Trafalgar Flags at Risk

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    Tony Beales

    Members will be concerned to know that the church of St Mary the Virgin, Selling, in Kent, is proposing to ‘dispose’ of the Minotaur‘s Union Flag from the Battle of Trafalgar. If this goes up for auction, it is almost inevitable that it will go to an overseas private buyer as did the Spartiate‘s flag.
    As far as I know, this is the only Union flag from Trafalgar remaining in Britain. A flag from the captured Neptuno is also up for disposal.
    The disposal is opposed by the Hilton family, who donated or loaned the flags to the church, and the disposal runs completely contrary to every aspect of the Church of England’s own policy.
    The Nelson Society has made an objection, but anybody who is concerned about this should make their individual concerns or objections known.
    When the Minotaur returned to Britain a year after Trafalgar, Master’s Mate Stephen Hilton took home with him the Minotaur‘s Union Flag flown at the battle, and also a flag believed to be from the captured Neptuno which struck to the Minotaur and was taken in tow.
    The cable broke during the storm, and the Neptuno was later retaken by her Spanish crew, but was wrecked outside Cadiz. Most of the prize crew [aboard] from the Minotaur survived, were taken prisoner by the Spanish and exchanged at Gibraltar shortly afterwards. The flag [taken] from the Neptuno is actually an Austrian ensign rather than a Spanish ensign, and my theory is that Stephen Hilton grabbed the wrong flag from a flag locker, as the colours are similar.
    The Hilton family have long lived at Selling in Kent, and the family later gave or loaned the flags to the parish church. Either way, the intention was clearly that the flags should be on display in the church, where there is a Hilton Chapel with memorials and furnishings provided by the family. The flags are an integral part of the history and heritage of the church, the parish, the Hilton family and the people of Selling. They are of course also a national treasure.
    The situation is a bit confused, but I have put together a set of information including background information, photos, newspaper story (including Hilton family opposition), a plea from the Society of Antiquaries, contact details for objections, guidance on church policy on disposal of ‘treasures’, and the public notice of the application for the ‘disposal’.
    This information can be viewed at
    The deadline for the receipt of objections is [Thursday] 15 September, so anyone wishing to object [to the disposal of this important Trafalgar flag] needs to act very fast indeed.


    I am astonished that this very important flag, perhaps the last of its type from Trafalgar remaining in this country, should be at risk of disposal. No matter what the financial position may be of the church which has responsibility for this artefact, disposal of such an object – whether loaned or donated – is inexcusable.
    Appended below is the note in the Society of Antiquaries’ current newsletter SALON which Tony mentioned in his important Topic.
    If you feel disturbed by the impending public sale of this important relic from Trafalgar, please make your feelings known before Thursday 15 September 2011 in writing, citing ‘Ref. 2062’, to:
    The Registrar, Minerva House, 5 Montague Close, London SE1 9BB

    Plea to oppose faculty application for the disposal of two Trafalgar flags
    Another cause of considerable concern to Fellows is the increasing number of Church of England parishes seeking to sell their cultural treasures. The most recent example is the application made by St Mary the Virgin, Selling, in Kent (located some four miles south east of Faversham), for a faculty allowing it to ‘dispose of two flags’.
    The flags in question are rather important survivals from the Battle of Trafalgar that have been in Selling village since at least 1828. They were acquired by Stephen Hilton, a young Master’s Mate who served in HMS Minotaur, at the Battle of Trafalgar. One is a Union Flag [worn by HMS Minatour herself], while the other one is traditionally held to have been flown by a Spanish ship, the Neptuno.
    Hilton was one of three brothers who served at Trafalgar. Born in Selling, he retired from the Royal Navy in about 1828 to what became known as Trafalgar House, Selling, where he died in 1872. Some sixty years later, in 1930, the flags were presented to the church by members of the Hilton family who also obtained a faculty to refurbish the south transept as a Hilton Chapel, ‘with holy table, cross, candlesticks, curtains, kneelers, rails and chairs’ and memorials to various members of the family in the form of wall tablets and stained glass. There the flags hung until 1994, when they were taken down and sent to a textile restorer where they are believed to remain to this day.
    [SAL] Fellow John Owen says that the sale faculty should be opposed for a number of reasons. The flags are an integral and original part of the Hilton Chapel and just as much integral to the furnishing as the fittings, the monuments and the stained-glass memorial windows. The flags are part of the continuity of three centuries’ connection of the Hilton family with this area of the church, and their removal materially affects the character of the chapel and the listed church of which it is part. The Hilton family, who gave and have protected the flags, oppose their disposal.
    Selling PCC has produced no reason for disposing of them, no report on their condition, no ‘Statement of Significance’, no ‘Statement of Needs’ to explain why it is considered necessary to dispose of the flags. Selling Church has the space in which to reinstate them and they are physically capable of being restored and conserved in situ.
    Campaigners seeking to prevent their sale are asking those who share their concerns to write setting out their objections by 15 September 2011 to The Registrar, Minerva House, 5 Montague Close, London SE1 9BB, citing ‘Ref. 2062’.

    Justin Reay FSA FRHistS

    Frank Scott

    It seems that the dear old C of E has now woken up to the importance of these artefacts and to the relevance of its own rules. I received the following response to my electronic letter of objection:
    ‘To date, no formal application (Petition for Faculty) has been received from the above church [Selling, Kent] to carry out the proposed works. If and when we do receive one, the Diocesan Registrar will write to you to explain about the ways in which you may pursue your objection.’

    Tony Beales

    I know of someone else who received the same message from Mr Kevin Sims, Diocesan Registrar Administrator that Frank notes in his previous post. However I have received from Mr Sims himself a copy of the public notice of the church’s application for faculty. This was accompanied by some play on words that he could not guarantee that it was the actual notice displayed in the church, which would be received at the end of the 31 day period on 15 September.
    All this is as clear as mud, but I have had confirmation direct from the Registrar himself, Mr Owen Carew-Jones, that quote:
    ‘objections to the public notice should be sent to me, within the time period specified on the notice.’

    The Registrar’s own email address is, so I would use that if you haven’t already. His direct telephone number is 020 7593 5034.
    There is lso a general registry fax number 020 7593 0314, but heaven knows what will happen if you use that!
    I am still composing my objection, having spent most of my time raising awareness of the issue. The information I posted on the URL listed in my first post has now received over 1500 views thanks to a little ‘tweeting’.
    I do have a copy of a conservation report on the flags from 2007 if anyone feels there may be information of specific use to them. If so, do please email me. The estimated cost of the conservation work required was then less than £5,000 per flag.
    The application to ‘dispose’ of the flags could mean selling them, or it could mean donating them, but permission would allow their sale, and without any information or assurances, it should therefore be opposed.
    My interpretation of the issues facing the church are:
    1) Security of the flags;
    2) Cost of conservation work;
    3) Space to display them, given they now need to be put into wall cabinets.
    None of these issues justify permanent ‘disposal’. If, after a proper investigation into the issues, they really cannot remain in the church, the next option would be a loan to a local museum where they could be on permanent display and not lost to the Hilton family and the people of Selling.


    In checking – as Forum Editor – the contacts cited by Tony for objections to potential applications to dispose of the Selling Trafalgar flags, I spoke to the Diocesan Registrar, Mr Owen Carew-Jones. He was guarded but helpful and gave me two points of advice which are crucial to any objection.
    Objections may be sent by email to him at: but must include a land address for the objector; otherwise it will not be included in those considered by the Board.
    The objector must state their relevant status for raising an objection. The usual status required for the Board to consider objections in such cases are that the objection is from an organisation or individual with an interest in the relevant artefact, or from individuals with the following status:
    1. membership of the Parish Council for the parish concerned;
    2. residency in the parish concerned;
    3. membership of a learned Society or other direct involvement in relevant bodies.
    I raised with the Registrar my status as a university naval history tutor and fellow of two relevant learned societies, which he thought was appropriate.
    Mr Carew-Jones informed me that no application from Selling Church had been tabled but if it were, all people raising objections by the deadline of 15 September and fulfilling the requirements listed above, will be written to by the Board in due course.

    Tony Beales

    Justin, I am enormously grateful for that vital information you have obtained for us.
    I am still working on my objection letter as I am still receiving new information, new contacts, and new advice, and tomorrow hope to speak to a member of the Hilton family. I am wording my objection letter so that it takes into account Church of England guidelines on the disposal of historic treasures.
    If a copy of my letter would be useful to anyone, I would be happy to provide it as soon as it is nearing completion. Please email me if of interest.

    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.

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