Battle of Trafalgar

The life and amazing times of George King

What a life! George King’s early life as a foundling held no clue of what was to come. This new exhibition at The Foundling Museum takes us through his adventures with letters, documents, items from the time  and art work.  Entitled ‘Fighting Talk: One man’s journey from abandonment to Trafalgar’ it takes us step by step through George’s life from 1787 to 1857.

An overlooked diary was found in a display case in the museum and on closer inspection it was a first hand account of the life of George King written in his own words and in his own hand. What a treasure trove this turned out to be.

George King was left at the Foundling Hospital at aged 5 months where he was numbered child 18,053, a shocking number showing the extent of extreme poverty in the 1790s when mothers surrendered their children because they could no longer care for them. His own mother was seduced and abandoned and left her baby who was given the name George after the king at the time. This sad document is her petition in 1787 to have him admitted because she was ‘friendless’ and ‘in extreme misery’ tho her application is supported by her local clergyman. Her name was Mary Miller tho George would never have known this.  It is shocking to learn that not all the needy children were admitted due to pressure of numbers and lots were drawn to decide. George’s mother drew the lucky white ball while the other children, whose mothers drew a black ball,  most likely died

Foundling Museum

George was sent to  wet nurse in Hertfordshire and was well treated until her returned to the Foundling Hospital He was taught to read and write which was to stand him in good stead through his life and was an unusual skill for a working class child of the time. His schoolmaster Robert Atchison was highly influential in George’s life and is kindly remembered in his diary.

So how did he end up at the Battle of Trafalgar? At age 13 he left the hospital to become an apprentice to John Browne’s, a confectioner and grocer in the City of London.  Charity apprenticeships were common as employers were paid to provide board and lodging and train them to earn their living in lowly often dangerous jobs where they were badly treated.   George was bullied by fellow apprentices and ended up in fights.  To avoid the danger of prison after one particularly bad fight,in 1804  George runs away to Chatham to join the navy with indentures but was plied with drink and press ganged directly onto the HMS Polyphemus, a massive war ship.   Soon the Polyphemus joined up with Nelson’s fleet and entered the Battle of Trafalgar.  A dramatic painting dominates the main exhibition room marking this event.

Battle of Trafalgar

George recounts the chaos and danger of the battle and notes that ‘at half past nine Nelson made the signal the England expects every man will his duty… ‘  And they did!  Nelson of course was killed in action and HMS Polyphemus towed his ship VIctory into the safe port of Gibraltar.

One unexpected artifact is a fragment of the Union Flag from Victory which had been draped over Nelson’s coffin. Sailors pocketed scraps instead of folding it onto the coffin – apparently they were prone to taking things at public occasions!

Victory flag

George stayed in the navy for 24 years and travelled the world but this hard life took a toll on his health.  This map shows his travels gives you some idea of the extent of his voyages to Africa, South America and the Caribbean. .

George King's sea travels

His health suffered from the work but also due to poor treatment.  He was drinking, perhaps to counter the horrors of war but also sailors were given wine before battle and the famous tot of rum was a daily norm, The drinking led to fights which were punished by lashes on many occasions.  He is recorded as having dysentery and having to be sent ashore in Malta in 1811.

He finds the time to marry in 1825 partly because ill health causes him to spend more time on shore but she dies while he is away at sea.  After 24 years in the navy he travelled to Charleston, in newly independent America and worked successfully as a teacher.  Despite being asked to stay on with a pay rise he left to return to England possibly finding his witnessing of slavery too hard to bear.  Back home in 1832, he tries various jobs such as dock work, hop picking and even being a policeman but he fell on hard times with no recourse to help but applied to get a place at the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich and he was successful and awarded a pension for life.

His writing skills helped him again and he secured a clerk’s position in the hospital, earning enough money to leave, get his own home and marry again.

George King died in 1857 aged 70 but he left us his diary which he called: Diary of the Incidents of the Life of the Undermentioned, for forty one years c1845 ‘ It was written when he was settled in Greenwich but it is thought he kept notes so he could write up the ‘incidents’ in great detail.  Here’s the book itself.  There is an excellent film which shows pages with sections read out which are interspersed with interviews giving useful background to George’s story.

George King's diary

Back in uniform at the hospital it is fascinating to think of his life being dominated by uniforms from the foundling through the sailor to the pensioner. A case displays the pensioners’ uniform, the only surviving example, another special item in this exhibition.

Pensioner's coat Greenwich


We were lucky on the preview visit to have a talk by Helen Berry whose book Orphans of Empire, The Fate of London’s Foundlings traces the lives of many foundlings and was a an external curator of this exhibition.  She stressed what a rare treasure George’s diary was because a foundling  boy was not usually taught to write as well as read.  His first hand account of life below decks on naval vessels showed the back breaking work the working class press ganged sailor put into the great victories of the era.

This is a small, well presented and fascinating exhibition.  George has left us a rich story and it is well overdue the telling.

For more information about the Foundling Museum, visiting times and costs their website is There is a lot more to see than this special exhibition!


Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel industry I was invited by the Foundling Museum to a preview of this exhibition.  This has not influenced my review.

Armada Portait Queen's House

3 Queens are even better than 1 at the Queen’s House, Greenwich.

You can see Queen Elizabeth l in all her regal glory in the Armada portrait at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. It turns out  2 other versions of this iconic paintng also exist in England, one to be found at Woburn Abbey and and the other in the National Portrait Gallery.  Now, you can enjoy these 3 copies of this famous portrait as they have been brought together for the first time at the Queen’s House in their new exhibition Faces of a Queen and it’s a real treat to see them together.

3 Armada Portraits

L-R Paintings from Woburn, The Queen’s House and National Portrait Gallery

They were all painted very shortly after the Armada victory in 1588, from left to right they are: the Woburn Abbey version – largest and most complete; the Queen’s House own version which is  the clearest and pops with detail and colour; and, the National Gallery version which has been cropped at some point.  They are almost identical in that the costume and jewels are the same but there are differences for example in the Queen’s House version the ships in the left window have been updated from the original Armada ships to contemporary verssions from the 18th century when there was a major restoration of the painting.

I was intrigued how there came to be 3 almost identical paintings after we were told that they were likely to be the work of different artists.   They are so similar and yet I found it hard to believe that Queen Elizabeth would  have sat for 3  separate painters or even for 3 at once.  I posed this question to Allison Goudie, Curator at the Queen’s House, and she told me that it is now thought the paintings were all based on a single original miniature painting by one of the queen’s favourite artists, Nicholas Hilliard.  Other copies may exist but these 3 were contemporary versions making them so precious.

We see Elizabeth surrounded by symbols of power, majesty and virginity. Her hand on the globe in the Woborn and Queen’s House versions shows her growing dominance across the globe.  The seascapes show the defeat of the Spanish Armada, a victory for England and Elizabeth but also for Protestanism over Catholicism.  The crown and her costume reinforce her majesty. The profusion of pearls speak to her virginity as they are associated with this and her status as the ‘VIrgin Queen’ married to her country.

Queen Elizabeth was born in Greenwich Palace, sadly no longer in existance, as was Mary her sister as it was the main London seat of their father Henry Vlll and they spent a good deal of their youth at the palace.. He married his first and fourth queens there and his son Edward lV died there  although after his father’s death.  Elizabeth’s Council planned the Armada Campaign from the palace, so another strong connection with the paintings.

The opportunity to get really close up to 3 faces of Elizabeth was fascinating as the rest of her body is obscured by her sumptuous costume.  She is thought to be 55 at the time these were painted and I was looking for signs of the life she had lived but I guess the painters were charged with making her look younger.  Here is your chance for a close up:

Elizabeth 1 close up Elizabeth 1 close up Elizabeth 1 close up

The Armada Portraits are the focal point of the Queen’s House exhibits at the moment but there is so much more to see in their permanent collection. In addition they have the Woburn Treasures currently on display around the house.  Woburn Abbey is undergoing a major renovation project so its treasures including their Armada Portrait can go out on loan.  Many works from this significant private collection are to be found in the Queen’s House. There is a  great deal to see and through the pieces visitors can learn about the Russell family who’ve lived at Woburn and their closeness to royalty over the centuries.

Matthew Hirst, the curator at Woburn Abbey, took us through the many rooms at the Queen’s House where their treasures can now be found.  The Russell family have been great patrons and collectors of art and architecture.  This exhibition

Here are just a few of my highlights from the Woburn Treasures:

This picture of Queen Mary 1 and her husband Phillip ll of Spain has the most extraordinary legs and faces! Positioned under their royal crests the couple and their faithful dogs demonstrate the style of the time which did not always use realistic perspective.Thepainting sits well in an exhibition containging the Armada Portraits as it was Phillip who launched the ill fated seaborne invasion of England against Mary’s sister Elizabeth.

Inigo Jones appears on the walls and it is fitting that his portrait should visit the Queen’s House as he was commissioned by Anne of Denmark as architect of the house.  Inigo Jones brought the popular classical Palladian style of architecture to England and you can see his work in the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. 

The dramatic bust of Olaudah Equiano dominates one room, a famous ex slave who became a key figure in the fight to abolish slavery.  His book documenting his experiences as a slave had a huge impact in his day and this modern bronze bust commemorates his crucial role in British history.

This portrait of Lady Jane Grey being offered the Crown, fits well with the other roayl portraits and is part of the bloody tale of the Tudor reign. Her sad tale  is one of a young girl being manipulated by powerful forces, including her own family, to put her on the throne of England.They succeeded but 9 days later Mary gathered her forces and deposed Jane. Poor Jane, just 16, was beheaded by Mary to removed any threat,  so this moment of glory was very shortlived.


The Queen’s House is a star of any visit so do take the time to enjoy the fabulous Tulip Stairs and Great Hall among other delights:

Tulip Stairs, Queen's House Grand Hall , Queen's House


To find out more about visiting these exhibtions and the Queen’s House check their website:

Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel industry I was invited by the Queen’s House to their curator led preview visit.  This has not influenced my views and was not a monetary offer as entrance to the Queen’s House is free.

Beasts of London, Museum of London

London’s Beasts come to the Museum of London

When you think of the animals which live among us in London,  you are likely to conjure up pigeons,  squirrels and foxes not the magnificent beasts of the jungle and arctic.  A visit to Beasts of London at the Museum of London will change all that.  Did you know that London has been home to lions since pre history,  to zebras and even a polar bear?  You’ll hear about these beasts and many more as you step into the new immersive exhibition at the Museum of London. Continue reading