Falmouth - NMM Cornwall 25th September 2004
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s First Cornish Maritime History Conference
It is some years since I have had the pleasure of visiting Falmouth, but like most of us I have followed with interest the development of National Maritime Museum Cornwall, and even felt a part of it thanks to the extraordinary vitality and enthusiasm of George Hogg, Tony Pawlyn and John Bartlett, all of whom I have been privileged to know for many years. Through our annual conference ‘get togethers’ at Dartington, at Exeter University’s Crossmead Centre and through the SWMH Society, we have shared a passion for all things maritime, so the Cornish Maritime History Conference ’04 held at the new museum was a double first for me, and a very memorable one as well.
Set on a magnificent waterside site in a staggering location, the new museum is an exciting adventure into innovative modern architecture which also manages to combine a heritage ‘feel’. It is immediately obvious to the visitor that a great deal of care and attention to detail and workmanship has been carried through at each stage in its development, finish and presentation. A project on such a scale as this does not come without mistakes, of course, and already the process of rethinking and modification as the museum grows and matures is under way; nevertheless, Cornwall has a facility of which it can be very, very proud.
As a venue for the conference, the first of its kind in Cornwall, this was the ideal location and the hundred or so delegates were well looked after by the museum staff: it was a happy ship and a meeting of friends.
The day started at 9.30am with registration and coffee, after which we were welcomed by the Museum’s Chairman, Ellen Winser, in the comfort of the well-equipped lecture theatre. Each of the four sessions comprised two papers which chronologically from Celtic times to the nineteenth century, expanded upon the conference’s theme title ‘Traders, Wreckers, Fishermen and Smugglers’. It suggested a broad sweep across Cornwall’s maritime history, but the papers each represented a specific topic, and with much diversity. Rory Macphee introduced us to 4th - 7th Century Celtic skin on frame boatbuilding from his standpoint of contemporary builder of currachs and coracles using simple materials and methods in his workshop near Falmouth. Francis Davey presented a fascinating account of Cornish Medieval piracy taking place against the background of the 15th Century pilgrimages by sea from the west country to Santiago de Compostela where we find parish priests as well as gentry heavily involved in this illicit trade.
After coffee, Cathryn Pearce, a Canadian maritime history graduate now studying for her PhD at the University of Greenwich, engaged us with tales of lighthouse keepers and wrecking, and in particular the story of the notorious lighthouse keeper at St Agnes, who, it turns out, was probably innocent of the crimes that lurid Victorian narrative suggested, allowing the truth through the passage of time to become distorted, whilst remaining unchallenged by subsequent writers. Alston Kennerley, well-known in the Westcountry for his researches into nautical education and seamen’s welfare, gave us an illuminating account of Cornish Seamen’s Missions since 1800 and of the part played by the Reverend George Charles Smith, ‘Bosun’ Smith of Penzance, the founding father of seamen’s missions.
A good buffet lunch was provided in the Education Room, with just enough time to enjoy the view from the upper terrace across the harbour and to take in a brief visit to the Bartlett library before the third session began. Professor John Armstrong’s paper took a look at the coastal trade in Cornish china clay during the 19th century, considering its significance to the British and Cornish economies, the reasons for the growth in demand for china clay, the quantities involved and discussing the production sites, trading patterns, return cargoes, the ships and the transition from sail to steam. The next paper, on Fishermen Smugglers, was given by Tony Pawlyn, who has recently taken over as Head of Library at the Museum, and whose depth of knowledge of Cornish maritime history is prodigious. Tony’s subject is the stuff of romantic stories passed down through the generations into the popular folklore of the westcountry. Just how far these tales can be counted as truth can begin to be assessed by the use of that magnificent contemporary primary source, the Custom House Letter-Books which are amongst some of the most fascinating documents easily available to the maritime historian today. Tony’s paper gave us a glimpse of just how valuable a source they are.
Tea followed discussion, after which Helen Doe, whose contribution to Cornish maritime history has made such a mark in recent years, gave us a concise and absorbing account of Cornish shipbuilding in the nineteenth century. Helen’s use of computer technology to produce coloured pie charts to illustrate by comparative analysis the output and variety of ship types by trade from various Cornish yards was fascinating. Even more interesting was her use of George Hogg’s monumental register of Cornish ships to provide the raw material for her work, showing us with such clarity of purpose how this excellent resource can work for the historian.
Our last paper of the day by John Bartlett, whose generous bequest of his wonderful collection of maritime books forms the core of the Bartlett Library, took us by surprise. Billed to talk about his own special interest, ‘Ships of North Cornwall’, John announced that he was not going to speak on that subject but instead would pay tribute to the conference’s Guest of Honour, Captain George Hogg, who, as one of the founding trustees of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, had seen the project through all its stages from inception to completion. George had been curator of the original Falmouth Maritime Museum for eight years until its closure in 2001, and the leading light behind the realisation of the dream to create a national maritime museum for Cornwall. His infectious enthusiasm, leadership and tireless work, so ably supported by his wife Rosemary, was what we were honouring today.
On this happy note and with the presentation of a bouquet of flowers to Rosemary, the conference was brought to a close with the fervent hope that this would be the first of what would become an annual event. The Museum hopes to publish the conference papers at about £10.00 the set. Anyone interested in obtaining these should contact Tony Pawlyn at Cornwall Maritime History Link, Trevarno, 6, Kerley Vale, Chacewater, Truro, TR4 8JN.
Reported by Peter Ferguson
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