The Countess Mountbatten and I

CountessMountbattenViâ Twitter I’ve just learned of the death of the Countess Mountbatten at the age of 93. She was the eldest daughter of Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, murdered by the I.R.A. in 1979. She herself was injured at the same time, and one of her sons, her mother-in-law, and another child were killed. Her husband and other son were also injured in the attack.

I contacted the Countess three years to ask her for her help. Her paternal grandfather, who died two and a half years before she was born, was Admiral of the Fleet the Marquess of Milford Haven, First Sea Lord from 1912 to 1914. My research into the Military Branch officers of the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led me to conclude long ago that I had to consult every significant body of naval papers in the U.K. The papers of Milford Haven (until 1917 styled Prince Louis of Battenberg) are in the possession of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton, which institution did not, and still does not, allow the photography of documents—only (in 2014) photocopying. When one is travelling hundreds of miles at great expense to study archival documents time is literally money. The Milford Haven papers are extensive, and to go through them would take time which I simply never have.

To this end, I wrote to the Countess to ask if she could possibly intercede on my behalf with the Hartley Library in order to obtain a special dispensation for me to photograph the Milford Haven material. I realise this was something of a forlorn hope, and also extremely conceited, but one has to try all avenues to emulate what Matthew Seligmann called Arthur Marder—‘a tenacious scholar’. Not too long afterwards I received a handwritten note from the Countess lamenting the fact that I had not included a phone number or an email address with my letter—this from a 90-year old!—and she would be only too happy to try on my behalf when she next saw someone from the University of Southampton, by coincidence not too far away. I was then asked to telephone the Countess by a secretary, who informed me that despite her representations the library would not deviate from its policy. Three years later this is still the case.

Years pass. Last month I visited the University of California, Irvine, to consult the papers of the afore-mentioned Arthur Marder, courtesy of a generous grant from the Society for Nautical Research. At the fantastic special collections there (photography allowed, staff extremely helpful) I discovered a large tranche of photocopies from the Milford Haven Papers, along with a covering letter from an archivist at the Earl Mountbatten’s home, Broadlands, which reveals that the Milford Haven papers had been discovered in four boxes in 1968, two each found in a separate cellar. I took 320 photographs of this material—under the current Hartley Library regime I would have have had to pay 50p a scan, by the staff, which translates to £160. Photocopying, by the staff, is charged at a rate of 50p a page up to 50 pages.

It had been my intention to write to the Countess and inform her about my good fortune in finding this alternative source for her grandfather’s papers, and also to update her about the state of my research, which she had been kind enough to wish me the best of luck with. When I spoke to her three years ago this month I had had nothing published. In the past year I have had four pieces appear in print, and will be presenting a paper at the United States Naval Academy in September, which will have benefited from insight I have gained from the Milford Haven material. I kept putting off writing to her, a prevarication I completely despise myself for. As long as I research naval history this failure will haunt me, and quite rightly.