Colin White


The following obituary first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 19 January 2009.

Naval historian who became a leading authority on Nelson

Colin White TelegraphColin White, who has died aged 57, was the Nelson scholar responsible for successfully co-ordinating the national and international celebrations marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005. Such was his reputation as an academic and love of his subject that he was once called the admiral's "representative on earth".

Although he spent most of his working life at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, he was temporarily lent in 2000 to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which he described as "this great, national institution". His sojourn at Greenwich was carefully planned to equip him to become director of the Royal Naval Museum in 2006.

He did much to broaden public understanding of the great admiral's life. Few who heard his after-dinner speeches, always delivered without notes, will forget his mastery of detail and ability to conjure up an atmosphere for his audience. These seemed all the more remarkable for him being severely deaf.

White was a member of the Society of Antiquaries and vice-president of the 1805 Club. He was thrilled to be recognised for his scholarship by the University of Portsmouth, first with an honorary doctorate, and then, in 2007, by his appointment as visiting professor in maritime history. He was further delighted the following year to be appointed an honorary captain in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Colin Saunders White was born on August 28 1951 at Bromley, Kent, and educated at Culford School, Bury St Edmunds. His passion for Nelson was kindled by a schoolboy visit to the flagship Victory at Portsmouth. Young Colin named his first dinghy on the Walton backwaters Pickle after a small schooner in Nelson's fleet, and thereafter pursued his subject single-mindedly. He read History at Southampton and then war studies at King's College, London, where he wrote a thesis on the Victorian Navy.

In 1975 he joined the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, as a research assistant with the task of cataloguing the diverse collection of Captain Kenneth Douglas-Morris. He rose through every rank of curatorship until 1995, when he was appointed deputy director and head of museum services, with special responsibility for an ambitious development plan.

His books included The End of the Sailing Navy (1981); The Nelson Companion (1995); 1797: Nelson's Year of Destiny (1998); The Nelson Encyclopaedia (2002); Nelson: the Admiral (2005); and Nelson: the New Letters (2006), which included some 1,200 new discoveries from Britain, America, Denmark and Italy. In 2006 he was awarded the distinguished book prize by the Society for Military History and also the Desmond Wettern Media Award, named after The Daily Telegraph's naval correspondent, "for being the most visible spokesman of Britain's maritime interests".

White firmly believed original sources still had much to offer to make Nelson's story vital to generations coming to him for the first time.

A cineaste and keen thespian, who acted and directed productions for the Southsea Shakespeare Players, he brought his love of the theatrical to the recreation of Victory's gundeck at the entrance to the museum's Nelson gallery.

A committed member of the congregation of Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral, he had a strong love of classical music, particularly Haydn and Mozart; he was also greatly attached to his beach hut on Hayling Island.

Colin White tolerated with humour the attempts of the well-meaning lady friends of the museum to marry him off, but he died, unmarried, on Christmas Night.

The following obituary, by Pieter van der Merwe, first appeared in the Independent on 12 January 2009.

Nelson historian who steered the Trafalgar bicentenary and became Director of the Royal Naval Museum. White's identification with Nelson was so close that the historian Andrew Roberts called him the admiral's "representative on earth".

Colin White IndependentColin White, Director of the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth since June 2006, came to wider public prominence as – almost literally – the leading actor in the Trafalgar bicentenary events of 2005 and their four previous years of preparation.

White's identification with Nelson was by then so close that when his most important book, Nelson – The New Letters, came out that spring, the historian Andrew Roberts, in reviewing it, called him the admiral's "representative on earth". White treasured the compliment, not least as one to trail facetiously before friends with humorous aplomb.

Roberts struck near the mark, however; for while Nelson would have found room to spare within White's solid frame, there were similarities between the admiral and the historian. Both were essentially straightforward, inclusive personalities, and charismatic communicators to many types of audience. Each too was sustained by a strong Christian faith, which helped them meet premature deaths at the height of their careers.

Colin White was born in 1951, the elder of two sons of a chartered electrical engineer and a former Wren. The family moved from Beckenham, south London, to Frinton on the Essex coast, where their father taught the boys to sail. The Nelsonic names of the boys' dinghy, Pickle, and Emma, the motorlaunch for parental oversight, showed the effect of a family visit to HMS Victory at Portsmouth. With early life centring round the Church, and with a taste for acting (later satisfied by long amateur commitment to the Southsea Shakespeare Actors), White briefly considered both as a career.

Instead, encouragement in history at Culford School, Suffolk, led him to take a degree in the subject from Southampton University in 1974. He also said that Nelson and his World (1968) by Tom Pocock – later a friend and Nelson ally – had a formative influence, and he went on to an MA in War Studies at King's College, London, before joining the Royal Naval Museum (RNM) at Portsmouth as a Research Assistant in 1975.

His first responsibility was for the museum's Victorian holdings and his flair for display was soon evident in two exhibitions: Jack of All Trades (on the Navy from 1793 to 1973) and The End of the Sailing Navy. He also had much to do with the late-1970s display of the great naval medals collection of Kenneth Douglas-Morris, an RNM Trustee who further encouraged him: 500 were eventually presented to the museum in 2003.

White's first books (1981 and 1983) were a well-illustrated pair on the Victorian naval transition from sail to steam. Just before the second appeared, he became the RNM's chief curator and head of display, leading a revitalisation of its main galleries and, from 1989, helping create its Emery-Wallis Memorial Library. This commemorated the leader of Hampshire County Council, a body whose support in the early 1990s led to a £6.5m redevelopment plan for buildings and important new Nelson-related displays, which won early Lottery funding, in 1995. As Deputy Director from 1996, White was largely responsible for overseeing the project's successful completion in 1999.

At the same time he became well known as a Nelson authority, publishing the best-selling Nelson Companion (1995) and 1797 – Nelson's Year of Destiny (1998), and beginning his very useful Nelson Encyclopedia (2002). This was matched by a growing reputation as a speaker at home and abroad, including America and Australia, where he had a brief secondment at the Australian National Maritime Museum, in Sydney.

In 1999, backed by the RNM and the National Maritime Museum (NMM) at Greenwich, White began his most important scholarly project: to publish all Nelson's so-far unprinted letters by the time of the Trafalgar bicentenary. Despite doubts that many existed (most being in print since the 1840s) he found over 1,300 – a fifth more than already known – though the New Letters could in the event include only 507. Cast, in effect, as a well-edited and widely readable Nelson "autobiography", it was one of few major additions to the field in a year afloat with them (including his own Nelson – The Admiral).

The book won him the Distinguished Book Prize of the Society for Military History in 2006, when he added election to Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society to his vice-presidency of the Navy Records Society, Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries (2003) and an honorary doctorate from Portsmouth University (2004). A visiting professorship at Portsmouth followed in 2007.

In 2000 White became chairman of the official co-ordinating committee for the Trafalgar bicentenary, but it was soon apparent this could not succeed nationally without wider appeal than naval historians could provide: it also needed a Nelson champion capable of enthusing a non-specialist public.

The result was SeaBritain 2005, a campaign "reconnecting Britain and the sea" led by the NMM in collaboration with VisitBritain and many other partners, and with the Trafalgar Festival as what White called its "beating heart". In 2001 he was seconded to Greenwich as "Director, Trafalgar 200" and over the next four years literally became Nelson's national representative, putting immense energy into helping plan and realise events at home and abroad. He travelled thousands of miles and fulfilled hundreds of speaking engagements, more than 100 in 2005 alone, delighting very varied audiences with his gift for concise, dramatic story-telling.

Occasions ranged from local events to lectures on cruises, specialist talks and papers, media interviews and a memorable toast to the Trafalgar heroes of all nations, at the anniversary dinner in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, attended by the Duke of York. White ruefully observed, watching his growing waistline, that "feeding to death" was a distinct bicentennial risk, but he survived, slimmed (a little) and received the Desmond Wettern Media Award of the Maritime Foundation as "the most visible spokesman of Britain's maritime interests in 2005". The Longmans-History Today Trustees Award followed in 2006. Even more treasured – not least for the elegant naval uniform that came with it – was his appointment as an Honorary Captain RNR.

White was frank that without his experience as right man in the right place for the Trafalgar bicentenary he would probably not have won the museum job he most wanted, Director at Portsmouth, in 2006. His success was welcomed by colleagues there and elsewhere, and he threw himself into planning the museum's next capital phase. Sadly, in changing times, this did not gain essential Lottery support and he was regrouping with an eye on its centenary in 2011 (and his next book, on Nelson's funeral) when a kidney had to be removed in August following diagnosis of cancer. By November he was re-engaging and made a speaking visit to America.

Colin White was generous-spirited, warmly sociable and, though sharp-witted, devoid of malice: what you saw was what you got. That he could "fill a hall" – and , in fairness, on more than the subject for which he was best known – owed much to his inborn streak of Vincent Crummles. His death (to adapt Johnson on Garrick) certainly eclipses Britain's gaiety as a maritime nation, and diminishes the pleasure of all those inspired by his vivid ability to re-evoke the immediacy of Nelson and his age.

Colin Saunders White, naval historian and curator: born Bromley, Kent 28 August 1951; Assistant Curator, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth 1975-82, Chief Curator 1982-96, Deputy D irector and Head of Museum Services 1996-2001, Director 2006-08; Director, Trafalgar 200, National Maritime Museum 2001-06; Chairman, Official Nelson Commemorations Committee 2001-06; died Portsmouth, Hampshire 25 December 2008.

The following obituary was fist publsihed in The Times on 2 January 2009.

Colin White: historian and director of the Royal Naval Museum: White traced 1,400 unpublished Nelson letters from around the world and was one of the country’s leading experts on the life and achievements of Britain’s greatest admiral, Horatio Nelson.

Colin White TimesThe field of Nelson hagiographies is crowded. There are more than 100 biographies, the first appearing in 1801, but it is only comparatively recently that historians have incorporated proper references and footnotes, cataloguing their primary sources and carefully selecting secondary sources for their accuracy. Of White’s several publications, two major works stand out, both based on original research. They are Nelson — The Admiral and Nelson — The New Letters.

He led the Nelson Letters Project, set up in 1999 by the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, which found, to the surprise of many, more than 1,400 unpublished letters from 33 locations around the world. Some emerged from the archives of Nelson’s contemporaries. One fifth of the “pressed letters” from 1803-05 and held in books by the British Library had never been published, even in the magisterial seven-volume collection by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas of 1846. Pressed letters are copies made using an early method in which moistened tissue paper was pressed by a special machine to the ink of the original and read from the back. White also drew on personal, intimate and detailed orders to his captains, found in three scruffy working books and covering most of his campaigns, that were previously ignored by editors.

Much is private, was secret or fills inexplicable gaps. White was the first to admit that the new material did not challenge the existing view of Nelson’s style of leadership, but, he said, it “does enable us, as it were, to watch over Nelson’s shoulder at critical moments in his career in a sustained and detailed manner not possible before. Suddenly the ‘Nelson touch’ springs to life and we can get a sense of what it was like to be present at one of
Nelson’s briefings and share his thoughts. And to admire afresh Nelson’s urgency, humanity, wisdom and skill.”

Colin Saunders White was born in 1951. He was educated at Southampton University and obtained an MA in war studies at King’s College London. He worked at the Royal Naval Museum from 1975, becoming in 1995 deputy director and head of museum services. His The Nelson Companion (1995) is a bestseller in its third edition.

For the bicentenary of the 1805 battle of Trafalgar, White was appointed chairman of the Official Nelson Celebrations Committee charged with co-ordinating the Trafalgar Festival, and for this he was presented in 2006 the Longmans History Today Trustees Award. In 2001 he was seconded to the National Maritime Museum as director of its 2005 initiatives including an exhibition, Nelson and Napoleon, publications and special events.

The Desmond Wettern Media Award “for being the most visible spokesman of Britain’s maritime interests” followed his remarkable tally of some 300 public lectures that he gave during 2005. In 2006 White was awarded the Distinguished Book Prize by the Society for Military History for Nelson — the New Letters.

A man of deep Christian faith, great personal warmth and humour, his brilliant public speaking, aided by his penchant for amateur theatricals, created a memorable tour de force before royalty and the assembled grandees of the maritime world at the 2005 Trafalgar Night dinner in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

He is probably the only person with the distinction of having been promoted from ordinary seaman RNR to hon. captain RNR, in one step. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries and was vice-president of the Navy Records Society. He was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of Portsmouth and was its visiting professor in maritime history.

He was appointed director of the Royal Naval Museum in June 2006.

The following obituray first appeared in The Guardian on 27 February 2009.

Colin Saunders White: naval historian, foremost authority on Nelson and director of the Royal Naval Museum (born 28 August 1951; died 25 December 2008, aged 57)

The Royal Navy paid a rare tribute last month when the signal went out that all ships in Portsmouth harbour - including Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory - were to lower their ensigns to half-mast to mark the funeral of the historian and curator Colin White, who has died aged 57. The navy was mourning the loss of a highly respected scholar, once dubbed Nelson's "representative on earth", and the man who led the 2005 Trafalgar bicentenary celebrations with characteristic dash and good-natured aplomb.

The parallels between White and his hero were striking. Both were charismatic leaders, both understood the need to communicate ideas plainly, both worked with inspirational zeal and both shared a profound Christian faith that was to see them meet untimely deaths with strength and equanimity. When diagnosed with cancer, White quietly laid aside work on his latest book tracing Nelson's funeral to make preparations for his own.

His fascination with the navy began on a childhood visit to HMS Victory, which set him on a course that would see him become director of the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, a visiting professor at the city's university and an honorary captain in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Born in Bromley, Kent, Colin was the elder son of an electrical engineer and a former Wren, who brought their children up in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex. Fired by his new interest in Nelson, the young White named their first dinghy Pickle, after the schooner that raced to England with the news of Trafalgar, and chose Emma for their accompanying motor launch.

He was educated at Culford school, Bury St Edmunds, where his interest in history burgeoned, and where he discovered a passion for the stage. He had a prodigious memory, giving him the ability to retain anything from major roles in productions with the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, which he also directed, to entire acts of the Savoy operas. That talent to amuse carried through to his career, where he enjoyed a brilliant reputation as a fluent and persuasive lecturer, broadcaster and after-dinner speaker, despite a continual battle against deafness and asthma.

After graduating in history at Southampton University in 1974, he took an MA in war studies at King's College London, before starting as a research assistant at the Royal Naval Museum in 1975. His first books sprang directly from his curatorship of two exhibitions: Jack of All Trades, which marked the place of the common sailor in the affections of the British public, and The End of the Sailing Navy, a record of the fleet's transition to steam.

In 1983, he assumed the role of chief curator and head of display at the museum. Increased public funding allowed the redevelopment of adjacent dockyard buildings. Lottery funding followed and three years after White's appointment as deputy director in 1996, the museum celebrated the completion of its expansion.

White was establishing himself as a leading Nelsonian, publishing The Nelson Companion (1995), 1797 - Nelson's Year of Destiny (1998), The Nelson Encyclopedia (2002) and Nelson: The Admiral (2005). But it was his vast project to collect the admiral's unpublished letters that made his name. With the encouragement of the Royal Naval Museum and the National Maritime Museum, White found 1,300 examples. On one search, he came across notes in Nelson's hand and, turning them over, discovered a rough sketch. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck as he recognised it as the battle plan for Trafalgar.

Nelson: The New Letters (2005) was greeted with acclaim, winning the distinguished book prize of the Society for Military History in 2006 and - according to the historian Andrew Roberts - confirming his status as Nelson's "representative on earth". By then, he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, vice-president of the Navy Records Society, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and granted an honorary doctorate by Portsmouth University, which in 2007 made him a visiting professor.

But the tribute he most treasured was to be made an honorary captain in the Royal Naval Reserve, laughing that he was the only able seaman in the RNR to jump to four rings on his sleeve in one promotion. The navy handed him this rare distinction in recognition of his tireless work as director of Trafalgar 200, which saw him spend four years as Nelson's ambassador, travelling the world organising events, lecturing and giving interviews. In 2005 alone, he undertook 100 speaking engagements.

His talks were always entertaining, informative and imaginative. He chose, for instance, to launch Trafalgar 200 at the hatters Lock of St James's, where, with admirable equanimity, hats were made for both Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte. Standing next to Anna Tribe, Nelson's great-great-great granddaughter, White held one of the admiral's hats and revealed that Lock's had fitted it with a retractable eyeshade, probable cause of the myth - repeated on countless Toby jugs - that Nelson wore an eyepatch.

White was highly adept at playing the media, dropping a juicy little fact into an apparently off-the-cuff speech that would whet the appetite of any journalist in the room and ensure a breezy piece on Nelson in the papers the following day. He won the Desmond Wettern media award of the Maritime Foundation as "the most visible spokesman of Britain's maritime interests" in 2005.

His leadership of the Trafalgar celebrations had seen him transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich but, in 2006, he was recalled to Portsmouth to the job he was born for - director of the Royal Naval Museum. His appointment delighted his colleagues and, with characteristic energy, he set about planning the museum's centenary in 2011. Last summer, cancer was diagnosed and a kidney removed. He made a recovery and returned to work, but the cancer re-emerged.

Anyone who shared a conversation with White came away feeling special - his own "Nelson touch". Delighting in his subject and revelling in his role as an evangelist for history, he was the antithesis of the dry academic. Gales of laughter accompanied any social occasion and he rejoiced in simple pleasures - swimming in the sea, singing hymns, and watching the sun go down with a glass of wine among friends. His warm-hearted generosity of spirit was allied to a lightly worn but formidable intellect.