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Rare letters and papers reveal the real man behind the popular hero of Waterloo

Published: 3 October 2008

Papers from the first Duke of Wellington's archive, which throw light on the character of the popular hero of the Battle of Waterloo and the changing times he lived in, are showcased in a fascinating new exhibition this month.

Items on show include despatches from the battlefield drafted in the Duke's own hand through to reports of cabinet. The draft of a parliamentary speech by Wellington on the state of British agriculture, trade and finance is also featured, along with a patronage book - the only one for Wellington as Prime Minister - which records 298 applications for patronage and shows that very few, despite recommending themselves, received anything at all.

All the rare papers form part of the exceptional Wellington archive at the University of Southampton. The collection numbers around 100,000 items of official, diplomatic, military and political correspondence charting the high-flying career of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, from 1790 until his death in 1852.

'Wellington and his papers' celebrates twenty-five years since the University was allocated the archive under national heritage legislation in 1983: it was the first major manuscript collection to be acquired by the University Library.

The scope of the archive reflects Wellington's career from his first military commission and the Waterloo campaign in 1815 which made him a national hero to his political career. He served as Prime Minister in 1828-30 and in 1834 and he was also Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary.

Five themes are explored in the exhibition including Wellington's earliest papers; writing practices, technologies and materials, and papers as Prime Minister.

One exhibit is a list of people invited to dinner on Saturday 12 August of an unspecified year - although it must have been either 1843 or 1848 - to meet the King of Hanover. The paper is one of several similar lists which have a hole where they were 'spiked' once the task was completed. These papers come from a collection saved by one of the Duke's servants, Christopher Collins.

Between 1820 and 1852 Wellington was Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire and the letters from this period give a fascinating insight into local history. The Swing riots of 1830, when rural unrest was caused by agricultural labourers, are highlighted in a letter from William Heathcote of Hursley Park. Dated 20 November 1830, he outlines details of disturbances near Winchester:

'During the whole day large bodies of men have been collecting in the neighbouring villages, breaking machines, demanding money, and compelling the farmers to agree to their terms to wages. They are armed with bludgeons, sledge hammers, crow bars etc but I have not heard of any firearms among them. They have showed an intention of attacking the county prisons at Winchester.'

The fictitious Captain Swing also expressed general discontent with the Wellington government and lack of progress with the popular cause of reform. A letter from Captain Swing to Wellington, dated 4 November 1830, reads:

'Sir. Your base vile conduct to and treatment of your fellow subjects, your determination to turn a deaf ear to their remonstrances, has made you an object of popular vengeance and of popular hatred. Take my advice, act openly and nobly as becomes a Briton: reform that vile nest of corruption which is bred in Downing Street, destroy those vultures that prey on the public liver or beware! I say beware! Beware! Beware! Yours, Swing.'

Professor Chris Woolgar, Head of Special Collections, explains: "The collection is exceptional among the papers of 19th-century figures for its size and scope. This is partly because it comes from the great age of government by correspondence.

"Also, because of his status as a popular hero, a vast range of people wrote to Wellington on a wide range of subjects, offering him their views on things military and the causes they wished to promote - even the opportunity to be godfather to their children or to have them named after him! His correspondence was a major part of his daily life."

The University has close links to the Dukes of Wellington: in the 1920s, the fourth Duke was a leader of the campaign for a university for Wessex, and the seventh Duke was the first Chancellor of the newly created University of Southampton. The Wellington archive complements collections of pamphlets and parliamentary material held in the University Library.

'Wellington and his papers' is on show in the Special Collections Gallery in the Hartley Library on the University of Southampton's Highfield campus from Monday 13 October until Friday 5 December 2008. The Gallery is open Monday to Friday between 10am and 4pm.

The exhibition complements this year's 20th Wellington Lecture 'In the footsteps of Wellington' presented by military historian and broadcaster Professor Richard Holmes at 6pm on Thursday 20 November 2008 in the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Highfield campus.

Prior to the Wellington Lecture, Professor Chris Woolgar will be presenting his inaugural lecture as Professor of History and Archival Studies on 'Wellington, his papers, and the nineteenth-century revolution in communication' at 3pm in the Turner Sims Concert Hall.

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