A Voyage Round O'Brian's Britain - The Master And Commander Museum Trail

by Max Glaskin | 22 November 2003

A visit to Britain's oldest floating warship, HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool, is almost like being on board Aubrey's first frigate, the 38-gun fifth-rate HMS Lively, or on his even smaller and beloved HMS Surprise.

Trincomalee overall

Photo: HMS Trincomalee, Hartlepool.

Even though she was not launched until 1817, well after hostilities ended, the 46-gun Trincomalee, now moored at Hartlepool, is very similar in design to earlier ships and it is easy to imagine her crew practising their gunnery skills while Jack times them from the quarterdeck.

Frigates were the most dashing ships in the navy because they were fast and well armed, highly suited to Aubrey's demeanour.

Shows the cover of Patrick O'Brian's book HMS Surprise. There is an old warship sailing into view on the right. On the left are two small boats, one has a shelter built in straw in the centre. In the background is land with the silouettes of buildings ashore.

Photo: HMS Surprise is the third book in the series. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.

The Trincomalee gives a fine insight into the cramped conditions on a warship and there is one particularly curious coincidence worth considering as you admire the futtockshrouds... At the end of the 19th century the Trincomalee was renamed the Foudroyant, after Nelson's one-time flagship and upon which a certain (fictional) Lieutenant Jack Aubrey had served shortly before the beginning of the novel series.

O'Brian maintains the momentum of his novels on dry land with some memorably exhilarating carriage rides. Fortunately Caroline Dale-Leech, the owner of the Red House Stables Working Carriage Museum in Matlock, can offer similar experiences in the Derbyshire countryside. They are more sedate and certainly safer than those taken by the impetuous Diana Villiers in the books.

Shows a picture of a nineteenth century carriage. There are four white horses pull the carriage which is full of people dressed in period costume. The carriage wheels are red and so is the uniform of one of the passengers and the lady sat at the front has a red hat. In the background on the right is a church.

Photo: 19th century carriage. Courtesy of Red House Stables Working Carriage Museum.

The museum has nearly 40 carriages available, including a stage coach, a Royal Mail coach, a park drag and a Hansom cab.

If you have the time, a pleasant day can be spent riding to the great houses nearby, stopping at country hostelries for refreshment. Budding Dianas may even take lessons in driving the carriages themselves - in period costume or otherwise.

Horatio Nelson, who Jack Aubrey met twice, was once commander of HMS Victory and that alone is reason enough to visit.

a view of HMS Victory from the Dockside

Photo: HMS Victory, Portsmouth. © Jon Pratty, 24 Hour Museum

But our main interest is the sickbay below decks. This is the kind of workplace of which Dr Stephen Maturin could only dream, being spacious, light, pristine, well aired and as steady as a rock.

Yet it gives an excellent impression of where the ship's surgeon may have dispensed the bolus, potable soup and tincture of laudanum to crew suffering from the marthambles, the great pox and unbalanced humours.

And it's where he would examine the wounded before deciding whether to saw off their shattered limbs with ferocious-looking instruments or cut a little hole in their skull and cover it with a beaten coin.

a photo of a white slatted front building

Photo: The Historic Dockyard, Chatham.

"She is a Chatham ship...she is pretty spry," said Jack Aubrey describing HMS Bellona which he commands in The Commodore, the 17th book in the series. And at Chatham's Historic Dockyard you can see exactly how she was built by following the Wooden Walls exhibition, a tour of some of the twenty-six trades required to build a wooden warship.

Shows a photo of a wooden model of a ship called the Bellona. Only the hull is shown, there are no sails, ropes or masts.

Photo: Georgian Skeleton Model of the Bellona (c.1760). Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum.

Eleven ships of the line were built at Chatham, including HMS Victory, but the featured vessel is the Valiant, a third-rater with the same 74 guns as Bellona which was launched a year later in 1760. It was here also that the great naval architect and master shipwright Robert Seppings perfected diagonal bracing to strengthen ships.

The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth is a treasure house of naval history and contains some real gems that will inspire every O'Brian fan. The most captivating are the original cover paintings for the Aubrey-Maturin books by artist Geoff Hunt. The museum owns 12 of the pictures and exhibits them in rotation.

a painting of a large ship at sea

Photo:The Ionian Mission, by Geoff Hunt, RSMA © Royal Naval Museum.

The numerous models and displays illuminate the lexicon of O'Brian's text, from the Articles of War, which describes capital offences, through to the yardarm, from which offenders were hanged.

The area would have been quite familiar to Jack and Stephen, each joining and leaving several ships in Portsmouth harbour throughout the series of novels.

Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower would astound Jack Aubrey. His love of gunnery knew no bounds but even he could not have foreseen how marine ordnance would develop.

Try, if you can, to ignore the 20th century atomic bomb on display, and take a look outside at Powder Quay.

Photo: Powder Quay, Explosion!, Gosport, Hants. © Jon Pratty, 24 Hour Museum

It was here that small boats would pick up prodigious quantities of gunpowder in wooden casks and row it out to Jack's ship, moored safely in the middle of the harbour.

The powder was made in mills in Kent and Essex and stored in the Great Magazine at Priddy's Hard. It was only released to officers with permission from the Ordnance Board - or perhaps with a little of the captain's cash to buy more than the official quota.

Now a peaceful and picturesque village where the Beaulieu river joins the Solent estuary, Buckler's Hard was, in Jack's day, a major shipyard where 50 wooden ships were built for the navy, including four ships of the line and Nelson's own favourite, the Agamemnon.

Shows a picture of Buckler's Hard today, a sleepy village with only one small sailing boat moored on the grassy river banks. In the background is a street of red bricked terraced cottages. To the right of the picture at the back is a coppice of trees.

Photo: Buckler's Hard, Hampshire, courtesy of Montagu Ventures Limited, Beaulieu

The exhibition of village life and its hardships in the 18th century gives a clue as to why so many men preferred to take their chances at sea, particularly if fortunate enough to crew a vessel commanded by 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey.

One cottage is especially relevant. Inside is shipwright Henry Adams poring over plans under the scrutiny of an overseer from the Navy Board. As O'Brian readers know, Jack had particular ideas about ship design and a deep loathing of bureaucracy. He'd have befriended Adams and wasted not a moment with the overseer.



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