A gesture of kindness, Lord Nelson and the crew of the HMS Cordelia

A donation to the Vaughan Evans Library yielded a mysterious tale from history. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

A recent donation to the Vaughan Evans Library yielded a mysterious tale from history. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

A story hidden within a book

Sometimes it is the little things in life that can be the most interesting. A story that recently came across our path at the Vaughan Evans Library reflects this: It is a tale that took place in 1891 and involves Lord Viscount Nelson, a kind lady from Darlinghurst and thirteen wounded crew members from the HMS Cordelia…

A note from Miss Fitzgerald

The Vaughan Evans Library has a beautiful collection of rare books relating to maritime history. One such book is the Life of Lord Viscount Nelson by T.O. Churchill published in 1810. Although this book is beautiful and gives a full account of Lord Nelson’s accomplishments, this particular copy is very special and it has nothing to do with the text.

Taped to the inside of the book is a handwritten note which states:

Miss Fitzgerald has much pleasure in lending this book (“Life of Lord Nelson”) to the men of H.M.S. Cordelia, during their stay at St Vincent’s Hospital, after which she will call for it. 383 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst

Naturally, the interest of the research team at the library was piqued. Who was Miss Fitzgerald? Why were the men of the HMS Cordelia in the hospital?

The handwritten note inside <em>Life of Lord Viscount Nelson</em> by T.O. Churchill (1810), from Miss Fitzgerald, lending the tome to injured sailors recovering at St Vincent's Hospital. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

The handwritten note inside Life of Lord Viscount Nelson by T.O. Churchill (1810), from Miss Fitzgerald, lending the tome to injured sailors recovering at St Vincent’s Hospital. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

Note from Helen Fitzgerald to St Vincent's Hospital inside <em>Life of Lord Viscount Nelson</em> by T.O. Churchill, 1810. Image: Anna Tennant/ANMM.

Note from Helen Fitzgerald to St Vincent’s Hospital inside Life of Lord Viscount Nelson by T.O. Churchill, 1810. Image: Anna Tennant/ANMM.

A tale unfolds

June 29 1891, the HMS Cordelia was travelling from Fiji to Noumea when a horrific accident occurred. The crew were conducting gun practice when a heavy breechloader exploded instantly killing six men and wounding 13 others. The ship sustained significant damage and the captain immediately altered course for Sydney where the ship was stationed. The ship’s surgeon set up an interim hospital below deck and cared for the injured men until they could be transferred to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney a week later.

Departure of HMS <em>Cordelia</em>, 1892. Image: <a href="http://photosau.com.au/cos/scripts/home.asp">City of Sydney Archives</a>.

The departure of HMS Cordelia, 1892. Image: City of Sydney Archives.

It is the story of these men was widely reported — not just in Sydney but also as far as Adelaide and Launceston — that must have captured the attention of Miss Helen Fitzgerald who lived a few streets away from the hospital.

The incident was widely reported throughout Australia. The Accident on board HMS '<em>Cordelia</em>.' (1891, July 18). Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1881 - 1894), p. 8, via <a href="http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63616861">Trove</a>.

The incident was widely reported throughout Australia. The Accident on board HMS ‘Cordelia.’ (1891, July 18). Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1881 – 1894), p. 8, via Trove.

In an effort to help the wounded, Miss Fitzgerald kindly loaned them her copy of the Life of Lord Viscount Nelson. The book itself is beautiful with a leather cover and marbled paper. It was probably very precious to her and was already several decades old when she lent it to the sailors. Unfortunately, we will never know the rest of this story or whether Lord Nelson’s exploits helped any of the wounded soldiers. We were investigating the possibility that her father was a doctor at the hospital but our leads were inconclusive.

The book later came into the ownership of the Anglican Parish of Braidwood who kindly donated it to the Vaughan Evans Library.

— Anna Tennant, Library Assistant

You can contact the Vaughan Evans Library at the Australian National Maritime Museum with your research questions, queries and any information you may have on Miss Fitzgerald.

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