Maritime Archives Masterclass

June 2021

This episode opens up the fascinating world of maritime historical discovery. Dr Sam Willis meets Max Wilson from the Lloyds Register Foundation archives to explore some of the different types of document that you might come across conducting maritime research: from boiler plans, ship plans, stowage plans and rigging plans – to survey reports, casualty returns, correspondence, photographs and intriguing miscellaneous items – this episode unravels extraordinary maritime stories that come to you straight from the past… including HMS Investigator and HMS Hecla and the exploration of the arctic; the shipwreck of ss Politician and her cargo of malt whiskey; and ss Dunedin, the first ship to successfully transport a full cargo of refrigerated meat from New Zealand to England.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This episode has been designed for all of those interested in the nuts and bolts of research in maritime history. It’s so easy for historians engaged in research to take what they do for granted without realizing how interesting the process of research might be for others. In fact, one of my greatest bugbears is that history is usually presented to the public as a fait accompli – as something that has already happened – rather than history itself being an organic, growing, and surprisingly contemporary business. In fact, it’s no surprise that some and I could probably say here, most of the most interesting and exciting historical research uses the very latest research techniques and technologies and often a great deal of imagination and creativity. I’ve in fact come across an example for you. This has been supplied by Burn and Magnus MacLeod thanks very much both of you for getting in touch. And this little section here is designed to be something of a trailer for a future episode on model making. So do keep tuned for that. Anyway, Magnus has spent a great deal of the last 15 years building a model of the Royal Oak a 74-gun ship of the line launched in 1769. Now when it came to the very elaborate carvings on the stern and how to recreate them, Magnus – and I’m quoting here – then spent six months carving the starboard wyven, using a binocular microscope and chisels and gouges ground from needles. Wow, that is some sentence – “chisels and gouges ground from needles”. I don’t think you quite get dedication like you do from model makers. Well done, Magnus! Anyway, he then discovered something called ZBrush, which is a digital sculpting tool, and it combines 3D design, texturing, and painting. You’ll have seen stuff produced by this in Game of Thrones, the dragons were made out of this in Game of Thrones or the Warhammer Fantasy creatures. Anyway, Magnus has taken up sculpting in this virtual environment. And it’s wonderful because it allows you to rework your sculpts again and again until you’re totally happy with them. So, in days and weeks, you can gain the equivalent of many years’ worth of sculpting experience in real materials. This essentially enables you to re-carve your work bit by bit, until, as Magnus told me, you can do no better. At any step along the way, you can make a copy of your work and you can then compare it one version with another, you can look at it from every angle, and you can mirror it in a moment. It’s all extremely powerful software. But this virtual design on a computer is only stage one. The next stage is to have the files that you’ve created in ZBrush 3D printed, and you do this by using a bath of a type of high detail resin which is solidified in the right place by lasers (again, another amazing sentence!). But once that is done, you have a perfect 3D creation of what you’ve sculpted virtually on a computer: but you still have not finished. The problem being here is how do you paint them? Well, you might presume this is straightforward, apart from the fact that contemporary sources of the Royal Oak show that the stern carvings are gold painted. How do you do this? How do you maybe spray paint a tiny model with gold without flooding these perfect little sculptures? And the answer that Magnus came across was to use a technique called gold sputtering. This technique covers objects with an extremely thin coat of pure gold. And it is as thick as the amount that your fingernails grow in 15 seconds (again, it is another extraordinary sentence), I’ll say it again it is as thick or maybe as thin as the amount that your fingernails grow in 15 seconds. And this technique has been developed by bioengineering scientists, others developing technology in the world of those seeking to coat a huge variety of objects in extremely thin film. It’s technology that’s used in things like solar technologies, batteries, biosensors and a great deal of things that I don’t understand and have never heard of. Anyway, the result of all of this is that Magnus has virtually sculpted 3D printed carvings for the stern of the Royal Oak, and he has then had them gold-sputtered. And the result is the most extraordinary, minute, and utterly perfect gold-coated carvings of an 18th-century warships stern created using the very latest technology. Wow! Now, I think I should say here that the most impressive bit of all of this is that Magnus is – wait for it – he’s 85 years old. Well done, indeed. Anyway, I want to see this model I hear you will cry. Well, I definitely will bring you some footage of this as soon as I can. So, stand by for that.

    Now back to the world of us clumsy and cack-handed un-visionary mortals who can’t grow into gouges out of needles. What I wanted to do today was to take you into a maritime archive to hear about the variety of material you might come across, and how you might go about teasing out the stories that are hidden inside them as you go about, well, your traditional research with pencil and paper. This is where all historians must start and even if you do become heavily involved in the use of space technology to do your historical research, you still need to be able to find your way around an archive and have some kind of sense of what you are looking at and why it might be important. So today I spoke to Maxim Wilson, he is the archivist at the Heritage and Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. Please note that we discussed at one point Lloyd’s wonderful collection of boiler plans. Now I was so taken by these, they are quite beautiful in a very curious way, that to help make sense of them we have cleverly animated one so that you can see the ship’s boiler grow out of the plan: you can then explore it in 3D and see it melt back into the original 19th-century drawing. You can find this on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast’s YouTube page and Facebook page. So please do check that out. Anyway, here is the charming and the fascinating Max Wilson.

    Max, thanks so much for talking to us today.

    Max Wilson

    Thanks very much. Thank you very much for having me.

    Sam Willis

    So, my idea for this came about because I saw something called a ‘Boiler Plan’ in the archives of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and it was a beautiful thing. But I had no idea at all, what it meant or how it worked. And for those of you out there who are listening, the boiler plan I saw was a drawing of, and Max will tell us a bit more about this, but it was a drawing of a boiler – a scheme for a boiler – and it looked a bit like a pizza. So, it’s more or less round, at the top of it, there are some sort of circles about the size of 10p pieces, or pepperoni, then there are some smaller circles like olives, and then there were two really big circles like fried eggs. And I loved it. I thought it was particularly beautiful, just for what it looked like as a work of art really. But obviously, it has some kind of technical meaning. And I’ve been working with you guys over the last few weeks to make it come alive. So, if everyone’s listening, do please check out the Mariner’s Mirror Pod, Instagram, and our YouTube channel because there is a truly fabulous animation which makes sense of this wonderful work of art. Anyway, this has led me to want to talk to Max from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, about maritime archives, because it made me realize that there are so many different types of documents that you can come across if you’re a maritime historian, and they all have their own challenges and rewards. So Max, let’s start with these boiler plans. Have you seen – you’ve seen the Baku Standard one that I’m talking about?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, I have. It’s a really, really, good example. And it sort of typifies one of about, I have the exact number for you as well, it’s 8,651 that we currently have on our website as of this moment.

    Sam Willis

    That’s unbelievable!

    Max Wilson

    It is. I must say I’m glad that you find them so exciting because they are not always the easiest sell to researchers, they’re usually sort of one of the bottom pile of plans that people are looking for.

    Sam Willis

    But without doubt, the most visually arresting, which means I think as long as you – as soon as we can make them make sense to people then I think – I reckon – more researchers will look into them. So, tell me about these boiler plans. What exactly are they?

    Max Wilson

    So, essentially, you know, these boiler plans, they were submitted by manufacturers, by builders, by owners of vessels to Lloyd’s Register for the survey. And they record everything from the dimensions and specifications of those specific boilers in coordination with usually a survey report. And they will record everything from the working pressure per square inch, they will record everything from the manufacturer’s details, what sort of design it was, and also just generally really, alongside other documentation, what kind of purposes it will be for: whether or not it’s a main boiler, or what’s also referred to as a donkey boiler as well, which I’m sure is you’ve come across many times. But, you know, it’s very interesting. I mean, they sort of starts generally, to appear from about 1875 onwards, and as is the case with many of our kind of technical drawings and plans within the collection. And so they were submitted for design approval by Lloyd’s Register engineer surveyors at the request of the owners. And so, we sort of finally start to see rules for surveying and constructing boilers by about the mid-1880s. And on top of that, Lloyd’s Register has always done something called a ‘Special Survey’ where we will survey a vessel or piece of machinery, essentially while it’s being constructed, and so as a part of this, there was a design approval stage. And, ultimately, that’s why we have quite so many boilers. But yes, for a very long time, the boiler wasn’t seen as an essential part of the ship to survey.

    Sam Willis

    No, but I mean, if you think it’s all to do with safety at sea, isn’t it. That’s the principle behind why you’ve got the drawings. And if you think about the principle of a boiler – so you’ve got a great deal of hot air and water and compression, and it’s unbelievably dangerous. So, you said that they had, you know, these became standard by the 1870s or so there was a good few decades of ships with boilers before then.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, yes there are. It’s really interesting.  I suppose to sort of really understand, you know, really, I suppose, what happened and why Lloyd’s Register decided to, I suppose to embrace this technological change, and try and adapt and integrate it with the surveys and classification. It’s as much as my colleague Charlotte said in her podcast with you a few weeks back, she said that you know, up until the 1870s, the Lloyd’s Register Survey was confined to the classification at basically two elements: a vessels hull and the vessel’s outfit, so, masts, spars, rigging, anchors, chains, pumps, boats, all other kinds of ephemera, that are required for the safe operation of that vessel. And so, these engines and boilers and other machinery, whilst they were around for a very, very long time, they simply just weren’t included, they were seen as an addition to the vessels, and subsequently outside of the purview of a Lloyd’s Register Survey. Which, of course, is nonsensical when we think of it today and just how integral they are to the ship. And this was something that a lot of surveyors, as time goes on throughout the 19th century, actually start to write in and complain about. They obviously have such a huge convergence of new technologies that start to come to the fore, with steam and iron and steel, and L. R., well Lloyd’s Register operated really quite cautious routes when it came to incorporating these elements. And so one of our surveyors, a man, who was the surveyor at Leith, Walter Payton, he highlighted the problem as early as 1839. And he said, he actually wrote, as part of a report to Parliament that was looking into boiler and machinery safety: “I inspected one of the steamers and found her to be a strong and substantial vessel. On inquiry, I was informed that they have occasional surveys on the engines and boilers. But in my opinion, it is not such a survey as ought to be deemed sufficient, being made by the engineer and boilermaker who do the work for the company, and are of course not so impartial or independent as neutral persons may supposed to be”, so he also noted as well that it was very common practice, particularly in the 1830s and 40s for coal and other types of fuel to be kept either above or below the boiler or furnace. So quite an odd working practice, and certainly not

    Sam Willis

    It’s like the Wild West – the Wild West of ship design and stuff before it was all regulated. I remember something on the Great Western or the Great Eastern – this is just coming into the top of my head – about a terrible boiler explosion there, just when Brunel was really trying to come to grips with it.

    Max Wilson

    Yes.

    Sam Willis

    That’s something I need to find out about.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, ultimately, I think, you know, really, it’s those kinds of disasters that – which we start to see a large spike of in the mid-19th century that really starts to motivate this change. You know, exactly why Lloyd’s Register was so reluctant and sort of dragged its heels to incorporate engines and boilers and other forms of machinery into the survey and classification is sort of unclear. But I suppose broadly, they were kind of dismissed as experimental technological fads, really. You know, the experience and qualifications of the surveyors had always been sort of based in the year of wood and sail, and they’d grown up as apprentices to the shipyards. And so, to change this, and to rectify this, it would require a huge overhaul of your entire staff and resources and retraining. On top of that though as well – as you said before, as well – it’s these disasters at sea that we start to see become a huge motivating factor. But Lloyd’s Register sort of they very early on, see that the engines and machinery and boilers are absolutely crucial to the vessel, even if they are outside of the survey. So, they sort of come up with a middle ground from about the 1830s and we start to see one type of record, which is really interesting, and we have hundreds of them throughout the archive. And they’re called ‘Certificates for Vessels Navigated by Steam’. And essentially, as part of the middle ground, because the survey of these engines and boilers was outside of the purview of the surveyor, it was essentially a form that would be provided to the owner or the master engineer on the vessel, and then they would fill it out themselves. But of course, there was no way of actually verifying whether or not what they were saying was true or accurate and of course, as you can imagine it leaves an awful lot to be desired in terms of well, really, I suppose in terms of the objectivity of the survey. But it’s sort of an interesting middle ground.

    Sam Willis

    It is, you know, it’s good to hear that happen. One of the challenges, I think of looking at these kinds of technical documents like the boiler plans, is to kind of put the people back into it. So, you’ve got the visibility of the surveyor who’s done the drawings, and maybe someone who’s signed it off and someone who’s designed it, but we’ve just been animating a new ship plan for HMS Warrior (so built in the 1860s, iron hull, steam engines) and I was just coming across descriptions of people working in the boiler room there and it was awful. I mean, it was unimaginably hot, and there’s coal dust everywhere. And, you know, it’s easy to be sort of light-hearted about the safety requirements but the descriptions of injuries when boilers go wrong, are unimaginable. I came across a couple actually from the First World War, people’s skin just comes off, basically. It’s the pressure of the steam and the enormous heat that’s there when they explode. So, I think that’s something to bear in mind. So, these boiler plans are part of a broader survey reports. So, let’s look at some of the other documents that a maritime historian might come across in your archive.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, of course. So, it’s – well, one of the larger, I suppose really, one of the cornerstones really of our collection are the survey reports themselves. So, you know, really, you know, whenever I have a researcher that comes in, a lot of the time, they’re obviously very keen on getting their hands on plans and seeing that visual representation of the vessel or the machinery. But I will always encourage them to take a closer look at the vessel survey reports because they contain such a wealth of information that they form such an integral part of the collection. So, online right now, these survey reports, there are about 215,000 on our website now available. This number is likely to grow as we are only – based on conservative estimations – we’re probably only about a third of the way through our cataloguing and digitalising program. So, it’s broadly, possibly somewhere in the reach about 600 – 700,000, we will have eventually, once we finally reached the end

    Sam Willis

    What format do these – well, actually first of all: what’s the address for the website if people are listening?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, of course.

    Sam Willis

    Where would they find that?

    Max Wilson

    So, that’s the hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. And if you go to our ‘Archive and Library’ tab, and then within that our ‘Ships, Plans and Survey Reports’ tab as well.

    Sam Willis

    So that’s “hec” – h, e, c, and lrfoundation

    Max Wilson

    H, e, c, – that’s the one yes.

    Sam Willis

    There we go. And so, let’s just describe these survey reports. What are they physically, like? What sort of information do they hold?

    Max Wilson

    Well, they’re sort of foolscap size. And basically, they start in about 1834, you know, really, from the very earliest point in our ‘Ships, Plans and Survey Reports’ collection. And they include information of essentially the registration of a ship, so it’ll be information on the ship’s build, its ownership, voyages, machinery, materials, repair, classification, dimensions, loss. And essentially, they contain the details of the vessel that are recorded at the time that the vessel was inspected. And as you can imagine, if a ship has, you know, is afloat for say, 25 years they’ll have several survey reports throughout their life at sea. And so, it’s quite interesting to be able to chart those through the survey reports. And so, essentially, a lot of this information like these ownership and voyages and information about the ship’s build, this is the information that would make its way into the annually published ‘Register of Ships’, should that vessel receive its classification. And we have a huge variety of different survey reports. You know, initially, we have about, really two: we have a first entry report, which is literally the very first time that a ship enters our records, and then afterwards, you have these periodical surveys called annual server surveys, which again, record general maintenance, inspections, any repairs. But obviously, as time goes on and survey and the rules for classing ships grow, we start to see really a huge, huge change and a great proliferation of different types of survey reports. So, we have you know, you’ve got machinery survey reports, you have boiler survey reports, composite ships surveys, iron ships surveys, electrical light installation surveys, refrigeration surveys; and yes, they are really fascinating records to talk about: I could go on for ages.

    Sam Willis

    No, it’s good. I love the ‘refrigeration surveys’ – let’s do something with the refrigeration surveys.

    Max Wilson

    Absolutely!

    Sam Willis

    Again, it sounds slightly archaic and weird, but the transportation of refrigerated goods by sea just changed everything, didn’t it? It changes the way the world eats.

    Max Wilson

    Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think the developments to get to that point as well are absolutely fascinating. And one of those ships that we have within our collection is the Dunedin, which is the very first ship, obviously, to convey frozen meat from New Zealand to London. But, yes, some of the interesting accounts that you get of the kind of interrupted efforts of the master to try and keep this meat fresh, you know, nearly to the point where he, maybe where he actually nearly freezes to death, I think trying to drill holes to try and aerate the freezers.

    Sam Willis

    Is it not the first time that – I might be completely wrong – but that meat is successfully transported?

    Max Wilson

    That is an interesting point to make. It’s definitely the first time it’s successfully transported. Yes.

    Sam Willis

    So, it’s like we’re identifying again this grey liminal area, the wild west of pre-refrigeration where just everything rotted, and it was all a disaster.

    Max Wilson

    Yes.

    Sam Willis

    But people must have lost a huge fortune in food: if you’re loading up a, you know, a ship with food, in the anticipation of getting it from Wellington to London without it being rotten, and then finding it is rotten (Oh, I’d like to find out about that. And maybe I should do another PhD). Okay, and you’ve got ship plans as well.

    Max Wilson

    We do.

    Sam Willis

    You’ve got some wonderful ship plans.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, we do. So, obviously, with ship plans, we have approximately about 45,000 at this stage within our digitisation project. So, when we started the project, it was believed that we have on average out of these 1.2 5 million records that we should have somewhere in the region of approximately 96,000. Though, you know, the number the figure that we’re currently at shows it’s probably going to be much higher than 96,000, eventually. But we hold a number of really quite amazing plans for some really noteworthy vessels like the Lusitania, the Carpathia, the Cutty Sark, and obviously, the Baku Standard as well. And, yes, to be completely honest, it’s again, as well as being a really fascinating part of our collection, there’s just, there’s so many different types of plans that we’re coming across: obviously, you have very, very, standard ones. But there are plans for pretty much almost anything you could think of, and

    Sam Willis

    Let’s just help people imagine what a ship plan actually is.

    Max Wilson

    So, yes, the ship plans are essentially any sort of plan that’s this created, or technical drawing, that’s created either on a sort of linseed paper or as a cyanotype or a blueprint. And essentially, they come in a variety of different sizes, everything from sort of six or seven or seven to eight feet long to plans that you could quite literally just hold in the palm of your hand – quite comfortably. And generally speaking, they were drawn up by the manufacturer or by the builder as part of that design process that we spoke about with boiler plans in mind, and then they would be passed and inspected by the Lloyd’s Register surveyor and then amendments would be made until finally a design that was safe was finally approved.

    Sam Willis

    And if you think about it, a ship is a three-dimensional object, so you’ve got ship plans which are like bird’s eye view: so, looking down on the deck, but then you can look down on every single deck through the layers

    Max Wilson

    Oh absolutely!

    Sam Willis

    of that cake. And then you also you have plans, which see the whole thing in section so you can look sort of along the ship as well. And there are very often very detailed plans about particular bits that might be on the deck or might be inside the hull. So, a huge variety.

    Max Wilson

    Oh, absolutely. I mean, I, particularly, you know, one of my favourite types of plans that we do hold for that great year of luxury travel and the luxury liner. Because, you know, particularly with those, we have these amazing profile and deck plans, which are quite literally very large plans with a representation of the profile of that ship. And then obviously, as you just said, each deck, but even to the detail where you can see how many – you can count the number of stools that are sitting around the bar on the Mauretania, for example, or the piano in the corner, things like that. And sort of how many stalls there in the changing rooms of the swimming pool, things like that. And it’s such a huge detail. I think one of my favourite plans within the collection is possibly one that we discovered really about two months ago, which is quite unusual. It’s a profile plan like that that I’ve just mentioned of the ship called the SS Mexican, in 1906, which was built by the Union Iron Works company in San Francisco. And it’s sort of it’s not a particularly amazing ship for any particular reason but while she was being constructed in San Francisco, obviously, the great San Francisco earthquake took place and so which destroy, famously destroy, about 80% of the city. And this plan is literally just there to show the new position – her new position – within the dry dock, after the shock of the earthquake, where she obviously was upright, but has now fallen over to one side and is completely skewed. Luckily, she survived the event. But it’s an amazing record of just how far she shifted after the shock of the earthquake.

    Sam Willis

    That’s fascinating. I’d love to see that. Particularly like you just talking about the piano on the Carpathia as well, because it really puts the people who drew these diagrams into the frame of history. So, you’re assuming there are so many things on that ship that you can choose to pick out or you can choose to leave out but for some reason, the designer decided to put in the piano. I love that. It’s very similar to the history of dictionaries as well. There are other things, you know, in history where you think that they’re anonymous, but they’re actually not, and the person who’s compiled it has kind of infused that technical drawing, or document, whatever it might be, with their own personality. I tell you what, let’s get a picture of that Carpathia thing, and we’ll work some magic with it – that sounds fun. As well as these technical plans, you’ve got all sorts of letters and correspondence, and this is often the lifeblood of all history, really.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, yes, absolutely. I must admit that in terms of well letters and correspondence that they’re probably my favourite type of record that we have within the collection, which I realize I’ve said about three instances prior to that! But they are just such a fascinating source of social history. And currently on our website, again, we have about 102,000 letters, within our ‘Ship, plans and survey reports’ collection, dating as far back as 1834. This number will, as I’ve said, so many times it will go up quite massively over the next few months. But essentially, the letters and the correspondence – it’s notes, its general memoranda, it’s letters that are received by and from Lloyd’s Register surveyors, clerk’s, senior staff, but it also covers shipbuilders, ship owners, underwriters, from 1834. Well, from 1834 until about the 1970s that are received across the world. And whilst they kind of they – so they typically concern issues that surround the construction, survey, repairs, salvage and loss of vessels, they often include really quite amazing, sort of quirky anecdotes and stories that provides into really amazing insights into the lives of people that worked and lived alongside shipping. But, yes, this is one that I dug out specifically for this because it’s such an amazing record. And it was a record from James Marriott, who was the Lloyd’s Register surveyor for Orkney. And essentially, so this was something that I discovered while I was looking for other things, and it was a small bundle of letters that have been tied up with a string, within this box for the Orkney office. And Marriott had been – just for a bit of background – Marriott had been the surveyor there from about 1862 to 1886, and somewhere around in about 1876 to 1877 he seems to have had this very long-standing feud with a Stornoway shipbuilder, called an Eneis M. Mackenzie. And the feud basically seems to have sort of spurned really from a disagreement about Marriott’s surveying ability, which had culminated in essentially a raft of poison pen letters from Mackenzie to the surveyor, all of which Marriott had packaged up with a covering letter and sent on to the chairman at London.

    Sam Willis

    “Look what I’m dealing with”!

    Max Wilson

    Exactly, yes, it’s amazing. And luckily, you know, we get references to poison pen letters all the time because, you know, obviously, your relationship with the shipbuilders and the ship owners is of absolute paramount importance. But it’s very rare that we ever actually get the letters and that they survive: a lot of the time, they would just refer to them. But the cover letter, I should say, says: “I herewith return Mr Mackenzie’s letters, as requested, which I find to be in keeping with his former correspondence regarding myself. I now wait the result of his threats. It is, however, unpleasant to have to do business with a party of his disposition”. And, yes, it’s just to kind of give a really, really, brief little excerpt from one of these poison pen letters, because they are amazing. It’s essentially, it’s about a poor survey that was done on his vessel, the Cabar-fryd, in which he believes that a poor survey was carried out, and it resulted in a very hefty repair bill several weeks later, which he is now saying that the Lloyd’s Register should have to pay, but specifically Marriott should have to pay out his own pocket. And he basically says that: “I beg to state that unless there is an immediate investigation made into this man’s conduct, and I am at once reimbursed for any extra expense, I will bring the matter under the notice of Mr Matheson MP for Ross, who will most certainly bring the matter before Parliament as it is a most disgraceful affair that a mast that is dangerous to human life and property should be passed by Lloyd’s Register surveyor.” But that’s probably one of the more polite ones if I’m completely, being completely honest,

    Sam Willis

    I’ve come across so many poisons pen letters in my life as a historian, they’re wonderful. They’re a wonderful little [lost] and I genuinely reckon someone could do a research project on maritime poisoned pen letters particularly to do with this. There’s so much money at stake, and there’s so much – well if you sort – there was just so much at stake full stop when you’re dealing with things like ship surveys, it doesn’t surprise me at all. And I think that’s got real legs – well done for finding that. You’ve also got tons of photographs, haven’t you?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, yes. So, admittedly, we hold slightly fewer photographs within the ‘Ships, plan and survey reports’ collection than we would like; we do have a photographic archive. But essentially, they really feature surveyed vessels in a range of very different states. So, they are kind of found infrequently throughout the collection. But they typically feature vessels at sea: if they’re in service if they’re in ports, or in distress. And the bulk of them really document damage. So, it’s everything from brittle fractures, boiler explosions, shorn off gears, to full-scale collisions, to fire damage and war losses. So yes, they are really quite fascinating – I’m probably not really doing them justice in explaining some of these photographs, but they really are quite something.

    Sam Willis

    That’s great. And as always with archives, you have sort of nonspecific documents. I was always told – my PhD supervisor, Nicholas Rogers said, “Whatever you do, when you’re in an archive, look in the box that says miscellaneous, that is where you will find the most interesting material that no one has ever looked at before.” And I firmly, firmly, believe that I’ve been carrying on doing that all my professional life. But you do have lots of sort of unusual formats, different items that you come across, that don’t really necessarily count as any of the types we’ve discussed.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, absolutely. So, I mean, really, I suppose to kind of give a scale really of the project: so, the project is 1.2 5 million records, this is housed in approximately about 4,200 odd boxes. And of course, for a very long time, really, I suppose the exact content of these has been, is always a bit of an unknown. So, it’s always quite exciting whenever you bring a new box down, that hasn’t been looked at, because the chances are that really, it’s just absolutely jam-packed full of material that’s not really been discovered before. So, it’s great to be able to get that material processed and online and to being used. But as an aside from that, really, amongst all of the certificates and survey reports and plans, and photographs, we also discover quite mysterious records and unusual items that you certainly couldn’t predict. And you can’t really explain easily. So, everything from sort of, you know, doodles from a surveyor on a piece of paper that they’ve just thrown in with the box, to kind of business cards to iron samples and caulking samples, which we get quite regularly. But we also get things like sales pamphlets for cycling shoes and things like that. So, there are a couple that I must say that instantly springs to mind. One of these it was found within the box from the Hartlepool office, essentially amongst a number of records from the turn of the 20th century. And it was rolled up within a very large profile deck plan for a vessel that was built at Hartlepool. And it was a train timetable for Barry Island for about 1904. But exactly why we had it in the collection, we have absolutely no idea – whether or not it was the surveyor that was perhaps planning a trip or anything like that, and then subsequently rolled up this train timetable within the plan, we have absolutely no idea. But yes, it’s a very weird one. Very, very strange.

    Sam Willis

    It’s wonderful, actually. It does make me particularly think about ships that are going into the ice. It’s something that we focused on a bit on this podcast, we’ve been reading out entries from the logbook of a Whaler, the Swan of Hull, that gets stuck in the ice in 1836-1837. But you have some ships, particularly which were in your collection, which went up into the ice, didn’t you? I’m thinking of HMS Investigator – that’s one, isn’t it?

    Max Wilson

    Oh, this is actually this – so obviously yes, always the problem with the Royal Navy with the reuse of certain names. This is the HMS Investigates that we have within our collection is for Captain Flinders’ HMS Investigator, which was the first to circumnavigate Australia. But certainly, in terms of Arctic ships and Arctic explorers, we have so many. I must admit is one of, probably one of my, you know, really one of my favourite areas, in terms of maritime histories, specifically Arctic exploration. And one of those was, you know, we have the record for HMS Hecla. Which we were able to find within our collection, which was particularly fascinating. Obviously, she had an incredibly distinguished career, and I believe in – held the record for about 90 years – for a ship that was wintered the furthest north, I think travelled the furthest

    Sam Willis

    Tell us about HMS Hecla. So, its first quarter of the 19th century – 1815 or so?

    Max Wilson

    Yes. So, she was built in 1815, on the River Trent. And, yes, she went to the Arctic four times. Really, the first three times were in search of the Northwest Passage. And so she holds the record for having travelled the furthest west, in the Arctic in a single season in 1820, which, as I said before, I think she holds for about 90 years. But we were quite amazed really to discover her survey report. What’s particularly interesting about it is that I read a number of sources when I was looking into this ship, because a number of sources seem to suggest that really after her Arctic career – when she was essentially sold in about 1830-1831, and a lot of sort of eminent maritime historians have sort of specifically written that Hecla was essentially lost really to the records. Obviously, the Royal Navy would sell these vessels and then they would, they would generally only record the details of the sale, such as how much money was received, when it was sold, sometimes where. So, of course, after we had found this record, what was particularly interesting was that the surveyor had the foresight on the back of this report to say, “Oh, this is the same ship that Captain Parry went to the Arctic in to find the Northwest Passage. It’s very interesting. I’ve just spoken to the shipbuilder”. And it’s amazing that he did that because it would have been information that was absolutely useless to the committee back in London. So, it’s pure indulgence from his perspective, you know, but amazing.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, it’s wonderful. Just one example of so many different ships you have in your collection. Well, Max, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s just inspired me to come and find out as much as I possibly can about this wonderful collection. But I promise you, we’re going to get the ship plan of the Carpathia out there, so that everyone listening can have a look at that – that sounds wonderful. Max, I’m sure we’ll be coming back again to speak with you. Thank you so much.

    Max Wilson

    Thank you very much.

    Sam Willis

    Thank you all so much for listening today. Hopefully, this has inspired you to go into an archive yourself and start your own research. Do not be nervous! Take those first steps. There are people at every turn ready to help – it may well change your life. It certainly changed mine. I still vividly remember the first time I went to the National Archives, in Kew in London and ordered up a log of HMS Victory. I can’t believe that I was allowed to do it. I still really can’t believe that I can go any day and look at this wonderful, wonderful material. But access to historical archives, and in particular to national historical archives, is one of the great treasures of our democracy and that’s why you should all really take advantage of it. Enough for now – do please follow us online on Twitter, on Facebook. Do please check out that fabulous video of the boiler plan that we’ve animated – you can find that on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast YouTube channel and on our Facebook page. I’ve also opened up a strand on the Society for Nautical Research’s free forum @snr.org.uk for suggestions for the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, so please do log on and contribute there if you’ve got any ideas or get in touch in many of the numerous ways possible, but social media is always the best. That’s it for now do please check out the website snr.org.uk. And the best thing of all you can do is if you are not already a member, please join the Society for Nautical Research, and your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

Category: | | | | | |