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We’re delighted to have had a paper accepted for the Port Towns and Urban Cultures Conference, which is being run by the University of Portsmouth and the National Museum of the Royal Navy and will be taking place in Portsmouth in June.

Our paper is on the theme of “Sailors as political icons and social actors”. Abstract as follows:

A life of duty and service: Post-war political and social activism of Napoleonic era naval officers.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793 – 1815 witnessed not only the ascendency of British naval sea power but also a corresponding expansion of printed media; the number of newspapers and journals rose yearly and many towns and cities had greater access to popular media than ever before.  As a result, the names of naval officers and their involvement in issues outwith the service became more widely known. In particular, the generation of officers who went to sea in the 1790s and entered the post 1815 peace as respected public figures played a significant part in local and national politics and social action, founded partially on their public profile and by the confidence that the post nominal letters RN engendered.

This research builds on recently digitised material from the newspaper archive of the British Library, contemporary journals, genealogical sources and the personal papers of three specific naval officers to show how they took part in local governance and campaigning and how a common tradition and colleagueship could produce widely differing political outlook, but a shared commitment to the sense of public duty.

This paper will focus on three contrasting officers, who originally served together as midshipmen on HMS Indefatigable, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, in 1797. Thomas Groube, from a Cornish mercantile family served in the Napoleonic wars and spent time in India as governor of the Naval Hospital in Madras. Retiring to Devon, he became deeply involved in the politics of local government and campaigned on a number of wider issues such as the Corn Law disputes, the imposition of income tax and issues of church politics. His stance on these issues was radical and was influenced by his membership of a dissenting congregation. Yet the association of a respected naval officer with such radical causes was probably in itself sufficiently unusual to create an impact. Almost every mention of his campaigning or political action describes him by his rank (captain, then rear admiral) and the juxtaposition of the word “radical” and “RN” would seem startling enough to draw attention.

Henry Hart, was from an old Sussex county family and, like Groube, followed his mentor Sir Edward Pellew into service in India and was later involved in several diplomatic missions to Muscat.  Knighted for his services, Hart became a commissioner of Greenwich Hospital and, together with his wife, was concerned in a number of non-naval charities, including a society formed to encourage female emigration and a charity that worked with prostitutes in central London. Hart was a supporter of the Tory party and made extensive use of his network of naval connections in his charitable work.

The third officer, the Honourable George Cadogan, did not require his successful naval career to bring him to a position of public influence as he inherited the title Third Earl Cadogan, served as naval aide de camp to Queen Victoria and took his place in the House of Lords. Like his contemporaries, Cadogan was a member of a wide range of non-naval societies though his interests were more cultural than political.  In addition to being a founding member of the Society of Antiquaries, he was also an accomplished amateur musician and friend of the author Sir Walter Scott. Cadogan was a member of the Nelson Memorial Committee, and was one of a small group who were allocated the task of assessing the designs submitted for the Nelson monument in Trafalgar Square.

The political and social actions of these three officers are typical of their generation and many of their contemporaries aboard HMS Indefatigable also went on to serve in public office.  These officers carried the experience they gained during their naval service into the post war period and they continued to serve in public offices and charitable institutions in the towns and cities where they built their civilian lives.