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Century-old logbook of doomed HMS Drake given to Kentish Town Oxfam by mystery donor

PUBLISHED: 08:14 31 October 2014

Keith Matthews, Oxfam shop manager, who was handed a log book from HMS Drake by a mystery donor.
 Picture: Nigel Sutton

Keith Matthews, Oxfam shop manager, who was handed a log book from HMS Drake by a mystery donor. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

A century-old logbook detailing life aboard the doomed HMS-Drake has been handed into the Kentish Town branch of Oxfam by a mystery donor.

The delicate 300-page manuscript charts two years of the ship’s history from 1907, a decade before it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Northern Ireland.

With notes on everything from daily chores to naval manoeuvres, alongside water-colours of broken machinery and maps of the night-time sky, the logbook is a maritime time-capsule.

“When I saw it my eyes nearly popped out; it was like finding pirate treasure,” said Keith Matthews, manager of Oxfam Books in Kentish Town Road, who intends to auction the logbook in the hope of raising over £1,000 for the fight against Ebola.

“I was completely knocked out by the level of detail. The donor said they wanted it to make as much money for Oxfam as possible.

“I tried to ask questions but it was clear they just wanted to hand it over. And then they were gone.”

In the 12 years he has worked for Oxfam Books, Mr Matthews has seen a couple of first editions but never anything as old and unique. He spent days studying the mystery donation.

“I was so intrigued, I had this great big book in front of me and just started to wade through it, page by page,” he said.

“I’ve become very close it. Even though the content is not personal you get to know the person behind it... the handwriting, the spelling mistakes.”

Built around 1900, HMS-Drake was one of a class of ceremonial armoured cruisers not intended for duty in the battle-fleet.

“It was all very jingoistic,” said Mr Matthews. “The ship literally flew the flag around the world to show Britain ruled the waves.”

But with the outbreak of the First World War, the cruiser was taken off the reserve list and given battle-fleet escort duties. Its first job was leading the Titanic’s sister ship, The Olympic, to Liverpool.

Then on October 2, 1917, a torpedo struck its boiler room. HMS-Drake sank five miles north of Rathlin Island, with the loss of 18 lives. The wreck is now one of the most popular dive sites around the Northern Ireland coastline, where parts of the Spanish Armada also perished.

Mr Matthews wants to drum-up as much interest as possible before setting an auction date.

Experts believe the book could fetch anything from £500 to £1,000.

“I’ve been told we should do a sealed bid, but I don’t think you can beat the excitement of an open one,” said Mr Matthews.

While the auction might attract a few Titanic fanatics, the temporary custodian hopes a group of museums will club together to make the purchase, so the manuscript can be widely enjoyed.

“But I wouldn’t want it to be far away from the men who died on that ship,” Mr Matthews added. “My heart tells me it belongs in Northern Ireland.”

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