Derek Turner

From hearts of oak to hulls of steel: centuries of the British at sea

Tom Nancollas explores our maritime history through 11 vessels, from the Bronze Age to the present

From hearts of oak to hulls of steel: centuries of the British at sea
A contemporary engraving of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind in combat with the Spanish treasure ship Cacafuego off the coast of Peru in 1579. [Alamy]
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The Ship Asunder: A Maritime History of Eleven Vessels

Tom Nancollas

Particular Books, pp. 336, £20

An ocean of clichés surrounds Britain’s maritime history, from Chaucer’s Shipman to the ‘little ships’ at Dunkirk. Tom Nancollas, whose 2019 Seashaken Houses treated lambently of lighthouses, now navigates debris-strewn territorial waters, sounding their depths.

He examines 11 craft, from Bronze Age boats to ironclads, that epitomise Britain’s complex compact with the sea. Ships, so sturdily island nation-shaping, are themselves evanescent, exposed to danger and decay, and discarded once defunct. But their traces can be found almost anywhere. Even those that are now only names (the Conqueror’s flagship Mora, Cabot’s Matthew or Grenville’s Revenge) are ‘ensouled’ to this author – ‘lost characters of British history’, as worthy of salvage as the Mary Rose.

The sunken cargoes he seeks are not necessarily treasure. He emphasises the uses of British ships in oppressions, from imperial conquests to slavery. Lloyds’ Lutine Bell, rung to warn that a vessel was missing, should sound out now, he says, to signify national complicity in old cruelties.

He begins in Dover, England’s entrepôt from prehistory to today’s immigrant dinghies, with a 3,500-year-old prow, found in 1992, from one of the earliest vessels known in northern Europe. Prows have always been talismanic: Romans capturing an enemy ship would destroy everything except its prow, then stand at this rostrum to give orations.

We hear about the Billingsgate Trumpet – a two metre-long flaring brass tube used by 14th-century captains to send signals to crews or fleets. This ‘buisine’ looks landlubberly – but then the medieval British were not quite at home on the sea, something suggested by the castle-like superstructures of their craft. Nancollas notes that rare representations of buisines being blown afloat have ‘a simple, dream-like quality’, as archetypal tars haul eternally aboard ships of state beneath a panoply of stars.

English sea-longing was first embodied in Francis Drake, and Nancollas dutifully takes us to Plymouth and thence to Deptford, where Drake was knighted and the Golden Hind slowly rotted – except for some planks which ended up in the unlikely guise of a chair in the Bodleian Library. As Abraham Cowley’s verse on its back notes: ‘A Seate of endless Rest is giv’n /To her in Oxford, and him in Heav’n.’

Though Drake is presently more in limbo, he launched an armada of emulators, not to mention a pleasantly vicarious literary genre from Hakluyt’s Voyages on. As David Mathews noted in The Naval Heritage (1944): ‘The sea has a satisfaction for leisured letter writers.’ Nancollas takes time considering often neglected marine accoutrements, from ropes such as those still made at Chatham to ships’ timbers repurposed ashore, lending creaking resonance to everyday interiors and Liberty’s in Regent Street.

On the Thames Embankment stands the Duke of Buckingham’s showy but stranded water gate – symbolic of Jacobean naval ineptitude – near the more modest memorial to Samuel Plimsoll, who devised the lines painted on hulls to show how low in the water a fully laden ship should be for safety. A museum in the Scilly Isles called Valhalla contains the figureheads of craft wrecked on local rocks, crude charms in antique style carved in propitiation of the vasty deep, now assembled surreally up close.

In the 19th century figureheads were forsaken, as ‘hearts of oak’ turned to hulls of steel, and the Deptford wharves that hosted the tiny Golden Hind were dwarfed by the ‘riveted cliff-face’ of Brunel’s Great Eastern. Turner’s painting of the Fighting Temeraire being steam-tugged to the breaker’s yard epitomised the ending of an old era and the beginning of a new, stressing safety, science and speed.

The Great Eastern is now itself history, its top mast a flagpole in Anfield stadium. The Lusitania, another marvel of its age, is equally almost lost, with one of its propellers flaking sadly on a plinth, also in Liverpool. The disjecta membra of the Newlyn trawler Rosebud are difficult to find, yet such craft sparked that town’s school of art, and Rosebud helped preserve its character by sailing to Westminster in 1937 to protest against the planned erasure of Newlyn’s historic fishing quarter.

Nancollas finally anchors at Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis’s nostalgic confection on the Welsh coast, treading the ‘decks’ of a concrete ship, Amis Reunis. It seems a fitting place to end his frequently fascinating voyage of discovery: a faux ship in a fantastical port, cemented to the shore yet, like so many in these islands, always straining seawards.