Don’t Mention the Cold War, Part 2

In this week’s first post, I gave my impressions of the dockyard town of Karlskrona and its terrific naval museum. Now on to the reason why I was there, an international conference on International Approaches to Naval Cities and Dockyards, held in the museum. From the moment it started, it was clear there was a really good buzz in the auditorium, and this was sustained throughout the programme; the very wide ranging papers came from many different perspectives, all had interesting things to say, and, unusually, there were no obvious weak links anywhere. It was also great that the conference was open to the public, and several ‘locals’ came in for one or more of the sessions. This sort of public engagement, reaching out beyond the ivory towers of academia, can only be a good thing, and maybe conferences in the UK could learn a lesson from this!

Ready for the off!

Jakop Seerup of the National Museum of Denmark kicked us off, looking at naval cities in the Baltic, particularly the intertwined histories of Karlskrona, Copenhagen and St Petersburg during the period from about 1680 to 1720. His comparative approach was really thought-provoking, and provided an excellent scene-setter for all that followed. Andreas Linderoth of the Swedish Naval Museum then spoke about Karlskrona in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War raised a very real prospect of the entire dockyard closing; he demonstrated how the town had successfully diversified to become a centre of high tech industries. Ann Coats of the University of Portsmouth then pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of covering the history of Portsmouth from the Romans to the present day in twenty minutes – and although this material was obviously the most familiar to me, Ann still came up with a few nuggets that I’d not known before!

The second session began with Brad Beaven and Mathias Seiter of the University of Portsmouth comparing the sailortowns of Portsmouth and Kiel from c.1860 to 1914, giving a particularly well illustrated talk which demonstrated the key similarities and differences between the two naval towns. At Portsmouth, for example, the sailortown overspilled into the official civic space (some great examples here of prostitutes parading outside the town hall!), whereas at Kiel, there was a more rigid separation. They were followed by some Welsh bloke I’d never heard of rabbiting on about Pembroke Dock and the Welsh nation. OK, yes, it was me, and I attempted to show how the dockyard, an alien institution in what was traditionally a non-Welsh area (‘Little England Beyond Wales’) gradually became a part of the mainstream of Welsh national identity. Harry Svensson of Stockholm University then spoke on the development of centralised control and production at Karlskrona between 1723 and 1780, in his opinion very much a neglected age of Swedish naval history, and he drew my attention to the intriguing figure of Salomon von Otter, whom he described as a ‘Swedish Samuel Pepys’!

Following these sessions, we adjourned to prepare for the conference dinner. This was held in an eighteenth century building which doubles as an officers’ mess and (on the top floor) the home of the Royal Society of Naval Sciences. The librarians provided us with an introduction to the former before dinner. Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m an absolute sucker for old libraries; give me floor to ceiling oak bookcases full of venerable tomes, plus comfy armchairs in which to study them, plus (ideally) a well stocked bar in the immediate vicinity, and I’m anybody’s. This library ticked these boxes, and then some. Among the treasures laid out before us were original ‘adverts’ for John Ericsson’s monitor designs, a book of drafts by Fredrik af Chapman (see my previous post), a 1772 plan of Portsmouth dockyard drawn up by a Swedish spy visitor, and a plan of the defences of Karlskrona in 1801, when a certain H Nelson was in the vicinity.

After a fine dinner (fish, since you ask), we all adjourned to the splendidly furnished and, yes, well stocked bar. No doubt some might seek to make a topical political comment out of the fact that British, Swedish, Danish, Polish, German, French and Spanish historians were all happily chattering away to each other in English, but you wouldn’t expect such blatant – nay, debatably treasonable – Brexit-related stuff in this blog, so I’ll eschew it completely.

The second day began in a somewhat hazy fashion for some of us, but we were swiftly into a full-on session with no fewer than four papers. Dan Johannson of Stockholm University talked on the development of Stockholm as a naval city between 1522 and 1680; having visited the city several times and thus having a decent grasp of the geography of what Dan was talking about, I found this a really interesting talk. Jorge Aguilera López of the Barcelona Maritime Museum then spoke about the city’s royal arsenal and galleys during the wars against the Ottomans during the sixteenth century – although one would have thought he might have had somewhat more topical issues on his mind at the moment! Marek Twardowski of the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk then talked about the history of the shipyard at Gdynia, providing some fascinating insights into World War II, the Cold War, and the distinctly fraught history of the yard in more recent years. The last speaker in this session was Ida Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen, who spoke on the modernisation of Danish naval shipbuilding in the 18th century, when the so-called Konstruktionskommissionen attempted to reorganise production.

Jim Hansson talking about the Scepter wreck

The second panel began with Marie-Morgane Abiven of the University of Brest talking about the fascinating project under way at her university to digitally reconstruct aspects of the port cities of Brest and Venice; more detail about her research can be found on her website (in French), while the 3D model that her project has produced of a foundry at Brest can be found on Youtube. Jim Hansson of the Swedish National Maritime Museum then delivered a really exciting talk with ‘hot off the presses’ news of the recent archaeological discoveries in Stockholm – and by hot off the presses, I mean the results of a dig that only finished a couple of weeks ago. Dendrochronology demonstrates that the new find is almost certainly the Scepter, launched in 1615, once the flagship of Gustavus Adolphus! Petra Stråkendal of the county administrative board of Blekinge then spoke about the many wrecks (some sixty in all) in Karlskrona harbour itself. The Solen, launched at Lubeck in 1667, lies near the ropery (see my previous blogpost) and demonstrates a combination of both English and Dutch building methods. The harbour also contains the wreck of the Vasa – i.e. the less famous ship of the same name, launched in 1778. (Coverage of wreck finds in and around Karlskrona can be found here and here.)

Part of the newly discovered wreck of the Scepter

After lunch, we kicked off with Steven Gray of the University of Portsmouth talking about coaling stations in the period before World War I – in particular, about what happened when warship crews of different nationalities were at the same station at the same time. (Clue: think random mindless violence.) One of the most interesting themes to emerge from his talk was how most nationalities got on with each other most of the time…unless, that is, the Brits ran into the Russians… AnnaSara Hammer of Stockholm University, who’d already won maximum brownie points from me by revealing that she’s read Gentlemen and Tarpaulins, my first book, then spoke about naval families as a social elite in 18th century Karlskrona, and it was interesting for me to compare and contrast the similar work I’ve done over the years for the Royal Navy in the late 17th century. AnnaSara also drew my attention to the memoirs of an 18th century naval officer, Carl Tersmeden, which sounds like a terrific source, albeit only available in Swedish, alas. The final paper of the conference was given by Asger Nørlund Christensen of the South Danish University, who spoke about Scandinavian sailors on Dutch merchant and naval ships – another topic of considerable interest for me, having previously uncovered evidence about foreign sailors on British warships in the Restoration era.

So all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, five star conference. Huge thanks to Andreas Linderoth and the team at the Marinmuseum for all the hard work that went into organising it, and for such splendid hospitality. There’s going to be a book of the conference, in English and aimed at a general audience, so watch this space for further details!

And finally – with due apologies to my old and new Swedish and Danish friends – why do Swedish and Danish warships have barcodes?

So they can Scandinavian.

(Boom, tsh)

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