History under the microscope.

A while ago, Matt Williams, who is the Collections Manager at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, organised a special exhibition in which members were invited to ‘bid’ for selected items from the Institution’s incredibly diverse collection and explore them further.

I was lucky enough to be able to explore the story behind a tiny glass vial of liquid with a faded label and what looks like a wax-sealed top.

The tiny vial of liquid with a big story.

The writing is faint but you can still read ‘Part of the liquor in which the body of Lord Nelson was preserved after the Battle of Trafalgar.’

Fake or genuine – this little object was entered in the Institution’s donations book for 1862.

It had been brought in by a Mr Josiah Cook who l discovered had been ‘man servant’ to a retired naval officer – called Captain Thomas Pickering Clarke of Perrymead in Bath – who had just died.

Born in London in 1787, this man had moved to Bath around 1806 and raised eight children – one year after the Battle of Trafalgar in which Nelson has been mortally wounded during the last and biggest sea engagement to be fought between wooden sailing ships.

Nelson gave Britain mastery of the oceans after routing a combined French and Spanish fleet but at the cost of both his and thousands of other seamen’s lives on both sides.

Lord Nelson

Captain Pickering was not at Trafalgar though – as a 17-year-old Lieutenant – he did witness the return of the battered flagship Victory – bearing the body of Lord Nelson which had been pickled in a barrel of brandy to preserve it for a 44-day-long journey home.

Nelson rests in St Pauls – Thomas Clarke Pickering in a Widcombe church – but how did the Captain come by the tiny bottle?

Seems he was friendly with the Victory’s signal officer John Pasco – he who hoisted the famous ‘England expects’ message. Had he siphoned off some brandy to give him when the body was transferred to its coffin?

No one l have spoken to since – either writers of Nelson biographies or naval warfare experts – have come across another object like this. Is it genuine and unique?

That question bothered me still and, when the opportunity came up to have the vial examined under a powerful laser microscope in the Physics Department at the University of Bath, l couldn’t resist badgering Matt to bring it up to Claverton Down to see if science could come up with any more clues.

L to R. Matt Williams, Collections Manager at BRLSI meeting Professor Daniel Wolverson at the University of Bath.

Professor Daniel Wolverson was kind enough to spend more than an hour examining this precious artefact but the results were inconclusive, as he explained.

So, the bottle could contain alcohol and the glass itself is of the period, but that’s all we know without breaking the seal and analysing the contents. That would never do as it would destroy the object.

Our little elusive mystery remains, but what a big story for such a little object.