Memoirs written by Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Henry May, G.C.B., G.C.V.O. 1863-1930. The illustrations are reproduced from miniatures by Harold Wyllie. Epilogue written by Alexa Bourne-May.

MAY William Henry ([c.1860 - 1930].)

£4500.00  [First Edition]


First edition. 27 photographic illustrations pasted into text. Original blue morocco, gilt stamped title and device to upper board. A.e.g. Marbled endpapers. Boards slightly bowed, very light foxing to first few pages, very good. [6], 100pp. London and Beccles, printed for private circulation by William Clowes and Sons, n.d. [c.1930].


[WITH:] 'Certificate for Wounds and Hurts'. Printed blank document completed in ink, parchment, 240 x 250mm. Signed by Captain G. S. Nares, Commander A. H. Markham and Fleet Surgeon Thomas Colan. Old folds. Dated 7th September 1876.

The document certifies that Lieutenant W. H. May: "was injured on board her Majesty's ship "Alert" by being frostbitten in the left great toe (which necessitated amputation of the last and part of the first phalanx on the 11th of November) while away sledging and belonging to the command of the sledge "Hercules" [...] between latitudes 82° & 83° N."


[AND:] 12 carte de visite photographs of William Henry May from boyhood to middle age. Plus 3 additional carte de visite photographs of unidentified persons, and 1 bearing a photographically reproduced newspaper marriage notice. 


[AND:] Typed letter on Department of the Interior Canada Natural Resources Intelligence Service letterhead. Addressed to Admiral May, on behalf of F.C.C. Lynch. 1pp. Ottawa, Feb, 1925. Concerning (and with a silver gelatine print photograph of) a leather case with Queen Victoria's monogram in gold, recovered in the Arctic, believed to be a relic from the Nares expedition.

Very rare privately printed autobiography of Sir William Henry May, with a small archive of ephemera. 


The truly fulsome Royal Naval career of Sir William Henry May (1849-1930) spanned half a century and saw him ascend from midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet, with many commendable stops upon the way. 


He embarked in 1863 upon the Victoria, flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, and then served upon frigate Liffey between 1867-70. He did a stint aboard the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert, and in 1875 volunteered for Captain George Strong Nares' British Arctic Expedition. He served as navigating officer on the Alert and participated in sledging expeditions in Autumn 1875 and Spring 1876. The first of these forays travelled a total distance of 165.5 miles between September 25th and October 15th 1875, with May leading the sledge Hercules under the command of Albert Hastings Markham. May speaks frankly of the cold, thirst and hardship of this trip, with inclement weather slowing them down to the extent that they had to drop to half rations. The mission's object, to establish supply depots for the spring polar push was achieved, but at a cost: May was amongst several of the crew members who suffered frostbite. Thus follows his eye-watering account of the procedure: "After a few days the left toe had to be amputated below the first joint. I don't know why, the doctors would not give me anaesthetic; so I suffered a great deal, as it is a most painful operation. The doctors had to have two nips at it and I cursed them pretty freely" (pp29-30). May was laid up recovering in his quarters inside the ship for five months - the entirety of the Arctic winter. He passed the time working on navigation, charts and astronomical observations. Included with this book is the Royal Naval hurt certificate for this injury, received by May upon the expedition's return. By the following spring however he was well enough to set out again. He led the relief sledge named Clements Markham in the Auxiliary Dog Sledge Party, sent out to relieve Markham and Parr's polar party. These disheartened men were severely affected by scurvy, forced to turn back 399.5 miles short of the North Pole. They did however achieve a new Furthest North of 83° 20'25" and made "many interesting and valuable surveys, meteorological and astronomical observations." (p.35)


After his return from the Arctic, May joined the torpedo-school ship Vernon, where he worked on the development of the Whitehead torpedo and underwater discharge apparatus. He achieved the rank of commander, after only nine and a half years as a lieutenant. In 1888, age 38 he was promoted to Captain. In that same year whilst captaining the Imperieuse en route to China, he acted on secret orders and took possession of Christmas Island. In 1890 he was appointed Naval attaché to the European states, the following year he was given the role of Third Sea Lord and controller of the Navy. He served in this post until 1905, when he was promoted to Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. He made Admiral in 1908, and Admiral of the Fleet in 1913. He came out of retirement to serve on the Dardanelles commission during World War Two. (ODNB)


May's papers reside at the National Maritime Museum in London, who also hold a copy of this book. The only other copy traced through OCLC is at Princeton.

Stock Code: 234300

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