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Report on Annual Scottish Maritime History Conference

Posted: Friday 31st May 2024

Report on Annual Scottish Maritime History Conference

The annual Scottish Maritime History Conference has been held in Glasgow for 20 years and remains open to all researchers. The University of Glasgow plays a major part in its organisation, with Professor Hugh Murphy and Dr Martin Bellamy working with Professor Ray Stokes of the Centre for Business History in Scotland. Financial support comes from the University, from Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and from a fund established by the defunct Maritime Information Association, now administered by the BCMH.

Despite the name of the conference, presenters and content of papers does not need to be Scottish! Contributions for the event on 18-19 October 2023 covered Norwegian, Dutch and English history accross a range of themes. During the opening evening at the Wolfson Medical School in the University, Professor Stig Tenold of the Norwegian School of Economics spoke on the effect on the Norwegian shipping industry of the discovery and exploitation of oil reserves in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. He explored how the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund based on the careful investment of revenue from Norwegian oil had an important impact on shipping and many other activities, whilst the expertise developed by Norwegians in oil exploration and development was deployed worldwide.

The main conference programme was held in the Mitchell Library on 19 October.

Session 1

In ‘Writing Women into Maritime History’ Louise Sanger of Lloyd’s Register Foundation provided an introduction to ‘She_Sees’.  Launched in the UK September 2022, this collaborative venture seeks to ensure the contribution of women to maritime industries, ashore and float, is fully recognised and recorded. The project addresses the lack of acknowledgement of women’s roles in maritime affairs, and seeks to empower women particularly in opening up opportunities in maritime careers. Louise cited many examples including individuals who had been deck officers, radio officers, engineers, stewardesses and involved in shipbuilding, including welders. Reception of this initiative had been very successful and Louise looked forward to an international launch in 2024.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, France and its navy continued to be perceived as the major threat to the United Kingdom. In his talk entitled ‘Civil Engineering in the service of strategy’, Professor Andrew Lambert of Kings College London described how Scottish civil engineers, John Rennie, Thomas Telford and James Walker played a major part in fortifying south coast harbours that were vulnerable to invasion, from Dover in the east, through to Portsmouth, Portland and Plymouth in the west, In addition major harbours to act as bases to interdict a French fleet emerging from Brest were planned on the Channel Islands, although only that on Alderney came close completion.

Session 2

William Schaw Lindsay was an important 19th century ship owner, and an early adopter of steam ships, several of which were ordered in Scotland from Scott’s Cartsdyke Yard at Greenock. Bill Lindsay, a descendent of W.S. Lindsay, explained how late delivery by Scotts of the auxiliary steamer Robert Lowe in 1854 prompted Lindsay to open a legal action against the builder, demanding an apology and £20,000 in damages. Scotts, however, were in a parlous state financially as recent contracts, including that for the Robert Lowe had proven uneconomic, and a successful action by Lindsay could have bankrupted them. Fortunately, however, Lindsay decided he had better things to do than pursue the action and Scotts survived as as successful shipbuilders.

The Glenlee is Glasgow’s very own tall ship, now open to visitors having survived largely due to her use in the Spanish Navy as an auxiliary sailing ship. Her career since being built in 1896 at Anderson Rodger’s Port Glasgow shipyard is well documented, except for two mysterious years after she was retired from trade in 1920. Elizabeth Allen of the Tall Ship Glenlee Trust discussed what is known about her ownership and movements in this period, when she was in Italian waters but was offered to Spain as a training vessel. There is speculation that an indivdiual named Rodriguez lived on board her, and was wrongly assumed to be her owner. However, there is circumstantial evidence that Italian ship owner Achille Lauro became the actual owner, although documentation of this is lacking.

Judith Siegel from the Rotterdam Centre for Modern Maritime History at Erasmus University described how Dutch shipbuilding found itself being left behind technologically in the 1920s.  Acknowledging the difficulties faced by shipbuilding industries worldwide during this period, her talk entitled ‘A Maritime Knowledge Labyrinth’ covered the many ways the Dutch shipping industry as a whole attempted to address this issue. This involved not only shipbuilders and owners themselves, but also classification societies, the shipping inspectorate, the Dutch Royal Navy, maritime museums, and the Association for Maritime Technology. Actual initiatives included building the Netherlands Ship Model Tank, encouraging craft apprenticeships in yards and engineering workshops, and the setting up of a National Technical Maritime Museum. 

Session 3

In ‘A philosopher in overalls’ Professor Alan McKinlay from the University of Newcastle Business School presented work by himself and Dr William Knox of the University of Saint Andrews on the work and politics of Harry McShane. Born in 1891, McShane is remembered as a lifelong Marxist. Although a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he remained a ‘Stalin sceptic’ and left the party with great regret in 1953 in protest at the USSR’s activities in Eastern Europe. He was closely associated with the so-called Red Clyde activists, as an organiser of hunger marches and a founder of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Perhaps inevitably, he was black listed by engineering employers in 1921, but is remembered for the depth of his commitment to workers causes right up to his death.

In ‘The Business of Armaments’, Professor Joanna Spear of George Washingtom University discussed the deep involvement of Armstrongs and Vickers in the international arms trade from 1855 to 1955. She addressed how these two large concerns remained so successful, especially when countries with a pressing need for weapons would often be on the verge of bankruptcy, making finance a prerequisite. As armament manufacturers they had a delicate relationship with the British government, which was always anxious to protect its own naval dockyards and the Royal Arsenal, and which made Vickers and Armstrongs producers of last resort. It was essential they maintained relationships with the Government at the highest level, often employing senior figures when they retired from state employment. The manufacturers were also useful to the Government in supplying intelligence about what other powers were doing. In return, the government did as little as possible to not block arms exports, and not to enquire too closely into the financial‘incentives’ given to individuals in overseas countries to buy British armaments.

Session 4

‘Our big white fairy godmother’ was how Professor Faye Hamill of the University of Glasgow portrayed Empress of Britain of 1930. Owners Canadian Pacific described themselves as ‘The worlds greatest transportation system’, with their transcontinental railway and a world-spanning network of shipping services.  The Empress was widely promoted not just for its space and luxury, but also for its celebrity status, especially her use in a Royal Canadian Tour in 1939. Perpetuating the ‘white empress’ mythology’ involved using the work of prominent marine artists, whilst no fewer than five novels were partly set on the ship.

Standing in at short notice, Dr Martin Bellamy spoke about ‘Burrell’s Chinese enigma’. As a substantial and successful ship owner, William Burrell acquired an extensive collection of Chinese art, probably encouraged by a 1920s exhibition of Oriental art in Glasgow. The enigma involves Burrell’s attitude as a ship owner to Chinese crews. The British Merchant Ship Act, 1894 specified that only British and certain European nationals could crew British ships, but various loopholes became available for owners like Burrell to circumvent this. For instance an Act of 1906 made it possible to employ ratings from Hong Kong whilst allowing them inferior accommodation, provisions and pay.  There is also evidence of considerable brutality to these crews, in which Burrell’s ships come out badly. It is ironic that this exploitation helped enrich the man who left an extensive collection of Chinese art to the City of Glasgow.

Report sumitted by Roy Fenton and Louise Sanger

See the full conference programme here




Image: File:SS Empress of Britain.png - Wikimedia Commons