In our post of 6 July 2010, we mentioned the forthcoming publication of the Naval Chronicle. Today, the inspection copies of the books have arrived, and the whole team is checking them page by page for quality, and trying not to be distracted by the extraordinary and fascinating content. Factual accounts of weather conditions and tonnages rival lurid tales that would not be out of place in today’s tabloid newspapers.For anybody not familiar with the Naval Chronicle (as we weren’t before we started this project), this is the work that C.S. Forester bought to read during a voyage through the West Indies in the 1930s, and which inspired his Hornblower novels. It provides nearly 23,000 pages of contemporary information about every aspect of war at sea at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Naval Chronicle was issued between 1799 and 1818 in regular instalments (sometimes reprinted with corrections) by Bunney and Gold, later Joyce Gold, in London, and bound up into two volumes per year. It was printed economically, on paper of varying weights and often using very small type, and the surviving copies have been heavily used over the course of two centuries. It is rare to find a complete set offered for sale. This reissue is the first complete printed reproduction of what was the most influential maritime publication of its day.
We discovered that one reason the paper quality is so variable, and so often bad, is closely linked to the subject of the volumes: during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the importing of good-quality rag for paper-making from Europe almost came to a halt. (Matthias Koops’ book of 1800, printed on straw-based rather than rag-based paper, was a (failed) attempt to respond to this paper shortage.) The quality of the typesetting also varies: the ‘memorials’ of deceased admirals are usually set out in larger type with more generous leading and more careful letter-spacing than the state papers, despatches and accounts of shipwrecks and battles, presumably because the former were compiled at relative leisure, and the latter were hot news.
The challenges in reproducing this work were enormous. We saw a good many copies during our search for a set to reproduce. Most were either rebound so tightly as to be unscannable, or were falling apart completely. All or some of the attractive engraved plates were often missing. Some copies have pieces torn out of the pages; one can only speculate as to whether they were used as bookmarks, pipe-lighters, laundry lists or betting slips. Some look as though they have been stored in damp conditions for a very long time (on board ship?), with the paper wrinkled and badly foxed. We can confidently say that overall the print quality and legibility of the Cambridge University Press reissue far exceeds that of even the best originals we saw, and that every page can be read. The content is also fully complete.
The books at times are completely riveting, even to those who don’t have much interest in naval warfare. Consider the trial for high treason (Vol. 27) of a group of seamen who had become prisoners of the French, and (it was alleged) had then changed sides. Mr (later Lord) Brougham was for the defence, and through his efforts four men were acquitted, but seven were convicted, and the Lord Chief Baron took on ‘a duty which, as I am now growing old, I did hope to escape; but which, painful as it is, I am now bound to perform’. He sentenced all seven to the penalty which high treason then demanded: that they be hung, drawn and quartered.
Even the ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths’ columns speak volumes: for instance Vol. 20:
‘At Gloucester-place, on the 20th Aug, the lady of Lieutenant Hardacre, of the royal navy, of a son, after having had eight daughters in regular succession.’
But then, in the ‘Deaths’ on the next page: ‘At Gloucester-place, New Road, shortly after lying in of her ninth child, Mrs Helen Hardacre, wife of H.T. Hardacre Esq. of the royal navy, aged 31.’
Finally: ‘Shortly afterwards, the infant and only son of H.T. Hardacre Esq.’