The Shanty Quilt Part Three – Letters Home

Kind Letters - detail

Kind Letters – detail

Swansea Town is probably my favourite sea song. It is related to an Irish folk song called The Holy Ground and is sometime known as The Lass of Swansea Town. As with many traditional sea songs and shanties there are variations in lyrics; sometimes the song is dedicated to Lovely Nancy and at other times to Lovely Dinah, the locations cited differ, and in some versions there is a storm that evokes the ever-present fear of the sea’s power.  In 1985, it was included in the now sadly discontinued BBC radio programme for schools, Singing Together and is now featured in the section of my Shanty Quilt that represents life at sea.

My sewn panel reads Kind letters I’ll write to you, you’re the girl I do adore. This paraphrases the full lyric:

Kind letters I will write to you / Of the secrets of my mind. / Of the secrets of my mind, fine girl! / You’re the girl I do adore / But still I live in hope to see old Swansea Town once more.

Swansea Town set me thinking about sailor’s letters. In Jack Tar (Abacus, 2008), Roy and Lesley Adkins note that “the number of seamen who could read inevitably varied from ship to ship, and there is evidence that where the majority were illiterate, some of those who could read and write pretended they could not, while others who were poor readers and writers lost what little skill they once had.” The sending and receiving of letters was intermittent and often delayed, so “when letters did arrive it was a cause for rejoicing … letters from home were precious items that were read and reread, and frequently treasured.”

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

The most famous sailor’s letter ever written is probably the last letter written by Horatio Nelson to his lover, Emma Hamilton, from HMS Victory on 19 October 1805, just before the Battle of Trafalgar:

My dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom … I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the battle …

Two days later, Nelson was dead. His letter was found amongst the papers on his desk, and was brought back to England and delivered to Emma by his friend Captain Hardy. It is now in the collection of the British Library.

To find out more, I have been reading two interesting books: Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar by Peter Warwick (David & Charles, 2005); and Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins (Little, Brown 2004). From these books I have learned about three letters home from men who were in positions of command at the battle.

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I'll write to you

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I’ll write to you

Before the battle, Captain Edward Codrington of the Orion wrote to his wife: “How would your heart beat for me, dearest Jane, did you but know that we are now under every stitch of sail we can set, steering for the enemy … And so, dear, I shall wish thee once more a good night, and that thy husband’s conduct in the hour of battle may prove worthy of thee and my children.” After the battle, he was to express concern that “we are all in distress about our poor wives hearing of the action and not knowing if we are dead or alive.”

On 28 September 1805, the 41-year-old Commander of the Mars, Captain George Duff, wrote to his “Dearest Sophia” to tell her he had met Nelson, “the pleasantest Admiral I ever served under,” and to “thank her for her picture; though I must  own I am not at all pleased with it, as I don’t think it does you any justice.” Captain Duff was killed at Trafalgar, and Sophia was left a widow. Their son, the thirteen-year-old Norwich who was serving as a midshipman on the same ship, wrote to Sophia to say that his father “died like a Hero, having gallantly led his ship into action, and his memory will ever be dear to his King, his Country, and his Friends.”

Captain Henry Blackwood of the Euryalus wrote to his wife on 19 October 1805: “You see also, my Harriet, I have time to write to you, and to assure you that to the last moment of my breath, I shall be as much attached to you as man can be.” And it was to Harriet he turned after the battle: “The first hour since yesterday morning to that I could call my own is now before me, to be devoted to my dearest wife … My heart, however, is sad, and penetrated with the deepest anguish … To any other person, my Harriet, but yourself, I could not and would not enter so much into detail, particularly of what I feel at this moment. But you, who know and enter into all my feelings, I do not, even at the risk of distressing you, hesitate to say that in my life, I never was so shocked or so completely upset as upon my flying to the Victory, even before the Action was over, to find Lord Nelson was then at the gasp of death.”

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

These letters must have been so precious to their recipients. From news of battle to the death of a national hero; from a determination to appear brave to breaking the sad news of a death; all these letters show the “secrets of the minds” of their writers. I’m glad the Shanty Quilt has prompted me to find out a little about them, and I hope to find out more as the project progresses.

Should you want to hear the song Swansea Town, there is an excellent recording on the 2005 album Cheer Up Me Lads! by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir

Sewing for Trafalgar Day

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From 1905: Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905: Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

21 October is Trafalgar Day and so it feels very appropriate to feature some quilt blocks (shown above) of a traditional patchwork design known as Nelson’s Victory. The block possibly dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. I haven’t been able to track down much information about this block – other than the fact that there is a similar, but slightly more complicated design called Battle of Trafalgar – so if any historians know about the Nelson’s Victory block, please let me know.

Nelson's Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

Nelson has featured in a lot of my stitchery this year. I have just finished a quilt with a design I based on Nelson’s Column, with four panels representing his four major battles of Cape St Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805).

Nelson's Column Quilt detail

Nelson’s Column Quilt detail

In the Spring, I made a small piece to go into the Trafalgar Sail project, a community project organised by the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the launch of HMS Victory.

My contribution to the Trafalgar Sail Project, using advertising from Maurice Elvey's 1918 film

My contribution to the Trafalgar Sail Project, using advertising from Maurice Elvey’s 1918 film

As these pieces were inspired by my research into Maurice Elvey’s 1918 silent film Nelson – which sparked my interest in Nelson’s place in popular culture – I am very pleased to have ensured that the Trafalgar Sail, made in 2015, included a reference to Elvey’s film.

The Nelson Quilt, July 2015

The Nelson Quilt, July 2015

And at the other end of the scale is the 3,200 piece Nelson Quilt, which I finished piecing in July. The Nelson Quilt is based on William Beechey’s portrait of Nelson (which I wrote about here). The Beechey portrait is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. It hasn’t been on public display for a number of years but I visited the Gallery last week and was delighted to find that it is back on the wall: Nelson alongside his “dearest, beloved Emma.”

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

This Trafalgar Day, 21 October 2015, may be the 210th anniversary of the Battle, but Nelson still inspires. I am sure he will continue to do so for centuries to come.

Trafalgar Day and an Update on the Nelson Quilt

21 October is Trafalgar day. It was on this day, in 1805, that Nelson won his most famous victory, and the one that cost him his life. I am not a naval historian and I am not going to attempt to write about the Battle of Trafalgar, but I am going to share the latest progress on the Nelson Quilt.

Nelson Update October 20

My interest is in Nelson’s continuing place in popular culture, an interest sparked by Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film (which inspired the Nelson Quilt). Elvey was given permission to film on HMS Victory and recreated the shooting of Nelson on the Quarterdeck, and the chaos and fury of battle around him as he fell. The film shows Nelson being advised to remove his medals lest they make him too conspicuous, but he refuses: “In honour I gained them and in honour I will die with them,” the intertitle reads.

The Nelson Quilt now has over 800 one inch squares, which means that a quarter of it has been pieced. I am at currently sewing Nelson’s coat and his medals. This is quite a challenge: close up I cannot recall why I am piecing a square of yellow or beige or cream. Then, from a distance, I will see that the ribbon for a medal or some gold braid has suddenly appeared.

Nelson close up

Various Trafalgar Day commemorative and celebratory events still take place around the UK. One of the biggest events takes place in Central London. For over a hundred years, on the Sunday closest to 21 October, Sea Cadets, along with cadets from the Army and Air Cadets, have paraded to Trafalgar Square. Their bands play music and groups of Cadets take part in a physical training display. This is followed by a wreath laying ceremony and a service, which includes a reading of Nelson’s Prayer before the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1916, courtesy of British Pathé, we can see that it looked like this.  Wreaths are also laid at Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

A cigarette card showing the Salute to Nelson on HMS Victory

A 1938 cigarette card showing the Salute to Nelson on HMS Victory

In Portsmouth, the Royal Navy holds a Trafalgar Day Ceremony aboard HMS Victory. Nelson’s signal “England expects that every man will do his duty,” is sent from the ship at 8.00am. Wreaths are laid on the spot where Nelson fell and on the orlop deck where he later died. A film of the ceremony from 1933, To the Immortal Memory of Nelson, can be found here thanks once again to British Pathé.

In Norfolk, the county of Nelson’s birth, an annual service is held at Great Yarmouth at Nelson’s monument (the Norfolk Naval Pillar) in South Denes. A gun is fired, at 1.15pm, approximately the time Nelson was shot, a toast is drunk, and wreaths are laid. In Birmingham there is an annual service and parade, culminating in a garland of flowers being placed on the statue of Nelson which is situated in the Bullring.

As for me, I’m going to a commemorative concert at which Haydn’s Nelson Mass will be sung. And I am sure that more squares will be added to the Nelson Quilt.

The Nelson Quilt from the back

The Nelson Quilt from the back