Category Archives: maritime history

Falklands then and now: Auxiliaries

One of the biggest, but most overlooked, lessons of the Falklands War was the immense contribution of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Yet, over 25 years later, not only has the RFA been decimated by succesive defence cuts, its very existence is currently under question.

There are wider lessons from military history here. Both Marlborough and Wellington have become known as logistics Generals. In the modern era, Montgomery was known for his penchant for fighting ‘tidy’ battles, and keeping his line of communications in good order. Famously, an inability to supply both Montgomery and Patton led to the allied advance in the late summer of 1944 grinding to a halt. For all the modern technology on offer, we ignore logistics at our peril.

How has it transpired that economic factors have brought about the very real spectre of the Royal Navy’s support and logistics arm being privatised? And what impact does this have on the Royal Navy’s warfighting capability?

The picture in 1982

RFA Olmeda replenishing HMS Invincible in 1985

RFA Olmeda replenishing HMS Invincible in 1985

In 1982 the Royal Fleet Auxiliary consited of 27 ships (6 of them were Round Table Class Landing Ships, which have been included under Amphibious Warfare). A total of 22 of these were deployed to the Falklands, demonstrating the immense effort required to keep the Task Force fighting 8,000 miles from the UK.

Five stores ships were deployed: two of the Fort Austin Class, two of the Regent Class, and Stromness. In addition there were also Five Fleet Tankers deployed – these were especially critical, due to their ability and experience in Replenishing up to 3 ships at once while underway. Also crucial were the Five Leaf Class support tankers, which although designed for transporting fuel between terminals, but could pass fuel to the fleet tankers and other ships at sea if needed. A Helicopter Support Ship, Engadine, was also despatched to the South Atlantic.

These ships were heavily supplemented by a large number of Merchant ships, either Requisitioned or Chartered by the Ministry of Defence. Among them were Oil Tankers, supply ships, and repair ships. Other Merchant ships supported the Amphibious Group as troop ships and transports. I will consider the potential for the use of Merchant vessels in my next instalment.

The picture in 2009

A RAS (replenishment at sea) underway

A RAS (replenishment at sea) underway

The RFA is a much smaller flotilla than in 1982. Although its contribution to the Falklands War was duly noted, in the following years its vessels have been succesively cut or simply not replaced.

The RFA in 2009 consists of 17 vessels, 4 of these being the Bay Class Landing Ships. In essence, there are 13 supply ships available to support the Royal Navy’s operations worldwide. The two Wave Class fast fleet tankers entered service in 2003. There are also two ageing ships of the Rover Class remaining, and 3 equally old ships of the Leaf Class of Support tankers. In terms of supply ships the two Fort Grange class ships are still in service, and the two ships of the Fort Victoria class entered service in 1993. RFA Argus, the former Contender Bezant, was acquired by the RFA after the Falklands to provide aviation training, and can also operate as an aircraft transport. MV Stena Inspector, which saw action in the Falklands, was purchased in 1983 as a Forward Repair ship and renamed RFA Diligence. She has also operated as a mothership for minesweepers.

In terms of numbers the RFA has dwindled since 1982. When we consider that many of the ships quoted above will be in refit, or on operations around the world, the picture is even more stark. Frequently RFA vessels are called upon to perform patrol tasks that would normally be allocated to Frigates or Destroyers, such is the shortage of escort vessels in the Royal Navy. Recently one of the Wave Class tankers was roundly criticised for not taking on pirates in the Gulf of Aden: yet it seems to have occured to no-one that she shouldnt be expected to fight pirates in the first place.

Currently, HMS Gold Rover is in the South Atlantic, and RFA Wave Knight and RFA Bayleaf in the Red Sea. Between 2001 and 2006 RFA Diligence spent almost 5 years away from the UK. RFA Fort George has just returned from the North Atlantic patrol, and RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Fort Austin are undergoing refit. As with any ships, once operations, refits and training are taken into account, the ‘bottom line’ number of hulls is much less.

In Conclusion:

Clearly, putting together a fleet of RFA vessels to support any task force to the South Atlantic, as in 1982, would be a thankless task. This is perhaps the one critical element of the British armed forces that would make an such an operation impossible. Put simply, the Royal Navy could not supply and maintain a large task force far from home, without friendly support.

Worryingly, the forecast is not any better. Reportedly the MOD is reviewing the RFA, supposedly under the banner of ‘cost-effectiveness’. However, it is strongly rumoured that the Commercial shipping industry has been lobbying for the task of supplying the Royal Navy. This might save costs and give trade to the private sector, but can the Royal Navy be effectively supported by what would be foreign flagged, non-military standard vessels? I strongly suspect not.

With a lack of dedicated military support vessels, what support could be expected from the Merchant Navy? I plan to examine this in the next instalment. But after even some cursory research, I feel that the picture will not be any brighter.


Filed under Falklands War, maritime history, Navy, rfa, Uncategorized

Guest Blogging for the Historic Dockyard

I’m very happy to announce that soon I will be beginning a guest spot the blog of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

I will be writing about the Dockyard, its buildings, the people who have worked there, its ships, the Royal Navy, events going on there and all manner of things to do with Portsmouth and the Navy. Its difficult to know where to start – there are so many interesting stories and subjects, and loads of little gems that few people know about!

The Historic Dockyard is the largest maritime visitor destination in the UK, in the home of the Royal Navy and the country’s principal Naval Port. Home to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose, the Royal Naval Museum, Action Stations and the Dockyard Apprentice Museum, it is also one of the south-coasts busiest tourist attractions and a vital part of Portsmouth’s Heritage.

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Filed under Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Navy, site news

The Admirals by Andrew Lambert

Britain achieved un-paralleld global dominance for hundreds of years, through one factor more than any over – her naval power. And Island nation, surrounded by potential enemies, will always have to develop a powerful Navy for self defence. And naturally it is but a small progression from using a Navy to defend your island homeland, to asserting your dominance around the world.

Culturally, the Royal Navy has grown to become a very part of the fabric of Britain, and this is very much thanks to the importance that it has had in British history. Eminent naval Historian Andrew Lambert looks at the men who shaped the Royal Navy into one of the most succesful fighting forces in History.

One crucial – and I would argue positive – ommission is that of Lord Nelson. Too often Nelson has overshadowed some just as crucial Naval commanders in British history. More than enough has been written about Nelson, and this approach makes a refreshing change.

Lambert starts off looking at the career of Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral who led the British Navy’s fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588. This reminds us quite usefully that there was a British Navy before Nelson. We then have interesting chapters on Anson, Hood, Jervis, Parker, Fisher, Beatty and Cunningham.

There are some brave issues of selection – focussing on Beatty instead of Jellicoe. A modern perspective might also be interesting – to look at figures such as Henry Leach, John Fieldhouse and Sandy Woodward. The Royal Navy is smaller, and command has changed – but the same ethos and tradition still remains. People such as Captain David Hart-Dyke of HMS Coventry, and Captain Bill Coward of HMS Brilliant during the Falklands are of the same lineage as the sea dogs in this book.

This book is a useful reminder of a statement that Cunningham once made:

‘it takes one day to lose a battle, but two hundred years to build a tradition’.


Filed under Book of the Week, Falklands War, maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

British Battleships 1939-45(2): Nelson and King George V Class- Angus Konstam

Nelson and King George V Class Battleships

Nelson and King George V Class Battleships

I can recall first reading an Angus Konstam Osprey book at University, studying eighteenth century piracy. Then, some years later, I was researching an officer who served onboard a Motor Torpedo Boat on D-Day, and searching for an Osprey book on Fairmile D class MTB’s. You’ve guessed it, Angus Konstam wrote it. So to see this new book written by Konstam shows how broad his expertise runs. Versatility is a much under-rated quality for a Historian to have.

Britain began the second world war as the worlds primary Naval power. In 1939, as in 1815, Britannia could legitimately claim to rule the waves. But, as Konstam argues, the cracks were already beginning to appear. Although she possessed 12 Battleships, 10 of them were over 20 years old and had served in the first world war. Britain had paid a heavy financial burden between 1914 and 1918, and Naval expansion was one area that looked likely to suffer. And after being out-maneouvred in several Naval treaties in the 20’s and 30’s, the Royal Navy and her ship designers were at a severe disadvantage when 1939 beckoned. An example, if every any is needed, of the dangers of politicians hampering their own armed forces.

This book looks at the story behind the construction of two classes of ships which illustrate the situation the Royal Navy found itself in. Restricted by the Washington treaty to not exceed 35,000 tons, the Nelson class was planned as a compromise. The two ships, Nelson and Rodney, had a bizarre shape, with all of their main guns forward, and the superstucture sited aft. Although they looked odd, they proved to be very capable seaboats, stable gun platforms and gave sterling service – HMS Rodney proved pivotal in finally sinking the Bimarck in 1941. A valuable insight for those who think the new Daring class Destroyers ugly – if it works, it works. Wellington’s redcoats might not have looked as smart as the Imperial Guard at Waterloo, but they beat them off all the same.

By the late 1930’s it was clear that Germany, Italy and Japan were not going to abide by their treaty obligations. Britain had stuck to her obligations for much longer, and as a result found herself severely behind with augmenting her Battleship fleet. The solution was a new class of Battleships, the King George V class. Designed on the eve of war, they were built and entered service in the early years of the war. So urgent was the need to get them into service that HMS Prince of Wales sailed to take on the Bismarck with civilian workmen still onboard. As much as the class provided a valuable boost the Royal Navy, they still had their weaknesses. Their anti-aircraft defences were woefully undergunned, as shown by the loss of the Prince of Wales off Singapore in 1941. The days of the Battleship were increasingly numbered.

This book charts the story of the second world war British battleship beautifully. Konstam has to be one of the most foremost British naval historians. With an array of action photos, and Osprey’s ubiquitous illustrations and diagrams, this is an essential read for Naval enthusiasts. I can imagine this book being of real use if I was looking to build myself a nice scale model of Nelson or Prince of Wales. Now, theres a thought…

British Battleships 1939-45(2): Nelson and King George V Class is published by Osprey

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Filed under Book of the Week, maritime history, Navy, World War One, World War Two

Youtube picks

Soldier Set for Miss England

New target system for Apache

Cold War – the Berlin Wall

Biffy Clyro – The Captain

And for more historical videos and music, check out the Daly History Youtube Channel

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, cold war, maritime history, Music, On TV, videos

Bay Class Landing ships

It was a busy day in Portsmouth Harbour earlier today, as RFA Mounts Bay and RFA Largs Bay left and arrived in the Naval Base respectively.

Largs Bay and Mounts Bay are two ships from the Bay Class of LSL (Landing Ship Logistics) vessels, manned by the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. The Bay class ships were ordered to replace the ageing Round Table class Landing ships, all of which saw service in the Falklands War, with Sir Galahad being sunk and Sir Tristram being seriously damaged. They are considerably larger, weighing in at 16,000 tons.

The Bay class have a similar role to their predecessors – to support amphibious landings, and provide amphibious capability alongside HMS Albion, Bulwark and Ocean. Between them, the Navy’s seven amphibious ships are capable of lifting the entire 3 Commando Brigade.

In any amphibious task group, the key vessels are the LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) and LPD (Landing Platform Dock) ships. These provide the landing craft and helicopters to allow the first wave to secure the beachead. The LSL’s can then offload their heavy vehicles. To do this the ships have two 30 ton cranes on deck.

The Bay class ships have a large vehicle deck, which opens out at the back of the ship to a stern door and internal dock. Landing Craft, carried by Ocean, Bulwark of Albion, can drive right up to the vehicle deck. The vehicle deck can accomodate 24 Challenger Tanks, or more than 150 light jeep type vehicles. This is almost three times the capacity of their predecessors. They can also carry 350 troops for long periods, or up to 700 in the short term. The large helicopter dock has two landing spots, capable of operating two medium sized helicopters such as the Merlin. There is no permanent Hangar, but some of the ships have a retro-fitted aircraft shelter.

They have no weapons of their own – presuming that escort vessels would provide air defence – but have emplacement for 30mm guns and Phalanx systems should the need arise.

I’ve been onboard Mounts Bay and the vessel is designed very much like a roll on roll off ferry, everything is designed to allow for ease of getting on and off as quick as possible.

They are very light on crew, carrying only 60 officers and men of the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. This is somewhat cheaper than them being manned by the Royal Navy. Also, when not in use for amphibious operations the ships have a secondary role of transporting vehicles around the globe.

That the Royal Navy insists on having such a powerful amphibious force is strange. We have stronger assault capability than we had during the Falklands War, but we have only a tiny fraction of the escort vessels and submarines needed to defend such an operation, and our potential to provide air cover via aircraft carriers is also hanging in the balance. It is no doubt impressive to see so many capable ships in the Navy’s listings, but curious given how imbalanced it makes Fleet. Perhaps the Navy sees itself in the role of deploying forces by sea into troublespots around the world, which is very sensible but troubling given that we lack the Frigates and Destroyers and also the supply vessels to make this possible.

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Filed under maritime history, Navy, out and about

Victoria Cross Heroes – Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

In the annals of history, there is no doubt that to perform a feat of such bravery to be nominated for a Victoria Cross, putting your life and limb on the line is part and parcel of the action. As unpleasant as it is, in all war, there is a chance that you might not make it home.

But some people take it a step further, and when faced with a difficult decision stare death in the face. This is not suicidal, because action in a suicidal manner is reckless. This is a calculated, balanced judgement, to take on the enemy when you’re heavily outgunned. A judgement that Second World War Destroyer Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope made.

On the 8th April, 1940, H.M.S. Glowworm was proceeding alone in heavy weather towards a rendezvous in West Fjord, when she met and engaged two enemy destroyers, scoring at least one hit on them. The enemy broke off the action and headed North. The Commanding Officer at once gave chase. The German heavy cruiser, Admiral Hipper, was sighted closing the Glowworm at high speed. Because of the heavy sea, the Glowworm could not shadow the enemy and the Commanding Officer therefore decided to attack with torpedoes and then to close in order to inflict as much damage as possible. Five torpedoes were fired and later the remaining five, but without success. The Glowworm was badly hit; one gun was out of action and her speed was much reduced, but with the other three guns still firing she closed and rammed the Admiral’ Hipper. As the Glowworm drew away, she opened fire again and scored one hit at a range of 400 yards. The Glowworm, badly stove in forward and riddled with enemy fire, heeled over to starboard, and the Commanding Officer gave the order to abandon her. Shortly afterwards she capsized and sank. The Admiral Hipper hove to for at least an hour picking up survivors but the loss of life was heavy, only 31 out of the Glowworm’s complement of 149 being saved. The VICTORIA CROSS is bestowed in recognition of the great valour of the Commanding Officer who, after fighting off a superior force of destroyers, sought out and reported a powerful enemy unit, and then fought his ship to the end against overwhelming odds, finally ramming the enemy with supreme coolness and skill.

Gerard Roope as last seen holding onto a rope dropped by the Admiral Hipper, but could not hold on and presumably drowned. The Captain of the Admiral Hipper was so impressed by the valour shown by HMS Glowworm that he ensured the British authorities were informed, via the Red Cross. Full details only emerged after the war, however, and Roope’s widow and son were presented with his Victoria Cross in 1946.

To this day Royal Navy Commanders are taught that one day, they may have to make the same sacrifice as Roope. During the Falklands War in 1982, Commander Christopher Craig, was ordered to take HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, attack anything in the way, and zig zag around the entrance of Falkland Sound to check it if was mined. Hitting a mine would have spelt disaster for the small frigate. Craig could have expected very high praise indeed if Alacrity had been sunk, but as she was not, almost nothing is remembered of her story.

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Filed under Falklands War, maritime history, Navy, Remembrance, victoria cross, World War Two

204 years since Trafalgar

The Death of Nelson, Benjamin West

'The Death of Nelson', Benjamin West

204 years ago today the Royal Navy, under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, in a monumental sea battle off the coast of South West Spain.

The Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy fleet in port for several years. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte hatched a plan to invade England. This would require the French fleet, with the support of their Spanish allies, to gain control of the English Channel, to allow the French Army to invade Southern England. To do this, the French attempted to lure the British fleet to the Carribean.

The plan almost worked. The British were lured to the Carribean, but hurriedly returned and prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching the Channel. The British then kept them bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Meanwhile, Napoleon had tired of his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve’s failures, and replaced him.

Before his replacement arrived, however, Villeneuve – with nothing to lose – put to sea, intent on fighting the Royal Navy.

The sides were not exactly evenly matched. Although the French and Spanish outnumbered the British by 33 to 27, the British sailors were far better trained, could produce a far greater rate of fire, and were far better seamen. This countered the enemies superiority in terms of the size of its ships. The Spanish in particular boasted the biggest ship in the world, the 136 gun, four-deck Santissima Trinidad. But the French and Spanish had spent many years cooped up in harbour, and had many inexperienced men onboard.

After briefing his Captains, his famous Band of Brothers, Nelson hoisted his famous ‘England Expects’ signal. The battle plan was ingenious. Dividing his fleet into two squadrons, they sailed parallel towards the enemy line. After suffering heavy damage as they approached the French and Spanish, once they broke the line they inflicted heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British had captured 22 ships, although many of these were sunk in a heavy storm after the battle.

The Death of Nelson, however, cast a sombre mood over the victory. Although he certainly had his faults – his adultery and treatment of his wife, and his excessive vanity – he was the nearest that England has ever come to a secular saint. Nelson and Trafalgar would shape the Royal Navy, and British culture, for centuries to come.

Despite the fact that it confirmed British superiority of the worlds oceans for over 100 years, the battle was perhaps not so important in the overall scheme of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had already given up the invasion of Britain, and had marched east to the battle of Austerlitz. Although it would be 10 years before Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, Trafalgar did however mean that no matter how succesful Napoleon was in Europe, Britain would always be free to fight back.

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Filed under maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy

Charles Darwin’s instrument maker?

Charles Darwin: a Portsmouth connection?

Charles Darwin: a Portsmouth connection?

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, perhaps the most famous naturalist of all time and the first man to pioneer the groundbreaking theory of evolution. Whilst his importance is well known, how he came to formulate his ideas is much less well known. In amongst these momentous events, we also find a Portsmouth connection that has been largely overlooked.

In 1831 Captain Robert Fitzroy was looking for a scientifically minded person to join him onboard HMS Beagle for what was planned to be a lengthy surveying voyage around South America and the South Pacific. After a few enquiries he was put in contact with Charles Darwin, a young scientific gentleman. Also onboard was George James Stebbing, the son of a Portsmouth nautical instrument maker who was onboard to maintain the ships instruments. George was also the elder brother of Joseph Stebbing, who would later become the Mayor of Southampton.

The voyage eventually lasted for 6 years, with HMS Beagle returning to England in 1837. During that time Darwin had observed much that would shape his later theories, especially around the Galapagos Islands. The voyage of the Beagle is, perhaps fittingly, known as Darwin’s voyage of discovery.

Among a very small crew, Fitzroy, Darwin and Stebbing would have been the only ‘gentleman’ on board, and it is not difficult to imagine them spending the long hours, days and weeks at sea discussing science and nature. Maybe Stebbing contributed towards Darwin’s ideas?

When he returned to England George James Stebbing went on to be a leading figure in Portsmouth, before he became the first Instrument Maker to the new Meteorological Office. The head of the Met? none other than Robert Fitzroy.

And Charles Darwin? The rest, as they say, is history…


Filed under Local History, maritime history

Trafalgar flag – for the nation?

HMS Achille, Spartiates sister ship

HMS Achille, Spartiate's sister ship

The last known surviving Union Jack flown in battle by the Royal Navy at Trafalgar is expected to sell for £15,000 at auction. The jack was flown from the flagstaff of HMS Spartiate. After the battle on 21 October 1805 it was presented to one of the ships officers, and his family and ancestors have kept it safe until now.

Charles Miller, who is selling the flag in London on Trafalgar Day, October 21, said: “We believe it is the only existing flag that flew at Trafalgar. It is one of the most important historical items any collector could expect to handle. The damage is probably from bullet holes or splinter fragments, but despite this it is in amazing condition.”

HMS Spartiate was a 74 gun ship of the line, built and launched by the French. In 1798 she fought at the Battle of the Nile, and was captured by the British. As was the custom at the time she was repaired and commissioned into the Royal Navy, complete with the same name, and fought at Trafalgar.

In my opinion, something of this importance should not be allowed to get anywhere near private collectors, who would puchase it out of extravagance and keep it for their own gratification. It would far more appropriately be donated to the National Maritime Museum or the Royal Naval Museum, where anyone and everyone could go and see it. Or, god forbid, it might even end up leaving the country. Museums, with their rigid funding, simply cannot compete against wealthy individuals.

Should there be laws to protect items of national importance from being squirreled away, or leaving the country altogether?


Filed under debate, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, News

do we still depend on the sea?

A Maersk container ship entering Southampton

A Maersk container ship entering Southampton

One of the biggest myths about portsmouth is that its all about the Royal Navy. Southampton is where all of the commercial trade goes, surely? But where did all the materials to build and maintain the warships come from? All of the food to feed the people of Portsmouth? The coal? The fish to go to market? And how did tea and spices come from the far east? wine from the medditeranean?

Very few people know that in actual fact Portsmouth had a substantial seaborne commercial trade going right back to the middle ages. And as an island nation, Britain has always depended on the sea as its lifeline to the outside world, and for its very existence. Look at the dire situation we found ourselves in WW2 when the German U-boats threatened to cut off our trade routes across the Atlantic. It is this need to protect our seas and our trade that led to the growth and eventual dominance of the Royal Navy.

But now that we live in a different world, with air travel, and after the demise of the British Empire, do we still depend on the sea? Of course!

Take a look at this website here. The AIS system uses satellite technology to plot where ships are on the oceans. And with the addition of useful information such as a ships name, its size, its cargo, and its destination, You can have a very accurate picture of what is going on on our seas.

And it is a very busy picture. Besides the Royal Navy warships entering and leaving Portsmouth, there are also the support vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. Add to that the Isle of Wight Ferries, the cross-channel ferries to France and Spain, and the cargo ships to France and the Channel Islands, and Portsmouth is a very busy port. Further afield, you have scores of huge container ships docking at Southampton, ocean liners, and many oil tankers docking at Fawley to ofload at the oil refinery.

Further afield there are other areas. Look at how busy the Dover straits are with shipping. Felixstowe is crammed with container ships, and the Humber Estuary with oil tankers also. All of our coast is extremely busy with all kinds of shipping. Even further afield, across the North Sea Rotterdam, Ostend and Zeebrugge are very important shipping centres too.

So imagine what would happen is part or all of this trade became impossible, if for some reason we lost control of the sea lanes around our country? The impact it might have on our security does not bear thinking about. Imagine for example if all of the oil tankers putting in at Fawley were prevented from docking – there would be power cuts in parts of the country. It would be the same too if the areas where the oil was shipped from became unstable too.

So if you think that the seas dont really matter any more, or that we dont need a Navy, or that as an Island nation we can just retreat away from the world, think about the hundreds of ships moving all around our coastline every day and every night. We would live in a very different country without them.

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Filed under Local History, maritime history, Navy

£13m for UK’s Heritage

The Heritage Lottery Fund today announced £13m worth of grants for four Heritage projects around the UK.

Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes is the historic site of secret British code breaking activities during World War Two and birthplace of the modern computer. It has been awarded HLF development funding of £460,500 towards a further potential application of £4.1million. Proposals include: repairing key buildings to highlight the crucial part the site played in the World War Two code breaking story; improving visitor facilities; and expanding the site’s educational programmes.

HLF’s £3.3million grant will fund the transformation of the redundant 19th-century All Souls Church in Bolton into a state-of-the-art facility providing training, education, youth activities, health and welfare services to the local community. Plans include taking out the existing pews and replacing them with a community centre, made up of two ‘pods’ that will sit within the church building.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich will also benefit. Thanks to HLF’s £5million grant, an elegant and inviting entrance will be created directly from Greenwich Park and much more of the collection and archive will be displayed in the new library, archive facilities and special exhibitions gallery.

The Vindolanda Trust has some of the most important collections of ‘real life’ from the Roman world. Their museums are situated on the extensive remains of two Roman forts and civilian settlements on Hadrian’s Wall – England’s largest World Heritage Site. The HLF’s £4million grant will link the two sites and the proposed new gallery space and education centre have been designed to inspire the next generation of young archaeologists. A significant element of Vindolanda’s collection currently in storage will be on show for the first time.

Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire was created by some of the 18th century’s leading architects, sculptors and gardeners, including Capability Brown, John Vanbrugh and William Kent. Thanks to a grant of £1.5million, the original entrance to the Garden will be reinstated. By transforming the visitor experience, people will enjoy a greater understanding of what it would have been like to visit Stowe in its heyday.

Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) sustains and transforms a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. HLF has supported more than 28,800 projects, allocating over £4.3billion across the UK.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, maritime history, Museums, News, social history, World War Two

Books of the week – Maritime special

This weeks regular review looks at not one, but two of the latest releases from the National Maritime Museum.

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Art has always had a romantic and insightful role to play in Maritime History. Edward Lear may be better known as a poet and writer of ‘the owl and the pussycat’, but Lear also travelled widely and often illustrated his own writings. Egyptian Sketches is a fascinating collection of watercolour sketches that transports the reader back to nineteenth century Egypt, seen through the eyes of a Victorian traveller. Whilst I could never claim to be an art expert, this collection of sketches illuminates much about Victorian society – keen interest in travel, an antiquary-like passion for ancient civilisation, as well as being set of very pleasant paintings in their own right. Well presented, and with a commentary from Jenny Gaschke, Curator of Fine Art at the National Maritiem Museum, this would be an ideal read for the enthusiast of maritime art.

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

One of my favourites units studying history at university was maritime history. Mornings spent listening to our wisened tutor talking of tea from India more than made up for the more mundance subjects we were inflicted with. So it is with a certain nostalgia that I read The Bird of Dawning, by John Masefield. A Poet Laureate, Masefield spent many of his early years on board ships, and this experience had a profound impact on the young Poet. Evocative of a time when clippers raced back from India to get the best prices for their cargo of tea, disaster strikes and the crew have to survive sharks, mutiny and the unforgiving power of the sea. Masefield’s nautical background ensures that you can almost smell the salt on the pages, and the tension of his narrative fittingly portrays the gravity of the story. The Bird of Dawning was originally published in 1933, and this fine reissue is introduced by Dr. Phillip Errington, an expert on Masefield and his work.

The Bird of Dawning is available now, and Egyptian Sketches is published on 15 October 2009. Both published by the National Maritime Museum.


Filed under art, Book of the Week, fiction, maritime history, Museums, Uncategorized

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980’s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!


Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

Joseph Stebbing – Mayor of Southampton

Joseph Rankin Stebbing

Joseph Rankin Stebbing

Aside from military history, I also specialise in local and maritime history. For my undergraduate dissertation at University, I worked on a biographical study of George Stebbing, a nautical instrument maker who lived and worked in Portsmouth between around 1800 and 1847. A fascinating character he certainly was, with all kinds of interesting connections, links and stories.

But arguably more interesting was his son Joseph Rankin Stebbing, born in 1809. Named after John Rankin, an acquaintance of his father and a local dock builder who built the dry dock where HMS Victory now resides, Joseph moved to Southampton early in his life, and set up an opticians and nautical instrument makers business.

But his importance did not end there. He rapidly became involved in local politics, becoming a councillor, Alderman and finally Lord Mayor of Southampton shortly before his death. He was also the founder and first President of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, and a prominent freemason. He led the campaign to develop Southampton’s modern commercial docks as we know them today. Owning a significant amount of property, and involved in all manner of deals, campaigns and developments, he was at the centre of virtually everything that happened in the town. If anyone could be described as the father of modern Southampton, Joseph Rankin Stebbing must surely be that man.

But while on the outside he had a veneer of municial grandeur, his personal life was somewhat shady. Remaining a bachelor until his late 50’s, he married Mary Creed, inexplicably in Bermondsey, London. They had had two sons before being married, and both of these sons were cleverly hidden elsewhere when censuses were taken. But even more interestingly, It appears that in the 1871 census, a certain Agnes S. Early lived next door to the Stebbing’s. In later censuses, the S. was extended to Stebbing. It appears that the most esteemed man in Southampton’s modern history had an illegitimate child shortly before his death, with a teenage girl living next door.

Joseph Stebbing in later life

Joseph Stebbing in later life


Filed under Local History, maritime history