Lord Nelson’s marriage record found decaying in a vicar’s study in the Caribbean heat


A report by Victoria Ward for London’s Telegraph.

Admiral Lord Nelson’s marriage record, a hugely valuable historic document, has been found rotting away on a bookshelf in a vicar’s study on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis.

The state of the 190-page document, which records the naval hero’s 1787 marriage to Fanny Nisbet, was discovered by pure chance in the possession of Canon Dr Alson Percival, who was reluctant to allow it to be taken away for conservation.

It took British experts a year to persuade the relevant Caribbean authorities that the record, which had badly deteriorated due to the humidity and high temperatures, needed urgent and vital work and to assure them that it would be returned.

Captain John Wills, a retired Royal Navy captain, told the Telegraph: “Canon Percival was concerned he would never see it again.

“Eventually, the local bishop’s legal advisor took a risk on his behalf and he didn’t really have any choice.”

Admiral Horatio Nelson, as he was then, married Fanny Nisbett under a silk cotton tree near the church of St John Figtree, where their signatures remain in the registry and a copy of their marriage record is available to view.

At the time, he was commanding the British warship HMS Boreas, protecting British interests in the north east Caribbean.

But the marriage fell apart when Nelson refused to give up his married lover, Lady Emma Hamilton, who later gave birth to his lovechild. Their six-year affair was the biggest scandal of the age.

The poor state of the marriage record, covering 1729 to 1825, came to light by chance when John Rodgaard, a retired US Navy captain and member of the 1805 Club, a UK-based charity that conserves and maintains Royal Navy graves and artefacts of the Georgian era, got married on the island of Nevis.

He met Canon Percival during his visit and is thought to have viewed the document, subsequently making the club aware that it needed to take urgent action.

Peter Warwick, chairman of the 1805 Club, is also thought to have been informed of its poor state.

Last October, the organisation contacted the Foreign Office to ask about the possibility of restoration and after six months of meetings and briefings with Caribbean officials, Capt Wills went to see it in person, taking with him with two specialists from the Borthwick Institute, part of the University of York, which is carrying out the conservation work.

Capt Wills admitted he was a little horrified when the vicar climbed up onto a step in his study to retrieve the valuable document, which is made from cotton rag and inscribed with iron gall ink.

“It was full of books in there, there was no air conditioning,” he said. “I watched him get up on a step ladder and take it down from the top of the shelf.

“It is pretty decrepit and very fragile. If it had fallen off the shelf it would have been ruined. The ink had rusted through the paper so on many pages, all there is is a cut out where the writing once was.

“I just thought, thank goodness we are out here, this cannot and should not be handled until the conservation has been done.”

It took a further six months of communication before permission was eventually granted and the terms of agreement were drawn up between the legal advisor to the Bishop of the North East Caribbean and Aruba, the Borthwick Institute and the 1805 Club.

“It took a naval officer to plan and deliver this,” added Capt Wills. “It was like refitting a ship.”

Experts will now dismantle the record page by page, removing a silk film inserted during a previous restoration, and treating the paper, repairing it so it is legible. The process is expected to take at least 18 months.

Each page will also be digitised before the record, this time carefully encased in a climate-controlled cabinet, and the digital files are returned to Canon Percival and the island of Nevis on a Royal Navy ship.

The project is being funded with grants awarded to the 1805 Club by the Libor fund,  a government scheme that supported armed forces and emergency services charities as well as other related good causes.

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