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Response to Review no. 480

I am indebted to my good friend and colleague Dr Roger Morriss for his most generous review of my recent book, Nelson: the New Letters. The book contains transcriptions, with commentary and notes, of 500 of the most important new letters written by Nelson that have been located in the course of my 6-year ‘Nelson Letters Project’, jointly sponsored by the National Maritime and Royal Naval Museums.

However the review contains a significant misunderstanding of my analysis of the new material, which in turn has betrayed Dr Morriss into an uncharacteristic unfairness. Discussing the pressed copy letter books that I found among Nelson’s papers in the British Library, he suggests that I have designated the letters as ‘secret’ simply because they are pressed and remarks that ‘ … this looks like an over-dramatisation’. In fact, my reasons for designating some – not all – of the contents of the books as secret are much more complex, and based on very careful analysis, and so I am grateful for this opportunity to set the record straight.

My research has shown that Nelson’s pressed copy letter books for 1803/5 are not exact duplications of his official letter books for the same period. When the contents of the pressed copy books were compared carefully with the contents of the official letter books, it was revealed that some 20 per cent of the pressed letters – about 400 in all – did not appear in the official books. Detailed analysis of the contents of these letters revealed that there are two distinct types which appear as pressed copies, but are not copied into the official books. These are:
(1) Letters of a private nature (for example those dealing with Nelson’s personal affairs, or personal letters to his captains)
(2) Letters concerning sensitive matters (often diplomatic, or to do with Intelligence).

To take but one example: the extensive correspondence between Nelson and the King and Viceroy of Sardinia, and with various Sardinian officials, between 1803 and 1805 barely appears in the official letter books at all. It is only in the pressed copy books that a full record of their dealings can be found. But then Sardinia was supposedly neutral and so this correspondence was particularly ‘sensitive’.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Nelson used the pressed copy books to preserve copies of letters which, for various reasons, he did not wish to get into the public record. I am sure that Dr Morriss will agree that it is not ‘over-dramatisation’ to describe such material as ‘secret’!

In my opinion, these hitherto unknown letters from the BL’s pressed copy collection are among the most significant findings of the Nelson Letters Project. Needless to say, a good proportion of them have been included in my book!