Our team: Reflections from the 2014 Summer Programme (Part 3)

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 third in an occasional series of posts, in which we’ve asked some of our associates to reflect on their experiences with the HCA corpus. Katherine Parker is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently writing her dissertation entitled “Toward a more ‘perfect knowledge': British geographic knowledge and South Seas exploration in the eighteenth century.” She worked alongside Colin Greenstreet, Dr. Philip Hnatkovich, and other members of the MarineLives group during the summer of 2014 over a period of twelve weeks.


Herman Moll, A New & Exact Map of the Coast, Countries and Islands within the Limits of the South Sea Company (1711)

I first heard of the MarineLives project in 2013, when they set up a PhD forum to review their project to digitize High Court Admiralty documents. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, completing a dissertation on the creation of geographic knowledge about the Pacific in the long eighteenth century. Some of the main actors in my study of exploration and print culture are Admiralty officials and Royal Navy officers, thus the MarineLives project piqued my interests.

On summer research trips to London in 2011 and 2012, I had looked at a few HCA documents and knew that the cases recorded in them offered rich material for social, economic, and naval history. Over the course of several skype meetings, I and other PhD students got to give our opinions about the proposed platform and methodology for transcription. Working with a team created a strong community aspect to the project from the beginning; I have always been impressed by the inclusiveness and openness that drives MarineLives. Also, it was refreshing to have my opinion valued as a PhD student, as sometimes that stage in one’s education is isolating and transitional—you are not yet qualified as an expert, but also not unknowledgeable about certain fields.

The value MarineLives placed on the voices of the PhD forum made me want to participate further, even though the works being transcribed were not strictly within the chronological bounds of my dissertation project. Thus, when the summer transcription project was created, I jumped at the opportunity to use paleographic and transcription skills I had gained after a year in London archives on a Social Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (2013-14).

Writing styles change over time, just like clothing and furniture styles. Thus, the letters inscribed within HCA volumes from the mid-seventeenth century posed a challenge for me, as I am used to the fluid, upright cursive (often written by a trained scribe or clerk) of the mid-eighteenth-century Admiralty. I came to enjoy the challenge of squinting at the digital pages in front of me, willing the words to make sense, filling in paragraphs slowly until suddenly they all made sense. Shakerley_1370_JPG Beyond the joys and frustrations of transcription, I also enjoyed working within a team environment, wherein each week the other members of my group discussed our progress via skype. My team was diverse, including academics, computer programmers, software developers, and retired professionals. Such a group underlines the power and importance of history to a broad audience; it is not a subject for the elite white tower of university study, but one for the streets; or more appropriately it is not a subject for restricted libraries, but for the open pages of the internet.


The digital aspect of MarineLives is my final point of interest. Digital humanities, digitization of sources, online museum exhibits—these are the history platforms of the future. As a person interested in, yet not particularly proficient in, educational technology, the MarineLives transcription summer project offered a soft landing to the leap into digital work. It was also gratifying to contribute to a piece of work that will democratize history research, eventually allowing students around the world to access documents that were limited previously to archival researchers. The MarineLives project does more than provide a digital product, it also trains and nurturers those involved with it. I am glad to count myself as someone who has benefited from my participation and hope the project continues to grow in the future.

Our team: Reflections from the Summer Programme 2014 (Part 2)

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 second in an occasional series of posts, in which we’ve asked some of our associates to reflect on their experiences with the HCA corpus. Thomas Davies is a third year history undergraduate student currently studying at Bath Spa University. He worked alongside Dr. Philip Hnatkovich and other members of the MarineLives group during the summer of 2014 over a period of twelve weeks.


This year I took part in the MarineLives summer transcription programme, which I was introduced to through Bath Spa as a third-year module. It was a twelve-week course in which we transcribed a series of documents from the records of the English High Court of Admiralty in 1660.

There were some challenging aspects of the programme — the main being distance. This was because we worked as a team and half of the team were based in the United Kingdom and half were based in the United States, so we had to be aware of time differences and that we would be unable to meet in person. To combat this we used email, Google Hangouts, and Skype and made good use of all the resources available to stay in touch when working on the documents together. We had weekly calls to discuss team business. The weekly calls helped because we would talk about the problems or issues we faced weekly and how the transcriptions were to be presented covering topics such as layout or abbreviations.

I found certain tasks I did really helped me throughout the module. I went to Bath archive before the programme began to get some practise and some tips from an expert who was used to working with these documents all the time. The archive also allowed me firsthand experience of being around these documents myself. I would ask for two or three documents and I would then try and read them or transcribe them and any words I struggled with ask for help (I needed help most of the time at this point) but the employee there gave me some great pointers and it adjusted my eyes to the style of writing. The background articles I was sent in the beginning weeks of the course also gave the work we were to be doing some more meaning as I understood why we were doing them and I had more knowledge surrounding sailors and what they faced in legal battles and also the language they would use on the ships.


The biggest challenge I faced in the transcription itself was becoming accustomed to the peculiar writing and distinguishing letters. Some letters look very similar, such as f’s and s’s, r’s and c’s not to mention t’s and l’s. I began transcribing effectively by taking it slow and working out the letters individually instead of looking at the word as a whole as we do with modern writing. I found this approach to be very effective.

MarineLives created a Bath Spa student section that helped me significantly, showing templates of letters and the different forms they have. This allowed me to tackle the many different writing styles the clerks used. Once I was able to distinguish between letters more clearly with considerable practise, I found I could transcribe enough of the page to get a good idea of what was being said in the documents. Then, I could alter words that did not fit within the context of the deposition, or using the context as a guideline as to what certain words should be.


The module has shown me how interesting history can be when you unveil it yourself. I would recommend it to any student looking to do a flexible module over the summer or anyone what wants to learn how to transcribe in a friendly, welcoming environment. Studying with MarineLives allows you to research at a deeper level by extracting information yourself so you know the transcription is reliable because you have done it. It gives a deeper sense of satisfaction when compared to using other people’s statistics or information in a book because you get the first-hand knowledge.

A final comment is that no other historian has touched this document so you feel like a pioneer taking your own path and discovering new information about the past, which is particularly rewarding especially if the document holds interesting information. I also gained knowledge about the seventeenth century that I feel I would not have gained through reading books about that time period. You have to read pages from that time to understand, for example, shortened words, slang terms of the time, and the style of language.


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.

Mapping marine lives

The MarineLives project is exploring how to use GIS technology to map data gathered and generated through the transcription and linkage of HCA 13/71.

We are interested in displaying data about ships, places, people, and commodities mentioned in HCA 13/71, together with the ability to overlay maps and combine data sets, including map layers and datasets generated by other digital projects and sources.

For example: (1) Exploring the spatial location of ship purchases by English ship masters and merchants, which included significant purchases in the United Provinces, as well as in France; (2) Mapping of the mention of semantically marked up commodities, such as tobacco and textiles, to explore patterns of distribution; (3) Mapping of ship routes and ship route usage, to build a bottom-up understanding of the interlinkage of ports and regions.

We are interested in combining datasets to create composite maps, and in establishing electronic links from maps to original data points and data sets, both textual and numeric.  Such maps will provide an additional route for researchers and interested readers to browse, explore, annotate, and link data.

Below are some example of experimental KML datasets for the mid and later C17th mapped using Google Map. They have been developed as context in which we will later examine data mapped from HCA 13/71. They are offered for general interest, and as examples of the potential to repurpose, combine and reanalyse data at a micro-level to create new hypotheses and insights.

Sources used include modified datasets from Woodhead (1966)¹, from Clark and Hosking (1993)2, and from MarineLives project analysis of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury PROB 11 series data.3 The manipulations of the original datasets have not been peer reviewed, and the orginal authors have not been involved in these manipulations. They are offered warts and all. Inevitably they will contain some incorrect disambiguations of place names, and some falsely identified matching of early modern to modern locations, given orthographical variation in the original source manuscripts.

If you are interested in discussing the data, please get in touch.

If you have GIS coding expertise and are interested in working as a MarineLives volunteer to explore and build HCA 13/71 GIS functionality in Phase Two of our project, please contact us.

Sample maps

Marine & river transportation

PRC data have been used to look at the spatial extent of specific occupations recorded in PRC data for marine and river transportation.  For example, data for bargemen and wharfingers.  A preliminary tiering of coastal towns has been developed, based on the degree of mariner intensity of PRC wills within the overall PRC will number and mix of coastal towns.  Analysis of mariner wills could be combined with that of other marine trades, such as shipwrights and ship chandlers, to create a fuller picture. Note that, for barge and wharfinger wills the analysis is of geographical extent by location, without reference to intensity, whereas the mariner town analysis considers intensity as well as geographical extent.

Barges PRC wills 1640-99
Mariner dominated towns 1640-99
Wharfinger PRC wills 1640-99


PRC data has been used to look at the spatial extent of textile related occupations

Fustian PRC wills 1640-99, & 1580-1639
Lace PRC wills 1640-99
Linen weaver PRC wills 1640-99
Serge PRC wills 1640-99
Silk PRC wills 1640-99
Worsted PRC wills 1640-99

Distribution on land

The distribution of carriers and chapmen was widespread geographically, but is not identical.  The distribution of drover and grasier PRC wills shows much greater regional concentration, based on important droving routes and staging points for the fattening of cattle, largely for the London market.

Carrier PRC wills 1640-99
Carrier Somerset PRC wills 1640-99
Chapman PRC wills 1640-99
Drover PRC wills 1640-99, 1580-1639, & 1520-79
Grasier PRC wills 1640-99
Wag(g)oner & Lorryman PRC inventories 1640-99
Wag(g)oner & Lorryman PRC wills 1640-99

Urban and social

Clark and Hosking’s (1993)2 data for small and medium sized towns have been mapped for all English counties.  Additionally, J.R. Woodhead’s study of London merchants achieving Alderman or Common Councilman status between 1660 and 1689 has been analysed for the birth location of the named merchants (where given) and has been mapped by county.

These data sets can be combined to look at user defined regions encompassing multiple counties, and to look at the overlay of London merchant birth origins on county or regional urban settlement

For example:

Devon Clark & Hosking (1993)
Devon Woodhead (1966)
Essex Woodhead (1966)

An experimental analysis has been made of the yeoman vs. gentry intensity of villages and towns named in PRC wills, 1640-99.  Using a dataset of all PRC wills for 1640-99 locations were disambiguated manually, using modern and old map sources.  Indices were then created showing the ratios of yeoman to gentry by location. London has been excluded from this analysis. Clark and Hoskings (1993) population data were used to group locations by population size.

Gentry dominated large towns, 1640-99
Gentry dominated small towns,Tier One, 1640-99
Gentry dominated small towns,Tier Two, 1640-99
Yeoman dominated small towns, Tier One, 1640-99
Yeoman dominated small towns, Tier Two, 1640-99


(1) J.R. Woodhead, The Rulers of London 1660-1689: A biographical record of the Aldermen and Common Councilment of the City of London (London, 1966), viewed 11/12/12
(2) P. Clark and J. Hosking, Population estimates of English small towns 1550-1851, rev. ed. (Leicester, 1993)
(3) TNA, PROB 11, viewed 11/12/12






Remarkable resilience

One of the pleasures of the MarineLives project is to have an opening into the lives of ordinary, yet extraordinary, men (and it is largely men). 

The resilience, courage and luck of some crews plying the Atlantic routes is well illustrated by the following testimony of a twenty-two year old mariner and ship’s carpenter from Shadwell.

The carpenter, William Welch, had returned to London from Virginia on the King of Poland through terrible winter storms in February 1655(56).

William Welch and his fellow crew members knew that they were lucky to be alive. Their ship had lost its rudder in a violent storm, leaving it hanging loose and in danger of being torn off. Welch and other volunteers had to be suspended by ropes over the side of the ship to make repairs, only for the rudder to be again lost in a subsequent storm. The crew manned the pumps day and night to their complete exhaustion.

The transcription below is by Jill Wilcox, one of MarineLives’ five team facilitators, who is also head of training for the project. Jill is an experienced school teacher and head of department, who studied history at the University of Hertfordshire as a mature student.

Remarkable resilience of a crew on an Atlantic winter voyage from Virginia to London

“1. to the 3: 4th 5th and 6th article of the sayd allegation hee saith that
2. the sayd shipp having soe taken in her sayd ladeing of Tobaccoe
3. at Bermudas and Virginia the arlate ffrederick Johnson and company
4. Mariners of the sayd shipp whereof this deponent was one sett sayle
5. with the sayd shipp and her sayd ladeing of Tobaccoe from James
6. River in Virginia ˹from or about the 27th day of˺ the moneth of January 1655 English
7. style bounds for London and saith that upon or about the first
8. day of ffebruary last in the morning the sayd shipp being with her
9. sayd Lading in her course for London and about the latitude of
10. thirty seaven degrees and a halfe and about ninety leagues to the
11. Eastwards of Virginia was surprized with an exceeding great
12. tempest the winds Blowing at west North west or thereabouts
13. with great furie and the sayd tempest continueing for fower or
14. fives dayes togeather the violence thereof drove in great seas into
15. the sayd shipp which raked her both fore and afte and split
16. and staved her longe boate all to peeces and breake the head of
17. her Rudder short off and soe brake the Iron works thereof that the
18. Rudder hung loose and was in continuall danger to bee wholly
19. torne off and carried away from the sayd shipp and the violence of
20. the sayd storme alsoe broke downe of the the waste of the
21. sayd shipp on both sides and brake some of her timbers and the
22. sea ran violently into the sayd shipps hold and ˹other˺ parts of
23. her and amongst her goods and ladeing of her to the great
24. perill of the lives of the sayd shipps company and eminent
25. danger of the losse of the sayd shipp and goods not withstanding
26. the sayd shipps company did use all possible meanes to
27. preserve them selves their sayd shipp and ladeing and did
28. presently after the sayd Rudder heads and Iron worke was broken
29. hange out men in roapes over the sayd shipps sides side (sic)
30. to worke and fasten the sayd Rudder againe thereby to bring
31. the sayd shipp to her steerage who with great hazards of
32. their lives did fasten the same but the tempest continueing
33. with great furie presently brake the same and soe that
34. untill about fower dayes after the first beginning of the
35. sayd storme the sayd shipps Rudder could not bee fastened
36. soe as to make it continue fast And the Master and company
37. during the sayd storme were forced to pumpe ˹and did pumped˺ by turnes
38. day and night continually at the chayne pumpe of the sayd
39. shipp and use all other meanes possible to preserve the sayd
40. shipp and ladeing and by Gods blessing upon such their
41. labours did with great difficulty preseve her and her ladeing
42. from sinkeing in the sea by meanes of the sayd storme…”

“1. hee the better knoweth being carpenter of the sayd shipp and one
2. of these that hang out in roapes and workes in great perill about
3. fashioning the sayd Rudder and alsoe helped to work at the pumps
4. and sawe the Master ˹and˺ others of the sayd shipps company worke at the
5. sayd pumps And further to these articles hee cannot depose
6. To the 7th article the sayd allegation hee saith that the sayd first
7. storme being under the sayd shipp in her passage from Virginia
8. to London did about the 9th of the sayd moneth of ffebruary meete
9. with an other very violent storme which continued with great furies
10. till about the 12 th of the same moneth and with some abatement
11. of the violence thereof from the sayd 12th till about the 16th of the
12. sayd moneth, by meanes whereof the sayd shipp being very dammified
13. by the former storme the for shee againe receaved much water into
14. her hold other parts of her and amongst her goods, her decks being
15. unavoidably seldom cleere of water not withstanding the master
16. and company of her afore all possible endeavour to prevent all damage
17. that might happen to her and her lading And but the waste and timbers
18. of the sayd shipp were soe broken with the first stormes and the tyme soe
19. short betweene the sayd two stormes that what was mended after
20. the first storme was broken and spoiled againe by violence of
21. the second storme this hee deposeth for the reasons aforesayd…”

HCA 13/71 f.249v & f.250r Case: A Busines of Examination of wittnesses on the behalfe of Thomas Allen Anthony Peniston and Company Owners of the shipp the King of Poland whereof ffrederick Johnson is Master) against John Wright Jasper White Perient Trott Thomas Tomlinson John Butts Richard Chandler and George Watermann (“Examined upon an allegation given in and admitted the Eleaventh day of June 1656 on behalfe of the sayd Thomas Allen Anthony Peniston and Company”): Deposition: William Welch of Shadwell in the parish of Stepney and County of Middlesex Mariner Shipwright aged twenty two yeares; Date: Between 14 & 17/06/1656. Transcription by Jill Wilcox

Please get in touch with us if you would like to learn more about the project.

We are looking for new associates to work on transcription, linkage and enhancement of the text.

We are also looking for PhD candidates and early career researchers with an interest in the substance of High Court of Admiralty records to assist us in shaping Phase Two of the MarineLives project