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Above and Under Hatches

James Anthony Gardner’s recollections of his service with the Royal Navy from 1782 to 1814, writes Christopher Lloyd, give a stimulating picture of life below decks.

The memoirs of admirals and generals are apt to suffer from excessive self-justification. More lively reading is often provided by the more unbuttoned reminiscences of subaltern officers, especially when they are written without thought of publication. The most illuminating and amusing picture of life below decks in the eighteenth century navy appears in the recollections of James Anthony Gardner, which must have been written before 1836, though they were not printed until 1906, when they appeared as a volume issued by the Navy Records Society in what is now a rare book. Gardner was only a lieutenant when he retired from the service in 1814; but he died as a commander in 1846 at the age of seventy-six.

The title on his manuscript runs as follows: Naval Recollections In Shreds and Patches With Strange Reflections Above and under Hatches.He may have kept some sort of a journal while at sea, but he relied on his excellent memory. ‘I have a perfect recollection of almost every circumstance from very early life. My object in writing my naval recollections is to amuse my family when I am moored head and stern.’

Whenever it is possible to check his statements, they have been found accurate; but what makes these memoirs so vivid is his eye for character and personality. As an Irishman, he loved an oddity; and, as it was an age of eccentrics, his portraits are the literary equivalent of his contemporary, Thomas Rowlandson.

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