Noah’s Archive

So there are conferences which you go to and think ‘meh’, conferences which take place on a Saturday and you’ve completely forgotten what they were all about by Monday, and the conferences that fire you up and leave the building thinking you’re Thor or Wonder Woman (delete as applicable) and that the bad guys had better take cover. The event held at the National Maritime Museum last week, under the innocuous title of a ‘Maritime Archives Initiative’, fell into the last of these categories.

Now, ‘maritime archives’ might not sound like a superhero-generating subject. In fact, they’re absolutely at the heart of what people like myself do, and one of the great strengths of the conference was that it brought out the diversity and importance of collections the length and breadth of Britain. John McAleer of Southampton University gave the keynote, talking about some of the archives he’d used for his research, primarily on eighteenth century slaving. His point that superb material could be found in such unlikely locations as Winchester and Carlisle really rang a bell with me; I’ve worked in Cumbria Record Office in Carlisle too, which contains a terrific amount of seventeenth century naval material, and also in equally unlikely places. Lincolnshire Record Office, for example, contains some of the best material on the actual conduct of naval warfare during the Anglo-Dutch wars to be found anywhere, together with some completely unique material on the operations of Charles II’s royal yachts, which I’ve mined extensively for my new book, Kings of the Sea (more of which next week). Over the years, I’ve found terrific material about Welsh history in Scottish archives, and vice-versa. The lesson is simple – don’t assume that everything of importance is in the obvious places, and be prepared literally to go the extra mile to explore your subject fully.

We then had six presentations about different archives that hold maritime material – the Trinity House archives at London Metropolitan Archives (an old haunt), Cornwall Record Office (ditto), Tyne and Wear Archives, the SS Great Britain, the Ballast Trust (which saves the archives of Scottish maritime companies, e.g. shipbuilders) and Staffordshire Record Office. The last of these might sound to be an unlikely contributor, but I can personally testify to the importance of the archives there, and it was nice to see on the screen a few familiar old friends from the papers of Lord Dartmouth, who commanded both the expedition to demolish Tangier in 1683-4 and the fleet assembled to defend against William of Orange’s invasion in 1688.

The afternoon was taken up with group brainstorming sessions. These were all essentially concerned with getting archivists and researchers collaborating more closely – and, indeed, encouraging collaboration with other institutions as well (the speaker from Tyne and Wear had regaled us with a wonderful story of how the previous director banned archives staff and museum service staff from even walking down the same corridor in their shared building, let alone collaborating with each other). Some old bugbears inevitably came up – “why can’t there be a single national reader’s ticket?” – and ways of raising public awareness were aired, one message being that in this day and age, Twitter and Facebook are absolutely essential for any institution. Perhaps the principal theme of all, though, was the need to try and improve the standardisation of online cataloguing, to make it easier to track down relevant material. Plenty of problems with this one, but rather fewer potential solutions, although enhancing the National Archives’ ‘Discovery’ catalogue and/or Exeter University’s ELMAP project were suggested as as ways ahead. Above all, though, there was great enthusiasm to make the conference the start of a regular process of engagement, not just a one-off. Let’s hope this proves to the case – or, to put it another way, Archivists, Assemble!

(Sorry.)

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By the time I post next week’s blog, I should have sent off to the publisher my new non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, so the post will provide the first detailed preview of it – plus a first look at the cover!

10 Comments

  1. R Landzaat says:

    HI J.D, I bought your book,Pepys Navy new on Amazon.I just love it. Just what I was lookin for and then some.A prized possession till I die!
    Your chart on pg 136…no mention of Demi-Culverin.What would protocol allow for one in 1666 how many in crew?
    JD,Is there anyway you could get the redacted figures for Happy Return in 4 Day Battle Appendix F from Mr Fox? It alright to question but just the same I’m curious,it seems she could of been that 5th ship that was boarded at end of 4th day and to suggest Kent with 5 dead and 8 wounded would seem light for capture and re-capture,the Leopard at Legion comes to mind.Capt Cuttance was dismissed for avoiding close engagement.What”s closet than swordplay and hand to hand combat?The thought of those brave young lads lying at bottom of North Sea forgotten.Let’s count them and that way we remember and honor them still on this day.

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    • J D Davies says:

      Thanks for getting in touch! I ran your queries past Frank Fox, and here’s the response.

      On page 136 of Pepys’s Navy, demi-culverins do not appear because the Thirty Ships were not designed for that calibre. I think manning policy in the 1660s and ’70 were three men for each short, lightweight demi-culverin and four four longer, heavier ones. But remember that ships were not very often engaged on both sides at once, so the gun crews of one side would usually be available to help those on the other.

      The sources that give casualties for the Four Days Battle (Bath Longleat Coventry MSS 98, fos. 185-186; and British Library Additional MSS 9336, fos. 85v-86), do not give any data for the Happy Return and it is possible that she didn’t have any casualties, which alone after four days’ fighting would have been good cause for Cutttance’s dismissal. If the Happy Return did have casualties, then she could indeed have been the ship taken and retaken. We can’t know. For the Kent, 5 dead and 8 wounded was not necessarily light for capture and recapture. English intelligence from Holland after the battle said that the “boarded vessels yielded without much resistance”, and most of the Dutch ships that boarded and captured English vessels did not suffer very heavily; see pp. 283-284 of Four Days’ Battle. Those ships must have lost some men in fighting on the other three days, not just on the 4th. This certainly is not meant to denigrate the memory of those men who did die.

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  2. tobias r philbin says:

    some years ago i wrote and publishe a book about Ann Wyatt shipbuilder called warhsips for the kign with huge help from Richard Endsor. Imagine an adventure for a biographer of Franz Hipper and WWI dreadnougts amongst the wonderful world of Defoe and Fiennes and even Pepys library for the first time. I went on endless searches for stufff about 17th century merchant ships and trade and all the assiated stuff. Wish I had been there. Carry On Best Toby Philbin

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    • J D Davies says:

      Hello Toby, good to here from you! You’re right, the Pepys library is an amazing treasure trove. I’ll mention to Richard that you’ve been in touch! Best, David

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      • tobias r philbin says:

        need to call richard. this election is well a trial. ann wyatts ghost loves the manse here part of which was built in1756 early for even Virginia. You can get Ann direct from Seawatch books for 46 USD. Its on remainder. still looking for a canvas wrapped package which has some of her papers, ships plans and account books as welll as allgedly a small stash of valuables. That’s another story

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    • J D Davies says:

      Thank you!

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      • I was a little bogged down in other “stuff” earlier – hence my rather brief post.
        As much as I loved the content about “unexpected” maritime archives, I was particularly engaged with the question “Why can’t there be a single national reader’s ticket”. I have raised this question in the past and even asked Nick Barratt to take it to one of the national archives organisations only to be told that there was no advantage to it.
        Really? Surely, a single national reader’s card with an annual subscription attached can only be to everyone’s advantage? Archives, large and small, could be guaranteed a regular income out of the subscription whilst reducing the administrative workload of archivists. Researchers would avoid the problem without arriving up with the wrong or insufficient identification. The consequent mailing list would provide the correct audience for any “marketing” efforts by repositories as well as a support group for any archive fighting cuts.
        I am sure that any logistical issues could be resolved with modern technology and find the resistance difficult to understand.

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        • J D Davies says:

          Agreed. The BL rep at the conference was dismissive, saying that different institutions needed different levels of ID and security. While he might have a point in relation to the big national repositories, I really don’t see why county record offices, say, have to do their own thing, and can’t all be in the CARN scheme.

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          • Yes, but the level of identity required by the BL is no more onerous than many other repositories and that higher level of identity would not be an issue if you only had to do it once. We are all used to having to prove our identity in this modern world for all sorts of different reasons.
            The only additional requirement the BL has is to be able to demonstrate that you need to use their unique holdings. The number of repositories with such additional requirements cannot be very high and could be overcome with a different coloured cards or special symbol(s) on the card.
            For a TNA card you need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of how to handle archive material. Again, not unreasonable for any user.
            I have accepted that this is not a battle I am going to win but a united membership interested in the preservation of archives would be such a positive thing.

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