Lloyds Register Foundation Forum

Pod 2: From sail to steam… to zero carbon. Dr Elin Jones on maritime innovation and change in the nineteenth century


Alix Mortimer:

Hello and welcome to the second Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World project podcast. I'm Alix Mortimer, the project’s manager at History & Policy, King's College London. What I'm doing in this series is exploring what the project aims to do and talking to some of the historians and the professionals taking part. Now we're working with the Lloyd's Register foundation whose mission is to support research and education to engineer a safer world, and the Lloyd's Register of Shipping, of course, dates to the 1760s. The aim of the project is to introduce a series of expert academic historians to the Foundation’s fantastic archive, and produce a body of reports on historical topics which are going to support the decision-making of professionals and policymakers working in the industry today. And this is a very exciting pod because I am talking to one of the first historians who will be working on a report as part of the project. Dr Elin Jones, who is Lecturer in Maritime History at the University of Exeter. Elin, hello and tell us about your research interests first of all and what you're working on at the moment.

Elin Jones:

Hi, Alix, thanks for having me. So my work focuses on the period roughly from 1750 to 1850 although I'm increasingly looking more closely and further into the 19th century, and particularly for the purposes of this project. So I work on maritime labour, skill and masculinity and my first book, which is currently in the rather long process of being finished, is looking at how labour, skill, knowledge, and masculine identity were performed and understood on British naval vessels from the 1750s up until 1815. Whereas my new project, which I've started over the past year, explores again maritime labour and skill, but thinking about how those traditional skills and ideas about work were disrupted and reshaped globally with the arrival of steam power and marine industrial technologies from about the 1820s to the 1870s. And I'm interested in this new project in asking questions about shipboard society. So how did maritime work change and what did this mean to people who undertook it? But I also want to explore work skill and labour in dock yards and coastal communities, and to investigate the way that marine industrial technologies might transform human relationships with the sea across the nineteenth century, in ways which are still very much being played out today.

AM: So the reason that I was so pleased when you answered our call to historians is because a lot of your research really does directly echo, I think, that the concerns of the project and the broader aims of Lloyd's Register Foundation. So I'm just going to quickly read out the call for historians which you answered and that included this paragraph:

The subject areas of the reports can be developed in discussion and might include, for example, innovation and development in shipping technologies and how these were implemented in the past; how maritime and engineering knowledge and practices were developed and passed on; how communities and industries managed marine and other environmental resources in the past and what the lessons might be for sustainability today. The focus can be regional or global. An early focus is likely to be on the transition between fuel technologies in the past, sail to coal, coal to oil, and what models this might offer an industry currently seeking to decarbonize.

So I want to get into more detail about actually all of your research, but tell me about the specific things that spoke to you in the summary and where you saw that your work could intersect.

EJ: Thank you, that's really interesting to hear that back again. I think there's a couple of really clear places where my current research dovetails very neatly with the aims of the Lloyd's Hindsight project. So the focus on technological transition, which you mentioned at the end is a very obvious one. And there really hasn't been much work done on how individuals and communities negotiated new marine technologies. Did they reject them? Did they resist them? How did they adapt their working practices? And how did it change their understanding of the sea, of the natural world and of themselves as a working community. So these are questions I'm very actively exploring. But also, you mentioned resource management and that's something else that I'm working on at the moment, which I find very interesting. And this project is absolutely about how coastal communities manage resources in response to the imposition of technological change. I'm currently co-writing an article with a brilliant marine ecologist at Exeter, Ruth Thursten, and that explores how fishing communities responded to trawling in the first half of the nineteenth century. And what that tells us about harnessing local knowledge and how those fishing communities understood what we would now call marine ecological sustainability.

AM: This is part of the Industrial Ocean project?

EJ: Yes. This is part of an initiative that's a very broad church for my research strategy going forward, which involves both individual research that I'm carrying out independently, which looks at the adaption to a negotiation of early steam power at sea. But it's also a research network which is in its early stages, but which brings together scholars from environmental humanities, human geography, ocean sciences and social sciences to set a new research agenda about industrialization, one viewed from an oceanic perspective. So my working relationship with Ruth has really come out of that network.

AM: Fantastic. So Ruth as a marine ecologist is, that's kind of interesting because she's presumably coming up against this history for the first time. I don't know how far along you are with that collaboration, but can you tell us anything about your early conclusions about how those fishing communities adapted?

EJ: It’s really interesting speaking to Ruth about it because in marine ecology today there’s an impulse to gather and harness local knowledge to basically reverse the impacts of industrialization. But right at the beginning, in the early years of global industrialization, there were already attempts to harness that local knowledge, but they were then entirely discounted by the people carrying out commissions and reports - namely Thomas Huxley, who is known as Darwin's Bulldog popularly. And so it's interesting that there's something quite circular about it, that the local knowledge that was cast off in the 1860s might end up being our salvation 150 years on. So there's a very interesting circularity about it. And some of our early conclusions have essentially been that fishing people who often couldn't read or write knew how to manage resources in localised way. And they were routinely ignored. They knew what trawling was doing – and this is before steam trawling, this is sail ship trawling – but they knew already what the impacts of that were on fishing stocks, on damaging the sea bed. But they were routinely ignored by the commission that we're looking at, which took place in the 1860s. So now we need to recapture some of that knowledge in order to make up for the past 150 years.

AM: So Huxley was part of that commission, and that commission was gathering evidence and then it wrote these reports and said we should ignore this or was it just omitted? I find this fascinating.

EJ: It was amazing because the commission report details the testimonies of these fishermen, and for some reason their findings and what they're suggesting and what they're saying is completely ignored. And so the recommendation of the commission is that fishing stocks are basically unlimited, and we don't need to worry about this. We should just carry on producing cheap fish to feed industrial cities. Because remember this is the beginning of an explosion in rail travel as well, so fish could get from coasts to industrial cities very quickly to feed a growing industrial population. This was an essential source of protein. So basically they write off what a lot of fishermen are suggesting. And I think part of the reason they're able to do that is that over two years, they travelled around the country interviewing hundreds of people, and those people don't always agree with each other because of personal interest, because of the differential experiences and on different parts of the coast. So because there's not a clear singular message, they just discount everything that's said. Thomas Huxley, I've been looking into his archive recently, and there's actually complaints submitted by fishing communities in Cornwall saying he essentially turns up and bullies the fishing communities into saying what he wants them to say. It's interesting also working with someone who's not a historian on an academic output –  which is something we're not trained to do, we're trained to gather our knowledge and keep it keep it to ourselves, so it's been a really great process.

AM: That experience of the fishermen having their evidence taken and then ignored and then complaining - that sounds like it could almost be part of any consultation process that's taken place over the last 150 years. So that's obviously something with a very long history.

EJ: It's very relevant. Fishing communities today in Britain are complaining about policy and being routinely ignored, especially now in the wake of Brexit and with the debates over European fishing rights, so these issues are still very much there. And the communities who were ignored 150 years ago, I'm not sure have much more of a formalised voice today.

AM: So we've got gone into this fantastic segue about fishing, which is kind of what I wanted to do! But let's kind of come back to steam technology replacing sail technology. And this is I think something you’ve starting to work on, I think you said when we've spoken before, you’ve started doing some initial research on various maritime disasters that occurred in the early to mid-nineteenth century as steam is replacing sail. Do you want to talk about those a bit and how the Lloyd's projects has perhaps shifted your perspective on it, because I think the concept of safety was interestingly resonant for you, wasn't it?

EJ: Yeah, absolutely. So the words risk and safety just aren’t words that I'm used to thinking with as a historian. Since replying to that email and having conversations about the Lloyd's project, the idea of risk is now feeding into an article I was already working on, on steamship collisions in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. So essentially what I'm learning is that when steam power was introduced to shipping in Britain, lots of people had no idea what they were doing, and I love the history of people being a bit rubbish with new technology, probably because I find it comforting! But the main problem was that it took time for masters, captains, sailors on vessels to come to terms with how steam changed their work, and this is a process that happens quite slowly. The initial introduction of steam does actually happen quite quickly, and there's a bit of a crisis over the regularity of steamship collisions in the 1830s, 1840s, and the attendant loss of life and the loss of cargo. Ships aren't just being sunk, they're colliding with each other, in what the Admiralty Court, who administer maritime affairs, referred to as “unskilful conduct”. So essentially the masters and the crews of ships are misjudging speed and distance and midjudging the reduced impact of wind and wave, [which] has less of an impact on direction and speed than it does when you have a sailing vessel, and it takes a long time for working knowledge to catch up with this.

AM: Yeah, so there's no longer quite the right skills. So put us in the picture, roughly what years we talking about for the introduction of steam? So you say that was a fast process?

EJ: If we look at the Navy, in 1815, the Royal Navy is still deeply suspicious about steam: “it will never catch on”. By the 1850s and by the Crimean War, there is almost an all-steam navy. So it's happening over about 40 years, steam really takes off in the maritime context. In mercantile vessels and passenger vessels, it has a slightly longer lead-in. So from the very early nineteenth century, especially up and down the Clyde, steam vessels are being introduced for passengers and cargo. But it's essentially the first half of the nineteenth century where steam takes off in the maritime context.

AM: That's two careers really, isn’t it, or one long career.

EJ: Yes and we can see within the diaries of an individual - that's what's great about studying technological change at this point in time is that within the diaries or letters of one person in a few instances, when they're helpfully placed, you can see someone negotiating the change to expectations around labour, skill, work, all these sorts of things.

AM: If you know offhand, I'd love to know whose diary that is, and where people can find it. I can always put a note below the podcast?

EJ: I can't remember the names offhand, but I will let you know.

AM: We’ll put a note down the bottom because that's brilliant. So going back to the “unskillful conduct” thing which is interesting. In the reports of various politicians and government arms looking at this, at these collisions and these accidents, and also in the wider world, in the newspapers, were people talking about safety and risk, or was it more about the loss of goods? I’m interested in what the angle was really.

EJ: So it's referred to as a national catastrophe by an MP, George Grey in 1848. And his argument is that it's a tragedy in terms of loss of cargo. But this is also going to negatively impact Britain's imperial possessions. Britain's management of its role in the world is at risk because of mismanagement of steamships. Britain is a maritime empire and suddenly steamships are colliding with each other. There's a loss of life, which is often discussed outside of the political sphere, that's often discussed in nineteenth-century newspapers. And especially local coastal newspapers from the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s often feature reports of shocking steamship collisions, particularly when women and children have died. And the court for inquiry for these is often held locally, often in a pub, I’ve found, and people throng around to hear the outcome of who was responsible for the accident and the loss of life. So the risk and how risk could and should be mitigated was very pressing in the mid-nineteenth century. And it was a public concern, it was on people's minds in the political sphere, but also in the [private sphere].  

AM: Was there also any sense in which people wanted to… I mean, obviously now, when an accident happens, one of the major processes that takes [place] is establishing what went wrong and what can be done better. And that's just such a natural part of how we think now that we don't even question it. Is that something that figures at all in those inquiries?

EJ: So the records that I've primarily used to look into these are the Court of Admiralty, the section that looks at rivers and coasts of Britain. And reading through the testimonies, they’re primarily trying to work out… there’s accusations of unskilful conduct and helpfully for my purposes, there's also often quite a lot of detail of how that unskilful conduct played out, and what people's expectations were around skill and labour and how those mismatched with what was actually happening. But within those as well, the main thing people are trying to work out is who owes who what, there’s very little within those inquiries. So that the letter that I mentioned from the MP George Grey in 1848, he's trying to draw greater attention to it essentially, what he describes is this national catastrophe of steamships sinking but also colliding with each other. There's a slew of regulations introduced by the Admiralty to try and mitigate against some of the worst risks. So in 1846, the UK passes legislation which controls how many lights steam vessels have to have on them, so that they can be more visible in the dark, and if they're moving at high speed towards another vessel, that can be predicted. But yeah, the responsibility on an individual scale mainly seems to be around who is financially liable.

AM: So regulations do come in governing the hardware, as it were. Let's talk a bit about more about the skills aspects, because we started out by saying that your work has focused on this intersection between labour, skills and masculinity in the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries. That was the research you originally coming from. So I'm interested if you can sum up a very broad area, what was your conclusion about how passing on of skills through that culture worked in that period? And was there any sense of early professionalisation, particularly with these changes taking place in the technology?

EJ: Absolutely so my new project is looking at how technology disrupts ideas about maritime labour, work and skill. I mean, what both my projects on the eighteenth century and my new project on the nineteenth century have in common is that they are studies of how humans respond to the specific challenges of maritime work, and of life at sea in what is a largely, not entirely but largely, homosocial environment. And those responses to labour, skill, to work, are really what I mean when I discuss masculine identity. So it's not that masculine identity is a cultural entity which is removed from considerations of risk and safety, but actually it's very much shaped by those considerations, and by the experiences of what was an incredibly dangerous profession. In terms of professionalisation, that happens within the Navy, that absolutely happens, but I think in this new project what I'm hoping to do is look outside of the bounds of the Royal Navy and think a bit about how did these technology shape relationships between people, but also between people in the natural world in a global sense, in contexts outside of the Royal Navy.

AM: Right, which is where hopefully the archive of the Lloyd's Register Foundation archive can offer some useful material. So we've kind of gone on this fantastic tour of your various interests, and they all obviously tie in to the different areas that this project is interested in. So at the moment, what are your thoughts about, what you might like to write about and which of these elements you're kind of most interested in pursuing in the context of creating a report that's going to be useful to contemporary decision-making? And how are we going to together going to tackle the challenge we always handle at H&P, which is figuring out how to put this in-depth knowledge and context of the past into a form where people handling contemporary challenges can make use of it. What are your thoughts on what you want to write about at the moment? And how are we going to shape it such that it is such that it's useful to policymakers and professionals?

EJ: Thank you, yes. So as I think you can probably guess from what I've been talking about, I'm particularly interested in technological change in the maritime world. And I think in the specific case, one of the things I'm really anticipating being helpful is working with the Decarbonization Hub at Lloyds. So we already had an initial meeting where I got to chat to some of the team there about moving towards their work, moving towards a decarbonized maritime world. And my contribution, I hope through the reports that I'm going to be writing, but also ongoing conversations with that group of people will be to examine how societies, organisations, individuals negotiated a similarly rapid technological shift to the decarbonization agenda being proposed, and to learn from that and to build on it. And this is my challenge really for the next year or so, is to create a report in dialogue with decarbonization efforts, which uses the past to provide insights and direction for the implementation of what we might call the next Maritime Industrial Revolution, if we want to use that term. And I think now even very early in the project, I can see the scope for providing contextualised guidance on protecting skilled work in periods of intense technological transformation, but also taking seriously and managing the impact of technological change on coastal communities. So yeah, those are a couple of the things. I think the decarbonization agenda, which Lloyd's has placed very centrally to its strategy will chime very well with what I'm thinking about in the first half of the nineteenth century.

AM: Yeah, I agree. I think as we go along, it will almost be as much about the conversations we have around the report as the report itself. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this project proceeds and how your report turns out. So thank you very much for talking to me, Elin. I'm going to pop down once this podcast is transcribed, I will pop down below the name of the diary that we mentioned partway through. And on the next pod, I'm going to be talking to another of the historians who is going to be working on the project, Guy Collender. So tune back in for that.

EJ: Thanks very much!


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