Online Exhibitions & Stories

Our Favourite Nautical Reads: Tales from the Sea

Maritime Literature
Illustration of Captain Hook and the Lost Boys by F D Bedford in the 1911 publication of Peter Pan

HEC's favourite tales from the sea

This exhibition delves into our staff's favourite nautical reads. Discover the real boats, sea captains and pirates behind these treasured tales.

Anne, Information Advisor

Anne's Pick: The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby

“I read the book 45 years ago and it described life onboard at the very end of the era of working sailing ships carrying cargo. Life was hard and unglamorous, sometimes violent but it showed that comradeship existed both in good and bad times. It was real life on the ocean wave and probably not what most of us today would want to get involved in.”

The Last Grain Race Penguin Original

The Tale...

The Last Grain Race, published in 1956, details the author Eric Newby’s time working as an apprentice aboard Moshulu during its final voyage as a transport vessel for the Australian grain trade. In his book, Newby describes the difficulties that the crew experienced during Moshulu’s long, treacherous journey from Ireland to Australia and back between 1938 and 1939. The crew battle a tornado, experience food shortages, and are forced to fashion hammocks out of rope when their sleeping quarters are infested with bugs. The author also describes an initiation ceremony that he undergoes as a new crewman once Moshulu passes the equator, involving having his head covered in tar and lead!  
When Moshulu reaches her destination in Australia, the ship is loaded with 60,000 sacks of grain and Newby and his crewmates celebrate as they finally receive their paltry wage. Newby then shares the high and lows of the journey home, from violent storms that wash over the deck, to a tug-of-war contest between his crewmates. The “Grain Race” in the title refers to the friendly competition between ships to achieve the fastest homeward bound journey time back to Europe through Cape Horn. On 10th June 1939, Newby and his crew completed their voyage from Port Victoria, Australia to Ireland in a speedy 91 days- Moshulu had won the grain race!  

Plan of General Arrangement for Moshulu 1904

...The Truth

The Moshulu (formerly “Kurt”) was built in 1904 by William Hamilton & Co and classed by Lloyd’s Register. When she was first built, Moshulu was the largest barque in the world, measuring 400 feet in length and with a total sail area of 45,000 square feet across its 34 sails.

When the U.S. government acquired the vessel during the First World War, she was renamed Moshulu meaning “One who fears nothing” by Edith Wilson (wife to President Woodrow Wilson) to honour the Native American Seneca people. Following the First World War, Moshulu operated as a transport vessel in the coal and timber trades until she was purchased by Gustaf Erikson in 1935, who employed Moshulu in the grain trade between 1935 and 1942. Three years following her triumphant victory in the Grain Race, the German navy captured Moshulu in 1942, stripping her of her masts. She was then left, forgotten and neglected, until 1961 when she was purchased by the Finnish State Granary and put to use as a grain storage hulk.

Specialty Restaurants Corp. later purchased Moshulu in 1974 and transformed her into a museum restaurant! After surviving a fire in 1989, Moshulu underwent restoration work, to return her to her former glory, reopening as a museum restaurant in 1996. In addition to featuring in Newby’s book, Moshulu has achieved celebrity status and made appearances in the films Rocky, The Godfather Part II, and Blow Out

The Moshulu, photograph by Joey Mas
“The ship that had seemed huge and powerful was nothing now, a speck in the Great Southern Ocean, two thousand miles eastwards of New Zealand, three thousand from the coast of South America…to the south there was nothing but the Antarctic ice and darkness.”
The Last Grain Race
Max, Archivist

Max's Pick: The Riddle on The Sands by Erskine Childers

“I first read this at the age of nine on a family holiday to deepest darkest Devon and was completely hooked! Aside from the adventure, intrigue, betrayal and espionage, the idea of going on holiday and making such an earth-shattering discovery made a real impression on me. The majority of that holiday saw me daringly explore the beaches, caves and shoals of the coast- much to the considerable annoyance of my parents!”

The Riddle of the Sands Penguin Original

The Tale...

This spy fiction novel, written in 1903 by Erskine Childers, is responsible for establishing the classic spy plot that captures any young child's adventurous heart and has played out in the likes of James Bond and John la Carré spy novels.   
The Riddle on the Sands is a story of two young men on a sailing trip around the islands off the Dutch coast who discover a secret German naval base and an enemy armada which is preparing to invade England. The main character, Davies, suspects the Germans are undertaking something sinister on the German Frisian Islands and travels there to try and uncover this rumoured secret project. After encountering a number of different characters on their way, the two young boys uncover that the Germans are linking canals and railways, dredging passages through the sand and hiding a fleet of tugs and barges. The only explanation for this is an attempt to transport a German army across the North Sea to invade Britain’s coast.  
This book, as you can imagine, became incredibly popular in the years leading up to the First World War as it insights fears about the possible threat of Imperial Germany.  

Photograph of Erskine Childers

...The Truth

The Riddle on the Sands has quite a remarkable history. Not only was the yacht Dulicibella based on Childers’ own explorations on his yacht Vixen throughout his youth, but the novel was written as a story with a purpose.  
Childers predicted war with Germany.  
This book raised the public's awareness of the potential threat of Germany in the years leading up to the First World War. This increasing awareness of Imperial Germany influenced the government’s decision to set up new off-shore British naval bases including one at Rosyth Dockyards in Fife, Scotland. This particular naval dockyard became the largest naval base in Scotland, large enough to berth upto twenty battleships. Winston Churchill accredited this book as the fundamental reason for the admiralty deciding to establish new military bases off English shores. 
The success of Childers’ publication and his knowledge of the potential German threat led to his temporary recruitment as Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (a position specifically requested by Churchill). At the outbreak of war, Childers became responsible for drawing up a plan for the invasion of Germany through the Frisian Islands (which he had practically planned out in his 1903 book). Childers worked on this plan day and night, yet many of his colleagues disputed his work. The Assistant Director of Naval Operations in fact commented “It is quite mad. I have never read such an ideotic, amateur piece of work as this outline in my life”. 
Childers was stationed on HMS Engadine in 1914, a seaplane tender of the Harwich Force, fitted with hangars for three seaplanes for aerial reconnaissance and bombing missions in the North Sea. He was involved with flying seaplanes and acted as a navigator during torpedoing missions against the Germans in the North Sea including the famous 1914 Christmas Day bombing of the Cuxhaven airship base. The raid on Cuxhaven was the first combined sea and air strike by the Royal Navy during the First World War, aiming to bomb the dirigible sheds housing German Zeppelins. The poor weather conditions of fog and low cloud prevented the raid from being a complete success although a number of sites were attacked.  
The Riddle On The Sands really does have a significant history. Not only did it give us the classic spy plot, but it also informed Britain of the potential threat of Imperial Germany with its author serving on a Royal Navy ship during the First World War and contributing to Britain's War efforts.  

Photograph of HMS Engadine
"Germany's a thundering great nation . . . I wonder if we shall ever fight her."
The Riddle on the Sands
Sean, Digital Engagement Manager

Sean's Pick: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

"I first read the book about two years ago to break up the monotony of listening to music when commuting into the office – I found the novel to be a great read, particularly the depictions of Nautilus navigating the seas and undertaking excursions on the seafloor. The reason I decided to read the book is I vividly remember watching the Disney film adaptation of the book when I was a kid. I couldn’t tell you why my family had the VHS of the film, but I can distinctly remember the green hue of Nautilus.”

Original illustration from the 1871 publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

The Tale...

Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was originally published as a series in the Magasin d'éducation et de récréation between March 1869 and June 1870. Verne is widely regarded as a pioneer of the science fiction genre, paving the way for future science fiction writers with his vivid descriptions of futuristic technology including the submarine Nautilus.  
Told in the first person from the perspective of Marine Biologist Pierre Aronnax, the story begins in 1866, when ships all over the world are reporting sightings of a sea monster. Aronnax, along with his servant Consiel and harpooner Ned Land, join an expedition led by the U.S. government that aims to find and destroy the creature.  
Upon locating and attacking the sea monster their frigate is damaged and three men are thrown overboard, but in a miraculous turn of events find themselves being rescued by the “monster” that they sought to destroy. They soon discover that the “sea monster” is in fact the futuristic submarine Nautilus, commanded by the eccentric Captain Nemo, whose quest for scientific knowledge has led to a self-imposed underwater exile. For the remainder of the novel, Aronnax describes his adventures aboard Nautilus, detailing enchanting visits to coral reefs, the Antarctic, the Transatlantic telegraph cable, and even the fictional island of Atlantis. 

Memo regarding the classification of Nautilus, 20 November 1874 

...The Truth

Verne’s Nautilus was inspired by a model of the French submarine named Plongeur (meaning ‘Diver’), which he saw its model on display at the Paris World Fair in 1867. Launched in 1863, Plongeur was the first mechanically propelled submarine, using an engine driven by compressed air, which allowed the 140-foot vessel to reach an average speed of five knots when submerged.  
The word ‘nautilus’ is derived from the Greek word ‘nautilos’ meaning ‘sailor’ in English. Although Lloyd’s Register doesn’t contain any submarine records, we do hold records for twenty nine ships named Nautilus in our archive. One example is the ship Nautilus built by G. Stratingh in 1874. A memo in our archive reveals that it was built of continental white oak and fastened with pine tree nails. Although the ship sounds striking in appearance it is a far cry, technologically speaking, from Verne’s Nautilus, which features floodable tanks to control the vessel’s buoyancy and depth, and a distillation machine that can turn seawater into drinkable water. Perhaps ships in the future will come with built-in desalination equipment similar to the distillation machine on Captain Nemo’s Nautilus!  

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Drawings for Plongeur, 1867
“The sea is everything. It covers seven- tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert where man is never alone, for he feels life quivering around him on every side...Ah, sir, live in the bosom of the waters! There alone is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!"  
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
Sarah, Digital Engagement Officer

Sarah's Pick: Peter Pan

“I remember reading this book when I was around eight or nine years old. My favourite character at the time was of course Tinkerbell. I think every young girl at some point in their life wanted to be Tinkerbell! Now looking back on the book as an adult, the character of Peter Pan truly resonates with me, clinging onto the memories of my childhood and my wild imagination; never wanting to grow up.”

Peter Pan published in 1911

The Tale...

Peter Pan doesn’t have any direct links to LR ships, and a number of you may even argue it shouldn’t be classed as a ‘maritime’ novel. Yet, we believe Peter Pan deserves some airtime. The character of Peter Pan has become a cultural icon symbolising youthful innocence and escapism. It is a wonderful novel about the joys of being a child, adventure, mythical lands and of course, pirates!  
Peter Pan was first created as a stand-alone character by J M Barrie in his first novel ‘The Little White Bird’ published in 1902. Peter was a free spirited and mischievous young boy who could fly and never grew old spending his never-ending childhood exploring the mythical land of Neverland as the leader of the lost boys, interacting with fairies and pirates and leading ordinary boys and girls astray.  
As this character became so popular the chapters from The Little White Bird became its own stand-alone novel called Peter in Kensington Gardens in 1906.  Peter even went on to have his own stage play, The Boy who Wouldn't Grow Up in 1904, which was later adapted into a novel Peter and Wendy or simply, Peter Pan in 1911.  
The character Peter Pan has a sweet and endearing story behind it.  
As J M Barrie’s older brother David died aged 14, Barrie drew comfort from the fact David died a boy and would remain a boy forever.  

Illustration of Captain Hook by F D Bedford from the 1911 publication of Peter Pan

...The Truth

We are all familiar with the one and only, Captain Hook, the archenemy of Peter Pan with a hook for a hand and Captain of the Jolly Roger. He is one of many stereotypical, intimidating and dangerous pirates that dominate nautical novels and films today. Taking inspiration from the likes of Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, some of the most famous (and real) pirates throughout history, Captain Hook has become somewhat iconic in popular culture. We associate him and pirates alike with the iconic wardrobe, the speech, the Jolly Roger and buried treasure…  
The period between 1650 and 1730 was named The Golden Age of Pirates with approximately 5000 pirates at sea. They mainly operated around the Indian Ocean and the Island of Madagascar, also known as ‘Pirate Havens’, as they were considered ‘safe’ areas for committing piracy- areas of the world outside of law and government and thus able to freely exercise their power and commit piracy outside of the law. The pirates of the 1710s and 1720s were among the greatest ever pirates in the long history of robbery by sea. This period was epitomized by Edward Teach (otherwise known as Blackbeard) and Bartholomew Roberts who attacked ships of all nations and created a crisis in the Atlantic system of trade. It generated the general image of pirates that live on in modern popular culture and is most likely where J M Barrie got inspiration for the character Captain Hook, with his appearance taking inspiration from the statue of William III at Kensington Palace where Barrie used to spend most of his time. 
Pirates had terrifying reputations...  

Skull and crossbones would be stitched onto a black flag, creating the Jolly Roger, a pirate's traditional symbol and instrument of terror. They were opposers and violators of all common law. The Jolly Roger became an anti-national symbol of a gang of proletariat outlaws who declared war against the world! Pirates consciously used terror to accomplish their aims- to obtain money, punish people, to take vengeance on whom they considered to be the enemy and to instil fear in sailors, captains, and merchants. 
Although Peter Pan is a fairytale without any historical accuracy or ‘real’ ships, it is a story that reflects significant moments in history. Without the popular stories of Captain Hook and Blackbeard, pirates would remain a mystery to us and that would indeed be a shame to us all! 

Perpetual boyhood: illustration for Peter Pan by Kathleen Atkins
"It is not in doing what you like, but in liking what you do that is the secret of happiness."
Peter Pan
Megan, Collections Assistant

Megan's Pick: Exodus by Julie Bertagna

“I first read Exodus by Julie Bertagna in 2006 at the age of 12. It was one of the first books that I couldn’t put down as the treacherous journey made by the refugees in fishing boats really struck a chord with me. Bertagna’s compelling story made me realise at a young age that we all have a responsibility to look after each other and the world we live in.”

Exodus by Julie Bertagna published in 2002

The Tale...

Exodus follows the journey of 15-year-old Mara, one of many climate refugees from the island of Wing who sets sail into the unknown in an attempt to escape the rising seas that are engulfing their island. Led by Mara, Wing’s residents escape on fishing boats and begin a perilous journey across the sea in the hope of arriving at the fabled city in the sky- New Mungo. With her book, Bertagna’s dystopian young adult fiction mirrors reality as millions of refugees are displaced due to climate change, conflict, and persecution every year.

Plan of Stern Post & Rudder for Harold Dollar, 10th December 1909

...The Truth

Historically, boats have played a vital role in helping people escape from dangerous situations, with notable examples during the Second World War that carried Jewish refugees to safety. One ship, classed by Lloyd’s Register, that was involved in a Second World War rescue mission was the Harold Dollar. Later renamed Eestirand, the ship was used by the Soviet Navy to evacuate the population of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, as German forces advanced on the country in 1941. Sadly, hundreds lost their lives during the rescue attempt as the boat was hit by German planes in Tallinn harbour. However, due to the quick thinking of the ship’s crew, who decided to steer the boat towards the nearby Prangli Island, there were approximately 2700 survivors. A monument was erected on Prangli Island in memory of the crew and passengers who lost their lives during the attack on Eestirand, which can still be visited to this day. 

The Memorial of Eestirand. Photograph taken by Ivo Kruusamägi
“While the other refugees huddle under mothy tarpaulins, plastic coverings and blankets, Mara jumps from boat to boat, calling desperately for her parents, peering through the dim twilight for the arrival of any new boats. The city glints under the midsummer blue of a star-sprinkled sky.” 
Charlotte, Education and Outreach Coordinator

Charlotte's Pick: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

“The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian meticulously brings life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars to life. O’Brian expertly combines heroic stories, fictional and historical characters and a devilish attention to detail in a series of novels that allow you to get lost in a monumental period of European history. His way of writing is also reminiscent of Jane Austen (intentional as O’Brian was inspired by Austen’s work) in the humour, the creation of recognisable characters and the observations of daily life. The first book in the series, Master and Commander, was one of the reasons I wanted to pursue naval history as a subject (that and the excellent film adaptation released in 2003). "

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian published in 1969

The Tale...

Master and Commander is one of the most popular maritime reads in this online exhibition, winning our Twitter poll by a landslide! It was written by Patrick O’Brian in 1969 as the first instalment in a 20-book series called Aubrey- Maturin.  The stories take place during the Napoleonic Wars with the first book set at the turn of the century and the last book is dated 1815, with close references to some of the key battles. The novel follows the character of Jack Aubrey, recently promoted to the rank of Master and Commander and his accomplice Stephen Maturin, a naval physician, on a journey aboard the ship HMS Sophie before entering a victorious attack against a larger and better-armed Spanish 32-gun xebec-frigate called Cacafuego.

The Herald in the 1818 Register Book

...The Truth

O’Brian’s novel was closely based on the exploits of Thomas Cochrane, a naval Captain and Admiral, and his travels on the ship HMS Speedy. 

Thomas Cochrane was the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Marquess of Maranhão, (14 December 1775 – 31 October 1860), styled as Lord Cochrane between 1778 and 1831, and was a Scottish naval flag officer of the Royal Navy, mercenary and radical politician. He was a successful captain of the Napoleonic Wars, leading Napoleon to nickname him Le Loup des Mers or 'The Sea Wolf'. He commanded Speedy for less than 15 months and yet he carried out several raids on Spanish anchorages and, according to his own accounts, captured more than 50 vessels, 122 guns and 534 prisoners! Quite impressive!

Speedy was built in 1782 in Dover and her upper deck was a mere 78ft 3 inches with a breadth of 25ft 8 inches and lined with 14 guns. Cochrane was not impressed by his appointment to HMS Speedy, describing it as ‘little more than the burlesque of a vessel of war’. He is famously claimed to have been able to walk the deck with her entire broadside of 4 pounder shot contained in the pockets of his coat. Yet if she was so small and light, how was she able to overcome a vessel three times her size? How did Cochrane explain that?

HMS Speedy was a brig sloop, like HMS Sophie in the novel, a two masted vessel and was termed a ‘sloop’ because it was commanded by an officer with the rank of Master and Commander...  Does this ring any bells? It sounds incredibly similar to the synopsis of Master and Commander

The capture in the novel is again largely based on the real-life capture on the 6th May 1801 of the Spanish Frigate El Gamo by the British HMS Speedy. In the novel, HMS Sophie also encounters and defeats a Spanish vessel. This was one of the most spectacular victories in British Naval History. Speedy was travelling outside Barcelona on the 6th May 1801 when she sighted a large enemy frigate rigged vessel El Gamo which was around seven times its size, carrying 319 men, armed with 8 and 12 pounder guns. Cochrane on the other hand, only had 54 men on board. There was a hard-fought battle between the two ships resulting in 14 people dead and 41 injured. HMS Speedy was miraculously victorious! 

Although Lloyd’s Register did not class HMS Speedy (instead her plans can be seen at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich), we do have several ships that fought in the Napoleonic Wars (1801-15). HMS Scourge for example, or what was formerly known as The Herald, was a merchant ship launched in 1799 which was purchased by the Admiralty in 1803 to serve as a convoy escort during the Napoleonic Wars. At the outbreak of war, the Admiralty had a sudden need for more escort convoys to protect the British against French Privateers and purchased twenty ship-rigged vessels and armed them with ammunition- including HMS Scourge.  

William Wooldridge was appointed the commander for HMS Scourge and was involved in several ambushes throughout her career as a convoy escort across the North Sea. She was first registered with Lloyd’s Register in 1803 and registered again later under a new owner in 1818. You can see her records in the 1818 Register Book with her Foreman and Master as Ward & Co and her trade between London and Île de France and giving her launch year as 1800.  

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Portrait of HMS Speedy and the Spanish Frigate El Gamo
"Most men find [peace] entirely unlike what they had expected - like love…"
Master and Commander