Lubbers' London - The Master And Commander Museum Trail

By Max Glaskin | 22 November 2003

Lubbers' London leads Patrick O'Brian fans through London museums and other historic sites in search of the true flavour of life at sea in Napoleonic times.

Shows Somerset House in London, an ornate mock-classica facade with an arched clock tower in the centre and four pillars at the entrance.

Photo: In O'Brian's books Jack and Stephen presented papers to the Royal Society at Somerset House © Somerset House.

Jack and Stephen would have known Somerset House intimately because it was home to so many organisations central to their lives. The Royal Society was housed here, just to the east of The Strand entrance, and both fictional characters presented specialist papers to this learned group.

In real life, its president was naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. O'Brian wrote a biography about Banks and the fictional character Sir Joseph Blaine, head of the Admiralty's intelligence unit, was partly based on him.

Somerset House has one of the most splendid courtyards in London. Among the buildings to the west is a doorway that has a butcher's axe and pigs' heads decorating the stonework. That was the HQ of the Victualling Office of the Royal Navy, responsible for making sure the fleet was fed and watered.

Shows a photo of a grand dining hall with a chandelier hanging in the centre. There are tiled floors and six tables laid for dinner.

Photo: The Seamen's Waiting Hall © Somerset House.

Nearby was the Sick and Hurt Office, in charge of the health and welfare of serving seamen. Nominally Stephen Maturin had some responsibility to these offices but, sensibly and pragmatically, he preferred his own methods.

At the south side of the courtyard is the entrance to the Seamen's Waiting Hall. It was familiar to all who entered Nelson's Navy because it was the main entrance to the Navy Office.

And, as a young midshipman, Aubrey would have waited here with barely disguised impatience before being called upstairs by the Board of Navy Commissioners to take his lieutenant's examination. The Navy Boardroom is open to the public, but by prior appointment only.

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.

The Waiting Hall houses some wonderful portraits, including one of Viscount Keith, the man who gave Jack his first command, in the brig Sophie, on April 1, 1800.

The collection of fine ship models in the same room includes an experimental sloop with sliding keels which may have performed similarly to Jack's second command, the Polychrest. There is also a model of a frigate akin to his most successful command, the Surprise. Is it mere coincidence that the model is of the Diana, a name O'Brian chose for his most complex female character?

Shows a photo of a large white neo-classical building with two towers on the banks of a large river

Photo: The Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site includes The National Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory, The Old Royal Naval College and the University of Greenwich. Photo courtesy of University of Greenwich.

Before leaving Somerset House, take the stairs down a couple of floors. In Jack and Stephen's day, the Embankment had not been constructed and the Thames flowed right past the building.

Boats could enter Somerset House by the river gateway and tie up inside. Taking a boat along the Thames was the quickest route to the seat of power and influence, the Palace of Westminster.

Considering it's importance to the Navy since Henry VIII's days, it is strange that O'Brian barely mentions the Old Royal Naval College, part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, in the 20 Aubrey-Maturin volumes. Nevertheless, it was here that the author's genius was celebrated publicly in October 1996 when more than 300 fans, including senior Navy officers and at least one former Cabinet member, feted him at a dinner in the astonishing Painted Hall.

Shows a photo of what looks like a grand banqueting hall. The tables are lined with lit candles and the ceiling is painted with an intricate design.

Photo: The Painted Hall, courtesy of the Greenwich Foundation.

This extraordinary building leaves the visitor in no doubt whatsoever that Britannia ruled the waves, with or without Jack Aubrey's help.

Staff at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich helped O'Brian achieve historical accuracy by sending plans of ships to his home in Collioure, France, where he wrote all his Aubrey-Maturin novels.

Visitors can get a better understanding of the different kinds of vessels afloat during the late 18th and early 19th century by visiting the Ships of War gallery. Among the exquisite models is the Bellona, a 74-gun two-decker, which O'Brian appropriated for Aubrey to command in The Commodore.

Shows the cover for Patrick O'Brian's novel The Commodore. There are three navy warships in line astern.

Photo: The Commodore is the seventeenth book in the series, courtesy of Harper Collins

The museum has more than enough exhibits to satisfy anyone with a passing interest in the sea though the most relevant exhibits for Jack Aubrey's followers are to be found in the Nelson Gallery. Be aware that these exhibits will undoubtedly change as preparations are made for the bicentenary of Trafalgar in 2005.

Aubrey was much influenced by Nelson, although they met only twice in O’Brian’s novels. On one occasion Aubrey passed Nelson the salt. On another, Jack Aubrey took to heart a passing comment made by Nelson on battle strategy, "Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them."

Aubrey also saw action with Nelson's fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was here that the French flagship L'Orient exploded when it's magazine caught fire.

Shows a painting of Admiral Nelson dressed in all his finery, his jacket adorned with medals. He is wearing a tricorn hat with the chelengk in the centre.

Photo: Nelson by Lemuel Abbott.One of the most famous portraits of Nelson, painted in 1798-9, after the Nile, from an earlier sketch. Abbott did not know that Nelson’s head wound meant that he could only wear his hat tipped back off his forehead and had to guess the chelengk’s appearance. Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum

Here's another curiosity. After the Nile, Nelson was given a "chelengk" by the sultan of the Ottoman empire. It was a diamond-encrusted jewel with a hidden clockwork mechanism that made its 13 sparkling fronds quiver.

It can be seen on his hat in the painting by Lemuel Francis Abbot on show at the museum. When burglars raided the London home of Nelson's brother William, in 1831, they overlooked the item completely because it was wrapped in newspaper.

However, it certainly caught O'Brian's eye and, as was his habit, he appropriated it and awarded it to Aubrey in Treason's Harbour.

The real chelengk, having been bequeathed to the museum, was stolen in 1951 and never recovered. Forty years later a former cat-burglar was said to have admitted the theft and claimed he had broken it up to sell the stones. Now the museum keeps a paste copy, made in 1970 for a movie. It can be viewed by prior appointment.

Shows a photo of an eighteenth century navigation device, a chronometer, that looks like a clock in a wooden box.

Photo: Marine chronometer c. 1794. Made by Thomas Earnshaw, London, England. Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum.

Before manmade satellites and global positioning systems, sailors had to navigate by sight and by time. Instruments were developed to help them, most famously Harrison's chronometers, all of which are exhibited at The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Although O'Brian does not say who made the chronometer used by Jack Aubrey, the watches of Abraham and Louis Bréguet are mentioned in no fewer than eight of the novels, often in the context of being stolen from, or by, Stephen Maturin. There are similar ones on display here, including those made by Arnold, Mudge, Howells and Pennington.

Before leaving this excellent capsule of scientific history, look out for the small sextant made by John Bird in 1757. It's just the kind of thing that Jack might have used to check the readings of his young midshipmen when they were required to shoot the sun.

Shows a photo of another navigation device, a sextant. It is made of brass and set in a dark wooden box.

Photo: Sextant c. 1765. Made by Heath & Wing, London, England. Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum.

It's not clear where Stephen Maturin studied medicine. If he had been born twenty years later he may well have come to The Old Operating Theatre, to witness leading medics at work. Their practices were little changed from his - except he had to work between decks on a rolling ship during the din of battle.

Shows a reconstruction of an old operating theatre. There is a skeleton hanging up on the left and a table running down the centre. On the table are books and two pestle and mortar sets.

Photo: And you thought your doctor's surgery was scary - the Old Operating Theatre Museum, now that's scary.

This is a wonderfully simple museum and should be visited by everyone. The set of instruments, including trepanning tools and amputation blades are more fearsome than any chamber of horrors.

The apothecary workshop in the adjoining loft is, by contrast, homely and full of peculiar substances. The O'Brian reader may come across a remedy of particular resonance - it is called polychrest, a name he appropriated for Jack Aubrey's second command.



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