J D Davies

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I recently assumed the chairmanship of the Research and Programmes committee of the Society for Nautical Research. I was very proud to do so, and as my colleague Lorna Campbell, who’s just taken up the chair of the society’s Publications Committee, blogged about her new role last week, I thought I’d follow suit!

I’ve been a member of the SNR for over 30 years, so am very conscious indeed of the substantial boots I have to fill. This is true in the immediate sense: my predecessor in the chair, Susan Rose, is undoubtedly the acknowledged authority on England’s Medieval navy, and her book of that title rightly won the 2013 Anderson Medal, arguably the most prestigious book prize in the entire field of maritime history. In fact, the award of the Anderson is one of the main responsibilities of the committee that I now chair, and we’re already working our way through the 2014 long list. (In case you’re wondering about the time lag, the prize is given for books published in a given calendar year, so, given the relatively small size of the committee, the difficulty of getting everyone together in the same place, the length of our longlist, and the length and complexity of many books on maritime history, the winner is decided relatively late in the following year, with the actual presentation being made in the following spring. And no, the person chairing the committee doesn’t automatically win.)

However, it’s also true in a broader, less tangible sense. R C Anderson also made a substantial bequest to the SNR, and this now constitutes the Anderson fund – one of the two funds that the committee which I now chair draws upon to provide assistance to worthy causes in the field of maritime research, such as conferences and individual research assignments (albeit under strictly defined criteria, and within strictly defined timescales – see the SNR’s splendid new website for details). I never met Roger Charles Anderson himself – he died when I was 19 – but when I began my research all those years ago, he was still remembered fondly as one of the colossal figures in the field. The range of his published work was breathtaking, covering such diverse topics as the technical minutiae of ship rigging and sweeping overviews of naval warfare in the Baltic and Levant (books marked by his command of source material in foreign languages, which made him well ahead of his time). He contributed a huge number of articles, notes, queries and answers to the SNR’s journal, The Mariner’s Mirror, first published in 1911 (a year after the SNR was founded), which was my first point of contact with the society: as far as I can remember, I persuaded Llanelli Library to get a few copies on loan for me when I was probably in my early teens, and was struck both by the Mirror‘s unique, determinedly ‘retro’ Elizabethan cover (which it retains to this day) and the extraordinary range of subjects that could be discovered within its pages. It’s had quite a few vicissitudes since then, with the quality varying under different editorial regimes, but it’s now back to its status of unchallenged authority in the field.

As I say, Anderson was one of the ‘Olympian’ names when I first started out. I knew many of the giants of the next generation, who had known Anderson well: when I first joined the Council of the equally august Navy Records Society in 1987, it was dominated by the likes of Tony Ryan, Brian Ranft and Richard Ollard, the first two of whom were always very kind to me (the less said about Ollard the better, though; he and I disagreed fundamentally about Samuel Pepys). Formal business wear was de rigueur for Council meetings in those days, which were held in such exalted surroundings as the Athenaeum; goodness knows what the shades of those eminent scholars would make of today’s meetings in featureless conference rooms, attended by members in open neck shirts. But I’d like to finish this trip down memory lane by mentioning two other giants of that era, one of whom I only ever met once, while the other became a good friend. Robert Latham, editor of the monumental revised edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, retired as Pepys Librarian of Magdalene College, Cambridge, shortly before I began my research there, but he once invited me round for his tea in his wonderful house near the college, and we spent a blissful hour or two talking about all things Pepys. And then there was Alan Pearsall, slight, unassuming and modest, whose knowledge of naval and maritime history (and old railway timetables, come to that) was encyclopaedic, but who sadly published far too little. I’ll always remember Alan’s willingness to listen to the over-enthusiastic babbling of the three or four young bucks researching the Restoration navy at the time, and then to make a quiet remark or two that set us back on the right track. So when I’m assessing an Anderson medal nomination, or weighing up the merits of a funding application, in my capacity as chair of the SNR’s R&P committee, I’ll be conscious of my debt to those who have gone before me, and suspect I’ll hear Alan Pearsall’s quiet whisper in my ear: ‘ah, but have you thought of…’


This is the first blog to be posted to my new combined website at jddavies.com! I’d thought for a while that it was a bit silly for me to have my website in one place and my blog in another, and I’d also been keen for some time to freshen up the former. So this seemed like a good way of killing two birds with one stone! Still a lot of work to do in terms of editing and adding extra content, but I’m reasonably happy with the way it’s looking. Brickbats, bouquets, and suggestions for improvement – above all, suggestions for things you’d like to see on the site – would be very welcome.