Last week, Katy of Chichester Copywriter travelled to Hampshire to attend a Portsmouth Thought event at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. Here, she discovered how inspirational a treasure trove of historical letters was for author Sam Willis.
Portsmouth Thought is an on-going festival of ideas, celebrating the best new non-fiction writing, and is part of the Portsmouth: Home of Great Writing Programme. This collaboration between Portsmouth City Council, University of Portsmouth and Blackwell (Portsmouth) aims to engage and inspire the curious mind with a varied programme of talks.
Sam’s talk: In The Hour of Victory – The Royal Nay at War in the Age of Nelson was not the type of book talk that Katy would usually sign up for. The thing that grasped her interest was what inspired Sam’s latest book In The Hour of Victory – a collection of naval dispatches written from many points of view that he happened across in the British Library.
When he visited the British Library to conduct research, Sam requested to see a letter and, expecting a single envelope containing a page or two of correspondence, the maritime historian was astonished to be presented with a collection of more than 350 pages in a huge chest. Not only was the incredible volume beautifully bound in silver and covered in blue velvet but it contained battle dispatches from the major British naval victories of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the form of everything from captains’ letters and maps to surgeons’ journals and captured enemy accounts. It seems rude not to compare this find to unearthing buried treasure!
One thing that fascinated Sam, and really appealed to Katy as a creative writer, was reading so many different accounts – through the ranks and years and across professions. This collection of dispatches allowed myriad personalities to shine through as well as new discoveries to be made. Some of the dispatches were written by captains and these accounts spanned everything, from the garbled to the vague, while others were compiled by secretaries who were essentially professional writers. Nelson, however, was one of the rare few of his rank who penned his own dispatches and this reveals something very interesting about this famous figure of naval history.
What amazed the author most was that this historically significant and insightful volume had been removed from The National Archives. It was accessible at the British Library – only to scholars with a reference – but if he had not requested to see that letter then even fewer people would be aware that these battle dispatches were ordered by the Lords of the Admiralty in 1821.
Sam is now keen for the dispatches to become more widely accessible and would like to see them scanned and uploaded so that they are available online to the British public. He also mentioned that it would be lovely to see such works displayed in relevant museums such as the National Museum of the Royal Navy – the venue for the evening’s talk.
However, it could be some time before Sam’s dream to see the naval dispatches available online comes true. The only known medieval manuscript of the epic saga of Beowulf, the most important surviving work of poetry written in the Old English Language, only became available to view online in February! Hopefully, Beowulf is the first of many historically significant titles to become accessible online and others, including the fascinating naval dispatches that inspired In The Hour of Victory, will follow.
Our intrigued South Coast copywriter has already booked to attend Are We Being Watched? The Searh for Life in the Cosmos with Paul Murdin on 28th February and Running with the Pack with bestselling author Mark Rowlands on 14th March. Katy read Mark’s book The Philosopher and the Wolf last year and thoroughly enjoyed it so she is looking forward to hearing from the author in Portsmouth next month! Find out more about Portsmouth Thought’s upcoming author events here.