site unseen Admiral Bligh's tomb, SE1

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The Independent Culture
one infallible way of finding out a person's age is to ask them which actor played Fletcher Christian. Senior citizens (or should it be recycled teenagers?) will reply Clark Gable, the middle-aged Marlon Brando and the young Mel Gibson. Try the same question as regards Captain Bligh and you will get the answers Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard or Anthony Hopkins.

Personally I'm a clear Brando/Howard man and although the odds were heavily weighted against Howard, I still root for his Captain Bligh - and not just because Howard was a cricket-lover and Brando gave one of those mannered performances which heralded the terminal decline of a once-great actor.

Needless to say, the cinematic versions are extremely economical with the truth. Bligh was rather more than a nautical Adolf Hitler. He was in fact an explorer and navigator of genius. Fourteen years after the events on the Bounty, a certain Horatio Nelson commended Bligh for his bravery and skill at the Battle of Copenhagen. Ten years later he was promoted to the position of Rear-Admiral.

Not a lot of people know that - but why should they? It suits Hollywood to end the Bounty story with Fletcher Christian triumphant and Bligh in terminal disarray.

Although William Bligh was born and brought up in Cornwall, he lived and died in Lambeth. A plaque on 100 Lambeth Road commemorates the family home, almost opposite our Imperial War Museum. Bligh died in December 1817 and was buried just down the road in St Mary-at-Lambeth, his parish church.

St Mary's tells a fascinating story in its own right. Closed down in 1972, the neglected former church soon became a vandalised eyesore. Demolition was planned, even though the building stood only a few yards from Lambeth Palace, the official home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It took the dedicated efforts of Rosemary Nicholson and colleagues to turn the then redundant church into the present-day splendour of the Museum of Gardening History, honouring the 17th-century gardeners, the Tradescants, who are also buried in the old churchyard.

But any visit to the Museum must include a moment spent beside the fine stone tomb of Admiral Bligh. It surely reinforces the feeling that fact and fiction are rarely even on nodding terms.

Andrew John Davies

Admiral Bligh's tomb is situated in the churchyard of the Museum of Gardening History, Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 7LB (0171-261 1891)