Reply To: Trafalgar Flags at Risk

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Tony Beales

    Those who wrote letters of objection or comment to the Canterbury Diocesan Registrar will now have received the details of the church’s revised plans.
    A couple of months ago we were all relieved to hear that the church was not intending to sell the flags on the open market, and had been in negotiations with the National Maritime Museum. However, this left open a number of issues:
    • That the church had been secretly negotiating with the NMM without consulting the Hilton family (the church’s discussions with the NMM had taken place over the two preceding years);
    • Whether the church was entitled to dispose of the flags without the agreement of the Hilton family;
    • Whether there had been proper investigation into the possibility of retaining the flags in the church or in the closer vicinity of Selling;
    • Whether it would be right for the church to receive a financial return (especially from a public-funded body) from the sale of the flags – clearly not something envisaged by the original donor.

    At the time the church announced it was in negotiations with the NMM, it was the Hilton family’s wishes that ideally the flags should be replaced in the church if this were possible. As the church had embarked on the legal process to dispose of the flags without consulting the Hilton family, and as this process was apparently continuing despite the family’s concerns, the Hilton family were initially forced to oppose the transfer to the NMM while they investigated the practicalities of the flags being displayed in the church. During the last couple of months, the Hilton family have concluded that it would be difficult to overcome the security and environmental problems of displaying the flags in the church, and there have also been direct discussions between the NMM and the family which then led to further discussions between the family and the vicar. I am pleased to report that as a result of all this, there is now agreement on the way forward, and the Hilton family now support the revised plan for transfer of flags to the NMM, where they would be displayed in the forthcoming permanent gallery, ‘Nelson, Navy and Nation’.
    The revised proposals now take into account the concerns of the Hilton family, and the points raised by the various societies and many individuals who commented on the proposed disposal.
    Under the new proposals, the proceeds from the sale of the flags to the NMM will go to a trust fund whose trustees would be the Vicar of Selling, a churchwarden and a member of the Hilton family. This trust fund would then provide for:
    • Continuation of the Hilton legacy in the church through the display of replica flags, and exhibiting the story of the Flags, Trafalgar and the Hiltons;
    • Adapting and enhancing the Hilton Chapel for this purpose;
    • Help local children visit the Flags at Greenwich;
    • Support relevant and appropriate research projects.

    I am personally very pleased there is now an agreed way forward and I support the revised proposals. I do, however, remain shocked at the tortuous route by which agreement has been reached!
    The one thing that I do believe is missing from the proposals is a firm commitment from the NMM for the long term display of the flags. The NMM have said they would be unable to commit to permanent display of the flags for the technical reason that the flags would need to be removed from display for periods of ‘rest’, as well as for conservation work. However, I believe transfer of ownership to the NMM should be made conditional on the frequent and regular public display of the flags.
    While there is no doubt over the NMM’s present intentions, it is not difficult to envisage a time in the distant future when a change in fashion on the portrayal of British naval history results in the flags permanently disappearing into a dark vault.