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Tag Archives: Maritime

  • Narrow Boats by Tom Chaplin

    The horse tows away a Joey boat with load of rubbish into Farmer's Bridge Top Lock. Note the simple towing mast and crude shape of the boat. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    As my wife and I approach our golden wedding anniversary, we have been reminiscing about our early life, when especially in winter, working narrow boats outnumbered pleasure narrowboats. These wonderful craft, with their floating population, brought their own culture and atmosphere to the canals. Unfortunately, the last of the family-operated long distance vessels stopped trading in 1970.

    The story of the narrow boat goes back to Georgian times when Britain had an agrarian economy and boats were pulled by horses. That soon changed: a horse could just as easily pull a canal boat loaded with 25 tons as a 1-ton cart on roads that often amounted to little more than muddy lanes. Narrow boats were soon moving raw materials and finished goods around the country and the industrial revolution became possible. In time, the horse gave way to steam, then diesel and boats operating in pairs were able to double the tonnage.

    Top cloths are positioned over the planks and side cloths to protect the coal. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Virtually all of the modern steel narrowboats afloat today were built after the end of trading and both their shape and decorations have become increasingly remote from the traditional working boat. Narrow Boats traces how these historic craft evolved, and explores why different companies developed their own design. In those days, boats travelled as far in a working week as pleasure cruisers did in a month. At the centre of these staggering levels of efficiency were the boatman and his family, on whom the reliable, fast deliveries depended. This book gives the background to life aboard these marvellous vessels and the very cramped quarters that formed a permanent home.

    This engraving, first published in 1873, shows a typical horse boat replete with the familiar form of decoration that changed little during the next century. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Victorian reformers campaigned for better conditions and secured acts of parliament to improve matters. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to peer into a mock up boatman’s cabin at a museum and react with horror to the prospect of this being home to a family. In reality of course, some had bow cabins which held an extra bed, and once fitted with engines, the boats usually worked in pairs and this meant two cabins, which doubled the living accommodation. In large families, children sometimes worked and lived aboard a childless or less fecund relative or friend’s boat. During the 19th century, many urban families shared damp, insanitary basements with several others and in this context the narrow boat cabin probably seemed a pretty good option.

    Restored boats, with their stunning painting, are now highly valued and many of today’s pleasure-boats and house-boats attempt (with mixed success!) to reproduce the effect. Narrow Boats takes the reader on a close look at how the boats were painted and has many colour photographs of work by the best, well-known professional painters.

    The lock gates are being opened using the boatman's rope trick. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    During the twentieth century, as industrial processes changed, many of the core cargoes, like coal, were no longer widely required. London docks closed and the end of carrying, which had been predicted for some time, in the event happened quite quickly. Even before this, the boatman’s way of life had become an anachronism and as more and more families moved ashore, it had become difficult to maintain staff levels and recruit new people. Perhaps it is surprising that despite the coming of the motorways, the narrow boat survived so far into the 20th century.

    The castle is an original, painted in 1950. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Fortunately, in the 1960s, even the smallest load was enough to prevent the Government from shutting a canal on which there was a right of navigation and we have to be thankful to a few dedicated carriers, who despite obstructive authorities, persisted and successfully saved some of our favourite waterways. Unfortunately, the idea persists that our waterways are inappropriate for modern commercial traffic. Yet a boat will reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to lorries. Heavy loads, like aggregates or building materials, could avoid motorway gridlocks and delays, while their removal from our roads would reduce accidents. However, it seems unlikely that the heavy investment needed for this will be forthcoming.

    A recent programme in the current BBC series, Britain Afloat featured narrow boats: this book will help to answer the many questions raised in the film.

    Tom Chaplin's new book Narrow Boats is available for purchase now.

  • The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe

    Researching Brunel’s first ship, the Great Western, has raised some intriguing images. Her launch was quite a spectacle. Built in Bristol and mostly fitted out in Bristol, it carried great hopes of a new era in transatlantic commerce. This extract from the book describes the launch and the generous quantities of Madeira with which she was baptised by Mrs Miles and by Lieutenant Claxton, the secretary of the Great Western Steamship Company.

    The First Atlantic Liner 1 Launch of the Great Western. (Denis Griffiths, The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship, Amberley Publishing)

    A ship launch was always a big celebration and attracted large crowds, some curious, some supportive and some just hoping for excitement and the possibility of a mishap and this was a hotly anticipated day. As usual the Bristol Mercury was there and devoted many column inches to the ship they nicknamed ‘The great leviathan of the deep’, a name later used at the launch of the Great Eastern.  By eight o’clock crowds had already congregated, every spot, every ship, every rooftop, that could command a view was occupied. On the water were the ships the Saint George and Clifton, both East Indiamen, the Stedfast and other West Indiamen, the Benladi and Torridge steamers.  The ship began launching at 10:00 and as she moved Mrs Miles, the wife of the local MP, ‘dashed a decanter of Madeira and named it the Great Western, at the same time Claxton broke a six-gallon bottle, also of Madeira, on the figurehead of Neptune repeating the name. The ship launched fully without incident and the crowds took in its magnificence as it floated on the waters looming over all other vessels. It was 236 feet long and 58 feet wide and its registered tonnage was 1,340 tons. Apart from her size, she looked much like any other wooden ship at this stage, as the funnel and paddlewheels would be fitted in London. It was well decorated and the figurehead against which Claxton had dashed so much Madeira, was a demi figure of Neptune, with a gilded trident, and on each side were imitation bronze dolphins and other mouldings were also gilded.

    The ship went on to cross the Atlantic for 18 years and cut the journey time from an unpredictable period of months at sea to a reliable two week passage. The book looks at the experience from the crew and the passenger perspective. While the ship was fitted out with every possible luxury for the time and was aimed at superior class passengers, lady travellers were challenged.

    The First Atlantic Liner 2 Saloon of the Great Western. (Brunel Institute, SS Great Britain Trust, The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship, Amberley Publishing)

    Cabins were small and passages narrow while the prevailing ladies fashion was forever wider and voluminous skirts supported by an extensive number of petticoats. In 1829 a Liverpool newspaper complained about the trend, but the accession of the young clothes loving Queen Victoria continued the fashion. An estimate is that the average dress in 1855 required some of thirty yards of material while the petticoats brought the total to 100 yards. Queen Victoria was very fond of voluminous skirts as they accentuated a narrow waist. For those who were also larger than average getting dressed was a trial. Mrs. Figg, who was clearly a stout party, complained about the difficulty of getting in and out of the berths, as she had to have the upper one in sharing with Mrs Brown. ‘I’m obligated to dress in bed, afore I leave it and nobody that hasn’t tried to put on their clothes lying down can tell what a task it is’ Lacing her stays behind her back and pulling on her stockings were all great trials and to do so ‘While you are rolling about from side to side is no laughing matter. Yesterday I fastened the pillow to my bustler by mistake.’

    Modern travellers can sympathise with Mrs Figg.


    Helen Doe's book The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship is available for purchase now.

  • Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel by Viv Head

    I was not a young man when I came to sailing with a first cruise on a yacht from Southampton to Weymouth aboard a 38 foot Sigma. A fine boat sailed in company with an experienced crew. At the end of four days I recall saying – Well I enjoyed that but I don't think it's going to change my life. Rarely have I made a more ridiculous statement.

    I have owned a yacht of some sort for twenty years now and for most of that time I have been a member of the OGA, the Association for Gaff Rig Sailing. The gaff rig has a four-sided mainsail and was used for centuries by working boats. It is the way sailing used to be and, increasingly, the way it is becoming once again.

    Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel 2 Nutmeg in the Bristol Channel, passing Flat Holm showing the lighthouse under repair and the WW2 gun emplacement

    I grew up in Cardiff and am back living there now with the remarkable Cardiff Bay and the challenging Bristol Channel right here on my doorstep. Sailing the gaff-rigged 19 foot Shrimper Nutmeg, nothing pleases more than the satisfaction of being on a beam reach with a sailor’s wind, sails tight and a hand on the tiller, the boat lifting and dipping to the rhythm of the sea. In the Bristol Channel you do have to keep a weather eye on the horizon and the tides which are notoriously strong.

    From any point of the compass, the Bristol Channel has played its part in maritime heritage right around the world. It has a fascinating history and researching it for Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel was a satisfying journey in itself. In Denmark I visited the Viking Museum at Roskilde, running my fingers along timbers from Viking ships more than a thousand years old, knowing that one of them was built in Dublin in the year 1042 and had every chance of having ventured up the Bristol Channel. Not just that, but having the opportunity to put to sea in a replica of a Viking ship, pulling on the oars in tune with fellow crew mates and raising the single flax sail knowing that the Viking ships of old had voyaged from these waters.

    The other place that caused me to pause and reflect on events of long ago was the graveyard of ships at Purton. With the banks of the Sharpness to Gloucester canal in serious danger of being breached by the searing tides of the Severn estuary, local men came up with a scheme to save the day. In 1909 they began running derelicts aground on the river bank so that they would catch the silt that is a feature of the rushing tides and cause it to build up. Over half a century more than 80 ships were deliberately abandoned here – schooners, trows, barges and lighters were all pressed into final service. And it worked, the bank has grown and the canal is safe now without the need for any major embankment construction. Most of these old working boats are buried deep in the silt and long out of sight but the old sailors certainly knew what they were doing. You may feel safe standing on the bank today amongst the scattering of maritime skeletons, yet a few feet away, the swirls and rush of the muddy brown water of a filling tide has a threatening menace about it.

    Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel 1 Replica Viking ship under oars at Roskilde, Denmark

    There are many mysteries that lie beneath the waves that have long been forgotten and cannot now be re-discovered. Brave deeds, returning heroes, ships lost and sailors drowned. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do know about this fascinating coastline over 300 miles long. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set to capture some the stories of the famous ships, working ships and lost ships that have sailed these waters. The Bristol Channel has an incredibly rich maritime history, not just locally – many of its ships have made an impact on the affairs of the world. Some were built along its shores – the legendary Bristol Channel pilot cutters have a global reputation. Eighteen original vessels still exist and modern ones are still being built. John Cabot set out from Bristol in the Matthew and discovered America. The Newport Ship, built circa 1450 is the most complete fifteenth century vessel anywhere in the world. Four famous Antarctic exploration ships loaded Welsh coal before heading south. Scott’s Terra Nova is well known while the Antarctic pioneer Scotia was later wrecked and burnt out on Sully Island.

    More recently, around-the-world racing yachts and many more modest working boats and pleasure yachts were built, raced, traded or simply spent their lives earning their keep in a notorious stretch of water. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set out to bring the story of this heritage, courage and endeavour into one readable volume with many fascinating photos and stories of more than sixty vessels.


    Viv Head's new book Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel is available for purchase now.

  • Mrs Janet Taylor — 19th Century Pioneer of Sea Navigation by John S. Croucher

    On 4 February 1870 the Durham County Advertiser included the following short obituary:

     At the vicarage, St Helen’s Auckland, at the house of her brother-in- law, 21st ult,. Mrs Janet Taylor, fourth daughter of the late Rev Peter lonn, vicar of Sately in this county. She was the authoresss of several books on Navigation and Astronomy and a few years ago a pension was granted to her for her services by the Government.

    mistress-of-science-1 Mariner’s Calculator replica. (Authors’ collection, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    In a few short lines were concentrated the barest of outlines of the career of an extraordinary woman, who in the very male world of sea navigation made a distinct mark. Others wrote of her in a few tributes, dotted over the years: that she was a ‘competent astronomer’, that her books were ‘of the best’ of their kind, that she was an instructor ‘without equal in her day’ and that her ‘Nautical Academy’ was ‘much patronised’ by naval and merchant seamen. Her youngest brother wrote simply that she was ‘the Great Gun of our family’.

    I knew that Janet Taylor was an interesting relative — my great-great-great-great aunt. I am descended from her eldest brother William, and like Janet, I am a mathematician and teacher. I was intrigued by my super-talented ‘aunt’, and the mathematical ‘gene’ that connected us. Just how extraordinary she was I was determined to uncover. What started as a journey of curiosity resulted in a determination to tell her story, to fill in a unique, and missing, piece in the history of sea navigation.

    After the death of her mother when she was just seven years old, Janet gained a scholarship at the precociously young age of nine, to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where the other girls were all aged over 14. Her life thereafter took her into the heart of maritime London.

    mistress-of-science-2 Janet Taylor Octant detail inscribed ‘Mrs Janet Taylor & Co’ – detail of image shown in 18. (Authors’ collection; photo by Bec Lorrimer, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    Her father, the curate of the church of St Mary and St Stephen and schoolmaster of the Free Grammar School at Wolsingham, inspired her in the wonders of navigation. She became a prodigious author of nautical treatises and textbooks, born of a fascination in particular in measuring longitude by the lunar distance method. She conducted her own Nautical Academy in Minories in the east end of the City, not far from the Tower of London; she was a sub-agent for Admiralty charts; ran a manufacturing business for nautical instruments, many of which she designed herself; and embarked on the business of compass adjusting at the height of the controversies generated by magnetic deviation and distortions on iron ships.

    Through her scientific work Janet established a respectful correspondence with those in the highest positions in the maritime community: men like the head of the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office, Captain, later Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, and Professor Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Where they were hesitant at first in their engagement with Mrs Taylor, she clearly won their support and respect.

    mistress-of-science-3 Janet Taylor binnacle. (Authors’ collection; photo by Bec Lorrimer, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1835, in consideration of ‘services she has extended to seamen’, through her Lunar Tables, the Admiralty awarded her £100 ‘from scientific funds’, a ‘handsome pecuniary award’. She was similarly honoured by the two other members of the ‘big three’ of the 19th century maritime world in Britain: the Elder Brethren of Trinity House  and the East India Company. She also received international recognition for her contributions: gold medals from the King of Holland and King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia; and, by 1844, a medal from the Pope. Then in 1860 her contributions to navigation were acknowledged by her own country when she was awarded a civil list pension of £50 per year, ‘In consideration of her benevolent labours among the seafaring population of London’.

    Like women of her time, she had many children, eight of her own and three step-children, but it was her contributions to science and to navigation that are to be remembered. So little of her story has so far been told and there is so much more to know.

    Ten days after her death in 1870, an obituary published in The Athenaeum concluded by saying: “Perhaps some surviving relative or friend may be able to throw light on the life and labours of one who was as extraordinary from her acquirements of knowledge as from her social reticence.”

    And so, some 150 years after her passing, I am that relative – seeking to introduce my brilliant, great-great-great-great aunt to a wider public to give her the proper recognition she deserves. Over the past decade my labours in uncovering my aunt’s story, a journey in which my wife Rosalind also enthusiastically joined, has resulted in a biography, in the hope that, in a small way, Janet Taylor’s story may now be seen in the light it deserves: the story of an extraordinary pioneer of sea navigation.


    John S. Croucher & Rosalind F. Croucher's new book Mistress of Science is available for purchase now.

  • Dunkirk Little Ships by Nigel Sharp

    I was delighted to be asked by Amberley Publishing to write this book. I had already spent about three years researching and writing another book (Troubled Waters: Leisure Boating and the Second World War – also soon to be published by Amberley) and the story of the Dunkirk evacuation features, in a relatively minor way, in that.

    Dunkirk 1So I had met John Tough - the current Hon Archivist of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and grandson of Teddington boatbuilder Doug Tough who in 1940 had assembled about 100 privately-owned motor boats and made them ready for the evacuation – and read enough about the operation to realise what a truly inspiring story it was. The number of troops successfully evacuated was well in excess of that initially predicted by the British government. This was partly because of a gallant rearguard action by Allied troops and some controversial decisions by the Germans which allowed more time; but it was also thanks to the extraordinary contribution made by the fleet 700-or-so non-military vessels which was assembled with enormous haste.

    Dunkirk 2Over a hundred Little Ships are known to have survived and there could be many more. In May forty-eight of them took part in the 75th anniversary Commemorative Return from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and I was lucky enough to be on one of them, Alan and Ann Jackson’s 57ft 6” motor yacht Riis I which was built in 1920. Half a dozen Dunkirk Veterans also took part but it is a sad inevitability of life that there will come a time when they will be no more. From then on the ongoing survival of the Little Ships themselves will hold even greater significance.

    Dunkirk - 9781445647500

    Nigel's book Dunkirk Little Ships is available for purchase now.

  • 'The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World' by Sharon Poole

    Cunard's advertising boasts of having 'The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World'. It is no idle claim since the company has given us some of the best-known and best-loved ships that ever sailed, their distinctive livery making them instantly recognisable and admired all over the world. As Cunard reaches the milestone of its 175th anniversary, the popularity of this most iconic of brands has not waned, indeed it has increased - quite an achievement in today's global economy. Much of this is the result of building what is the only modern ocean liner - the magnificent Queen Mary 2 - and continuing to operate the only scheduled transatlantic ocean crossing in the world. The three ships of the current fleet draw crowds wherever they are across the globe and the Cunard Lion looks set to roar well into the future.

    Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard ship pic 2Advertising blurb? OK, I confess it is the information on the back of Andrew Sassoli-Walker’s and my latest book. We fell into writing books on maritime history by accident but five books later it is a subject we both still love and hope some of our infectious enthusiasm for the subject will rub off our readers.

    I have been writing books, mainly on local history, since 1987. When P&O Cruises announced their adult-only small ship, Artemis would leave the fleet in 2010, Andrew, who works in the Port of Southampton, contacted me and asked if I would like to collaborate on a small book to mark her passing. Andrew is a semi-professional photographer and has thousands of images of ships in the Hampshire port, while I would bring my experience of recording people’s memories and researching history to the partnership. As regular P&O Cruises’ passengers, we both had a love for the ship and I have been collecting liner memorabilia since my teens. With Amberley on board (no pun intended!), the idea snowballed and grew from being a small self-published memory book, to a full-colour 120 page volume that P&O Cruises were so pleased with, they purchased as a gift for everyone on the final voyage. This then led to them inviting us to pitch for a commission to write a book to mark 175 years of their heritage in 2012, a commission we won! It was a very proud moment to witness the Grand Event when all seven of their ships gathered in Southampton that year and to know we were a small part of the celebrations. In between we have produced books on the cruise ships Oriana and Aurora and a Year in the Life of the P&O Cruises Fleet.

    Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard ship picWe knew 2015 marked the 175th anniversary of Cunard but accepted there would be many straightforward history books. For this reason we decided to mark the event, but follow the format of our Year in the Life of the P&O Fleet book. Our aim is to make the books eminently readable, but to give the reader information they may not know or even have thought about. We have both travelled with Cunard; highlights of our voyages include my being on the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth and, for Andrew, being on board Queen Mary 2 en route to Hamburg with a large number of German passengers when they won the World Cup.

    The preparation time for all our books is around one year and during this period we collect potential images, contact officers and crew, both serving and retired, and invite passengers to send us their anecdotes and memories. Andrew was commissioned to take photographs by the Port of Southampton when Cunard celebrated HM the Queen's golden jubilee. He was afforded unprecedented access to get some very exclusive photos, some of which appear in the book.

    We were particularly lucky in that retired commodore of the fleet, Bernard Warner, was happy to assist us. One of my most abiding memories in writing the Artemis book was being invited onto the magnificent bridge of Queen Mary 2 to chat to Bernard, then her master, about his early days at sea on Royal Princess as Artemis was at that time. Another well-known and much respected contributor was Captain Ian McNaught, past master of the QE2 for many years and now working at Trinity House. Andrew had the opportunity to meet with Commodore Ron Warwick, Captain Robert Camby and architect of Queen Mary 2, Stephen Payne, who gave his valuable time in answering the many questions we had. I think a combination of their enthusiasm along with ours hopefully comes through to the reader. Many others have helped along the way and we are very grateful. Without their photos, memories and mementos the books would not have been so successful. It is a tough job to whittle down the material to fit within the format required and sadly we can’t include everything.Liners - Sharon Poole - Cunard event pic

    The book was released in April – just in time for the well-publicised Cunard Salute to Liverpool over the Whitsun bank holiday weekend. I was lucky enough to be on board Queen Victoria for this first time gathering of all three Cunard Queens in the River Mersey. It was an event that will last long in my memory, from the convoy up the river to Liverpool, the water ‘ballet’ performed by these huge ships with a finale of a flypast by the Red Arrows and last but not least, joining other authors, including Peter Snow, for a book signing on the last day.

    Now, what shall we write about next??

    Liners - 9781445646091

    A Year in the Life of the Cunard Fleet by Sharon Poole & Andrew Sassoli-Walker is available for purchase now.

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