Conserving a 200 year old flag from the Battle of Trafalgar

Nicola Yates, Senior Textile Conservator, talks about the fascinating process of conserving a 200-year-old flag from the Battle of Trafalgar.

After a lengthy acquisition process we are really pleased to see the Union flag from HMS Minotaur on display in the Nelson, Navy, Nation Gallery alongside Nelson’s Trafalgar uniform. It was planned for this space some two years ago when the gallery first opened.
 
The Union flag from HMS Minotaur and the Austrian Ensign from Neptuno were brought back as prizes from the Battle of Trafalgar by Stephen Hilton, Master’s Mate on board the Minotaur. The taking of ‘trophies’ was a common practice at this time by junior officers. He came from the village of Selling in Kent and it was his family who later presented the flags to St. Mary’s Church, Selling in the 1930s, where they had been on display for many years.
 
The flags came to us at the very end of last year at which point we immediately began a tender process for the conservation of both flags. There was quite a tight deadline to have the Union flag ready for 21st October – Trafalgar Day.
 
During an earlier conservation the flag had been stitched onto red cotton net using silk thread with lots of lines of stitching running along the length of the flag. Small holes and weak areas were stitched very closely with lots of small stitches, more like darning. The net had shrunk causing it to cockle and crease very badly. This also meant it was very difficult to determine exactly what size it would be after conservation and whether or not it would fit the wall that had been designated for it! It was a very tight fit.
 
The flag was very dirty with a noticeable thick layer of dust which had collected more thickly in the cockled areas from many years of hanging on display in the church.
 
The union flag was in a relatively good condition, although there was complete loss of the last 60- 70cm (approx.) of the flag at the fly with a further oblong section missing adjacent to this at the lower fly corner. It is difficult to know exactly why this section is missing but is probably due to wear and tear or damage during use, the fly end suffers most damage in the wind, and the frayed ends may have been trimmed to neaten the edge.
 
Then the conservation work began. This involved giving the flag a thorough surface clean using low-powered vacuum suction, a museum vac was used working through net to prevent any undue movement of the flag and to prevent sucking any of the flag into the vacuum cleaner! This was followed by carefully removing the red net and repair stitching.
 
After careful testing of the dyes it was decided to wet clean the flag, special detergents and softened or de-ionised water are used for the process. Then the hard work starts. The wash bath is made up with polythene on the floor so that it is large enough to accommodate the flags width; the two narrower ends are wound onto polythene tubes so that the flag can be rolled on in sections as it is washed.
 
The flag is worked over with sponges which helps to move the water through the textile helping to release the dirt. The flag was given 4 baths followed by many rinses.
 
It was then laid face down onto a polythene covered soft-board and pinned out to dry, starting from the centre out, carefully aligning the weaves and straightening the seams.
 
Fine nylon net was used for the overall support, dyed to the different colours of the flag. Each section was supported separately and stitched with Gutermann’s Skala thread. The grain of the net was aligned with the weave of the bunting. All the holes and weak areas were secured with conservation stitching.
 
In order to display and protect the flag in the gallery a frame was constructed to allow the flag to hang on a slight slope against fabric covered boards which help provide extra support for the flag. Velcro had been stitched along the top edge of the flag and along the board.
 
It is brilliant to see the flag hanging in the gallery at last and we would like to thank all those who very generously donated and supported us during the project and made it possible to acquire and conserve the flags.
 
Particular thanks go to Annabel Wylie and Poppy Singer for their work on the conservation of the flags.