Twenty years conserving memorials to Georgian naval heroes

By Peter Warwick and John Curtis

The 1805 Club is dedicated to preserving the historic environment of the Georgian sailing navy, as represented by its monuments, graves and memorials. We value it, nurture it and seek to pass it on to generations to come. 

It is worth reminding ourselves that no other organisation exists specifically to conserve these monuments and memorials. Yet they are the very stuff of a significant part of our rich maritime history - passports to the past and the means of exploring it. The memorials are about real people. They are the touching reminder of their bravery, adventures and achievements which helped to both shape the world and form our understanding of it. 

It is our ambition through conservation to highlight what and how our Georgian sailing ancestors achieved across a multitude of oceans and latitudes in terms of seamanship, exploration and war. In particular our work highlights 'Nelson's Navy'. 

The force of nature is a constant challenge as stones crack and mosses creep, as roots pry into fissures and acid rain dissolves. The conservation work of the Club seeks to slow down this poignant and ironically beautiful process of decay. Our mission is to identify and conserve these graves and monuments so that we can all enjoy, and more importantly learn from, the wonderful tales associated with those memorialised as we seek to bring them 'alive' through original research and with imaginative and exciting club events - the other often more visible charitable objects of the Club!

Conservation or restoration?

There are a multitude of threats to outdoor monuments and memorials.  Neglect is the most common, but pollution, bird droppings, salt contamination, leaf staining, acid rain, rusting ironwork, tree and shrub intrusion, subsidence, vandalism and accidental damage can all take their toll.

The action required depends on the nature and extent of the threat and the philosophy inspiring the nature of repairs. Conservation is a professional approach far removed from well-meaning interference, such as indiscriminate cleaning, which may do more harm than good. It aims to safeguard the long term future of the memorial at its original site with the minimum possible intervention. It does not replace parts of the structure that have gone missing, such as railings. This is The 1805 Club's philosophy, which it has described and delineated in its Conservation Guidelines. The historical roots of the philosophy go back to William Morris, the founder the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. He favoured sensitive repair rather than destructive restoration. 

Restoration aims to return a memorial to a previous state in its history. This is a much more invasive approach and one that can sometimes have destructive rather than constructive results. Preservation is another form of action. It is an even more interventionist approach and can involve maintaining the surrounding environment in an unchanged state in order to preserve the memorial.

There is an ongoing discussion about the margin between conservation and restoration and in this respect each project is assessed according to its particular circumstances. If in doubt the Club will leave well alone.

Mindful of these distinctions The 1805 Club has drawn up Conservation Guidelines which are reviewed regularly. The latest revision was made in 2010 with the pro bono contribution of DBR(London) Limited, the award winning company providing a full range of masonry conservation and repair services for historic buildings, including Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.  The new Guidelines have been approved by the Club's Council and will be reviewed as and when necessary in future.     

The Club's conservation activity

Since its foundation, the Club has carried out 41 conservations (See List). These include major new works, such as the erection of a monument to Emma Hamilton in Calais and the installation of plaques in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich to mark the spot where Nelson and Collingwood's coffins lay in state, as well as the more typical conservations of sailors' graves, such as seven graves of Trafalgar captains.  These also include locations where it has been decided to install a plaque next to a grave, in order to mark it and to provide some background to the person who rests there.

Looking forward to the future the Club has begun another major project which will take three to four years to complete. This seeks to identify, research, survey and where necessary conserve the graves and memorials of all of the Royal Navy captains at the battles of the Nile (16 captains) and Copenhagen (43 captains). The work is being undertaken in a similar way to the successful Trafalgar Captains' Memorial.

This year the Club has made a start by conserving the grave of Sir Robert Otway at Kensal Green Cemetery. Otway was present at the Battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 and commanded HMS London at the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. The rededication ceremony on 10 July was led by the Club's Chaplain, the Reverend Peter Wadsworth.

The Club has established a small projects team to oversee the work required. Like every project it will have five stages: identifying and researching the sites of the memorials, surveying the sites and costing the works, fundraising, supervising the conservation work, and recording the whole exercise and publishing the results. In some cases there is also a service of rededication. 

Research is the essential pre-condition of every project. It can be a lengthy and time-consuming process, especially when correspondence has to be conducted at long distance, and it is not possible to visit local archives in person. Local Club members play an important role in this stage and without their efforts many of the graves may not have been discovered. As part of the research stage the Club usually commissions a professional photographer to make a full and proper record. For the Nile and Copenhagen Captains Memorial some of these pictures will be published in the book containing biographies and information about the final resting place of these men.

The Club ascertains who has responsibility for the given memorial, which is typically in a churchyard or on church property, but which may be in a public thoroughfare or on private property. In the case of a churchyard faculties are usually required before any work can be undertaken.

The second stage involves comprehensive survey of each grave to assess its condition and this is also often undertaken by Club members who live close by. Where appropriate The Club appoints an architect to project manage the conservation work. He in turn commissions a ground survey and quantity report from a recognized conservation contractor approved by English Heritage who is briefed with the Club's Conservation Guidelines.  It is the architect's responsibility to check the schedule of works, monitor progress to completion and ensure a full record documenting the whole process, including a description of the technical aspects, such as the treatment of stone and metals.

Once the quotation has been agreed, fundraising can begin. Needless to say no work can be authorised until the funds are available. Predominantly the funds come from grant making bodies. Previously, the Club has been supported by The Francis Coales Charitable Foundation, The Idlewild Trust, The Leche Trust, The Manifold Trust and The Pilgrim Trust.

Increasingly, the Club is interested in the maintenance of the memorials after conservation and encourages members in their locality to take arrange a watching interest and where feasible to 'adopt a grave' in association with a local school. The catalyst for this is often the re-dedication service which seeks to involve the local community at the outset, particularly younger people who are encouraged to learn more about the life and times of their 'local hero'. 

Currently, the Club has completed stage one of the Nile and Copenhagen Captains' Memorial by identifying the final resting place of every one of the 56 captains (apart from Nelson himself, three of the captains were at both battles). This is a considerable achievement in its own right. The graves are now being surveyed. 

Inevitably there have been and will be ad hoc conservations. They are subjected to the same rigorous process, although it is unlikely that they will feature in a specific publication, like The Trafalgar Captain: Their Lives and Memorials.

This prospect gives the Club a coherent and consistent theme for the coming years. During this time it will seek to enhance the approachability and relevance of the Club through 'living history', especially with younger people and local communities, by bringing 'back to life' the people whom the monuments and memorials commemorate as much as conserving the stone. It will also be developing a web-based 'National Memorials Log' which will eventually seek to record all the known graves, monuments and memorials of those who served in the Georgian Sailing navy.

Thither shall youthful heroes climb,

The Nelsons of an aftertime,

And round that sacred altar swear

Such glory and such graves to share.


John Wilson Croker from Songs of Trafalgar