Monday, July 12, 2010

A Day in Greenwich

Today, in spite of getting in late last night (see previous post for details), we gathered before 8:00 and set off as the hour struck. After a pleasant walk along the part of the south bank of the Thames which is near our dorms, we arrived at the London Eye. While the students were unsure about how the London Eye would help us get to Greenwich, when we actually got up close we noticed the small gateway next to it, which leads to a pier. We boarded a small cutter and had an enjoyable ride down the Thames to Greenwich.We made such good time that we arrived before anything had opened, so we were dismissed for half an hour and had pleasant walks around town and a quick bite to eat before we regrouped. We walked through the Old Royal Navy College, had a peek into the famous Painted Hall, saw the marker which showed the grounds once housed the palace where Henry the VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born. Then it was past Queen Anne's House and on to the National Maritime Museum and its inhouse library, comprised of the Cairn Library and the E-Library's online sources.
The Cairn Library is the original library of the National Maritime Museum, operating in tandem with the museum since opening in 1937. It is one of if not the largest maritime library. Named after its founder, Sir James Caird, the library includes manuscripts, charts, journals, and other similar materials. It is focused on such topics as immigration, navigatoin, piracy, astronomy (the Royal Observatory is just up the hill), voyages, exploration, naval architecture, and both the merchant and the Royal navies. The Cairn library is at present open only 3 days a week because they are on their way to a new facility which will open next year. Twelve people form the staff of the library, one staff member primarily focusing on behind-the-scenes work and two employees primarily manning the desk in the reception area, which serves not only the immediate area's E-Library terminals, but also at times serves as an information center for the whole museum. At full strength, the library processes 3-4,000 information requests a year. The library's materials are divided into two categories: Modern, featuring materials from after the year 1850, and Rare, which is comprised of items which predate 1850. There are 70,000 items total, which take up about 4 miles of shelving. There are at present two different off-site storage areas, but when the new facilities open next year the collections will be more centralized. You should request what materials you'll need before you arrive, as it can take a few days at present for materials to be retrieved from the off-site facilities. There are very specific rules to be followed when using the library, such as no stacking open books on top of each other, using both hands for handling items, only carrying three items at a time, not placing a book face-down, only 3 books may be stacked on a desk, the book must be placed on the desk and not over the edge, etc. All of these rules prevent mishaps and damage to the materials.
As part of our tour, we were shown a number of items which were examples of the type of materials which comprise the collection. First in the Rare category was a book entitled "Principles of Mr. Harrison's Timekeeper," which referred to the timekeeping devices by John Harrison which solved the problems of longitude. While the book was for the most part printed, the illustrations were accompanied by handwriting which is quite probably that of Mr. Harrison himself.
The next book was interesting enough in of itself, a sailcloth-bound treatise on "Domestic Medicine" from 1779. However, what makes it especially interesting is that this particular copy was the one taken on the ship The HMS Bounty. Those who, like me, had no clue what this meant will be happy to peruse the Wikipedia page or perhaps just read on for the short version of the story. The Bounty's crew mutineed, sent the captain, the surgeon, and other loyalists off in one of the small boats, and retired to a relatively unknown island to hide from the rest of the Navy. This book was one of the things they took with them to the island. They were found some twenty or so years later, and therefore dealt with, but the book (and an authentic letter from one of the mutineers) survived and somehow made its way to the Cairn Library.
The third book that was shown was one of the first books written, printed, and bound in Antarctica, as part of an excursion by Shackleton. Evidently, since the explorers knew that they would be stuck inside and unable to travel in the very cold winter, they brought along a printing press and made their own publication. It features articles, poems, and illustrations by the artist officially accompanying the voyage, George Marston. There were approximately 100 books made at 120 pages each, and 20-30 were bound with bits of the packing boxes. The printing press had been donated by a company which also taught some of the travelers beforehand some tricks of the printing trade so they'd know how to work the press in the Antarctic.
The fourth set we were shown were books chronicling a "Narrative of the Loss of the Royal George." The Royal George was a grand ship until one day as it was being repaired at harbour something went amiss with a boat coming near, some of the gun ports weren't closed correctly and the ship promptly and sadly sank, taking with it 900 people who were aboard. If the number seems large, keep in mind it was a very large ship, there were the sailors who manned the ship, since it was at harbour for some time there were the families of the sailors who were at the time living on the ship as well, then there were all the different people who were reparing the ship at that time. The sunken ship stayed in the harbour until 1782, when it was blown up and sent to its rest. Allegedly, each of the small woodbound books that tell the tale were bound with pieces of the ship. The original author is unknown.
At this point, the mini-groups switched places and we were treated to more items of interest.
First, an early atlas, or "a very early GPS," as our guide put it. It is part of the story of Basil Ringrose, who sadly for someone with such a distinctive name does not have his own Wikipedia page. Anyway, Basil Ringrose was a part of the Royal Navy until one day he decided to be a pirate. He joined up with a buddy of his who was into piracy and they managed to attack and conquer a Spanish ship, which held the original atlas from which the one we saw today was copied, by Basil himself. What's the big deal? You might say, besides being grounds for international war, but this atlas included highly detailed maps covering the entire new world, down to locations of forts, churches, etc. This was such good news to the English that Ringrose and his friends were pardoned for their actions upon delivering the goods.
Next was the handwritten journal of an English minister in the year 1812. Why is this interesting enough to be shown in a tour? Because this minister decided when he was in his 40s that it would be fun to have an adventure and sign up as chaplain for a voyage in the Royal Navy. His journal gives a fresh and intriguing look into Navy life from one unaccustomed to it.
There's only one more after this one, keep reading. An 1811 crew list shows an interesting story. While at first glance it shows plenty of men for the job of naval defense, upon further examination one begins to question it. For example, there were 4 hairdressers, 2 weavers, 7 miners, and 5 farmers signed up. In other words, this was a very interesting place to be while these people learned the ropes, literally.
Last but not least, we were shown a small book from a US frigate that was weighted down with lead shot sewn along the binding so it would quickly sink. Not very common, since most things associated with ships are supposed to float. But this was a book of US signals, which in spite of being weighted managed to be captured in the 15 minute battle over the USS Chesapeake. Which meant that there were over 790 signals that had to be rewritten during the War of 1812.
Pardon me, I missed one. The final items were a duo: a letter from Admiral Nelson telling his wife to leave him alone (he had someone else to occupy his time), ironically ending with the fashion of the day as "from your most affectionate husband," and a sweet and heartbroken letter from Mrs. Nelson to one of Nelson's aides, trying to reconcile and make the marriage work again.
On to the rest of the day and more happy news. After our tour, we split up into small groups and continued our day from there. My group visited the rest of the museum, including a sweet and intriguing exhibit on the history of toy boats--did you know that when the round pond in Kensington Gardens was drained once, they found 150 toy boats in it? Many fascinating examples later, we walked up to the Royal Observatory, which was no small feat. The path up the heel was so steep that I didn't dare stop walking until I reached the top, because I was afraid if I stopped I would automatically begin sliding downhill! It was great exercise. Then we reached the only place on earth that would dare claim itself as the home of time and longitude. I now have a certificate which states that I straddled the hemispheres at a precise time, although really it was a few minutes after I had my picture taken at 0 degrees longitude. Then we gaggled back down to Greenwich, had lunch at the Royal Arms pub (my first pub meal, actually), then back on to the ferry and back to London.
Image courtesy of Microsoft Clipart.

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