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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

An old photograph of bathing fashions 20s style

Bathing in the 1920s.

Photo courtesy of Steven Braggs and Diane Harris www.seasidehistory.co.uk


Approaching the study of the sea as a 'topic' almost immediately reveals a vast and potentially unmanageable area of research. The subject is perhaps better approached from subject type: social, cultural, economic, political, or from a particular subject area: tourism, naval battles, exploration, trade, colonies, ships or famous sailors for example. However, whichever way the subject is a tackled, what is revealed is that the study of the sea involves the study of an inter-disciplinary network of information, stretching from science and technology to religion, history to literature, and encompassing the entire globe.

There is a wealth of resources to be found on the web on all of these topics and more, to suit both the casual interest and lay historian, and the professional researcher, library and archive. There is also a great array of approaches from the serious study of boat design and development to the more fun opportunity to trace your Trafalgar ancestors.


Maritime Britain

Maritime Britain is an online guide to British maritime heritage facilities and organisations. It is published by two enthusiasts of maritime history, and provides the details of more than 300 museums, vessels, maritime organisations and shore side attractions. In addition to the directories the side also provides information on historic vessels at risk, advice for ship preservation groups and an events guide. Users will also find a collection of web links and a month-by-month guide to notable maritime anniversaries.

Maritime History on the Internet

This site aims to provide the maritime researcher with an introduction to the use of online resources. It is intended to complement the use of more traditional printed material and has sections on using online resources for researching ships and people, libraries and databases. Links have been divided into: general information, museums, specific ships, books and magazines, music, art and images, maritime education, nautical archaeology and modern sailing. Most of the links have been briefly annotated.

Nautical lexicography and etymology

Alan Hartley, a contributor of nautical terms to the Oxford English Dictionary, authors this web site, which is quite basic, may only be of real interest to maritime historians and researchers. It includes maritime history citations written for the Oxford English Dictionary covering medieval sources, Sandahl's Middle English Sea Terms, fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources, and Timoteo O'Scanlan's 1831 Spanish maritime Dictionary. Also on the site are articles about English nautical vocabulary and material from Hartley's unfinished Historical Dictionary of Mediterranean Nautical Terms.

William Falconer's Dictionary of the Marine, 1780 edition

This online version of William Falconer's Universal Marine Dictionary is published as part of the National Library of Australia's website 'South Seas' and looks at the voyages and exploration in the Pacific during the eighteenth century. The dictionary was published by Falconer in 1769 and provides definitions or explanations on eighteenth-century ship construction, equipment, furniture, machinery, movements and military operations. The dictionary has been transcribed and can be searched by keyword, or browsed alphabetically from the table of contents. The site also features digitised images taken from the 1780 edition of the dictionary.

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Naval History

Battle of the Atlantic

This is an online exhibition published by the Mariners' Museum exploring the events that took place in the Atlantic during the Second World War and the tactics the Allies employed in their naval campaign. Using a range of multimedia, including images, documents, audio files and PDF, the presentation covers topics such as convoys, Anglo-American co-operation, special intelligence, the Enigma code, and the Drumbeat crisis. Also featured on the site are highlight tours of content and a bibliography of further reading.


Broadside is published by a maritime history enthusiast and looks at life in the British Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The content is largely reference, comprising of well-written articles explaining life onboard ship during the Napoleonic Wars. The topics covered include health, pay and prize money, ships and tactics, battles, weaponry, press gangs, crime and punishment and the Battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. Also on the site are a few transcribed primary sources, naval images, a bibliography, and useful statistics.

Fast Attacks and Boomers: Submarines in the Cold War

This website is the online accompaniment to 'Fast Attacks and Boomers', one of the permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of American History. The exhibition explores the role submarines played during the Cold War and provides a wealth of information on American naval developments and activities during the late twentieth century. Featured in the online exhibition is a timeline of the Cold War, a brief history of submarine development, details of weaponry, submarine anatomy, information about life onboard the vessels and details of the missions undertaken. In addition to this, the exhibition focuses on the role of nuclear submarines in America's 'Strategic Triad' of deterrent nuclear forces, which also included long-range bombers and land-based missiles.

World War I Naval Combat

Darren Milford, a naval enthusiast, publishes this website on the naval battles of the First World War, providing a straight military history of naval combat during World War One, concentrating primarily on the surface warship warfare between Germany and Britain. Events covered are the Battles of Jutland, Dogger Bank, Heligoland Bight, Coronel and the Falklands, and the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow. Users can find information about World War One warships, with lists of ships and their classes, as well as information on individual ships such as HMS Aboukir and HMS Audacious; there is also a chronological list of losses during the war.

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Social and Cultural History

Elizabeth's Pirates

Elizabeth's Pirates is a Channel 4 website devised to accompany two documentaries covering Elizabethan history: 3BMs Secret History: Armada, and Yorkshire Television's Elizabeth's Pirates. Concentrating on the sea-faring activities of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the first section, 'The Rogue State', discusses Elizabethan England and its relations with the European powers, particularly Spain. The second section, 'The Pirates', looks at the activities of English privateers and pirates, with biographies of the most infamous pirates and privateers of the time, including Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Hawkins, and Richard Grenville, as well as Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Walter. The third section, 'The Armada', covers the circumstances surrounding, and the events of, the battle between the English fleet and the Spanish Armada in 1588, with the fourth providing web links and bibliographies for further reading and research.

The History of the British Seaside Holiday

Published by Steven Braggs and Dianne Harris, this site is dedicated to the history of British seaside holidays, with the main focus being the twentieth century, particularly from the nineteen twenties onwards. There is a selection of pictures and articles about the British seaside holiday from the 20s to the 70s with sections about lidos or open-air swimming pools; piers and hotels; camping and caravanning; some snapshots from the 60s in colour; a links page to other interesting seaside and nostalgia sites.

Pitcairn Island Study Centre

The Pitcairn Islands Study Centre is published by the Nelson Memorial Library at the Pacific Union College. The Study Centre is the largest North American collection of materials relating to the Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain William Bligh, HMS Bounty, and the Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands. The site is well laid out and provides a good range of reference material on each of the topics, including an encyclopedia of the crew on the Bounty, information on the HMS Pandora, the history of the Pitcairn Islands, pre and post 1790, and an analysis of the mutiny on the Bounty. Users can also find information about visiting the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre on the site.

PortCities UK

PortCities UK is a huge online digital collection on the maritime history of the United Kingdom. It is funded by the New Opportunities Fund, as part of its EnrichUK project, and has been published by the National Maritime Museum in collaboration with Hartlepool Borough Libraries, Liverpool Libraries and Information Services, Bristol City Council, and Southampton Reference Library. PortCities UK acts as a portal for five satellite sites, which explore the maritime history of Bristol, Hartlepool, Liverpool, Southampton and London. Amongst the subjects covered are slavery, shipbuilding, the docks, employment at sea, maritime archives and records, and war. Altogether the site contains over 5,000 digitised items, including photographs, manuscripts, paintings, artefacts, and maps. These can be browsed or searched by each city, or the entire site can be searched from the portal page.

Women and the Sea

Published by the Mariners' Museum, Women and the Sea is an online exhibition that looks at the history of women's involvement in seafaring occupations. Concerning itself with women's experiences in Britain and the United States, the exhibition covers several centuries, from the eighteenth century to the present day. The chapters cover a wide range of topics, including the female role in nautical myth and superstition, life for the families of sailors, women as sailors and lighthouse keepers, women in the Navy, women's involvement in yachting and racing, and seafaring women in the twentieth century. There are also multimedia resources, including digitised images, a timeline, and video material. In addition there are bibliographies for both adults and children and a list of web resources.

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Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

This web site publishes an online version of the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS). The print version was published in nine volumes between 1959 and 1991, and it provides the history of almost all US naval vessels. This online version is being transcribed by volunteers and currently features records for 7,000 ships. There is also a selection of biographies of notable figures.

History of the HMS Belfast

The History of the HMS Belfast is an Imperial War Museum web site. It provides a useful history of the service of this Royal Navy cruiser, from her construction in 1936, to her final commission in 1963. The History of HMS Belfast is broken into chapters, covering the ship's specifications, the construction and launch, service in the Second World War, including Arctic convoys, operation Tungsten, D-Day, post-war peacekeeping and the Korean War. Throughout the text is illustrated with good archival pictures and there are links to information about visiting the ship and the HMS Belfast Association.

Lost Liners

Lost Liners is an online database of fifty cruise liners, which were built and sailed during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Developed by two maritime enthusiasts, the site is well written and designed, providing historical accounts, pictures, and technical details of a variety of ocean liners. On the site are the histories of ships built by the White Star Line, Cunard, the Anchor Line, the Hamburg America Line, Canadian Pacific, North German Lloyd, P&O, Fairfield Shipping and the Blue Anchor Line. Amongst the ships covered are the Britannic, Lusitania, Morro Castle and the Titanic.

The Lusitania Medallion

One of the Imperial War Museum's online exhibitions, the Lusitania Medallion examines one of the most famous commemorative medals - Karl Goetz's 'Lusitania Medallion', pressed as a satirical critic of Allied conduct following the sinking of the White Star Line's Lusitania in May 1915 and in the face the fierce criticism levelled at German U-boat actions. The site is fairly basic in its exploration of the medallion and the surrounding circumstances, but provides a fascinating starting-point for the study of the subject.

Through Mighty Seas: Merchant Sailing Ships of the Northwest of England

Through Mighty Seas deals with the maritime history of the merchant sailing ships of the North West of England and the Isle of Man, from the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. The site is authored by a maritime historian and features the histories of more than 700 ships, indexed by region. Alongside the individual ship histories is information on shipbuilders, shipyards, lifeboats, sea captains, and shipping lines. Also available are more than 80 historic photographs, transcribed primary source material, articles on merchant ships, web links and a bibliography.

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Personal Histories

Aaron Thomas: the Carribean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman

Published by the Archives and Special Collections Division of the Otto G. Richter Library at the University of Miami, this site features seaman Aaron Thomas's eighteenth-century journal. The journal covers the years 1798-1799 and chronicles British sailor Thomas's time in the West Indies on HMS Lapwing. The journal has been transcribed and can be browsed by date; there is also a selection of images of the journal for illustrative purposes. Also available on the site is an introduction to the diary, a biography of Aaron Thomas, a selection of notable excerpts, a glossary and a bibliography

Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild

The Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild web site is a fantastic resource on immigration to the United States from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The organisation makes freely available transcriptions of passenger lists which have been transcribed by genealogist volunteers. There are currently over 5,000 passenger lists available on the site, covering arrivals in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. The records, covering the years 1638–1948, can be browsed by date, the ship's name, port of departure, port of arrival and captain's name. There is also a selection of special projects, including passenger lists of Eastern European refugees who immigrated to Australia during the Second World War, and rare lists of arrivals in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the nineteenth century. In addition to these useful resources there are also maritime newspaper articles, immigrant photographs and a resource gateway, which includes web links and research guides.

Maritime Memorials

The National Maritime Museum publishes the Maritime Memorials web site, an online database containing over 4,000 records of those who have died at sea. The records cover church, cemetery and public memorials to seafarers and victims of maritime disasters and include many important works by prominent sculptors and designers. The records can be browsed by category - topics, cause of death, event, location and photographs, with sub-categories that include cannibalism, emigration, exploration, smuggling, maritime accidents, war casualties and wars from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. There is also an advanced search facility, which allows the content to be searched by name, vessel, rank/occupation, place, city and artist. The database is not yet comprehensive; there is an online form for people to submit the details of memorials not yet included.

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Employment and Trade

Docklands Past and Present

This site looks at London's Docklands from their beginnings to the present day, including the history of the area around the Connaught Bridge where the project site is located. There are sections on the history of the docklands, industry, transport and communities and a timeline stretching back to 1275.

History of HM Coastguard

Part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency website, the History of HM Coastguard is split into sections concentrating on the origins of the coastguard, the coastguard during wartime, the use of communications and the coastguard in the twenty-first century.

Shipwrecks and Smugglers

This collection, part of the British Library Website, looks at two areas of international trade that have aroused the curiosity of the British public for hundreds of years: shipwrecks and smuggling. Including a number of interesting and amusing original documents such as 'Advice to the Unwary' and 'A Monody on the Death of Captain Pierce', the site provides a fascinating introduction to the original source material held at the Library on the topic.


The Whalecraft web site is an online repository of information about whaling in American history. The site is authored by a historian of whalecraft and contains information about different aspects of whalecraft, the development of whaling implements and the people involved in whalecraft. On the site are resources on harpoons, lances, spades, knives, swivel guns, shoulder guns, gun irons, whalecraft markings, patents and fakes, as well as a suggested reading list and web links. There is also a timeline of major whaling events, from the tenth to the twentieth century and an overview of the process of whaling.

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International Bibliography of Discoveries and Overseas Encounters

The International Bibliography of Discoveries and Overseas Encounters is published at the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal. This immense bibliography lists studies and printed resources that deal with Portuguese overseas expansion, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. The imperial expansion of other European countries is also covered and the lengthy contents list allows users to browse through the myriad topics included. The bibliography includes works in a variety of languages and the bibliography itself can be accessed in Portuguese or English. This is an exhaustive source, with references for almost all areas of study related to European colonial history.

South Seas - Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific

The South Seas project was devised by Professor Paul Turnbull and is published by the National Library of Australia. It provides an excellent online resource on the history of European voyaging and exploration in the Pacific during the eighteenth century. On the site users can access a whole range of primary and secondary source material; most impressive are the online copies of the Endeavour journals of James Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson and all three volumes of John Hawkesworth's Account of the Voyages...in the Southern Hemisphere. Other primary sources on the site include William Falconer's Dictionary of the Marine, and various European accounts of life in Pacific communities. In addition to these materials there are also maps, reference works, articles, essays and atlases available, providing greater explanation of the people, places and events mentioned.

Two Hundred Years before the Mast

Two Hundred Years Before the Mast highlights sea voyages of exploration, adventure and enterprise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The site includes accounts and reports; printed and manuscript journals, logs and memoirs; maps and charts; scientific and historical treatises; and fictional narratives. Materials on display reflect various aspects of sea voyages and their impact on contemporary western society between 1700 and 1900, including collections of voyage accounts, scientific expeditions, narratives of personal adventure on the high seas and fictional and literary works inspired by contemporary sea voyages.

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