West Sussex author explores the powerful tales behind our shipwrecks

Breaking Seas, Broken Ships – Shipwrecks, People and Britain 1854-2007 is the latest book from Chichester-based historian Ian Friel.

Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 11:05 am
Ian Friel

It has been published by Pen & Sword at £25.

Ian explains: “Breaking Seas, Broken Ships is the sequel to my Britain and the Ocean Road – People and Shipwrecks 1297-1825 (Pen and Sword 2020). Like its predecessor, it uses the stories of a number of shipwrecks to chart British maritime history, the wrecks serving as both waypoints and as a means of exploring what was going on at the time they occurred. It is not a book about ‘finding shipwrecks’ nor is it about ‘great British shipwrecks’: most of these vessels will be unknown to the general public.

“However, each one has a powerful human story attached to it that brings together the lives of individuals with bigger themes about Britain and its relationship with the sea and the wider world.

“The book is aimed at a general readership, but much of it is based on my own first-hand research, so it should be of interest to historians and archaeologists.

“The sources I used for Breaking Seas, Broken Ships range from the traditional records of the Royal Navy and merchant shipping, such as logs and after-action reports to Sussex local rate books and the heart-rending letters sent by families to the Admiralty in the Second World War, seeking news of sailor relatives who served on dive-bombed ships. Newspaper evidence, as well, has featured heavily in the research.

“The idea for the two books came to me several years ago. There is great public interest in shipwrecks – their drama and tragedy can raise powerful emotions, but at the same time there is a fascination with finding out what happened.

“Books of famous shipwrecks have been published in the past, using wreck stories to build a chronological narrative across centuries, but they often don’t get much beyond either archaeology or the stories of the great seamen and their battles. I wanted to write books that would combine the big picture of British maritime history with the lives of individuals and the stories of individual places and ships.”

Like its predecessor, Breaking Seas, Broken Ships tackles some unfamiliar and intriguing subjects.

These include:

* The iron-hulled, steam-driven ocean liner City of Glasgow. Built in 1850, this ship was the first steam liner designed to carry large numbers of the poorer, ‘steerage’ migrants across the Atlantic to the USA, the migrants who helped to make modern America.

“The ship operated successfully for more than three years, but in March 1854 it sailed out of the Mersey and neither the ship nor the 430 men, women and children it carried were ever seen again. It probably struck an iceberg somewhere in the North Atlantic, much like the Titanic, 58 years later.”

* The dying days of sail, exemplified by the loss of the collier brig Russell of Littlehampton and its six crew in 1872. The tiny, two-masted Russell was 81 years old at the time of its loss, captained by William Belchamber, who lived in St Martin’s Lane, Littlehampton.

“The ship sailed regularly on the dangerous route to the north-east, returning with coal for homes and businesses in Sussex and Surrey. It was lost in a terrible December storm that sank four other ships and killed 29 other sailors along a short stretch of the Northumberland coast. The ship’s owner, Littlehampton Thomas Isemonger, nor government regulation of shipping, come out well in this story – nor does the West Sussex Gazette, which ‘exonerated’ Isemonger of blame six months before the a brief official enquiry did the same. At least three local women were widowed by the Russell tragedy.”

* The story of the giant battleship HMS Victoria, sunk in 1893, Ian says, by a combination of “Admiral Tryon’s error and arrogance – and the by blind obedience of his officers.”

“Breaking Seas, Broken Ships explores how and why Tryon - described as a ‘mastermind’ by at least one naval captain – committed this terrible mistake. However, it also focusses on the human story of the disaster, including the stage career of James Curran, a lowly and ‘insubordinate’ Scottish stoker and Victoria survivor, who toured the UK for over three years in a Victorian multi-media show, telling his side of the story.”