The tragic tale of the Royal George – a visit to the Caird Library

National Maritime Museum has cooler stuff than anchors


This is a somewhat belated post covering my trip to the ‘bloggers preview’ of the newly refurbished Caird library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. This was an event held to introduce bloggers (a fascinating mix of bloggers at that) to the state of the art research facilities now available to the public at the museum. I’m a little ashamed to say that prior to this trip I had never visited the National Maritime Museum, which is even worse when considering that I have visited the Greenwich observatory, which is just up the hill from the museum. You actually have to go around the museum to get to it. Bad history geek.


That said, I’m no maritime historian, which is unfortunate given that I live in Hampshire, a part of England with a rich maritime heritage. The influence of the sea on British history is profound and hard to avoid. Take more than a cursory glance at any period of our history and ships will come bobbing into view pretty soon. The opportunity to delve a little further into such an interesting area was hard to resist, so when the invite came to see the Caird library I couldn’t resist. The archives, and indeed the museum, has some very cool stuff and we were privileged to not only have a peek at some select morsels, but also to get a background talk on each of them too.


The objects that stood out to me were the collection of twenty-seven small, wood bound books commemorating the sinking of the HMS Royal George in 1782. The Royal George was a Royal navy ship that saw active service, and was for a period of time the largest of its type. Docked in Portsmouth for repair the ship had over a thousand people on board, including the crew’s families. During routine maintenance of the hull, a procedure of rolling the ship on its side using the cannons as ballast went horribly wrong, and the ship tipped too far, took on water, and rapidly sunk. Nine hundred souls were lost, including three hundred women and sixty children. Indeed according to the commemorative accounts only one child on board survived, he was found floating nearby clinging onto the carcass of a sheep.


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The twenty-seven commemorative books were published in the 1830s and 1840s, which would indicate that the events were still quite vivid to many. Part of this may be due to the problems that it caused to shipping, the ship resisted repeated attempts to be raised from its watery grave, becoming a well know obstacle. All attempts to raise it were futile and in 1839 the authorities had to resort to blowing the wreck up. This was not before some of the timber was rescued to serve as covers for commemorative items such as these books. A tragic story captured in a set of fascinating items.


An important thing to know bout the Caird library is that it is open to the public, and it is very straightforward to get membership. I’ve written before about the mental block caused by scary archives, but that isn’t a factor here. Interesting and engaged staff, comfortable surroundings, a mix of group and quiet study areas, access to internet resources on site, I could go on and on. It’s well worth a trip, indeed if you’re delving fully into British history you’re probably going to have to.


Many of the bloggers have, er, blogged on the event, here is Lara Ruffle’s post which includes links to the others posted so far.


So, a big thanks to Emma McLean the Digital Marketing Manager for inviting me and to the archive staff at the library who gave us such an interesting tour.


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