Conservation of 27 books recording the sinking of HMS The Royal George

The Royal George collection consists of 27 small printed books describing the sinking of HMS Royal George in Spithead in 1782. The wood of the sunken ship is thought to have been used for the boards of these books. This important and very popular collection is extensively used by Caird Library readers. Heavy past usage and handling as well as unsuitable housing have led to extensive damage and deterioration of the books making this collection a priority for conservation. The books needed to be stabilised for safe handling and given appropriate housing to protect the collection in the future.
On 29 August 1782 the HMS Royal George was anchored at Spithead (near Portsmouth harbour) to take on supplies. She was the flagship of Rear Admiral Kempenfeldt and under command of Captain Waghorn. That day was set aside for the crew to say their farewells to their families. Since desertion from the navy was a problem, shore leave was cancelled and wives and family were allowed to come onboard (about 400 extra people) which added an extra 70 tons to the ship's weight.
To allow for minor maintenance work on the wash pump below the usual waterline, the HMS Royal George was being heeled over at an angle. Guns had been moved in the ship to allow the heeling of the ship, bringing the lowest gun ports close to the water surface. A supply vessel approached to load on more supplies which caused the ship to heel even further to such a degree that the sea washed in through the lower gun ports and the ship began to take in water into her hold. A sudden breeze on the raised side of the ship forced her even further over. She rolled onto her side and sank before any distress signal could be given, taking with her around 900 people, including up to 300 women and 60 children. Only about 230 people were saved.
The 27 books were kept in two very small (book-like) boxes providing very little individual support. Most of the wooden boards and leather spines were damaged, broken, detached or missing, and the books were mainly held together with archive tape. Most of the loose wooden boards and prints in front of the books were mixed up with each other. The paper was also very weak particularly at the front and back of the book block.
Previous storage boxes.jpgPrevious storage boxes
The construction of the books is very complex. A variety of materials are used, ranging from thin curved wooden boards (most of them broken and with parts missing), paper blocks, leather spines and a silk ribbon used as a kind of 'sewing thread'. This presented several challenges to me in deciding on the best conservation approach, which would also ensure that the books could be easily handled and opened without incurring further damage.
Example of broken book PBD2235.jpgExample of broken book PBD2235
Example of broken book PBD2235.jpgExample of broken book PBD2235
During my study and examination of the different structures and editions of the books, I was able to unite loose parts (boards and prints) with their original book block. It was essential to keep original elements of the binding in order to respect the integrity of the collection.
All wooden boards were preserved and conserved. I replaced missing parts with the same kind of material as the original, chiselling oak wood to the right infill size in the same thickness, staining the wood to a similar colour, ensuring the infill was still clearly distinguishable from the original. I used a strong, flexible and reversible glue to recreate and support original curves in the boards.
PICTURE 4_wooden board infill PBD2235.jpgWooden board infill
PICTURE 5_ conserved book with toned wooden infill PBD2235.jpgConserved book with toned wooden infill
The degraded leather spines were dry cleaned and consolidated. In some cases I found it necessary to replace the spine with similar leather (in this case sheep skin). I replicated gold tooling in the same style and size compared to the other books in this collection.
The paper was carefully dry cleaned. I provided strength by repairing tears and replacing missing areas with a variety of conservation quality Japanese papers and hand-made western papers. The paper repairs were adhered using Wheat Starch Paste and Methylcellulose. Visually disfiguring and previously added paper repairs were removed and the damage was treated with more sympathetic and suitable paper materials.
The sewing structure of a small percentage of the books was very weak or broken. An intact binding is necessary for the book to function properly. In some cases, I needed to completely re-sew books where the sewing structure was beyond repair. I recorded the old, original binding construction prior re-sewing and used my notes as a template. New hemp cords were used as a sewing support.
The much degraded silk ribbon was replaced with a ribbon in similar texture, material and colour. I used a new silk ribbon which I dyed, using different dyes and chemicals, to match the colour of the original silk ribbon.
New protection was necessary to meet preservation standards and create a storage solution which is appropriate for the Caird Library readers. I had to consider four main points:
1.Security and safety of the books
3.Keeping all the units together
4.Weight and size of the storage box
I decided to create a bespoke housing system: two custom made boxes with two trays each now house all 27 items; the trays can easy be lifted out of the boxes. The books are individually supported and secured in the boxes. This housing system has made access to the collection much safer and easier.
PICTURE 6 One of the new storage boxes.jpgOne of the new storage boxes
PICTURE 7 one of the new storage boxes - opened.jpgOne of the new storage boxes opened