On 24 November 1759, a middle-aged and weary naval officer sat down in his cabin on the Royal George and hurriedly wrote a letter to his housekeeper. He had just led one of the most important naval battles in English history and he wanted to send his love to his children. He wrote that he was so cold he could scarce write. He told her of the French ships that had been sunk, each with their number of guns – some with 74 guns, some 84 – and asked her to pass on his best wishes also to Mr Brown and his sons. He said he hoped he would be allowed to go home soon as he had had “a long and tiresome service of it”. However, it would be a further two months before that happened. His name was Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, later to become Lord Hawke.
On 15 December 2014, my father-in-law, Richard “Dick” Sheardown, died at the age of 94. Like most of his generation, he had fought in the Second World War. He had fought in the deserts of North Africa and been on the first wave of the D-Day landings. He was wounded twice. After the War he was commissioned for a stint in the Military Police and was therefore unable to marry his fiancée, Ivy, until 1951. A year later Malcolm, my husband, was born.
Dick had been born in Hull, East Yorkshire and had lived there all his life. He worked hard in factories and took on shift work which enabled him to look after Ivy, who was in poor health, until she died at the age of 59. He was a great reader, always ordering books from Readers Digest. He was very interested in history, especially military history. Towards the last year or so of his life, Dick started to lose his short-term memory and the slow decline of dementia began to set in. He was still living alone in his council house and it was at this time that a devious young couple spotted their opportunity and started to “befriend” him.
Malcolm and I lived 140 miles away and on one trip back to see Dick this young couple happened to turn up with a birthday present for him. It was a very smart sweater, but as it later transpired, obviously bought with his own money. “Come in” we invited them innocently. The girl hugged Dick “Ohhh, he’s just like my old Grandad”, she purred. After we got home, we were uneasy about the situation and informed the social services who were looking after Dick. Unfortunately, they took no immediate action and it was only by the astute action of one of Dick’s carers, Chris, who found the couple going through Dick’s belongings, that the police were eventually involved.
The couple had obviously managed to persuade Dick to give them his debit card and pin number as, after he passed away and we had access to his bank statements, we found they had systematically emptied his bank account of thousands of pounds. They had virtually depleted his entire savings. The couple had also taken everything of value they could from the house. They were never caught. However, for all their greed they did not realize that probably the most “valuable” item lay in a tin, which they left behind.
It is a painful process going through a loved one’s possessions after they have passed away. We found a shoe-box crammed full of letters written by Ivy to Dick during the five years they had been engaged before they were married. In a small biscuit tin, we found official letters pertaining to Malcolm’s family and one from possible distant family members dated 1854: “We have the cholera very bad in London at this time” they wrote, reminding us of how fortunate we are to live now. And, finally, we found one letter written from the “Royal George, at anchor, Quiberon Bay”, dated 24 November 1759. The signature was “E. Hawke”.
The handwriting was difficult to decipher, but our curiosity was aroused and with the help of the internet we discovered the historical importance of the sea battle at Quiberon Bay. We discovered how vital Admiral Hawke’s leadership was in winning that battle, how significant the battle was in English history and how he had been described by some historians as the “forgotton hero”, eclipsed of course by Nelson.
We contacted the National Maritime Museum and were invited to take the letter there. They authenticated it as the original, but we were all puzzled as to how it had got into Dick’s hands. The same letter had been quoted word-for-word in a biography of Lord Hawke published in 1965, so how had it ended up in a tin in a council house in Hull? The Museum was unable to accept the letter as a donation because of its unknown provenance.
Over the next couple of years Malcolm and I did our best to find out how this letter had come into Dick’s possession, but without success. We were sure, however, that he would have acquired it in good faith. Everybody who knew him knew of his interest in history and it is likely he was given the letter: “Old Dick would be interested in this” we could almost hear some friend or relative saying.
Although we felt honoured to be temporary custodians of this historically valuable letter, it would not be any use lying in a tin in our wardrobe. After a visit to the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, we decided this would be an appropriate home for our letter and, thankfully, they were able to accept it. Lord Hawke’s poignant letter home would be kept for future generations to come.