Our team: Reflections from the Summer Programme 2014 (Part 1)

Teachers, students, academics, writers, family researchers, sailors, and the just-plain-curious… our team of volunteer transcribers at MarineLives come from diverse walks of life. We are taking this time at the end of the calendar year to reflect on our successful transcription programmes in 2014, and to show our gratitude to the associates who made it all possible.

This is the first in an occasional series of posts, in which we’ve asked some of our Summer Programme associates to reflect on their experiences with the HCA corpus. Roger Towner is a maritime regulator and former seafarer based in Southampton. He worked alongside Dr. Philip Hnatkovich and other members of the MarineLives group during the summer of 2014 over a period of twelve weeks.

I have spent all my working life either at sea or connected to it. I have had more than 25 years at sea as a navigator or Master, and nearly another twenty as a regulator dealing with seafarers’ qualifications. As a pastime I have been involved for over 20 years in 17th-century re-enactment, and as a part of that I have read and transcribed many original documents. I am delighted to be taking part in the MarineLives project where all these things come together.

Here we have the joy of reading manuscripts that possibly no one has needed to open since they were recorded, and knowing that by digitising these documents you are making the information not only accessible to anyone with an interest but also putting them into a searchable format for those trying to make sense of the past.

Some of the depositions bring back my own memories. I remember my first foreign port in January ’71 coming to anchor off the Grand Bahama, with the light dancing off the waves and the pastel houses amongst the trees. Later voyages to the Far East, West Indies, and West Africa where you can smell the spices and wet vegetation more than twenty miles out to sea. The terms of “factors” (now called “agents”), “super cargoes”, and “bills of lading” are all still common parlance. Writs are still affixed to ships’ mainmasts (a bit difficult now they are usually made of steel!). Luckily men are not still flogged at the Gear Capstan, but ships still have capstans and anchors and Masters.

PrincipalNavigations_jpgLook at Hakluyt’s writings with descriptions of voyages, Captain John Smith’s Sea Grammar for technical details and “The Safeguard of the Seas or Great Rutter” for seagoing directions where it says “…to the southwards of the high land of Dartmouth, in sight of the land, it is about 43 fathoms deep, & the ground is white sand, with some little shelles amongst it, and verie little small long things like unto such maggots as are sometimes in bacon.” No such vivid description in today’s Channel Pilot!


Watermen’s Hall (1778-80). Credit: Steve Cadman.

Look again at the deponents and depositions along the Thames in London. Take a walk along the modern banks with an old map: Wapping, Shadwell, Poplar, Tower Wharf, Billingsgate are all still identifiable, and Queen Hythe still looks much the same as it did near Pudding Lane. Read Pepys’ Diary and his travels up and down the river. The watermen and lightermen giving evidence belonged to the Honourable Company of Watermen and Lightermen, which still exist today with their headquarters at St. Mary the Axe near the Tower. They were incorporated by Henry VIII and well over 100 years old when we read their depositions in the Admiralty Court. I wonder if I’ve been dealing with their direct descendants today.

Kings and Queens and battles and politicians no doubt give you the skeleton of history, but original records about everyday people and their actions that you can read for yourself surely put the flesh on the bare bones of history. This is one of the outcomes that makes MarineLives so important.


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