attached to coach travel. Being ‘cabin’d, cribb’d or confin’d’ in a wooden box on wheels that rolled, pitched and creaked like a ship at sea, and being ‘hauled by four horses, charging along an uneven road at the breakneck-speed of 8 mph’, was regarded as an evil best avoided.

But for those who were obliged to travel, the tedious journey began at Stone’s End (Southwark) – literally the place where the paved streets of the London Borough ended and the unmetalled country roads began. The distance of 71 miles and 7 furlongs was interrupted by six toll-houses and turnpike bars, and at least one stop at a coaching inn for a change of horses, and a chance for the passengers to eat a meal and catch a little sleep.

'The Jolly Tars of Old England’ Cruickshank
While images such as those of caricaturist, Isaac Cruickshank represent a jolly coach load of inebriated passengers, the biting cold, the inclement weather and the likelihood of falling in with thieves and robbers along the way dulled many a spirit.

Passenger had little choice but to accept the various minor miseries of the journey. For example, it was not unusual to arrive at the coach, having booked a seat in advance, only to find the coach full. Also, having to ‘ease the horses’ at the bottom of a steep hill, meant getting out and walking. And if driving through torrential rain, it was not unusual for an passenger seated outside, who was dripping wet, to take shelter by climbing into the already crowded cabin. The bad language and aggressive behaviour of drunks and beggars, who descended on the coach when it arrived at a coaching stop, could not be avoided.
The Royal Mail coach in a thunderstorm - James Pollard - 1827

Prior to 1784 and the establishment of mail coaches, the journey from London to Portsmouth took 14 hours – depending on the condition of the road. But from the turn of the century, services increased and several coaches departed London every day including the Regulator, which left at 8 am and reached Portsmouth at five in the afternoon. The Rocket and Light Post also travelled in daylight. The Royal Mail, picked up passengers at The Angel in the Strand at 7.15 pm and arrived, ‘with God’s good Grace’ at The George in Portsmouth at 6.10 the following morning. The Night Post coach, as its name indicated, also travelled through the night.

Of the hundreds of naval officers and common sailors heading to the seaport to join a ship, admirals and captains usually made use of their private carriages or hired a post chaise. These conveyances not only allowed for faster travel but offered a greater degree of privacy and comfort than the regular services. It also allowed the passenger to decide which inn he wished to stop at along the way. Lower ranked naval officers travelled by the regular coaches, whereas common sailors often covered the distance on foot or in the back of an open stage-wagon hauled by eight horses. These conveyances took three days to cover the 72 miles travelling with the ‘tripping step of a tortoise’.

The Royal Anchor Inn - Liphook

Breaking the journey at a coaching house such as The Anchor (later renamed The Royal Anchor) at Liphook offered the opportunity for a meal and a bed for those who could afford it. For sailors, clean straw on the floor of the outhouses was made available.
But apart from the minor discomforts, journeying along the Portsmouth Road was considered a dangerous venture especially if travelling at night. Because of the fear factor, fellow passengers regarded each other suspiciously and sat ‘glum and nervous – with their money in their boots, their watches in the lining of their hats, and other light valuables secreted in unlikely parts of their persons, in the fond hope that the fine fellow, mounted on a mettlesome horse, and bristling with weapons, who would presently bring the coach to a stop in some gloomy bend of the road, might be either too unpractised or in too great a hurry to think of those very obvious hiding-places.’

'Rogues 1883' by F.Dodd 1859-1929 from Illustrated London News
The threat of the rope’s end did little to deter the highwaymen, who, since the 17th century, had preyed on coaches travelling the lonely roads after nightfall. Sitting in the mail-coach’s dickey seat, the guard was armed with a musket, sword or blunderbuss.

Those passengers seated up-top were afforded the best views and when the coach neared Portsmouth, the sight of the British fleet at anchor would serve to remind them of what lay ahead. Occasionally, however, due to his excited or inebriated state, a sailor would tumble from the coach and break his leg, head, or arm, but that, in the circumstances, was not unexpected.

The Landport Gate
Arriving safely at the Landport Gate in the early hours of the morning, passengers breathed a sigh of relief – though perhaps it was unwise to inhale too deeply! Being a fortified town, the entry points to Portsmouth were locked every night from midnight to 4.00 am, so if the London coach arrived at that hour it would be obliged to wait for a line of night-soil wagons to pass out of the gate before it could enter. 

On 14th September, 1805, the post chaise carrying Admiral Lord Nelson drove through the Landport Gate and allowed him to alight at The George on High Street at 6.00 am. From there the coach continued for a further mile through the streets to its final destination at Victoria Pier.
After eating breakfast at The George, Lord Nelson proceeded to the naval dockyard where he spent several hours assessing the ships being readied for sea and visiting the Block Mill (http://goo.gl/vYI0ba ).

 Lord Nelson statue- Portsmouth
Nelson’s journey from his home at Merton in south London was the last coach journey he ever took. At 2.00 o’clock that afternoon, he was rowed across Spithead to St Helens where he climbed aboard HMS Victory, the ship that would carry him to his final fateful battle at Trafalgar.

References: The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Portsmouth Road and Its Tributaries”, by Charles G. Harper, 1895 AND “The Story of Nelson’s Portsmouth” by Jane Smith
Note: This blog post, by Margaret Muir, first appeared on the pages of English Historical Fiction Authors thanks to Deborah Brown