.... or, rather, what's a foot?
This week, Museum Directors are on my mind. Manx National Heritage, the national heritage agency of the Isle of Man, and my employer, has a new director, Mrs Connie Lovel. Connie has got off to a flying start and she has shown a great interest in Peggy and the George Quayle Legacy Project. One of Connie's obvious strengths is a forensic eye for detail, and is the prompt for this post.
The other museum director I have been thinking of is this man, Dr Basil Greenhill, Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (now Royal Museums Greenwich) from 1967 to 1983.
Greenhill served in the navy during the war. He was a career diplomat in Pakistan before his appointment to the NMM where his tenure was successful in many ways and garnished his reputation as "the foremost figure in the world of maritime museums" (Guardian UK obituary, Thursday 8th May 2003). He was also a formidable autocrat.
As a boy, Greenhill had been obsessed with sailing. He'd seen the drawings of Peggy, commissioned by the Society for Nautical Research, amongst others in an exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington in the 1930's. Thirty years later, when the opportunity arose to visit Peggy at the invitation of Connie's predecessor, Basil Megaw, he took it. His articles on Peggy (see my previous post, 'This is it') from that period have, until recently, remained the primary source on Peggy and her history.
Greenhill reconstructed the story of the Quayle brothers' boats through researching the Bridge House Papers in the Manx National Heritage Library & Archive. His articles propose this sequence of events:
1. The 1789 boat mentioned in George Quayle's letters was called Neptune and is now lost.
2. The boat Peggy that has come down to us was built in 1791.
3. A second, smaller boat, also called Peggy, was built in 1793. This boat was impounded for contraband off Conway in Wales later that decade.
4. The sliding keels were fitted to the 1791 Peggy as an after-thought, but before 1796.
His arguments were made with what might be considered characteristic authority. Unfortunately he rarely referenced individual documents and his account is extremely hard to reconcile with what we now know. At the heart of some of these problems is the Admiralty Licence of 1793.
|George Quayle's 'Laissez Passez' for Peggy, 1793 (IOMMMNT MS00940-4-C)|
This document was carried by Quayle on board Peggy, folded in a tightly-sealed, weatherproof tin. It was issued on behalf of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain and Ireland, and permits Peggy to pass unmolested by the British navy. It lists her armament of six swivel guns as well as fowling pieces; these are the guns found with Peggy in her cellar in the 1930's. Her dimensions are listed as:
"Twenty four 10/12 Feet long, Seven 3/12 Feet broad"
Now, unfortunately these dimensions do not tally with those of Peggy (twenty six 6/12 Feet long, Seven 8/12 Feet broad). This did not go unnoticed by Mrs Lovel, and it is upon this detail that Greenhill built his 'two Peggys' argument. But could there be another explanation for the discrepancy?
- First, we do not know for sure what Peggy looked like before she was re-modelled after 1800. She was certainly shorter and narrower than she is today, but probably not by one foot eight inches in length.
- Second, we do not know how the Admiralty came by the measurements, or exactly how such measurements were taken.
- Third, the Manx yard was commonly taken to be longer than the British equivalent. By 1851, when new standard yards were created for distribution across the Island, the Manx Yard was measured at 37.5 inches making the Manx Foot 12.5 long! In the 18th century there may well have been considerable variation in these measures. More detail on this topic can be found in Quayle, P., 'Manx Linear Measures', Proceedings of the Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Volume XV (2017), pp. 98-109.
None of these observations neatly or definitively settle the question of Peggy's length as detailed in the Admiralty license, but they do come very close indeed to doing so. Furthermore, Greenhill's argument that the Peggy mentioned in the license is not the one that has come down to us does not fit with the physical evidence on the boat itself. Close investigation in the last five years has revealed gun mounts in the original mooring bits which fit the six swivels guns found with the boat. Our Peggy is indeed therefore the boat detailed in the Admiralty license of 1793.
Lastly, on the subject of 'little Neptune'. Basil Greenhill did not believe the surviving Peggy was the boat detailed in George Quayle's 1789 account book. However, recent paint analysis of Peggy and the boat house clearly shows that boat and boat house were decorated in matching paint schemes from the same paint pot. Go figure, as the Americans say....
Historical knowledge is always subject to change and re-interpretation. New evidence comes to light that demands to be reconciled with narratives that have been accepted for decades. The story of the Quayle brothers' boats is in a state of flux at the moment that only more profound study of the archive will clarify.