Welcome to The Mariner’s Mirror Podcast!
Dr Sam Willis talks with David Davies, naval and maritime historian and author of naval fiction and Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, about the importance of maritime history. The plans for the podcast are laid out: this will be a podcast that brings our listeners the most important global stories in maritime history; gives behind the scenes and special access to maritime museums and archives around the world; and transports our listeners to the maritime past with original and previously unpublished historical sources and accounts.
SW: From the Society for Nautical Research, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Welcome, everyone, welcome aboard. This is a historic moment. It’s the launch of a podcast whose sole purpose is to spread the word around the world of the importance of maritime history, how it has impacted on so much of our history; how the sea has made us who we are today. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I’m absolutely delighted to be part of it. I’m chatting today with David Davies. He’s one of the UK’s leading maritime and naval scholars, and an author of naval fiction, David, you seem to tick all of the boxes! And he is also the chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, the organisation behind this very podcast. So David, welcome to the podcast, but I suspect you should actually be welcoming me as you were really the driver behind this idea.
DD: Thank you, Sam. Well, it’s great to be here. And I’m really looking forward to launching this project.
SW: So why do we need maritime history? In general? That’s one hell of a question. But why do we need maritime history? And also, why do we need a maritime history podcast?
DD Well, we’ll take your second question. First, we need one simply because there isn’t one at the moment, or at least there isn’t one with the sort of breadth we’re aiming for covering all sorts of themes, all sorts of periods, everything that can possibly be defined as maritime history. And for me – when it comes to maritime history and why we need it – I mean, how long have you got?! I mean, think, for example, about one issue that’s dominating the news at the moment other than COVID, obviously, which is the whole question of race, Black Lives Matter. Why are different populations, different communities in the countries they’re in? You can’t actually understand that whole set of questions properly, unless you know about the maritime history behind it. You know, in relation to race, you need to be thinking about the transatlantic slave trade, you need to be thinking about maritime dimensions that explains that, in the UK, the Windrush generation, well, the Windrush was a ship, you know, so many of these aspects, come down to maritime history. Again, think about world cities, some of the great world cities, and where they are: New York, London, Amsterdam, perhaps especially Singapore, those cities exist because of maritime trades to a considerable extent, their histories are shaped by maritime trade. So I think this podcast, we’re going to be exploring these sorts of questions, and hopefully trying to come up with some sorts of answers. I think this is going to be a tremendous new innovation. And perhaps if I just say a little bit about the name
SW: Yes, let’s do that! We can’t ignore the name
DD: The Mariner’s Mirror podcast. The Mariner’s Mirror is, of course, the Journal of the Society of Nautical Research, the SNR. It’s the journal we’ve had since its first issue in 1911. It’s the world’s premier international journal of maritime history. And it really is, you know, the main force, as far as we’re concerned – but we would say that anyway! – in international maritime history. So welcome, everybody. This is the Mariners Mirror podcast.
SW: That’s right. We wanted to carry on the Society for Nautical Research’s reputation for leading global scholarship, leading journalism relating to maritime history and bring it into an audio format. It’s fascinating what you were saying about a global history there and the importance of it. And if you think about it like this, actually, the whole history of the world to start with was all about humanity spreading out from only a handful of origins in the world. And then it’s all been the history of everyone coming back together again, and so much of that going away and coming back together actually happened by sea, which is why it’s so important that we understand it, that we get to grips with our maritime history.
We’ve been thinking a great deal and chatting together about the topics the direction we want to take for this podcast. I’m a bit like a kid in a sweet shop thinking about this: I began my life as a maritime and naval historian and, having travelled the world making TV documentaries, it now feels a bit like coming home. Personally, I’m never happier than being near, in, or on the sea. And if I can’t do any of those, then writing about it, or as we’re doing now, then talking about the sea is very much the next best thing.
With a blank canvas ahead of us, I’ve chosen a number of topics and themes or – I suppose – priorities that I would really want to explore in the coming weeks and hopefully, years that this podcast is going to exist.
The first point is that it will be a maritime podcast very, very broadly conceived: It will cover all aspects of the maritime world. So – ships, yes! of course! sail, steam, leisure, but also seapower and the history of navies and the control of the sea. We’re interested in lakes and rivers as much as we are with the history of the sea. And although we see the sea as an important location for history in its own right, we’ve also got to remember those fabulous stories that are just waiting to be told of all of the people who work in the liminal coastal areas and are profoundly influenced in their own lives by the sea and have been profoundly influenced over the centuries.
DD: Yes, I think this has been one of the great features, especially in the last 10 to 20 years with interest in maritime history expanding enormously, and people have been branching out into all sorts of areas that weren’t even on the radar at all when I started studying this field far too many years ago than I prefer to remember!
It has become much more multi-disciplinary. Maritime history has always when it has done well covered subjects like political history, economic history, social history, all sorts of areas. But now it’s broadened way beyond that: as you say, people are looking at the histories of coastal communities, people are looking at issues of gender and sexuality, in relation to seafarers. People are looking at the literary elements of the sea and of ships. And actually, I only learned this a few months ago – this is absolutely fantastic – people are studying the history of boredom at sea! Not just one person, there are several people looking at this, which is brilliant, because let’s face it, anybody who’s been on a long sea voyage, knows that it can get pretty boring. Now, as you say, I write naval fiction. And we never say this. Because we want everyone to believe that life at sea is incredibly exciting all the time! Because no, it isn’t! And this would have been a major factor with seafarers. And I think the fact that people have now woken up to this, and are actually studying it academically, is one of the tremendous developments that’s been taking place.
SW: Absolutely. What we want to do is really celebrate modern scholarship as well. And I think everyone will be absolutely amazed that the ingenuity, the creativity, that is being applied to history of all sorts, but particularly to maritime and naval history; it’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to call myself a maritime historian. And one interesting aspect here is that, yes, we’ll be talking about the history of ships, we’ll be talking about what are obviously maritime themes, but I’m particularly interested in picking out the maritime strands of topics which you would not necessarily suspect have their own maritime history.
So we know we’ve got the celebrations or the commemorations of the Battle of Britain coming up, but everyone thinks that it’s all to do with aeroplanes flying up in the sky, but there’s a very important maritime naval aspect to it. So that’s one example.
So this will be a podcast about obvious maritime things, but also about unexpected ones as well. And we’re going to organise it in a kind of a magazine style: I will be taking the lead interviewing all sorts of people, historians, yes. But I’m also interested in working with people, talking to people who work in the modern world, but they have one foot in the past. I want to talk to people who keep traditional maritime skills alive – sailing, boat building, woodworking, rope making, and from there, right up to major players in international business.
I’m particularly delighted that one of our earliest interviews, one of our first guests is going to be the CEO of P&O. And they’ll be able to give us a perspective on how the passenger and freight services of P and O ferries today very closely aligned to P&O’s origins, and with clear parallels between past and present.
DD: I’m very excited about this particular dimension; my previous life was spent in education, it’s a great passion of mine. One of the things that strikes me here is this whole question of keeping traditional crafts alive. At the moment, for example, we’re in discussions with HMS Victory, about whether it might be possible for us to support apprenticeships, perhaps also some other ways of getting traditional skills perpetuated. And for example, they need to restore quite a few with a gun carriages on HMS Victory. Obviously, to do that properly, you need to have the traditional skills that the people working with wooden gun carriages in the 18th and 19th centuries would have had. So I mean, I think this works both ways: It’s actually about the ancient skills that are being carried over in the modern world, but also, the skills that the modern world is now taking back to use on the heritage we’ve inherited from previous generations.
SW: Yeah, and those, those skills are so important. And actually, it’s really encapsulated in HMS Victory. I was there recently. And our first episode is actually going to be on the restoration of victory. So standby for that. But I was looking at the taking down the rig there replacing the rigging, and it’s immensely complicated. And I suddenly thought, what! who knows how this goes back together! I really, really hope there are more than, say, three people in the world that could actually put the rig of a first rate sailing man of war back together. And we need to have people who can learn and preserve those skills for the future.
Now, on top of this kind of interview format, what I want to do particularly is to bring you wonderful listeners out there actual history to transform you back to the past by your ears, if you would. We’re doing this by teaming up with museums around the world who have oral history collections. For example, we’ve got some great material lined up from the wonderful Hudson River museum who have an outstanding collection of oral history relating to commercial fishing.
And we’re even having traditional stories told directly to you. Now, this is fantastic. A great example of this will be on planned episodes with the National Maritime Museum of Australia, who are helping us arrange interviews with First Nation peoples who have active storytelling traditions – passed down through the generations – of when Captain Cook arrived in Australia, that’s going to be so exciting, talking to First Nations people and seeing how they keep those cultures and those memories alive.
And when there are not oral histories be told we’re going to bring some original sources to life, we’re going to be reading out extracts from diaries, and from logbooks and throughout this podcast there are going to be opportunities for people to volunteer to help us all out. And that’s a great one. If you want to read out a bit of a diary from whatever it might be – I’m travelling to the SS Great Britain to discuss with them their collections next week. A wonderful example. It’s got the most fabulous archive of diaries from the SS Great Britain and you want to read one out you want to get your voice on the podcast do you please get in touch with us. I’ll tell you at the end how to do so.
Logbooks is a particular subject that I’m very fascinated in at the moment. And it’s important to point out here that it’s an example of just how crucial maritime history can be. Because in recent years, historians have realised that one of the most influential sources for studying the history of climate change is maritime logbooks, the astonishingly accurate and carefully recorded material kept in those logbooks. We will certainly bring you interviews about how logbooks are currently being used on the front line in the war against climate change, but to keep that front and centre of the podcast, what we’re going to be doing is having a regular brief piece in each and every podcast like a historic shipping forecast for one particular day in history, so we can literally transport you somewhere extraordinary in the past.
Now, for this we’re also looking for volunteers to help! You get the wonderful job of sourcing extracts from interesting logbooks, I was thinking of taking them from the Beagle. That’s the ship that was captained by Robert Fitzroy that Darwin’s sailed on in his first voyage around the world between 1831 or 1836, or perhaps from Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, or even HMS Victory in the run up to the Battle of Trafalgar. But we’re going to have a little repeatable section, bringing you the weather from somewhere very, very long ago.
The interviews themselves are going to be hugely varied, we’re going to start off with some very broadly conceived discussions about the importance of the sea in history. We’ve lined up the extraordinary Felipe Fernandez Armesto, who is William P. Reynolds, professor of history at Notre Dame, and one of the leading authorities in global history – in world history. And also Lincoln Paine, an American scholar, an expert on the way that the sea has shaped civilization. Further down the road further down the river, I should probably say we’ve got interviews lined up with specific subjects in mind. Among those are Professor Kate Williams. She’s going to be talking to us on the relationship between Nelson and Emma Hamilton. It’s an extraordinary relationship that was regarded at the time as a challenge to traditional gender roles, and didn’t conform to stereotypes that are usually attributed to men and women in a heterosexual. relationship. We’ll also be speaking to Marianne Czisnik who’s just authored a new volume for the Navy Records Society on exactly this topic. We’ve also going to be talking to Dr. Miranda Kauffman, who’s agreed to talk to us about Africans in Tudor and Stuart port towns, and particularly the Africans who sailed with Drake on the Golden Hind.
Shipwrecks and maritime archaeology, you will certainly not be forgotten. We’ve got a really important introduction to this subject, an interview lined up with Nautical Archaeology Society to talk about shipwrecks, and one of the earliest ones I want to cover in this series will be the wreck of the London which, David, I believe is probably quite close to your heart being smack bang in the middle of your 17th century home.
DD: It is very close to my heart indeed. And there’s some tremendous work being done on the wreck of the London by Steve Ellis and a tremendous team of divers and volunteers down in Southend in Essex. Just to explain the London was a second rate man of war originally built for Cromwell’s Navy. But in 1665, under the King Charles the second, she’s fitting for the second Anglo Dutch war in the mouth of the river Thames – suddenly blows up, not enemy action at all. It’s an accident, nobody’s ever been able to establish the exact cause of the accident. But there is so much brilliant material being brought up from this wreck and I hope we’ll really have a chance to explore some of those. And it’s a fascinating history because one of the things about the loss of the London is that we know for a fact, partly because it’s in Samuel Pepys’s diary, that they were women aboard her when she blew up Now, why are they there? What are they doing there? Who are they? That’s a very, very interesting subject for discussion.
SW: Absolutely. I can’t wait to do that. So yes, we’re going to be talking about ships and ship wrecks in terms of maritime archaeology but I’m very interested in more broadly conceived maritime archaeological subjects. I’m particularly interested in maritime landscapes. In fact, I wrote about ‘smuggling landscapes in Cornwall’, for my MA in maritime archaeology at the University of Bristol. It was many years ago now. And I’m also interested in submerged maritime landscapes.
Now we’re going to be speaking with CITIZAN coastal and intertidal zone, archaeological network and they’re going to be suggesting and talking about the threat of coastal erosion to a wealth of foreshore and intertidal sites. These archaeological features encompass a huge timespan. Many are of considerable local and also national significance, and most have no statutory protection. It’s a fascinating area of maritime archaeology, we will certainly bring that to you. For those of you who are interested in historic ships and vessels, obviously, that’s at the core of what we’re going to be doing. And we’re going to be launching a very important strand, talking about historic ships in general, but also bringing you dedicated episodes from those who operate historic ships all over the world. We’re going to be starting with HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, as I said, She’s currently undergoing fascinating and cutting edge restoration. And as I mentioned, the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s iron-hulled, steam powered, all singing, all dancing, amazing passenger liner, which is at Bristol. It’s a wonderful thing. I worked there very briefly, as a younger man. And we started with those two ships, primarily because the Society for Nautical Research played such an important role in preserving them for the nation. So it’s something we’re very proud of.
DD: We are indeed. So the campaign on the SS Great Britain originated with Ewan Corlett and other senior members of SNR. The Victory was actually one of the main reasons why the Society came into existence in the first place. It was one of the first goals, major goals of the Society. And we still administer what’s called a ‘Save the Victory Fund’, which was set up in 1921 to, as the name says, save the ship. And we still give from that fund substantial grants each year to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which now owns the ship to, for example, recently, refurbish a new gallery, the original Victory gallery – very, very close to the ship. I’m sure many people listening to this will have been there. But I’ve had a sneak preview and it’s going to be a tremendous new exhibition, a completely new one in refitted space. It was meant to open this year. It’s now hopefully opening early next year, and it’s going to be absolutely tremendous. And as I say we are absolutely delighted and honoured to have been able to contribute to that particular project.
SW: From these big ships, these major projects which cost millions and millions to keep going we’ll be taking you to fascinating smaller projects wherever we can find them, starting with my absolute favourite, which is the Peggy an armed yachts on the Isle of Man, a beautiful little vessel from the 18th century, one of only a handful of ships that have actually survived for that long from the 18th century and she survived because she spent almost the entire time in her owner’s boathouse and was basically walled in and was more or less disinterred and rediscovered, and the SNR has a link with the Peggy as well.
But we’re not even restricting this historic vessel strand ships. An important subsection is going to look at aircraft which have significant maritime connections, such as those maintained by the wonderful Fly Navy Heritage Trust. They have an astonishing collection of historic naval aircraft, and I’m rather hoping they’ll take me up on a swordfish or a sea fury, though David I’m completely terrified of helicopters, so I’m going to avoid the Westland Wasp. However, historically important is it looks very fragile. I might send you off to go do that.
DD: I’ve actually been up in a Westland Wasp, but it’s absolutely fine. Absolutely nothing. Nothing to be worried about at all. Sam.
SW: How did you get the chance to do that?
DD: Whisper it softly… in the days when I was technically a sub Lieutenant RNR in a very obscure the branch the CCF, which provided the cadet training in British schools. And we had days down in Portland where you could go up in various aircraft, including various types of helicopters. I have actually been up in a Westland Wasp.
SW: Very good. Well, I’ll see if I can maybe go up and we can talk about it. Museums and archives. We will be taking you to –all around the world – different maritime museums. Here are a list of just some of the ones that are coming your way and it’s enough to whet the appetite, the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Museo Storico Navale di Venezia – the Naval Museum in Venice, the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, the Mary Rose, Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the Dartmouth Royal Naval College, the Hudson River Museum, the utterly fabulous Lloyd’s Register Foundation in London – they’re all lined up.
We’re not just going to be doing the big hitters, but also the little projects you might have set up on your own – wonderful little private endeavours that have been designed to help preserve our maritime past – you energetic geniuses out there, thank you so much for doing all of that hard work and you are not forgotten! My current favourite is the Maritime Pets Museum they’re set up to foster an appreciation of animals living or working on or near the water. Pets that collaborate with man in times of peace and war, the museum documents their contributions and promotes safe and humane treatment of animals who live or work on or near the world’s waterways.
Now I’m particularly interested in this David because I have a dog…Hello, hello Mo. And he’s broken both of his front legs, he can’t really go for walks anymore. So I have to take him swimming every day. He’s a little spaniel. And he’s like an otter. He’s a true maritime dog. And I think we should make him…Every ship should have a pet…and this should be the podcast’s maritime pet.
One final strand I really want to talk about is music. It’s always been very close to my heart and we can’t possibly have a maritime podcast without maritime music. Music and the maritime world are inseparable. As with all history, it’s very difficult to imagine the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the music that went along with life and I really want to make that a strong part of this podcast.
I’ve got a number of fascinating people lined up and it will be headed by the fabulous Steve Knightley. He’s the songwriter behind Show of Hands. One of the UK’s leading folk bands that I think are fast reaching the status of national treasure. You could either find them lurking in pubs in Devon or selling out the Albert Hall. I’m going to bring them directly to wherever you will be listening. I know they’ve just – for example – reworked a song called Bristol slaver. They did that in the days following the unrest in Bristol this summer, which led to the dumping of the statue of slave owner Edward Colston into the very harbour where his slave ships once docked. So I promise you there will be some music, some fascinating lyrics and talking to musicians and poets as well, inspired by the maritime world.
To finish off every episode, we’re going to keep you updated on any debates or queries that we have on our free forum on the society’s website at www.snr.org.uk. Here are a couple of interesting examples first from Linden Pritchard. Thanks for getting in touch Linden. We really appreciate it. Linden says, ‘I recently started a project on Facebook with a page archiving images and information on the UK’s light vessel service collating the various stations that each light vessel served on, and trying to identify each of the light vessel stations’. That’s some project Lindon. ‘If anyone has images where the light vessel or crew is identified visible in the photo or from the image description or anything related to the subject, please leave a reply’. So he’s got a Facebook page ‘Light vessels and light ships’ and you can see that query on our forum. That’s a good place to reply.
And another query here from Derek Law, six sloops from the Royal Indian Navy were built in the UK in the Second World War and spent some time in home waters. The official history describes this in a paragraph, but three were awarded Atlantic battle honours, and all six took part in convoy battles, peripherally in the Bismarck hunt, and even in Winston special convoys’. That’s interesting. ‘Discovering their roles involves extracting small nuggets of information from literally dozens of sources’. So he’s got a real problem here trying to find out the history of these ships. He continues, ‘Any suggestions on sources, particularly of personal recollections much appreciated. Also any information on the Irish Sea escort force, which has been little described.’
So that’s another query again, you can find that on our Forum. All of this material is going to be posted online, we’re going to have our podcast episodes online, which is at our website, snr.org.uk. Please follow us on Twitter @nauticalhistory and on Facebook. And if you’ve got any ideas, you want to volunteer, you want to help out you want to get involved somehow, we’d love to hear from you. You can email me Sam Willis firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now please bear in mind that this podcast doesn’t exist without you guys out there listening. So anyone who shares our podcast episode or link on social media will get mentioned! We’ll will mention every single one of you. And so please become involved and help us spread the word and I look forward to hearing from every single one of you. But that’s it for now. From me, Sam Willis and from David Davis. And thank you so much for listening. We’re very excited about what’s going to be coming your way.