A relic from Trafalgar sold at auction: the Dobbie connection

What does a recent auction of a piece of a flag flown on HMS Victory have in common with this recently catalogued Dobbie collection?

By Graham Thompson, Archives Assistant

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I recently finished cataloguing the Dobbie collection acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 1987, containing the papers of the Royal Navy officers Captain Hugh William Dobbie (1771-1830) and his eldest son Admiral Hugh William Dobbie (1812-1889). 

By coincidence, there is a connection with a story in news media last week concerning £297,000 paid at auction for an ‘exceptionally large fragment’ from a Union flag believed to have been flown on HMS Victory (1765) at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The same relic was donated to the Royal United Service Institution by Dobbie junior (then holding the rank of captain) in 1860.

The provenance is documented in a letter from Captain Boughey Burgess, Secretary of the Royal United Service Institution, dated 3 April 1860. Burgess wrote to Dobbie junior to confirm that the fragment of flag had been deposited in the RUSI Museum, see the item numbered DBB/107/4. He endorsed its authenticity, noting that it came from the Union flag that was famously torn into pieces and taken as souvenirs by seamen from the Victory who took part in the ceremonial proceedings as Lord Nelson’s coffin was laid to rest at St. Paul’s cathedral in London.

Letter sent to Dobbie by Captain Boughey Burgess, Secretary of the Royal United Service Institution, London, dated 3 April 1860. (DBB/107/4)

One can only speculate about how fully accurate the background to this relic is and how it came into the possession of the Dobbie family. Dobbie senior was in the East Indies throughout the period circa 1790-1808. At the time of the events surrounding the death of Nelson he was in command of the receiving ship HMS Arrogant (1761) and senior captain at Bombay. In 1802 he had been wounded in the chest by a musket ball during an operation against pirates at Baite Island, now part of Malaysia. Details of his service and the Dobbie family ancestry can be found in the printed memoir DBB/6.

The fragment of flag was numbered 2349 within the RUSI collection and subsequently appears in the listing of Nelson relics exhibited at Whitehall during the commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905, as well as the official catalogues of the RUSI Museum. It remained there until the dispersal of the RUSI Museum collections in 1962.

Fragment of a wool bunting, hand-sewn flag. From HMS 'Victory' carried at the funeral of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. (AAA0924)

Some related relics from the Battle of Trafalgar are displayed in the permanent gallery Nelson, Navy, Nation here at Greenwich.  They include another fragment of Union flag (possibly part of a White Ensign) believed to have been flown on the Victory (AAA0924), shown in the photograph above.

The Dobbie collection and RUSI Museum catalogues can be viewed in the Caird Library & Archive.