Original Napoleonic-Era British Naval Orders Chest from HMS Eagle

Item Description

Original Item: Only One Available. This British orders chest was obtained from a private collection of Napoleonic era naval equipment. The chest is strongly constructed of wood and brass and measures 15.6 inches (39.7 cm) wide, 11.5 inches (29 cm) deep, and 9.6 inches (24.5 cm) high. At some point in its history, it looks like an inkbottle was tipped over and blackened some of the lid and the back. Old sealing wax is spotted around the lid and back, also, testifying graphically to the chest’s original function.

An orders chest was a necessary item of equipment on every warship, as it was a common practice—in fact, it still is—for a commander to receive sealed orders to be opened only when the ship was at sea. The orders chest was the secure storage for such sailing orders.

Two brass corner braces bind each of the four corners, beautifully inlet into the wood. This would be overkill for such a chest used on land, but considering the violent motions of a wooden sailing ship, such stout construction would be a necessity. An additional provision for rough usage was a pair of brass studs placed along the top edge of the box to keep the lid aligned when it is closed. The studs project into recesses in the underside of the lid. One of these studs is still present, while one is missing.

The front of the chest is decorated with a 2.5-inch (6.4 cm) brass anchor entwined with its cable. Above the anchor is a small brass plate engraved HMS EAGLE. Directly above this is the lock for the lid. Amazingly, the key is still present. One feature of the chest that remains a mystery is the presence of two inset hinges between the bottom plate and the front panel. At this time, the bottom is securely screwed to the four sides, but perhaps this was not always so.

The ship from which this chest came, HMS Eagle, had an illustrious and exciting career. A description of its exploits reads like one of Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels about Captain Jack Aubrey, such as Master and Commander. The Eagle was completed in 1804 while the Napoleonic wars were raging throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. We’ve provided below a link to one of the Web sites that tells the Eagle’s story, but here is a sample:

Following information that the enemy was sending three vessels, loaded with powder, along the coast of Istria EAGLE and ELIZABETH went in search of them. On 8 June they were found at Omago and the marines from the two ships first drove about 100 soldiers out of the town before the seamen under Lieuts. GREENAWAY and HOTHAM of EAGLE and ROBERTS and BENNETT of ELIZABETH destroyed a 2-gun battery and brought off two boats laden with wine.

How can one not love such a tale? Three officers and a bunch of Royal Marines set out to capture three ships carrying gunpowder and instead come back with two ships loaded with wine! They certainly had their priorities right.

The Eagle went on to have an extraordinarily long career after the Napoleonic Wars were over, continuing in service until 1926, when a fire destroyed her. Altogether, she served for 122 years.

With this Orders Chest, IMA is including a full set of the material we accumulated in the course of researching it. This link is to the HMS Eagle page of Michael Phillips’ Ships of the Old Navy:


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