The story of Le Généreux – a tale of escapes, captures, and tenuous celebrity connections

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Andy Bowen, Costume & Textiles Trainee, Norfolk Museums Service

As I’m sure will be the case for many people, the first time I really paid any attention to the name Le Généreux was last year when I saw an article in the local paper announcing that the ensign of this old French warship would be on display as part of Nelson & Norfolk.

 

At the time, I was in the process of applying for a museums traineeship with Norfolk Museums Service. Seeing this vast textile – measuring 16 metres across and 8.3 metres high – laid out in St Andrew’s Hall made me all the more determined to get through the application process and have a chance to work with this piece of history.

Fast forward to today, and I am helping put together the exhibition which will showcase the flag along with a vast selection of other objects connected with Nelson and Norfolk.

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The ensign of Le Généreux unrolled in St Andrew’s Hall, October 2016

Early on in my traineeship, I decided that I wanted to find out more about the ship from which the ensign was taken. What I found out certainly didn’t disappoint!

 

Le Généreux was launched at Rochefort in 1785. Carrying 74 guns and measuring just over 55 metres in length, she was a formidable presence and would have earned her place in any French line of battle.

Le Généreux was actually captured by the British twice during her career. She was first captured in August 1793, when a British fleet under Admiral Lord Hood occupied the port of Toulon – where Le Généreux was berthed – in support of a Royalist uprising in the area. The British were driven out of Toulon again that December, and Le Généreux returned to French hands without ever having left port. The British had intended to destroy or seize the French fleet during their retreat but were unable to complete this task in the face of French republican reinforcements, leaving Le Généreux to fight another day.

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French ships flying the older-style naval ensign. Image: ‘The Brunswick and the Vengeur at the Glorious First of June’, by Nicholas Pocock (National Maritime Museum)

We know that our ensign would not have been in use during the Siege of Toulon, because modern tricolour was not officially introduced until 15th February 1794. Prior to this, French ships flew a white ensign with a smaller tricolour (ordered red, white and blue) in the upper left corner. Even beyond this date there was some overlap between designs. At the Glorious First of June which took place in June 1794, the French flagship flew the modern blue, white, and red tricolour whilst the rest of the French ships flew the older design.

 

Le Généreux was present at the Battle of the Nile on 1-2 August 1798, and along with the Guilliame Tell was able to escape from Aboukir Bay before any of Nelson’s ships had the opportunity to capture her.

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Image: ‘Action between H.M.S. Leander of 50 Guns & 282 Men and the French National Ship Le Genereux 74 Guns 936 Men August 18th 1798 the Leander raking Le Genereux’, C.H. Seaforth, National Maritime Museum

Following Nelson’s victory at the Nile, he dispatched his flag captain Sir Edward Berry to bring the news of the victory back to Britain. Berry travelled in the 50-gun frigate Leander, which encountered Le Généreux once more on 18th August 1798. The smaller Leander was beaten despite stout resistance, and Berry was captured along with the Leander’s crew. Berry and his compatriots were treated poorly by their captors, with personal possessions being seized and the Leander’s surgeon was left without tools to treat the injured crew.

The next time Berry encountered Le Généreux, it was on vastly different terms. Back at Nelson’s side as the flag captain of HMS Foudroyant, Berry was part of the squadron which forced the surrender of the French ship on 18th February 1800. Berry sent the seized ship’s ensign to Norwich as a gift, where it was proudly displayed above the west window of St Andrew’s Hall for much of the 19th century.

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Thomas Cochrane’s orders to take command of Le Généreux following her capture (ADM1/1629, The National Archives)

Following the French ship’s surrender, a young officer called Thomas Cochrane was entrusted with getting the captured vessel to a Port Mahón in Minorca. Cochrane went on to become a hugely successful naval officer and also a controversial character. He was the inspiration for the character of ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey in the ‘Aubrey-Maturin’ series of naval historical fiction books by Patrick O’Brian. In the first book Master & Commander, the officer in charge of the Mahón naval yard says to Aubrey ‘I know very well you are not one of these spendthrift, fling-it-down-the-kennel young commanders, not after the care you took bringing in the Généreux’.

In 2003, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World – an adaptation of the 10th book

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Russell Crowe as Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

in the series – was released in cinemas and starred Russell Crowe in the role of Jack Aubrey.

 

 

The newly-christened HMS Genereux made the journey to Britain via Gibraltar and arrived back in July 1802. The ship spent some time in Portsmouth before being sent to Plymouth to be mothballed due to her ‘… great draft of water’. She was converted into a prison hulk in around 1805. Whilst serving as a prison ship, Genereux was moored near to the Temeraire – second in Nelson’s line at the Battle of Trafalgar, the San Nicholas – captured by Nelson himself at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 –­ and the Vanguard – Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of the Nile from which the French ship had escaped 7 years before. The once-mighty Genereux was finally broken up for scrap at Plymouth in 1816.

A Unique Textile Revealed: Preparing the Ensign of Le Généreux for ‘Nelson & Norfolk’

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Lindsay Blackmore, Textile Conservator

This summer’s exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery will be a once in a lifetime chance to see this extraordinary textile.  The ensign was made in 1794-5 and is one of the earliest representations of the French Tricolour in it’s final design, the work of Jacque-Louis David.  Le Généreux was captured in 1800. After it had been struck (taken down) as a sign of surrender, it was folded on the deck and sent to the Mayor of Norwich by Captain Sir Edward Berry – the captain of Nelson’s flagship. It has not been on public view for 100 years.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ensign was displayed in Norwich, at St Andrew’s Hall and the Castle Keep.  It underwent an extensive repair treatment, probably around 1900.  Each of the 3 sections were stitched to a dyed cotton lining with holding stitches worked round damaged areas. This did much to preserve the flag.  However, the dying process for the dark blue-black lining for the blue section had seriously weakened the cotton lining.

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The ensign unrolled in St Andrew’s Hall, October 2016. The team and I consider our next move.

With the imperative of including the ensign in the exhibition, much thought was given to the method of display.  The textile is huge, 16 mtrs by 8.3 mtrs, and when flying from the stern, was more than a third of the length of the ship itself.  The flag is now weak, limp and damaged and so can no longer support it’s own weight.  Frustratingly, its flying days are over.

My connection with the ensign began in 1998, when it was taken out of it’s long-time storage trunk. On opening the trunk, clouds of black dust filled the room.  Luckily, the dust was not from the flag itself, but the shredded black repair lining behind the blue section. The remains of the lining were removed and the flag was vacuum cleaned and more properly stored on a roller.  The dust removed from the flag itself included sea salt, sand, gunpowder and splinters of wood.  In 2001, I examined the flag more thoroughly to assess it’s condition and to outline its future care.

 

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Diagrammatic plan of the construction of the blue section of the ensign. Shows the seaming and piecing together of the wool bunting strips

During my 40 year career as a textile conservator, I have worked on many fascinating objects.  All have been domestic and decorative in nature.  The exciting thing about working on the ensign is its masculine, outdoor and functional nature.

In October of 2016, the ensign was laid out in St. Andrew’s Hall in Norwich, the only space in the city large enough.  The 20 or so people who saw the ensign revealed that day gasped at the impact of the sheer size and presence of it as well as its historic resonance.  The red, white and blue sections showed a patina of age, the white looking as dark as brown in some lights, each colour a patchwork of different shades.

This phase of conservation concentrated on applying a new support for the blue section, leaving the 1900 lining to the white and red sections in place. All seams had to be reinforced, and conservation stitching had to be worked over all damaged and weak areas. Weak and opened seams on the white and red sections were also restitched.

My team – made up of museum staff, conservators and volunteers – have been asked to carry out an extraordinary task, in limited time, involving muscle power as well as precision stitching.  The conservation process is simple compared with the logistics of moving and handling this textile.

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The flag on the 11mtr roller before being loaded onto a lorry for transport to the workroom

Once the flag was in the workspace, we discovered the unforeseen reality behind the simple treatment plan.  We had a table large enough to lay out the whole of the blue section, but in order to reach each part to work on it, the flag needed to be moved between 2 rollers. The flag on an 11m roller is very heavy, needing at least 4 people to lift it.  The rollers had to be moved across the table and it had to be possible to roll and unroll the flag from the rollers. Each time we felt beaten by a problem, there was a spark of ingenuity to answer it. The ends of the roller which holds the white and red sections of the flag are supported on purpose made wooden blocks.  A car jack and polystyrene blocks stop the middle of the roller sagging. So that we can move this roller across the table, Lisa, one of the team, brought in her drill and attached wheels borrowed from the furniture found in the room.  So that we can roll the flag on and off the roller, holes were drilled through the ends to hold metal pegs from a coat stand which was to hand.  A garden polytunnel served as a tent for humidification to smooth creases in the textile.

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Photo shows a large tear and broken seam stitching

Although the textile is complete, it is scattered with rents, damaged seams and holes varying from 1 to 30 sq cms. The fabric supporting the blue section is cotton mull ( a light, open-weave cotton) ,purpose dyed to blend into the many shades of dark, greeny blues.

During a typical day, we will be manoeuvring 133 sq mtrs of textile as well as concentrating on 10 sq cms of the fabric. It is a special privilege of the conservator to get very close to the object so that they get to know it better than anyone.

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Photo shows restitching a seam through support lining

We have discovered how the flag was constructed, the nature of the bunting (narrow, open weave woollen fabric)  and threads it is made of, which holes may be the result of battle shot and which may be moth.  Also, how the ensign was used during its active life and any changes made since.

Though we have examined the flag even to microscopy, it still holds many secrets.  Today we can do a lot of research but still we will never know the real truth of it’s history.

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Microscopic image of vegetable fibre thread used in 1900 repairs.  The dye, probably indigo, has not penetrated into the spun fibres

Information on the history and conservation of the ensign will be part of the exhibition.  Research on the ensign continues, eg. where it was made, the age of the rope, as well as its history in action on Le Généreux.  We welcome any information or ideas you may have.

 

Many thanks to the sewing team:   Lisa Little, Anna Stone, Claire Currie, Gwynn Fitzmaurice, Debbie Phipps and Ken Smith who kept up morale.

 

 

References:    This project made me think of:-

JASPER JOHNS   Flag paintings.    ‘Flag’  1955,   ‘White Flag’ 1955,  ‘3 Flags’ 1958                       They celebrate  texture and changing colours and resonance of flags. Although the ensign was made simply as a practical object, it is a thing of great beauty.

PATRICK O’BRIAN    The Aubrey / Maturin novels.   Beginning with ‘Master and Commander’.

Le Généreux is mentioned early on in  ‘Master and Commander’  as being docked at Port Mahon, Minorca.   The character of Jack Aubrey is based on a real naval officer, Thomas Cochrane, who was ordered to take command of Le Généreux after it’s capture and to make his way to Port Mahon.

A final word on the ethics of conservation from Nobel Laureate  BOB DYLAN, in his song ‘Visions of Johanna’

  Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial’

Nelson’s Spanish Swords

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William Fairney

In June 2017 I arranged to meet a business colleague based in Norwich, being the first time I had visited the city for many years. I decided to use the occasion to fulfil an intention that I had held for a long time, which was to view the Spanish admiral’s sword that was passed to my ancestor William Fearney by Nelson during the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.

When my father died in 2003 I inherited a package of manuscripts by my grandfather. These consisted of a mass of barely-legible poems, and I set about converting them to print, eventually publishing a small booklet of these poems, Just my Doggerel. (ISBN 978-0-9554455-1-4).

In transcribing the poems I found references to some of my relatives and this started me off on a quest to trace my ancestry. After several years of research I learnt that I was a direct descendent of John Fearney, who with his brother William Fearney served on HMS Agamemnon under Nelson. When William transferred to HMS Captain with Nelson, John disappears from naval records and seems to have left to settle in his native Newcastle and raised a family. William however went on to serve with Nelson on HMS Theseus and was then promoted to a gunner and served on HMS Foudroyant, Nelson’s flagship, and on a number of other ships.

During the battle of Cape St Vincent in February 1797, in one smoo2th boarding movement, Nelson famously captured two Spanish ships, the San Nicolás and the San José (later renamed HMS San Josef in Royal Navy service). The British Admiral Jervis did not mention this in his dispatch to the Admiralty, but in letters home to his wife Fanny  and to  his friend the Duke of Clarence, Nelson related the incident. In one of these letters, eventually published in The Times and Sun newspapers, he says

‘….. and on the quarter deck of a Spanish First-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of vanquished Spaniards: which as I received, I gave to William Fearney, one of my bargemen, who put them, with the greatest sang-froid, under his arm’.

Nelson secured great fame and honours as a result of this publicity.

Spanish Admiral's sword (11)I learnt that one of these swords, that of Rear-Admiral Don Francisco Xavier Winthuysen the Spanish admiral who died aboard the San José, was on display in Norwich Castle Museum, so I determined that on my visit to the city I would call in to view it. In anticipation of my visit I contacted the Curator, and it is just as well that I did. I spoke to Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator of Costume and Textile, who advised me that the sword was no longer on display as it was being conserved in readiness for the exhibition Nelson & Norfolk, due to start on 29th July 2017. However she enthusiastically invited me to visit the Study Centre and to see this and another sword which would both take pride of place beside the 1801 portrait of Nelson by Sir William Beechey , moved to the Castle Museum from Norwich’s Blackfriars Hall for the exhibition.

4The sword on the left of the portrait is that of Rear -Admiral Winthuysen and was donated by Nelson to the City Of Norwich later in 1797. It also appears in another portrait by Daniel Orme, in which the sword, clearly identifiable, is being handed to Nelson by the  San José’s Captain Delkenna.

Ruth gave myself and a business colleague with whom I was travelling, a tour of the conservation centre, and showed me the sword, which being over 200 years old is in a very delicate state. Much of the tip of the sword is badly corroded and the conservator Jonathan Clark is experimenting with restoration techniques. One prime aim is to ensure that any repair work is reversible, so that if a later conservator has improved techniques, these will not be jeopardised. We were also shown another sword to be on display in the exhibition, one now in the Waldegrave family possession, which was given to Vice-Admiral William Waldegrave, Third in Command in the battle.

5We were also told about the restoration of the ensign taken in 1800 from the French ship Le Généreux by Captain Berry of HMS Foudroyant whilst William Fearney was a member of the crew. This ensign, 16 metres by over 8 metres high, would be flown to indicate to the French fleet the location of the flagship.

 

Many paintings and etchings were made of this 6surrender scene, and William Fearney features in several of them. In some he is clean-shaven and in others bearded. In some he wears a hat, in others, not, but in all he is shown with a bundle  of swords under his arm. What is clear from his history in the Royal Navy, is Nelson’s care for the welfare of his men. Fearney was hospitalised after the siege of Calvi, either from wounds or from fever, probably dysentery, and seems to have suffered from poor health thereafter.

A year after the battle of Cape St Vincent he was transferred to duties as a gunner in the Mutine brig, then to HMS Foudroyant and then to HMS Couragous on promotion. From there he was hospitalised again in 1802 but seems to have visited several ships, probably as an advisor on gunnery.

7He was married in 1803 to Ann Hobbs of Newcastle, and his last reported posting was to HMS Dublin. This ship was ordered in 1807 and laid down in 1809 at Rotherhithe, not being launched until 1812. I suspect he was advising on the design of the gun decks on the Dublin, but records show that he died on 20th August 1808, whilst his widow was living in Deptford.

My research suggests that he died at the battle of Viemero in Portugal – but that’s another story …..

Flying the flag for Costume & Textiles

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Joy Evitt, Costume & Textile Association

The Costume & Textile Association is an independent charity that was set up to promote the unique and extensive costume and textile collection of the Norfolk Museum Service.

Initially, 28 years ago the idea was to set up a costume and textile museum in Norwich because of its wonderful and extensive textile heritage but it was soon realised that this was not financially viable and it was decided instead to fundraise and support the Costume and Textile Department of Norfolk Museums Service in as many ways as possible.

Supporting Nelson & Norfolk fits our Mission Statement in that we aim to promote an understanding of the role of textiles in the past, present and future development of Norfolk. The Ensign is an amazing textile and it is hard to believe that it actually flew behind the Le Généreux but as the ship was over 55 metres long it is possibly believable and must have been an amazing sight!

High res Le Genereux (722 of 1519) V2_med

The Ensign of Le Généreux in St Andrews Hall, October 2016

Thanks to Nelson it was captured in 1800 and the Ensign was given to the City of Norwich. After hanging in St. Andrews Hall it then went into the Museum’s collection in 1905. We hope that after this exhibition it will be stored so that it is easily accessible to those who wish to see it and this is why we have given a grant of £5,000 and hope to raise more towards its preservation via JustGiving

Norfolk is Nelson’s county so we hope that we will be able to raise more funds to support this exhibition. We know that the variety of items on show will encourage visitors from far and wide which will be good for Norwich and the Castle Museum.

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Costume & Textile Association Members in St Andrews Hall, October 2016

The C&TA have also supported previous Norfolk Museums Service exhibitions. In 2013/14 we supported the Frayed: Textiles on the Edge exhibition at Time & Tide in Great Yarmouth (2013/2014) by purchasing some contemporary pieces as well as paying for some restoration. The Lorina Bulwer pieces we contributed towards were able to be on show at the end of the exhibition! Pictures of Lorina’s work are on show at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse Museum.

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Costume & Textile Association members viewing the work of Lorina Bulwer

We also want to publicise the Museum collection and raise funds to enrich and expand this collection through our journals and the varied programme of events we have throughout the year. Our events programme can be accessed on our website.

In the past we have purchased a variety of items for the Norwich Castle Study Centre such as library bookshelves and roller racking to enable more appropriate storage of costume and textile collections and to make sure that the extensive library is easy to access. The extensive collections at the Norwich Castle Study Centre are available for viewing by prior appointment.

The C&TA now has over 450 members and we hope to continue to support the Norfolk Museum service and all their wonderful Museums…… but in particular, The Study Centre, Stranger’s Hall, The Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell and of course Norwich Castle and the Keep Project!

Written by Joy Evitt of the Costume & Textile Association (http://www.ctacostume.org.uk/). You can contribute towards the future preservation of the Ensign of Le Généreux by making a donation on the C&TA JustGiving page.