What happened to The King’s Ships?

The spine labels of The King’s Ships, by H. S. Lecky show that ships from ABOUKIR to JUPITER are included in these volumes, the title page states that this is a six-volume work, and the introduction explains that they contain a ‘history of all those ships which are in the Naval service of the Empire’. So where are the last three volumes? 

By Katherine Oxley, Archives Assistant

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Volume 1-3 of The Kings Ships and title page (PBB0657/1-3)

The spines of Volume 1-3 of The Kings Ships and the title page (PBB0657/1-3)

The Caird Library and Archive also holds a collection of manuscripts that belonged to the author, Halton Stirling Lecky, a naval officer who was a lieutenant at the time that these three books were published but who would go on to attain the rank of Captain upon his retirement. The manuscripts of naval officers held in our archives tend to be comprised of naval commissions, journals, letters back home and the like, and while the Lecky collection does include several photograph albums which chronicle his naval service, from his time as a cadet in the 1890s until his retirement in 1920s, most of the manuscripts in this collection concern the chequered history of Lecky’s endeavours to have the complete run of The King’s Ships published.

Photograph of Lecky (LKY/1/3)
Photograph of Lecky (far left) along with some fellow officers on board HMS VOLAGE in 1898 (from photograph album, item ID LKY/1/3)

The Lecky archive contains dozens of letters of correspondence between him and printers, publishers, photographers, artists and other sources from whom Lecky acquired images of ships.  The introduction to volume one states that the books are illustrated with nearly 3000 images, and the archive includes several hundred photographs of ships, although many are in poor condition.

The first three volumes were published around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, but in a statement he wrote in 1922, outlining the state of affairs of the The King’s Ships at that time, Lecky explained how the prohibition in 1915 on the publication of pictures of warships, under the Defence of the Realm Act, prevented volumes four, five and six being issued for sale, which had a ruinous effect on the publisher, Horace Muirhead, who was unable to reap the returns of his investment. By the time Lecky wrote the statement in 1922, Muirhead had died bankrupt, and despite the embargo on warship pictures being lifted in 1919, the final three volumes remained unpublished.

Pages from volume 1 of The King’s Ships (PBB0657/1)
Pages from volume 1 of The King’s Ships (PBB0657/1)

We have no direct testimony from Horace Muirhead about the straitened circumstances in which he found himself, but the Lecky archive includes a letter, written in 1916, that he received from naval photographer David Moore, who laments:

‘Before the Admiralty’s prohibition I was the sole possessor of an old established & lucrative business, confident of the future & that old age was provided for. This is now all gone – if I am spared after the war I shall have to start again at scratch & in the position of an employee instead of master. My business ruined & not one ½d compensation.’ (Item ID: LKY/4/1(8))

Lecky’s attempts to get the remaining volumes published were further complicated by the fact that Muirhead’s widow had signed control of publishing The King’s Ships over to three men; Beamish, Fawcett and de Courcey Bowers, who turned out to be fraudsters who collected subscriptions for the future volumes with no intention of publishing them. The archive includes several letters of apology that Lecky wrote to duped subscribers, and there is also a press cutting taken from the Daily Mail in 1924, which alleged that de Courcey Bowers was a notorious gambler. (Item ID: LKY/8/19)

Once the fraudsters were out of the way Lecky needed to find a benefactor who was prepared to fund the cost of getting the remaining volumes published. He was aided in his efforts by Philip Allan, a publisher who, though not able to take on the project himself, seemed very committed to helping Lecky find wealthy backers, such as shipping industrialists, who might be prepared to invest in his work.

Lecky even managed to secure himself an invitation to Kensington Palace to meet with Victoria Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven, in 1928.  The meeting was facilitated by her son, Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who corresponded with Lecky and seemed keen to help him. In fact one of the names Mountbatten himself proposed as a potential backer was the National Maritime Museum’s founding benefactor after whom the Caird Library was named, Sir James Caird. The only problem was that Mountbatten’s and Caird’s mutual acquaintance was Lord Beaverbrook, and by all accounts relations between the latter two men were not cordial. Having spoken to Lord Beaverbrook about Sir James, Mountbatten wrote to Lecky in 1928 explaining:

‘As, however, it appears that they did not part on the best terms over some business rivalry, he [Beaverbrook] greatly feared that an introduction through him would do more harm than good.’ (Item ID: LKY/8/29)

In the end, it seems that Lecky’s efforts came to naught. All pertinent correspondence in his archive indicates that every publisher and potential backer that he and Philip Allan approached declined to take on the project. The archive also includes a series of letters from the printers R. & R. Clark Ltd, which express increasing levels of exasperation at their storage space having been clogged up for years with stocks of The King's Ships, awaiting a publication date that never arrived. By 1927 the patience of the printers had run out and the last letter in the collection from R. & R. Clark Ltd, dated 27 May, informed Lecky of their intention to pulp the stocks without further delay.

Final two letters to Lecky from the printers R. & R. Clark Ltd, (LKY/8/27(3) and (4))
Final two letters to Lecky from the printers R. & R. Clark Ltd, prior to destroying the unpublished stocks of The King’s Ships (Item IDs: LKY/8/27(3) and (4))

A final misfortune in the saga is that a portion of Lecky's unpublished manuscripts were lost at some point. While the Lecky archive contains his handwritten manuscripts for the ships with names starting with P to Z, no manuscripts are included for ships with names starting with K to O. To that end the final document in the archive is the draft of a letter, undated and unsigned, but written at some point after Lecky's death in 1940, possibly by his daughter Barbara Lecky. It is addressed to the Editor of The Mariner’s Mirror, requesting that a notice be put in the next edition asking for information about the whereabouts of the missing manuscripts of The King’s Ships.