Author and Historian
The Greenwich Maritime Institute
The Greenwich Maritime Institute was set up within the University of Greenwich when it moved into the Old Royal Naval College site in the late 1990s, as part of the University’s commitment to continue maritime education after the Navy vacated the site.
Professor. Sarah Palmer, the founder of the new postgraduate unit, assembled a strong team of mostly part-time lecturers, teaching maritime policy, business and law for those destined for the maritime industries, in parallel with naval and maritime economic history.
I joined the postgraduate unit immediately after leaving the National Maritime Museum, teaching the MA introductory survey of naval history and was awarded the title of Visiting Professor. I am glad to say that some of those early students have continued with research, Victoria Carolan, Chris Ware, Terry Lilley, Janet Macdonald, Byrne Macleod, Jon Wise and Cori Convertito have all since completed doctorates.
Naval history had changed since I started my research some thirty years earlier, when there had been little activity or university interest. By the turn of the 21st century seminars and conferences abounded, with many people of all ages attracted to the subject. The enormous state naval archives were now used in less traditional ways: the growth of interest in the history of naval medicine, or the recent examination of naval ‘expertise’ in all its forms, are two examples.
Perhaps the greatest change has been the impact of the Boydell Press, under the commissioning editor, Peter Sowden, which publishes the work of young scholars quickly and to a high standard, bringing their reaearch into the public domain.
I took on five Ph.D students, now all successfully completed: Virginia Preston on naval manning in the mid nineteenth century, Terry Lilley on the Tenth Cruiser Squadron in the First World War, and three on my own particular interests, the Napoleonic Wars. Bob Sutcliffe has examined the chartering of merchant ships by government for the prosecution of the war; Brian Arthur, the 1812 war with America (now published as How Britain won the War of 1812: the Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 ( Boydell, 2011); and James Davey, victualling the British fleet in the Baltic between 1808 and 1812, now published as The Transformation of British Naval Strategy: Seapower and Supply in Northern Europe, 1808-1812 (Boydell, 2012).
My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars has been greatly extended by examining doctorates from other universities, primarily from Exeter, where they were taught by Michael Duffy and Nicholas Rodger: the work of Tom Wareham, Sam Willis, Sam Cavell, Gareth Cole and Peter Ward has been published. A recent thesis to be completed is that of Jeremiah Dancy who transferred with Nicholas Rodger from Exeter to Oxford.
However, I have learnt most about the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from a project to study how, in the age of sail and before modern food preservation techniques, the navy managed to feed the crews of all its ships, scattered throughout the world. The Greenwich Maritime Institute, supported by the National Maritime Museum, received a large grant from the Leverhulme Trust in 2006 to set up a research team to write a book, publish a database and also to produce a doctorate from the junior member of the team. Martin Wilcox and James Davey joined and as a three-man team we examined many miles of documents, primarily those of the Victualling Board in the National Archives. I wrote up the project jointly with Martin Wilcox in the book: Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the Contractor State (Boydell, 2010),while James Davey wrote his thesis referred to above. We found an extensive world of government contractors, about which little is known because of the almost complete non-survival of personal papers or business records of the private sector of the time. After much debate within the team, we decided to use ‘Contractor State’ in the title of the book, which has caused some interest amongst historians who specialise in the nature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British state.
Since the end of the end of the Leverhulme project, life has again taken a different direction. I have given up my positions on various editorial boards, and the councils of the Navy Records Society and the Society of Naval Research, allowing the next generation of naval historians to take the strain. Instead, I have lectured in interesting places, most notably on board the Minerva (Swan Hellenic) and also the Hebridean Princess’. Now that Britain against Napoleon is finished, I am thinking about the next book.