Mount Batten, Plymouth, Saturday 4th March 2006
Forty or so members attended the first meeting of the New Year in a new venue in Plymouth for us, the Mount Batten Sailing Centre, just across the water from Sutton Harbour. Organiser Mike Baker put together a most interesting and varied programme.
First of all Sam Johnston, the City of Plymouth archivist, gave a Powerpoint presentation which outlined what the quite new unitary authority of the City of Plymouth had in the way of resources for the researcher. Despite many records relating to the city still residing in the Devon Record Office in Exeter there remained quite a wealth of material in Plymouth, split between the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office in Coxside, the City Maritime and Local Studies Library and the museum in North Hill. Developing data bases, via the national Access to Archives (A2A), would be of great assistance to the researcher - Plymouth had about 85% of the city archives on-line, and Sam showed how easy it was to look for records via this means. Many shipping records and crew lists, however, would be found at the County Record Office in Exeter, and many other documents relating to ship’s logs had been sold overseas, to St John’s University in Newfoundland for example. However, via the wonder of the internet, researchers should be able to track down their interests as archive references became more readily available on line. Lets hope that the lottery will help to fund a new unified home for Plymouth’s records of maps, manuscripts and photographs. Certainly the city of Plymouth aims to be as open and as helpful as possible to researchers.
Dr Alston Kennerley’s illustrated talk on, A British Apprentice in German Sail was all the more interesting because it was his own story. In the early nineteen fifties he as a young apprentice of the Alfred Holt Line spent some six months on the German sail training ship ‘Passat’. After a brief history of this Laeisz built vessel (still after 95 years surviving as a museum ship in Germany) he outlined his family background - grandfather a captain; father and mother employees of Alfred Holt. With this family background little wonder that he went to sea. Throughout his later academic career his research interest was in the field of education and sail training. He explained the reason for training under sail in Germany long after it had died out in Britain, and told of Holt’s link with Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School, and of the Outward Bound ideal. Holt’s apprentices served on the German ‘Passat’ and ‘Peking’ after the war, to break down barriers between the nations. His talk was illustrated by personal photographs and diaries from this time. Adrian Small’s diary from his time on the ‘Passat’ in 1946-48 was also quoted. From small acorns may have sprung the sail training ideal of today, as a development for young people of all nations. Certainly the research that Alston produced showed that only 20% of the ex apprentices under sail did not pursue a career associated with the sea. Socialisation into the ways of life at sea certainly had a most important bearing in future life.
Mike Baker then gave a talk on The Timber trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Despite feeling unwell Mike made an excellent case for the study of the timber trade as a vital factor in the development of Britain’s supremacy at sea in the 18th and 19th centuries. Demand for timber always exceeded supply, and from the time of John Evelyn’s report for the Royal Society in the sixteen sixties, confirming the crisis in the availability of timber for shipbuilding, to the development of the Scandinavian and Baltic timber trade, this little looked at aspect of British naval and maritime history was the foundation stone of trade and empire. Even the Navigation Acts were suspended between 1666 and 1669 in order that northern European timber could be imported in sufficient quantity to rebuild London after the Great Fire. English oak had to be kept for shipbuilding. Mike showed that prompt action taken after the Civil War to preserve British oak timber enabled our wooden walls to be built in the later 18th century, without which we could have not been victorious in the French and Napoleonic Wars. A quarter of a million trees a year at one time were also being imported from Norway. He went on to explain the importance of tree bark to the leather industry and the problem in that shipbuilders required wood felled in winter, when the sap was low, unlike the leather trade that needed spring and summer bark with a greater quantity of sap. Tannic acid reacted with the iron of the keel bolts. Finally Mike noted the important role that the RN had in the discovery and collection of plants and trees - Bligh and Vancouver onwards.
After a lunch break Colin Green gave an illustrated talk on Severn Ships. Based on his book, this was a tour of the various vessels which ploughed the Severn and associated rivers, from bronze age, medieval times to the twentieth century. He noted the difficulty of navigation and the particular design of vessels, from trows, wherries, barges to punts. His talk was illustrated by photographs of recent excavations to historic paintings; his area covered ranged from Worcester and Gloucester to Chepstow on the Wye and the River Kennett and the Parrett and Watchett flatners. The ‘Spry’ a sloop rigged trow, built in 1894 in Chepstow, still exists. Having been discovered at Worcester in the 1970’s she was rebuilt and now resides, sadly out of water, at the Ironbridge industrial museum. Colin was only able to scratch the surface of this vast topic but his knowledge of and interest in these vessels was obvious. Why not buy his book, still available - ‘Severn Traders’, published by Black Dwarf at £26.95p.
Finally Geoff Doye talked on the Salcombe Trade. This was concerning the 19th century fruit trade out of south Devon, firstly to the Azores and then to the Mediterranean. His research had centred on Salcombe because, unlike some other south Devon ports, this was the major business at that time for Salcombe. During the heyday, in 1856, there were no fewer than 56 principal owners of sailing vessels listed for Salcombe. This was very much a trade in which local businessmen and families of skippers and crews invested. The vessels, mostly small and up to 200 tons, were insured locally via mutual insurance clubs. They were built locally - Salcombe having 5 shipyards listed in the eighteen nineties - and manned locally by only 5 or so crew. The whole economy of the south coast relied upon this trade for a while. Kingsbridge once had two rope-walks employing 30 men and boys. This ‘cottage industry’ could not last however, and with the coming of steam, and of larger vessels, requiring greater capital the trade moved elsewhere. Also there was no viable two way trade from south Devon, and by 1900 shipping had declined. The population of Salcombe rose greatly by the third quarter of the 19th century only to fall back again; 95 sailing vessels were owned in 1870, only 20 by 1890. The lack of industry and capital caused the smaller south Devon ports such as Salcombe to decline after a brief period of wealth and activity. Little do the wealth making tourists of today perhaps know of the recent past when places such as Salcombe were thriving commercial ports.
The interest shown by the members attending these five most excellent presentations was witnessed by the questions and comments produced by a knowledgeable and interested audience.
Reported by Martin Hazell
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