Friday, 31 August 2012


Aficionados of the naval novels of Patrick O'Brian pontificate on whom his hero Captain Aubrey is modelled. The latest nomination is the admirable Vice Admiral Edward Pellew, a boy from a humble background who joined the navy where his fighting qualities brought swift promotion, culminating in the command of a Fleet. Viscount Cochrane, who was imprisoned for debt, is another swashbuckling nominee. O'Brian told his stepson Count Tolstoy that his captain was based on a master of the Snowdon Foothounds, a pack  O'Brian followed when he lived in North Wales.
I would like to propose another North Walian of whom O'Brian must have heard: Captain Timothy Edwards - or to give him his nickname in Nelson’s Navy “Old Hammer and Nails” - squire of Nanhoron on the Llyn Peninsula. He was every bit as dashing as Nelson, as was shown in his biography “Hammer and Nails” by my chum David Beaumont Ellison.
In 1745 at the age of 14 Edwards signed on the frigate “Chesterfield” as captain’s servant, and after a brilliant career in which he rose to be a captain, died at sea on his way home from the American War of Independence.
He was a midshipman on the sloop “Sphinx” and in 1775 was posted to the newly refitted, 1,689 ton line-of-battle second rater “Ramillies” as 6th lieutenant. Fortunately he was transferred to the 75-gun “Terrible” which was about to sail for Nova Scotia. The “Ramillies” would have been a bad career move. She was commanded by Admiral Byng who, aboard her, lost Minorca to the French, was court martialled and shot.
The captain of the “Terrible” John Lockhart was more successful. “Lucky” to his men because of the ‘prizes’ (enemy ships) he acquired, he captured 14 ships and Edwards’ share was £813, the equivalent of ten years’ pay.
Hammer and Nails” tells the story of Edwards’ promotion to captain and of his spying missions off Toulon and the many sea fights he fought that brought him a fortune in prize money.
He “swallowed the anchor” to develop his Llyn estate Nanhoron, still much the same today as when he laid it out. He was helped by his wife Margaret with whom he exchanged tender love poems.
When the American War of Independence broke out, he re-mustered, joined Rodney’s fleet and fought in a great battle off Martinique which is excitingly described in this book. He died of fever as he returned home, rich with prizes and honours.
Not knowing of his fate, his wife Margaret went to Southampton to meet him. It was customary for her not to take money for her return, relying on her husband for that. Not only did she learn she was a widow: she was stranded near penniless in Southampton. The Church refused to lend her the return fare but an unknown Independent minister did.
Author Ellison was a naval historian, a former schoolmaster working in retirement as a supermarket shelf stacker. Nothing was known of Captain Edwards until a mourning locket bought at auction in Fife was identified as having belonged to him. Ellison was hooked and started to research his subject, financed by an unexpected legacy from an aunt.
By a fluke, he found a volume of historical memoirs in Cambridge Public Library that mentioned Edwards and his Nanhoron home. He wrote to the house and got a letter back from Bettina, the wife of David Harden who is one of Edwards’ descendants. They invited him to Nanhoron and one of the best books on naval history I know is the result.
My favourite king, Henry V, spent most of his reign abroad beating the French but every day despatches kept him informed on affairs in England which enabled him to continue to guide his kingdom in peace and prosperity. Rigorous laws he enforced made it possible for a woman to travel anywhere in England without fear.
How nice to know that our own Coalition, basking in the Mediterranean sunshine, operates a similar watchful eye.
But for them, dogs would be dancing on their hind legs on every street corner and slugs would be massacred with toxic coffee grounds in defiance of European regulations. Motorists would be free to mount kerbs, reverse without signals, probably even smoke in their cars without fear of penalty.
True we now borrow far more than we save, despite cuts in welfare, defence, library services and public lavatories. The days when servicemen could moonlight as film extras or chorus members at Covent Garden are over. We would have to hire the Foreign Legion, which has survived for centuries without winning a war, to put on a musical comedy.
There is no shortage of advice from countries that have survived our current economic disasters. Iceland, for instance, has suggested we should follow its example. They closed their banks, made sure their citizens did not suffer and reneged on their massive debts to other countries. We scorn such poltroonery. Our own plan, like most works of genius, is simple: we are going to close parliament for five years.
True, rewiring Westminster and mending the leaky lavatories will cost five billion pounds at a time when Our Gracious could review her fleet in her bath. But omelettes and eggs, omelettes and eggs. We will just have to put up with dancing dogs and motorists keeping on the grass. But at least we will be able to massacre slugs with gay abandon.