Richard Oliff: Book that sparked my love of history

The Story of Nelson inspired Richard's love of history
The Story of Nelson inspired Richard's love of history

I was once given a small Ladybird book for my birthday.

A gift that unwittingly became the catalyst for my lifelong interest in history.

The book was The story of Nelson: An adventure from history by Lawrence du Garde Peach.

It had first been published in 1957, and it was this text combined with the brilliant illustrations by John Kennedy that fired the imagination of my younger self. Such histories combined with the fantasy world of Robert Louis Stephenson and his Treasure Island introduced me to the pirates of the Caribbean long before Jack Sparrow stared into a looking glass to find he’d turned into a Rolling Stone.

In 2005 we celebrated the bi-centenary of Nelson’s victory over the combined might of the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar, since when Nelson’s flagship Victory had had a history of her own and only a combination of circumstance, luck and Royal intervention saw her finally, remarkably, being moved to a dry dock early in the 20th century.

Today HMS Victory is suffering again, though not with any of her older timbers, but with many of the replacements installed during the past 30 years or so. Victory’s restoration is an ongoing procedure to protect and preserve her for posterity.

This expensive process had been subsidised in the past by making souvenirs, such as musical boxes, napkin rings, inkwells or metal badges from the removed timbers or metalwork (primarily copper sheathing). Many such wooden boxes and other items display a brass plaque which reads, ‘From the bowsprit of HMS Victory Nelson’s flagship Trafalgar 1805 purchased 2nd June 1937’.

As the ship is continuously maintained and repaired, somewhat akin to Trigger’s broom, eventually she will look like Victory, yet precious little of her original fittings or materials will remain from that historic day in 1805.