Nelson’s Navy – A History Masterclass with Sam Willis

25 January 2017, Tallow Chandlers Hall, London.

Our lucky Masterclassers were particularly spoiled in this special event held in one of the most extraordinary rooms in London – the Court Room of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, one of the most ancient of the London Livery companies. The Tallow Chandlers themselves can trace their roots back to 1300 when they formed a company to regulate the production of tallow – used among other things for making candles. Today the company is a charitable organisation primarily focussed on education.

The location for this inaugural event was therefore chosen for its association with a company committed to bringing light, and now enlightenment, to the world. They have occupied their site on Dowgate Hill, just near the Thames in the heart of the city of London, since the 1400s. The original Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but they rebuilt with splendour and vision, creating a building of great beauty under the guidance and supervision of the architect and polymath Robert Hooke.

The Masterclass itself was a splendid affair of interaction and learning, the group being plunged into the icy waters of British Seapower and fished out after three hours. Topics discussed ranged from strategy and tactics to diplomacy, shipbuilding, life at sea, mutiny, punishment, food, clothing, ship models, dockyards, command, signalling, seamanship and maritime art.

Dr Sam Willis was joined in the second half of the event by Dr James Davey, Curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and together they discussed a number of key objects in the museum’s collection. These included a lightning conductor salvaged from the topmast of the French flagship at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the coat Nelson was wearing when killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, an eighteenth-century model of sheerness dockyard and a number of letters and cartoons from the period.

Masterclassers left not only with new facts but also with a new intellectual framework with which to approach this crucial period in world history, and cherished memories of a unique event in a truly special place. Thank you all for coming.

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