The Royal Naval Club and Royal Albert Yacht Club in Old Portsmouth will soon be opening the doors on its amazing collection of naval artefacts. RACHEL JONES pays a visit.
The pewter cufflinks carefully mounted on card are thought to have graced the sleeves of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
As possessions of Admiral Nelson, they have become significant pieces of naval memorabilia. But the wonders of these historic treasures doesn’t end there.
The cufflinks are believed to have been worn by the naval leader when he was killed by a French bullet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
These little marvels of seafaring history now have a home at the Royal Naval Club and Royal Albert Yacht Club in Old Portsmouth.
They are a among a large collection of historical treasures to be found behind the elegant Victorian facade of the distinctive building in Pembroke Road.
Until now the contents of the city landmark have only been available to the eyes of club members and people attending weddings and other functions there.
But the organisation is planning a series of open days in November for anyone who would like to look at the elegant rooms and amazing artefacts inside the building.
‘I think one of the things we want to get over is the perception that this place is closed,’ says club secretary Nick Fletcher. ‘The effect of a listed building is that you can’t put a big sign up saying we welcome visitors and it can look a bit intimidating. People of course come and look if they want to book a wedding or other event and we welcome new members. But we want to show the wider public what they’ve been missing.’
Members and staff will be on hand to talk about the fascinating contents of what is effectively a museum of naval memorabilia.
Mystery surrounds the cufflinks. Donated to the club by 19th century MP James Mills who received them from an ancestor of a boatswain on board Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, their impressive origins have never been proved.
But considering the illustrious membership and naval connections of the social club and the fascinating artefacts in the rest of the collection, it’s highly likely that they are the real thing.
‘The collection has been donated by various people connected to the club over the centuries,’ says Nick. ‘And considering the kind of members we’ve had it’s hardly surprising that there is some pretty impressive stuff here.’
The organisation has had royalty among its membership and many connections with various monarchs. Within the walls of the club home are a signed photograph of George V and private snaps of the Queen and Princess Margaret as youngsters.
The images show the girls tucked up in blankets with the Queen Mother crouched next to them and playing on board the royal yacht.
‘I doubt these exist anywhere else. This is really a museum, but most of these things have historical value rather than anything else,’ says Nick.
The club’s home is also a big part of Portsmouth’s heritage. Major work in the 1870s amalgamated three buildings – the former premises of the Hampshire Banking Company, the home of the Royal Naval Club (which later united with the Royal Albert Yacht Club) and an inn – and the attractive facade was built.
Now the building, which looks over the Garrison Church and beyond that the Solent and Isle of Wight, has had its first major refurbishment since that time.
‘That was another thing that prompted the open days,’ explains Nick. ‘The building has been under wraps for months, literally. It’s been covered in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Now that’s come off, we want to uncover the many great rooms and artefacts that are inside.’
The major refurbishment and extension has included redecorating the facade, building two penthouses at the top of the building and repairing a leaking roof that was putting the listed structure under threat.
‘It was going to cost £150,000 to repair the roof so we thought very carefully about it,’ says Nick. ‘What we effectively did was sell the air above the building.’
Architects PLC and developer Walthams Ltd took on the project of constructing the apartments and repairing the roof. ‘Everything has been done sensitively and in keeping with the existing facade. We have used specialists and materials that are in keeping with the look of the building,’ says Nick. ‘Really we’ve finished what the Victorians started. And this has safeguarded the fabric of the building and an important part of our heritage. I think that’s the really big win.’
The penthouses don’t come cheap – at between £640,000 and £700,000 – but they are in an enviable position. The properties have views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight and even as far as Chichester, and one of them includes the tower.
This distinctive part of the building was once used by sailors signalling by hoisting flags or using semaphore to the ships anchored at Spithead. ‘They would have been sending and receiving news of who had been promoted and orders for lunch, things like that,’ says Nick.
Unfortunately the tower won’t be accessible to visitors during the open days on November 4, 11 and 18 but the building’s many other luxurious rooms will.
With wonderful views from bay windows, its no wonder the first floor dining room is such a draw. This features ornate naval crested mirrors on the walls, but the object that attracts the most interest is the antique telephone on a mantelpiece. Used to phone orders between the tower and the kitchen, it is thought to be one of the oldest telephones in the area.
A short distance away is the library which has one of the most comprehensive naval collections in the country and houses Navy Lists – publication listing Royal Navy officers including Nelson in the early 19th century editions. The use of the library can be booked as part of Portsmouth Library service.
Surveying the room is a photograph of round-the-world yachtsman Sir Alec Rose, who was commodore of the club – another reminder of the organisation’s illustrious membership.
And downstairs a board, unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2007, honours the members who have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
‘It’s remarkable that an organisation has so many people who have been awarded this highest honour for valour,’ says Nick.
So anyone who treads the halls, dining rooms and bars in November really will be walking in the footsteps of giants.
The Royal Naval Club was formed in 1867 by four naval lieutenants serving on board HMS Bellerophon anchored off Spithead.
The idea was to establish a watering hole and place of relaxation for naval officers who were often a long way from home.
The current club was formed in 1971 when the organisation merged with the Royal Albert Yacht Club.
This was established in 1864 under the patronage of Prince Albert, who was a very keen sailor.
TREASURES AT THE CLUB
Proudly standing in a cabinet full of medals, trophies and memorabilia is an unusual model of a sailor in traditional uniform.
The figure is eyecatching enough but then the visitor learns it was the bonnet ornament on Lord Mountbatten’s car.
There is also a portrait of the Queen’s cousin in the building as Mountbatten, who was killed by an IRA bomb in 1979, was a member of the club.
What looks like an old but ordinary sideboard and cupboard stands in the downstairs bar. This is in fact a fixture of the bank which was bought by the Royal Naval Club in the 19th century. The unit has a sink where Victorian bank clerks would wash their quills.
The building is home to many impressive paintings but two are particularly notable. The large oil paintings by Auguste Ballin depict scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar.
Standing in alcoves are two Japanese boxwood carvings which date back to 1809 and reveal a surprising aspect of the club and navy’s history. The fledgling Japanese navy received training from the British navy at the end of the 19th century and officers stayed at the club.
A wooden weighing seat at the club works by sitting in the seat and adjusting weights. ‘It’s inaccurate of course, especially after Christmas,’ says club secretary Nick Fletcher.
VISIT OR JOIN THE CLUB
It might have been the club of kings but the organisation in Pembroke Street now welcomes members of all backgrounds and ages.
You don’t need to have a naval background or even an interest in sailing to join.
Members use the club facilities as a social venue and can also enjoy the many interest groups and classes that take place there, including music and wine appreciation, bridge and even pilates.
For more information on joining the club or booking the building and services for a wedding or other function, visit rnc-rayc.co. uk
The open days are on November 4, 11 and 18 between 10.30am and 4.30pm.