Given away by his mother, named after a King, fought at Trafalgar and left a rare diary of the life of a sailor, this is an exhibition about the life of one man with an unusual story to tell.

And the discovery of his life story is no less interesting, as he wrote a diary, but until a few years ago it was just another overlooked book among so many in the archives until it was dusted off and read, and then people realised what they had here.

A rare account from a sailors perspective of life in Georgian England.

And the Foundling Museum is now telling that story.

Named after King George, the boy to be known as George King was never to know the destitute mother who gave him up to the Foundling Hospital, but was to be favoured by the unusual option at the time of being taught to read and write at a time when that was a rare skill.

The exhibition opens with a number of documents and letters, including a few surviving records of George King’s admission into the Foundling Hospital, as the 18,053rd such child to be looked after by the institution.

Initially set for an ordinary life as a city worker, he was apprenticed to a confectioner but was less fond of sugar than he was of the drink and in 1804 he fled London to join the Navy. Before he could enlist as a volunteer, he was enlisted forcibly — pressganged — into the Navy.

He was to serve on the HMS Polyphemus, which was a massive 64-gun ship that was being refitted in Chatham, and soon ended up in fights with Spanish ships, and then a year later in 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar. After the battle, Polyphemus towed HMS Victory, carrying Nelson’s body, back to Gibraltar.

There are a number of items on display relating to the battle, and Nelson’s death. In fact, there’s a fragment of the Union Jack that was draped over Nelson’s coffin while on the ship – sailors were not above acquiring souvenirs on their travels.

George was to remain in the Navy for 24 years, regularly crossing the Atlantic, and at a time when half of the sailors were expected to die at sea, his record is a remarkable achievement. He settled in the Americas as a teacher, but moved back to England in 1832 and fell into poverty.

He was to get a stroke of good fortune though as he was accepted as a pensioner at the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, and it was there that he was to write the diary of his life.

The diary, a big book, is on display in the exhibition, open and if you can dodge the spotlights that make looking at it a bit difficult, you may be able to read a few sentences in the thin Georgian handwriting.

The spotlights are a bit of a nuisance in this exhibition, and I found a few too many times that I would want to look at something or other only to either find a spotlight reflecting off the glass, or my shadow obscuring it. That’s a general irritant about many museums, but for some reason seemed a bit worse than usual here.

Elsewhere, there are uniforms and trinkets from the school, items from sailing ships and lots of contemporary illustrations to add context to an exhibition that is ultimately based around a single book. But a remarkable book at that.

Dominating the room though are two huge objects, a painting of the Battle of Trafalgar, and looming large, a figurehead of HMS Polyphemus, sitting not unlike the head of Zardoz in the room.

The exhibition, Fighting Talk: One Boy’s Journey from Abandonment to Trafalgar is open at the Foundling Museum until 27th February 2021.

Entry to the museum and exhibition costs £10.50 per adult, and should be booked in advance here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★☆☆

Foundling Museum
40 Brunswick Square, London
WC1N 1AZ

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One comment
  1. Jo W says:

    Agree with you about spotlights in museums, when exhibits are behind glass. Also the small labels which are just too far to be read with reading glasses and too small to be made out with the naked eye. I have sometimes considered taking a pair of binoculars with me.

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