A visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford last weekend has piqued my interest in the capture of the Westmorland: an armed merchantman. The exhibition, entitled ‘The English Prize, The Capture of the Westmorland: An Episode of the Grand Tour’, reveals the fascinating story of an English merchant ship that was captured by the French on 7 January 1779.

The Westmorland left Livorno under Captain Michael Wallace with a cargo that included 57 crates of objects collected by aristocrats on the Grand Tour.  These Grand Tourists included Francis Bassett, Prince William Henry and Charles Howard.  The ship was chased by four French ships consisting of the Caton, Destin and two smaller vessels. Being outnumbered and outgunned, Captain Wallace surrendered and was forced to Malaga. It was at this point that the valuable works of art were sold to the Spanish King, Charles III, for 360,000 silver reales; a substantial amount. Many of the items were then presented to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. The archives in Madrid have been able to trace the history of the cargo and have discovered what became of the artefacts. For information about the exhibition see: http://www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/westmorland/.

Included in the displays is a letter of marque against France, dated 20 August 1778 from the National Archives at Kew and their High Court of Admiralty records. There is a letter from Thomas Jenkins, a key agent in Rome, writing to William Legge, 2nd Earl of Darmouth, informing him of the acquisition of items made by his son, Lord Lewisham. The Archive at the National Maritime Museum holds several letters written by Thomas Jenkins from the John Wilson Croker collection of Nelson letters.

After visiting the exhibition, my immediate thought was to whether I could find anything interesting about the capture and dispersal of items from the Westmorland in the NMM’s manuscript collection. Having conducted a brief search, it seems that this task would prove very difficult. However, if any of our readers find anything of interest, please let us know!

The image on the right shows a ship's model from the NMM's collection. It is the Atalanta of c.1775 and the model can be found in the Ashmolean's exhibition. It has been used as an example of a vessel similar to the Westmorland.

Mike (Assistant Archivist)