Historic flag given to Norwich by Nelson is to be displayed for the first time in more than a century
07:49 15 February 2017
This huge flag has an even bigger history as it was captured in battle and given to Norwich by Norfolk’s most famous son.
The Tricolour was the ensign of a French ship taken by Admiral Lord Nelson’s men, and it was sent to the city as a gift from the great naval hero himself and one of his most trusted captains, Captain Edward Berry.
The dramatic capture – part of the Battle of the Malta Convoy on February 18 1800 – took place 217 years to the day this Saturday.
And today we can reveal the flag of the ship Le Généreux is to be put on display in the city this summer - for the first time in more than a century.
The war trophy – also thought to be one of the earliest Tricolours in existence - was last on show at Norwich Castle in 1905 for the Battle of Trafalgar centenary, and before that was proudly displayed at St Andrew’s Hall.
This summer it will return to the spotlight as the centrepiece of a Norwich Castle exhibition called Nelson & Norfolk.
At 16m by 8.3m, its sheer size along with its age and fragile nature, are the main reasons the flag has remained hidden from public view for so long, and important conservation work is now being undertaken ahead of the exhibition.
Ruth Battersby-Tooke, curator of costume and textiles at the castle, said: “The ensign is remarkable for its survival in such a complete state, given its age and inherent fragility. It is emblematic of Norfolk Museums Service’s Nelson collections, the oldest French ensign in the UK and the one with the most stirring and thrilling history. When we conceived the exhibition we were determined to find a way of putting the flag on display.
“This has not been without its challenges, not least finding a space large enough to unroll the flag to condition check it and begin the conservation process.”
Le Généreux and the story of the ship’s capture
Le Généreux and Guillaume Tell were the only two ships of the French fleet to escape the British in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. A few days after the battle, Le Généreux captured the British ship, HMS Leander, which had been transporting Admiral Lord Nelson’s flag captain, Edward Berry, carrying the dispatches from the Battle of the Nile. Le Généreux went on to elude the British navy in the Mediterranean for a further 18 months until her fortune was reversed on February 18 1800 when, during the Battle of the Malta Convoy, she was captured by HMS Foudroyant which was under the command of Captain Berry. Le Généreux’ Tricolour Ensign was then ‘struck’, meaning it was removed from the flagpole at the ship’s rear to show she was no longer in battle, before being sent to Norwich. Le Généreux, a 74-gun ship first launched by the French in 1785, finished her career after capture as a Royal Navy ship under the name HMS Généreux before being broken up in 1816.
“Fortunately, St Andrews’ Hall had a large enough floor area for this initial assessment which took place in October 2016. It was incredibly moving to be able to unroll the ensign in the space where it had been on display until 1897.”
The first stage in the conservation process involved careful cleaning and the removal of a disintegrating black cotton lining from Victorian times on the flag’s blue section. Now a team of volunteers and conservators is hand-stitching in a new lining.
Some exciting finds have been made during all this painstaking work, including a nail hammered through the rope which would have been used to nail the flag to the mast, fragments of wood likely to be splinters from battle-damaged ships, and traces of gunpowder. There are also patches and mends from the ensign’s days aboard ship and later years.
All these details will be laid bare in the Nelson & Norfolk exhibition to help tell the flag’s story and the reality of the battles it was part of. The whole of the first gallery of the exhibition space will be given over to displaying the flag.
Ms Battersby-Tooke said: “We want to display the ensign sensitively and fully conscious of the terrible toll these sea battles took on the men involved, friend and foe alike.
“Nelson’s brilliant leadership at the Battle of the Nile and subsequently at Trafalgar were defensive actions which almost certainly saved Britain from invasion by Napoleon. While the exhibition will reflect on his achievements, the display of the ensign is not designed to be jingoistic but to bring to life the sheer scale of these battles and the bravery and tenacity of the men on both sides.”
Norfolk Museums Service and the Costume and Textile Association are currently raising funds for the conservation work, as well as for specialist storage for the flag after the exhibition finishes, which together is expected to cost about £40,000. The specialist storage would mean the flag would be more easily accessible and it would be easier for it to be put back on display another time and loaned to other institutions. There are also long-term plans for a permanent Nelson gallery at Norwich Castle.
The ensign was the second trophy Admiral Lord Nelson sent to Norwich, the first being a sword from the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. This is usually displayed in Norwich Castle but is currently undergoing conservation work ahead of the new exhibition. Nelson & Norfolk will be at Norwich Castle from July 29 until October 1. Visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk
An online fundraising page for the flag’s conservation and storage is being set up. More details will be available at www.ctacostume.org.uk