Pompey and Pirates: Portsmouth and London Dockyard Museums

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I was recently asked which is the best historical site that I have visited this year. Without hesitation, I named Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, by far the most impressive and interesting place I’ve been to. The Royal Navy has an 800 year old history, and provided the clout, the romance and often the sinister side to many of the most famous episodes in British and world history. It’s all at Portsmouth, and you can see it from the decks of some of the ships that created history’s greatest maritime empire.

I expected the highlight of the day to be HMS Victory, and it is indeed a special experience to walk the decks of the world’s most famous ship, where Admiral Nelson simultaneously achieved his finest hour and fell to a French sniper at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, was home to a crew of 820 men and 18 nationalities. 57 were killed and 102 wounded at Trafalgar on October 21st 1805.

Nelson, hit by a marksman from the Redoutable, smiled, “Hardy, I do believe they have done it at last… my backbone is shot through.”

A wounded sailor in Nelson’s navy could expect treatment from the most up to date surgical equipment of the age.

However, the real gem is HMS Warrior, the loudest and final word in the naval arms race with France that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. When completed in October 1861, Warrior was by far the largest, fastest, most heavily armed and most heavily armoured warship the world had seen. She was almost twice the size of La Gloire and thoroughly outclassed the French ship in speed, armour, and gunnery. Such was the brutal scale and unprecedented combination of steam engines, rifled breech-loading guns, iron construction and armour, Warrior never had to fire a shot in anger. No other navy would have dared to cross her, and Britain was able to re-assert the superiority that Nelson and his contemporaries had secured at the beginning of the century and ruthlessly exploit the resources of her ever-increasing maritime empire.

The magnificent HMS Warrior is a fascinating step back into the world of the nineteenth century navy.

Warrior never fired a shot in anger, such was her superiority to the ships of Britain’s rivals.

Gun in a cabin or bed in a gunroom? Nothing compromised the demand for firepower on HMS Warrior.

When you’re sick on a naval warship, it’s important to rock with the waves.

There is a huge amount to see, especially on Warrior, and even more impressive to know that Warrior became a storage hulk in 1902 and was eventually put up for sale in 1923. Only a downturn in the demand for scrap iron saved her and she spent fifty years as an oil tank before restoration began.I doubt that many visitors would ever suspect that Warrior hasn’t been in full working order for 150 years, so overwhelming is the amount to see – from the engineering masterpieces that include the armour and the engine, built by John Penn and Sons for £75,000, to the full complement of guns, to the dining room of the ship’s officers. This is a factory, a barracks, a naval school and a stately home on sea.Next year the dockyards are going to become even better when a refurbished Mary Rose is unveiled to the public inside a boat shaped museum (!). If you want to get very excited, view a flythrough of how this will look here. For now visitors are satisified with the excellent Mary Rose museum, one of two museums and many other attractions on site.

A staggering amount of artifacts have been retrieved from Mary Rose.

The lifting of the Mary Rose in 1982 was one of the greatest feats of maritime archaeology ever seen. The surviving section of the ship and thousands of recovered artefacts are of immeasurable value as a Tudor-era time capsule. What is most striking is the sheer volume and variety of the artifacts, the massive weight that the ship must have been carrying. Whether you’re into the everyday life of a Tudor sailor, the armoury on board a Tudor warship, or trying your hand with a bow and arrow, there’s something here to float your boat. Visitors come away with a full appreciation of what it took to send a ship to war with France in 1545, and what it took to pull her out of the sea almost five hundred years later. There is even a speculative attempt to pin the blame for the sinking on one poor individual sailor!

A relatively friendly looking Tudor soldier.

Musuem of London Docklands

With Mrs Woodall away for the weekend recently, I took the chance to get my pirate kicks at the Museum of London’s Captain Kidd exhibition at their Docklands site. As this exhibition closes on October 30th, I urge anyone that has been meaning to go to set sail immediately. If you’re not sure if you can be bothered to make your way down to Canary Wharf, I share with you the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, introducing Treasure Island…

To the Hesitating Purchaser

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons
And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of to-day:

—So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave;
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie!

In other words, if you love adventure and romance, you’ll love this.

When you’re a grown man alone in a museum, you only get one shot to photograph yourself in a pirate’s hat.

The exhibition focuses on how Captain Kidd went from privateer to pirate and how he was betrayed by men at the centre of the British government looking to save their own necks and fortunes. There are plenty of tales of derring-do, murder and betrayal, and plenty of dark and splendid characters to read about. Kidd is obviously at the centre of it all, firstly serving greedy merchants and politicians as a pirate chaser, then as an accused pirate himself. Finally, he is condemned by Parliament, abandoned by those he had served, and hung in a gibbet to swing  at Tilbury Point for three years as a warning to future would-be pirates. Kidd himself said as he was being tried: “There is nothing in the world that can make it appear that I was guilty of piracy.” This may be stretching it a little, but he was a contemporary of some unscrupulous men, who saw him hang with a heavy sigh of relief.

Hanging of William Kidd (The Pirates Own Book, Charles Ellms)

Here are a few dodgy pictures of things I saw:

Ancient Jolly Roger

Pirates had a surprisingly generous compensation scheme amongst themselves.

There are plenty of Cap’n Kidd’s ill gotten goods to see.

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