This month has been a challenge – partly because I had two assignments to be submitted along with doing my full-time job, but mainly because I’ve had a tooth infection and they are horrible! My dentist has been great and even fitted me in at the weekend, but I’ve been in a lot of pain, which has meant I’ve had to cancel some of the fun things I’d planned this month, and I’ve only been doing what absolutely needs to be done. I have the extraction of a wisdom tooth still to come before Christmas!
Before all of that though, in the first week of December, S and I went to Portsmouth historic dockyard for the Victorian Christmas fair.
I’d been looking for different things for us to do, and I found this on a local what’s on site.
I’d been to the museum before as a small child. I remember going on one of the ships and thinking how hard life must have been on there – in uncomfortable hammocks with only basic food rations. But I don’t remember a lot, and I think you focus on different things as an adult.
My family has a connection to the dockyard too as one of my ancestors, Seaman Charles Legg, served on HMS Victory. I didn’t know until after our visit, but there is apparently a board outside it with all the names of the men on there, and his name is among them. I think we will be going back – there is so much to see and I think it would be easier to see the ships when the Christmas market isn’t there. So when we go back, we’ll make a point of trying to find his name.
HMS (his Majesty’s ship) Victory’s most famous battle was the Battle of Trafalgar, fought against a combined French and Spanish fleet in 1805. Charles Legg was there and he was injured at some point, possibly during the battle itself.
It was strange really – we were surrounded by all the fun of Christmas celebrations, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were many who set out on the ships and never came back.
Charles Legg did come back though. We have a letter that was sent to him following his return, awarding him some money because he had been injured in service. The letter is dated 3rd December, 1805, and it’s cool to have this piece of history relating to one of our ancestors.
Charles Legg was a seaman, so he wouldn’t have had an easy time. He would have been one of those living in the cramped conditions, with the constant noise of the engines, the heat, the hard manual labour. I wondered whether he too was walking through the places where I had been that day, over 200 years ago.
This was shortly after the attack in London Bridge, so it felt like there was more security. Bags were checked before entering, and it’s the first time I’ve seen armed police at a Christmas market.
It was full of all the usual things that you can buy at Christmas markets, and I stocked up on some delicious cheese! There was plenty of music to get people in a festive mood, including live bands playing Christmas songs.
No mulled wine for me this year, but I enjoyed a hot chocolate instead!
You might wonder what owls are doing at a historic dockyard, but in the past, birds of prey were transported on ships, so it wouldn’t have been unusual to come to the docks if you had purchased a bird from overseas.
The demonstration we watched was given by Raphael Historic Falconry who weave historical details into their displays, so that adults and children can get a better understanding of the relationship between people and birds, and how this relationship developed over time.
I liked the way that information was given from the bird’s perspective, without trying to give them human characteristics that birds don’t have. They’re motivated by the need for food. They don’t do things to please the handler, as a golden retriever might, but they are driven by their need to eat, and this drive has to be harnessed and built into any training that they do.
A demonstration was given to show how birds were carried on a cadge, or a kind of portable perch used for transporting birds of prey to the place where the hunt would take place. This was no easy job for the cadger because they were carrying an expensive load over what might be difficult terrain. This is where we get the term “cadge a lift from” because if you were visiting a family or hunting with them, your bird might get a lift on the cadge.
We also saw how the birds were trained to hunt things that were not live prey, but were made to look like live prey. I also got the answer to the thing I’d been wondering about – if they are so food-driven, why do they not eat the prey themselves? If it is covered and they can’t see it any more, they lose interest – especially if they are offered some other food. It doesn’t matter if that food is not such good quality – they get food and are satisfied, while the real catch is taken away for the people to eat.
We didn’t have time to visit all the ships, but we did explore HMS Warrior, the, which was Britain’s first armoured battleship, and the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet.
The ship is on a number of levels, which you reach by going down steep steps, holding on to rope banisters. The ship was steam powered, so it would have been loud and no doubt really dirty for those guys working down in the engine room. We saw where the men would have eaten, slept, and where the food was prepared. There was no room for people to keep their possessions with them, so they had to keep their things elsewhere.
Officers had individual cabins, but the rest of the men lived in very close quarters. 600 men lived on the ship, divided into thirty-four groups, with up to 18 men in each.
Much of the work on the ship was very physical – it wasn’t all about the fighting – there were plenty of other tough day-to-day jobs that had to be done. For example, it took 100 men to lift each of the ship’s four heavy anchors, which weighed 5.6 tonnes. Other jobs included manning the guns, raising and lowering smaller boats, operating the sails, and cranking the pumps that moved water around the ship. Hammocks were slung above the guns, and the men ate close by. Uniforms were essential, and hats had to be worn at all times unless there was bad weather. Hats were important too because your wages were counted out into them each month.
We’ll be going back
The main reason for going was because of the Christmas fair, but there was much more to see in terms of the history. We’ll probably do our usual thing and take a week off sometime in term time and go when things are a bit quieter so we can have a good look around on our own.
Have you visited the Portsmouth dockyard museum?
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