"Young Nelsons" is a highly unique volume devoted to probably the least studied group of Royal Navy seamen - the "Snotties." Although their age during Napoleonic Wars on which Ronalds' book concentrates could vary from eight to well over thirty, they typically joined gunrooms of the Navy in their early childhood. They joined, like Nelson himself, through the epedient of having a naval connection - a captain-friend or relative willing to take a new midshipman aboard the ship he commanded. Youth notwithstanding, from the very first moment they joined the ship, midshipmen of the Royal Navy were expected to demonstrate all qualities of a gentleman, officer, and soon to become a seaman capable as much of leading men in a boarding charge, commanding a ship if need be, or taking a landing party ashore. Their lives, spent in the often harsh and unsentimental atmosphere of a sailing warship, filled with dreams of glory as often as the fear of personal inadequacy, are presented for the first time in a single volume based on original writings of gentlemen-children whose bravery and daring are today largely forgotten and unknown by the general public.
Even if frequently present in the novels of Douglas Reeman (writing as Alexander Kent), Patrick O'Brian, or C. Northcote Parkinson, the Midshipman, R.N. is often a two-dimensional figure, a filling-in stereotype, whose real personality is far more elusive than that of any other officer or rating found on the pages of these acclaimed authors. Ronalds' book redresses the deficiency by providing the modern reader with a view or trigonometry of the sailing warship seen through the eyes of its youngest member - the midshipman. It is by no means a dry, academic treatise on the life in the gunroom, on either the proscribed lessons on seamanship or trigonometry, or the number of cane strokes administered as the punishment by the gunroom's commanding, sometimes even terrorizing, figure - the Gunroom Sublieutenant, himself often freshly transited from the gun- to the wardroom. Instead, it is a book that shows life of a midshipman, with all its challenges, fascinations, and sorrows as seen by children acting like fully grown up men, often surpassing them in achievement, honorable conduct, loyalty and the depth of friendship.
Ronalds provides a rare view of many aspects of the gunroom's live. An important view indeed, since it was the gunroom where the young gentlemen were exposed to the foundations on which the future Cochranes, Smiths, and Moores of Royal Navy grew. It was the gunroom that imbued the "young gentlemen" with the traditions and the ways of the Service. It was the gunroom that helped to convert children into adults within the briefest of times by giving them responsibilities and offering experience far surpassing that many grown-up contemporaries ever faced ashore.
"Young Nelsons" is a book that will speak to anyone who ever went to sea, whose interest centers on the affairs of navies and of men who made and make them, and all those interested in the social history of the Royal Navy. It is also a book that will give the reader unfamiliar with the harsh realities of those long forgotten days a glimpse into the fascinating world, one that is utterly unimaginable today, in which adolescents manning ships of His Majesty helped to shape the fate of the world, rather than playing, as their equivalents of today would, under the protective wing of their teachers. It is, indeed, a fascinating book, and Ronalds is to be congratulated for choosing this extraordinarily unique subject, and for giving it such a superb treatment.