Lot 191
  • 191

Perceval, George James.

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  • Perceval, George James.

remarkable series of letters by george perceval, an eleven year old midshipman in the royal navy at the time of trafalgar, including his eye-witness account of the battle


Bookplate of Eric W. Campion.  

Catalogue Note

George Perceval’s unpublished correspondence with his parents vividly portrays the life of a young midshipman in a warship during the Trafalgar campaign. His account is given an added poignancy by his sprawling, immature handwriting which is a stark reminder of how many children witnessed the battle.

Perceval joined his ship Orion, 74, at Portsmouth in August 1805. For some weeks beforehand the ship‘s captain, Edward Codrington, had been indulgently replying to the anxious enquiries of George’s parents, Lord and Lady Arden, as to the clothes their eleven year old son should pack.  “It is best that my little friend should not have any cloths made for him in town” Codrington wrote on 7 July, “because there is an air of fashion even in a jacket …his dress will always be jacket & trowsers; the putting youngsters into perfect uniforms with large cocked hats being in my opinion improper and ridiculous”. George is told to take into Orion only as many clothes as can be safely stowed in his sea chest as “all things whatever found lying about are thrown overboard”. Codrington flatters Lord Arden by telling him that “I am much in want of some steady gentlemanlike midshipmen to put at the head of the mess of youngsters; and I am very anxious about this because much depends on him as to forming their manners”. The feeling of an uneasy calm before the inevitable confrontation with the enemy’s fleet is revealed in Codrington’s nervous comment from Portsmouth, on 7 July, that “I dislike anticipations of this sort…but I think Lord Nelson’s courage & ability has brought the Toulon fleet into a serious dilemma.” By accepting young George as a midshipman in his ship, Codrington is clearly acting on a known interest with Lord Arden. His letters reveal a paternal concern for his young protégé and when they eventually part in 1807, Codrington confides to Lady Arden that “the charge of your dear George was to me a pleasing one from the first although accompanied by more anxiety for his well-doing than I had for any of his companions.”

On 6 August Orion sailed to join the fleet off Gibraltar. Three days later, George cheerfully reports that “I have been sick but not quite as sick as I thought I should be…I like the cockpit very much for we are all very merry and we have everything as comfortable as I should wish it.” When intelligence reaches Orion that the combined enemy fleets are holed up at Cadiz, Codrington takes up blockade duty off Cadiz where Nelson in Victory joins the fleet on 28 September for the tense vigil.  On 13 October, buoyed up by youthful enthusiasm, George tells his mother that  “I expect to come home to eat a Christmas Dinner with [you] if my head is not knocked of [sic] in any action.” Nelson, he reports, has assured the fleet that “he will have a good bang at them…”

George’s next letter, which is undated, is urgently written and gives a vivid insight into the minds of the men who survived the battle of Trafalgar. “I have as you wished been in one of the greatest actions that ever was fought…but I am sorry to tell you that brave Admiral Nelson was killed by a musquet [sic] ball that went through his body.”  Six weeks later, George gives a fuller account of Orion’s role in the battle describing how she engaged the Swiftsure (a “french late english” warship) and “gave it to her hot and warm till she struck.”

Alongside George’s excited report is the lengthy and fascinating testimony of another witness to the battle, Henry Eden, a clerk in Agamemnon. Recalling the tense hours before the battle, Eden describes how “not a soul on board…was supposed to go to bed that night on account of getting another top mast up and otherwise preparing the ship for battle…At six o’clock Lord Nelson made the general signal to prepare for battle…he then made the signal the purport of which was 'England expects that every man will willingly do his duty'. This was made known to the men who immediately gave three cheers.” At the height of the ensuing battle, Eden compares the sight of Agamemnon, 64, engaging the Spanish leviathan Santissima Trinidad, 130, to that of a London wherry taking on a vast West Indian merchantman.

George Perceval remained at sea after Trafalgar as Orion was ordered back to blockade duty off Cadiz. “These cowards in Cadiz won’t come out to us” he complains in April 1806, “and here we are quite dull for the want of some more fighting.” After enjoying a short leave in England in the autumn of 1806—when he collected his medal for Trafalgar—George served in Tigre, 74, under Captain Benjamin Hallowell who had been one of Nelson’s “band of brothers” at the battle of the Nile in 1798. In a letter to Lord Arden, Hallowell praises his “remarkable fine boy”. Tigre joined the fleet off Toulon later patrolling the Spanish coast. Throughout his tour of duty George maintains an affectionate correspondence with his parents. A series of skirmishes culminates in a violent action on 1 November 1809 when Hallowell dispatched a flotilla of boats to destroy an enemy convoy sheltering in the Bay of Rosas, beneath the protection of several shore batteries. Writing to Lord Arden, Hallowell reveals how George “unwilling to be left behind, concealed himself in a boat and was in one of the first which boarded the corvette, and as he was unable to get up himself, he begged two of the men to assist him which they did, & he got on board with the others, doing all the service his strength would admit of.” It should be remembered that George was still only fifteen years old at the time. 15 men were killed in the action and 55 wounded.  In a letter to his mother the next morning, George glosses over his role, perhaps for fear of alarming her. 

Among Perceval's accounts of action, his desire to "give [the enemy] a licking", and his developing naval career, are many reminders that these are the letters of a young boy writing to his parents. On one occasion he draws a head on his letter for his mother to kiss "and think that it is my round face", while on another he promises to bring home presents of pebbles. Like many sons, it seems his letters to his mother were rarely as full as she hoped ("...Pray do not think that it is my Lazyness that makes me write such short Letters for I assure you that I have not heard any news lately...").

After this eventful start to his naval career, George rose to become a rear-admiral (1851), vice-admiral (1857) and admiral (1863). In 1840 he succeeded his father as 3rd Baron Arden and the following year became 6th Earl of Egmont on the death of a cousin. He died on 2 August 1874, aged eighty.