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The Maritime history of the United Kingdommarker involves events including shipping, ports, navigation, and seamen, as well as marine sciences, exploration, trade, and maritime themes in the arts that directly involve the countries of the United Kingdom. Until the advent of air transport and creation of the Channel Tunnelmarker, marine transport was the only way of reaching the British Isles. For this reason, maritime trade and naval power have always had great importance. Until the Acts of Union in 1707, there were various political entities on the island of Britain but its maritime history was largely dominated by that of Englandmarker.


Ancient times

Paleolithic and mesolithic hunter-gatherers may well have reached Britain by sea, at least partly. Separation of the island from Irelandmarker was about 9000 BCE while separation from the continent of Europe occurred around 6500 BCE. British maritime history really starts with the Massaliote Periplus used by Phoenicianmarker traders in Iron Age Europe. This includes a description of the trade route to Britain around 600 BCE. It is believed that this trade was in tin and other raw materials. A later periplus was that of Pytheas of Marsalliamarker in "On the Ocean", written about 325 BCE. It is clear that in the Iron Age trade between Gaul and Britain was routine and that fishermen travelled to Orkneymarker, Shetlandmarker and Norwaymarker.

The first vessels used by Britons are presumed to have been rafts and dugout canoes, though the coracle, a small single passenger boat is known to have been used at least since the Roman invasion. Coracles are round or oval in shape, made of a wooden basket-like frame with a hide stretched over it then tarred to provided waterproofing. Being light, it can be carried over a shoulder. Coracles are capable of operating in mere inches of water due to the keel-less hull. The early people of Britain are believed to have used these boats for fishing and travel, and updated models are still used to this day on the rivers of Scotlandmarker and Walesmarker.

Early Britons used hollowed tree trunks as canoes. Examples of these canoes have been found buried in marshes and mud banks of river, at lengths upwards of two metres. One of these was found at Shapwickmarker, Somersetmarker in 1906. It was formed from an oak log and was six metres long. It was probably used to transport people, animals and goods across the Somerset Levels in the Iron Age.

The Dover Bronze Age Boat
In 1992 a notable archaeological find, named the "Dover Bronze Age Boat", was unearthed from beneath what is modern day Dovermarker, England. It is about 9.5 metres long by 2.3 metres wide and was determined to have been a sea-going vessel. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the craft dates from approximately 1600 BCE and is the oldest known ocean-going boat. The hull was of half oak logs and side panels also of oak that were stitched on with yew withies. Both the straight grained oak and yew bindings are now extinct in England. A reconstruction in 1996 proved that a crew of between four and sixteen paddlers could have easily propelled the boat during Force 4 winds at upwards of four knots to a maximum of . The boat could have easily carried a significant amount of cargo and with a strong crew may have been able to traverse up to thirty nautical miles in a day.

Remains from a Bronze Age trading vessel have been found off Salcombemarker, Devonmarker. The finds include palstave axe heads, an adze, a cauldron handle and a gold bracelet. There are also blades of swords and rapiers which are amongst the earliest in the country. Some of the objects originated in north France and are types that are rare in Britain. Evidence of tin trading has been found at Mount Battenmarker and Banthammarker in Devon.

Roman Period

Although Julius Caesar made brief exploratory sea-borne expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BCE, these were nearly a disaster because many of the boats were wrecked. The invasion fleet under the emperor Claudius in AD 43 was a large one, with 40000 men, and landed at Richboroughmarker, Kentmarker.

Later, part of the Classis Britannica was based in Britain, the job of which was to control the English Channelmarker and North Seamarker. At this time Britannia suffered raids by Scoti (from Ireland) and Saxons, as well as attacks by Picts from what is now northern Scotland. There was a Roman officer in charge of the "Saxon Shore" and a series of forts (or perhaps trading posts) was set up along the south and east coast. There also seems to have been a Roman fleet in the Bristol Channelmarker, based on archaeological evidence.

Roman trade with Britain was in grain and olive oil from North Africa, with slaves and lead being exported, while men for the army and administration also came. Later, grain was exported to the continent for the army. There was also trade with Ireland.

Early Middle Ages

After the end of Roman control of Britain in the early 5th century, "Saxon" mercenaries were recruited by British kings. The first are described by Gildas as arriving in "three keels" and were soon followed by more. After a dispute over pay, the Saxons revolted and were able to establish Saxon controlled areas in the east and south of England. This apparently involved both Angles and Jutes as well as Saxons. This led to much trade across the North Sea from the east coast of Britain. When an important person died their body would be placed inside a ship burial, such as at Sutton Hoomarker where the traces of a boat 27 m long by 4.5 m wide and 1.5 m deep were found, dating to about 625 AD.

In the western areas of Britain trade with the Mediterraneanmarker world continued, many pots and other goods from Byzantium having been found at sites such as Tintagelmarker. There was migration from southern England to Brittany and northern Spainmarker.

The Irish carried out slave raids on western Britain, capturing the later Saint Patrick. Missionaries were sent from Ireland to Scotland and later to the continent. Irish people also established settlements in southwest England and Wales at this time while the Scoti established a kingdom in southern Scotland, utilising sea routes across the Irish Seamarker. Norse people had established settlements in northern Scotland, the Orkneys and the Hebrides, again by sea.

By the 730s a toll was placed on ships using the port of Londonmarker, which was re-founded by King Alfred after its recapture from the Vikings in 886 AD. Wine, timber and food was imported while salt, cloth, hide, lead and slaves were exported.

From the 9th century, Vikings raided Britain but were also traders. King Alfred raised a navy to counter this and the first sea battle against them is thought to have been fought in 875 AD. The Viking longship was clinker built, utilising overlapping wooden strakes and curved stemposts. It was propelled by both oars and sail. There was a steering oar at the back on the right-hand side. The knarr was a cargo vessel that differed from the longship in that it was larger and relied solely on its square rigged sail for propulsion.

Viking raids on Scotland occurred from 790 AD with later settlement, while the Isle of Manmarker was settled by the late 9th century.

Later Middle Ages

In the spring of 1066 northern Britain was attacked by King Harald of Norway and Tostig Godwinson in 300-500 ships. The Norman conquest of England, in the autumn of 1066, which occurred after a seaborne invasion at Hastingsmarker, was unopposed as the British fleet had returned to base. After this the Kings of England were also rulers of much of France so presumably there was much trade across the English Channel. Various wars were fought against the French requiring transport of armies and their support. In 1120 the "White Ship" was wrecked and the sons of Henry I drowned, while in 1147 a fleet of 167 ships sailed from Dartmouthmarker on a crusade to capture Lisbonmarker from the Moors. Henry II invaded Ireland in 1171 and another crusade fleet sailed in 1190.

The Cinque Ports were a group of harbours, originally five, that were given privileges in exchange for providing ships to the kings of England when required.

An example of a cog.
The cog was a boat design which is believed to have evolved from (or at least have been influenced by) the longship and was in wide use by the 12th century. It too used the clinker method of construction. Ships began to be built with straight stem posts and the rudder was fixed to the stern post which made a boat easier to steer. To make ships faster, more masts and sails were fitted.

The Hanseatic League was an alliance of trading guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly over the Baltic Seamarker and to a certain extent the North Sea in the Late Middle Ages, starting in the 13th century. Protection for the league was given in England in 1157. Warehouses belonging to the league were set up in eight English ports and one Scottish port. By the 16th century the league imploded and there was a rise of Dutch and English merchants.

In the 14th and 15th centuries seamen's guilds were formed in Bristolmarker, King's Lynnmarker, Grimsbymarker, Hullmarker, Yorkmarker and Newcastlemarker.

Age of Exploration

From the early 15th century, continuing into the 17th century, British ships travelled around the world searching for new trading partners and establishing new trading routes. In the process new peoples were encountered and lands were mapped that were previously unknown to the British. Bristol ships were venturing into the Atlantic Oceanmarker in 1480/1 and may have reached Newfoundlandmarker.

Before Christopher Columbus reached mainland America, John Cabot was employed by the English government to discover new lands. He first sailed from Bristol in the "Matthewmarker" in 1497. It is not clear where the small fleet went but two likely locations are Nova Scotiamarker or Newfoundland. They did not find the passage to Chinamarker for which they were looking. A second voyage was made in 1498 but 4 of the 5 ships vanished. Some scholars maintain that the name "America" comes from Richard Amerike, a Bristol merchant and customs officer, who is claimed (on very slender evidence) to have helped finance the Cabots' voyages.

An attempt was made to find a north-east passage to China in 1553 which was unsuccessful but led to the formation of the Muscovy Company. The Baltic was explored in the 1570s and led to the setting up of English bases in Hanse ports.

Sir Francis Drake
In 1578, Sir Francis Drake, in the course of his circumnavigation of the world, discovered Cape Hornmarker at the tip of South America. The sea between this and Antarcticamarker is now known as Drake Passagemarker.

Richard Hakluyt was an English writer who is remembered for his efforts in promoting and supporting the settlement of North America by the English through his works, notably Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582) and The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598-1600). The latter also included accounts of voyages to Russiamarker.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert established a colony in Newfoundland in 1583. The first (unsuccessful) British colony in America was set up by Sir Walter Raleigh at Roanoke, "Virginia" (now North Carolinamarker) in 1585. Only one of the 22 ships sailing to Roanoke was lost. An exploratory voyage had been made the year before. When a re-supply voyage was made the colonists had vanished.

As a result of this exploration joint stock companies were set up, such as the Muscovy (Russia) Company, the Honourable East India Company (1599), the Levant Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. Trading "factories" were set up in Indiamarker by the British in several ports. Similar companies were set up by the Dutch and Portuguese, which led to rivalries.

The first modern underwater boat proposal was made by the Englishman William Bourne who designed a prototype submarine in 1578. Unfortunately for him these ideas never got past the planning stage.

Seventeenth century

The Mayflower in the New World.
The first successful British colony in America was set up in 1607 at Jamestownmarker. It languished until a new wave of colonists arrived in the late 17th century and set up commercial agriculture based on tobacco. The Mayflower sailed from Plymouthmarker in 1620. The connection between the American colonies and Britain, with shipping as its cornerstone, would continue to grow unhindered for almost two hundred years.

In 1688 the Roman Catholic James II fled the country and the British fleet did not oppose the landing of the Protestant William of Orange.

During the 17th century ship design improved, with the result that the ships sailed more efficiently and were better planned. The main export in the 17th century was coal.

The first modern submersible to be actually built was that of Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutchman in the service of James I of England in 1620. Its exact design is not known but improved versions were tested in the River Thames between 1620 and 1624.

Eighteenth century

The main export in the 18th century was corn.

Lloyd's List was established in 1734 and Lloyd's Register in 1764/5. The Marine Society was set up in 1756 with the aim of sending poor boys to sea.

Steam technology was first applied to boats in the 1770s but sailing ships continued to be developed. In 1794 an experimental steam powered ship called the Kent was built which showed designers the way forward. Nathanial Symonds demonstrated a sinking boat in 1729.

Towards the end of the century the Napoleonic Wars started with Napoleon, the French Emperor, and naval battles continued into the 19th century.

Nineteenth century

In 1801 a steamship called the Charlotte Dundas ran trials on a canal near Glasgowmarker, towing barges. In 1815 Pierre Andriel crossed the English Channel aboard the steamship Élise. By the mid-century steamboats were a common sight on British rivers and canals. Regular steamship sailings across the Atlantic started in the 1830s.

Shipbuilders began using iron instead of wood as the ships could be made larger with more cargo space. Ships also began to be fitted with steam engines and paddle wheel but the latter was found to be unsuited to open sea use. From the 1840s screw propellers replaced paddles. In the 1870s new more efficient engines were introduced so that sailing ships began to be phased out. From the 1880s steel began to replace iron for the hulls.

Because of the space required for coal and the large crew requirements on steamships, sailing ships were favoured for long voyages and reached a design peak with the clippers used for transporting tea and wool. Steamships gradually replaced sailing ships for commercial shipping during the 19th century, particularly after more efficient engine designs were developed in the later part of the period.

The Battle of Naverino in 1827 was the last to be fought by the Royal Navy entirely with sailing ships. By the end of the century submarine design had progressed sufficiently to be useful, as had the design of torpedoes.

Twentieth century

RMS Titanic, days before sinking.
At the start of the century 25% of the world's trade was through British ports, 18% of this being to North America. Trans-oceanic travel was important at the start of the century with transatlantic liners competing for the "Blue Riband" for the fastest crossing. A significant event was the sinking of the Titanicmarker in 1912. This led to the Global Maritime Distress Safety System and to the Iceberg Patrol. The rise of air travel led to a decrease in ocean travel but then, towards the end of the century, cruise ships became important again.

During the 20th century new types of cargo ships appeared - the container ship, the oil tanker and the gas container ship. Specialised ports for handling these were also developed.

Most warships used steam propulsion until the advent of the gas turbine in the mid part of the period. Steamships were superseded by diesel-driven cargo ships in the second half of the century. Submarines were mainly powered by a combination of diesel and batteries until the advent of nuclear marine propulsion in 1955.

There were two major wars against Germanymarker and its allies that saw a massive expansion in naval fleets and the use of air power at sea, resulting in the construction of aircraft carriers that became the main centre of sea power. Both wars saw massive destruction of the British merchant fleet but new construction exceeded the rate of destruction. After World War II there was an initial drop in warship numbers but then the rise of the Soviet naval threat resulted in the Cold War with the construction of new warships and submarines. The reduction of the Sovietmarker threat at the end of the century was offset by threats from other sources and piracy as well as sea-borne drug trafficking.

Cod War, offshore oil, gas and wind farms. Exploitation of wave power was started.

Twenty-first century

The start of the century saw the building of superliners. The Royal Navy saw further reductions in its strength, though new larger aircraft carriers have been promised.

Royal Navy

Early Navy

England's first known navy was established by Alfred the Great which, despite inflicting a significant defeat on the Vikings in the Wantsum Channelmarker, Kent, fell into disuse. It was revived by Athelstan and had 400 ships in 937. When the Norman invasion was imminent, King Harold had trusted his navy to prevent William the Conqueror's fleet from crossing the Channel. However, not long before the invasion, the fleet was damaged in a storm, driven into harbour and the Normans were able to cross unopposed.

The Norman kings created a naval force in 1155, or adapted a force that already existed, with ships provided by the Cinque Ports. The English Navy began to develop during the 12th and 13th centuries, King John having a fleet of 500 sails. In the mid 14th century Edward III's navy had 712 ships. There then followed a period of decline.

The Tudor navy

Henri Grâce à Dieu
Until the time of Henry VII, the kings of England commandeered and armed merchant ships when there was a need for a navy. Henry started a programme of building specialised warships. By the end of his reign there were five royal ships, two being four-masted carracks that were much larger than the usual English merchant ship. By the time that Henry VIII died in 1547 the navy had been built up to about 40 ships. The invention of gunport meant that guns could be carried much lower in a ship and so more and heavier ones could be carried. In addition a warship carried archers who tried to kill the enemy crew. However the king still needed to borrow some ships to fight sea battles. Henry VIII started new shipbuilding yards at Deptfordmarker and Woolwich Dockyardmarker. He had two major ships: the Henri Grâce à Dieu and the Mary Rosemarker, which later sank.

The Stuart/Commonwealth navy

Neither James I or Charles I was willing to spend money on the navy. It became too weak to defend the coast from Barbary pirates.

During the Commonwealth of England, Oliver Cromwell improved the navy. Admiral Robert Blake led the English fleet to victory in the First Anglo–Dutch War. After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II continued to reform the navy. The king's brother, later James II, was for many years the Lord High Admiral. Samuel Pepys became Clerk of the Acts to the King's Ships and reformed the supply service to the Navy. He also instigated examinations for commanders, pursers, surgeons and parsons.

Eighteenth century navy

Under the Act of Union in 1707 the Royal Scots Navy merged with the English navy and the British Royal Navy came into being. The early 18th century saw the Royal Navy with more ships than other navies. Although it suffered severe financial problems through the earlier part of this period, modern methods of financing government, and in particular the Navy, were developed, This financing enabled the Navy to become the most powerful force of the later 18th century without bankrupting the country. The Napoleonic Wars saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries.

Under William and Mary a hospital at Greenwichmarker was founded to relieve the sufferings of British seamen.

Nineteenth century navy

The Battle of Trafalgar.
Between 1793 and 1815 the Royal Navy lost 344 vessels due to non-combat causes: 75 by foundering, 234 shipwrecked and 15 from accidental burnings or explosions. In the same period it lost 103,000 seamen: 84,440 by disease and accidents, 12,680 by shipwreck or foundering and 6,540 by enemy action.

From 1805, the Battle of Trafalgarmarker, Britain had an almost uncontested power over the world's oceans until 1914, and it was said that "Britannia ruled the waves". There was increasing tension at sea between Britain and the United Statesmarker as American traders took advantage of their country's neutrality to trade with both the French-controlled parts of Europe and Britain. The Anglo-American War of 1812 was characterised by single-ship actions and the disruption of merchant shipping.

Twentieth century navy

HMS Dreadnought
The start of the 20th century saw structural changes in the Navy brought about by the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher who retired, scrapped or placed in reserve many of the older vessels, making new funds and manpower available for newer ships. He saw the development of HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun ship and one of the most influential ships in naval history. This ship rendered all other battleships then existing obsolete, and indeed lent her name to an entire class of battleships, the dreadnoughts. Admiral Percy Scott introduced new programmes such a gunnery training and central fire control which greatly increased the effectiveness in battle of the Navy's ships.

During the First World War the Royal Navy played a vital role in escorting convoys of food, arms and raw materials to Britain. It defeated the Germanmarker campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare and prevented the breakout of the German High Seas Fleet. As well as tasks in the Atlantic it also carried out operations in the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seamarker.

In the inter-war years the Royal Navy was stripped of much of its power. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, together with the deplorable financial conditions during the immediate post-war period and the Great Depression, forced the Admiralty to scrap some capital ships and to cancel plans for new construction. The London Naval Treaty of 1930 deferred new capital ship construction until 1937 and reiterated construction limits on cruisers, destroyers and submarines. As international tensions increased in the mid-thirties, the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936 failed to halt the development of a naval arms race and by 1938 treaty limits were effectively ignored. The re-armament of the Royal Navy was well under way by this point; the Royal Navy had constructed the King George V class of 1936 and several aircraft carriers including Ark Royal. In addition to new construction, several existing battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers were re-constructed and new anti-aircraft weaponry reinforced. However, around this time the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy began to surpass the Royal Navy in power.

After the Second World War, the decline of the British Empire and economic hardships in Britain forced reduction in size and capability of the Royal Navy. The increasingly powerful United States Navy took on the former role of the Royal Navy as a means of keeping peace around the world. However, the treat of the Soviet Unionmarker created a new role for the Navy within NATOmarker.

HMS Ark Royal in 1976.
The 1960s saw the peak of the Royal Navy's capabilities in the post-war era. The fleet carriers Ark Royal, Eagle, the rebuilt Victorious, Hermes and Centaur gave the Royal Navy the most powerful fleet outside the United States. The navy also had a large fleet of frigates and destroyers. New, more modern units like the County class destroyers and Leander class frigates began to enter service in the 1960s. At this time the Royal Navy received its first nuclear weapons and was to become responsible for the maintenance of the UK's nuclear deterrent.

However, a Labour government came into power and was determined to cut defence expenditure. After this the navy began to fall in size and by 1979 the last fleet carrier was scrapped. The navy was forced to make do with three much smaller Invincible class aircraft carriers with Sea Harrier aircraft. The fleet was now centred around anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. Further Defence Reviews have further cut the Royal Navy.

Although the Royal Navy has significantly reduced in size since the 1960s, reflecting the reduced requirements of the state, this does not take into account the increase in technological capability of the Navy's ships. The navy is responsible for the British strategic nuclear deterrent. It concentrates on anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures as part of NATO.

The Admiralty

In the late 13th century the Northern and Western Fleets were commanded by admirals and the post of "Lord Admiral of England" was created in 1408 but the Admiralty was set up in March 1545 as the King's Council of the Marine. It was responsible for Navy operations and the ship's officers. The First Lord of the Admiralty is a civilian and a member of the Government.

The first Fighting Instructions were issued in 1653 and Sailing Instructions in 1673.

The Navy Board

The Navy Board was responsible for providing the ships and the men to man them, including Warrant Officers. The Impress Service recruited volunteers but also took many against their will. After 1740 the Admiralty gained control over the Navy Board.

Ministry of Defence

In 1964 the Admiralty and the Navy Board became part of the integrated Ministry of Defence. This included the Fleet Air Arm.

Notable Wars

Hundred Years War

During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) the French fleet was initial stronger than then English one, but the former was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340. Many other sea battles were fought in this period.

The Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The Spanish Armada was the Spanish fleet that sailed against England under the command of Alonso de Guzmán El Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1588. It was sent by King Philip II of Spain to take the Duke of Parma's army from the Spanish Netherlands to a landing in southeast England. The Armada consisted of about 130 warships and converted merchant ships. After forcing its way up the English Channel, being attacked by the English fleet of about 200 vessels, it anchored off the coast at Gravelinesmarker waiting for the army. A fire ship attack drove the Spanish ships from their safe anchorage. The Armada was blown north up the east coast of England and attempted to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland but many ships were wrecked off Ireland. The Spanish sent a smaller fleet, about 100 ships, the following year but this ran into stormy weather off Cornwallmarker and was blown back to Spain.

The English sent a fleet of warships to Spain in 1589 led by Sir Francis Drake. This caused a further weakening of the Spanish fleet but failed to strike a decisive blow. A further raid was made in 1596. The Anglo-Spanish war was concluded by the Treaty of London in 1604. The peace enabled the British to consolidate their hold on Ireland and make a concerted effort to establish colonies in North America.

Anglo-Dutch Wars

The First Anglo–Dutch War was fought between 1652 and 1653. Battles were fought at Dungenessmarker, Portlandmarker, the Gabbardmarker and Scheveningen. In the last of these the Dutch commander Maarten Tromp was killed but his acting flag captain kept up fleet morale by not lowering Tromp's standard. In the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7) Cornelis Tromp prevented a total catastrophe for the Dutch by taking over fleet command to allow the escape of the greater part of the fleet. The war proved to be a victory for the Dutch, after which the Dutch Navy became the worlds strongest, continuing domination over world trade.

American Wars

During the American Revolution, a primitive submarine tried and failed to sink a British warship, HMS Eagle the flagship of the blockers, in New York Citymarker harbour in 1776. John Paul Jones attacked British shipping in the Irish Sea and also the towns of Whitehavenmarker and Kirkcudbrightmarker. In the Anglo-American War of 1812, an unsuccessful submarine attack was made on a British warship stationed in New Londonmarker harbour.

French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars

In 1793 France declared war on Britain. The next 12 years saw many battles such as that at Cape St. Vincentmarker and at the Battle of the Nilemarker, and short-lived truces such as the Treaty of Amiens. The height of the Royal Navy's achievements came on 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker, where a numerically smaller but more experienced British fleet under the command of Lord Horatio Nelson decisively defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet.

Maritime events of World War I

At the start of the war the German Empiremarker had cruisers scattered across the globe. Some of them were subsequently used to attack Allied merchant shipping. The Royal Navy systematically hunted them down, though not without some embarrassment from its inability to protect Allied shipping. For example, the detached light cruiser Emden, part of the East-Asia squadron stationed at Qingdaomarker, seized or destroyed 15 merchantmen as well as sinking a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. However, the bulk of the East-Asia squadron - consisting of the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneiseau, light cruisers Nürnbergmarker, Leipzigmarker, and Dresden and two transport ships - did not have orders to raid shipping and was instead underway to Germany when it was defeated by the British at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, with only Dresden escaping destruction.

The Battle of Jutlandmarker was the major sea battle of the First World War. Although the British Grand Fleet suffered greater losses than the German High Seas Fleet, the latter withdrew to port and the British retained control of the North Sea.

Soon after the outbreak of hostilities the British initiated a Naval Blockade of Germany, preventing supplies from reaching its ports. The strategy proved effective, cutting off vital military and civilian supplies, though this blockade violated generally accepted international law codified by several international agreements of the past two centuries. A blockade of stationed ships within a three mile (5 km) radius was considered legitimate, however Britain mined international waters to prevent any ships from entering entire sections of ocean, causing danger to neutral ships. Since there was limited response to this tactic, Germany expected a similar response to its unrestricted submarine warfare.

German U-boats attempted to cut the supply lines between North America and Britain during the First Battle of the Atlantic. The nature of submarine warfare meant that attacks often came without warning, giving the crews of the merchant ships little hope of survival. The United States launched a protest and Germany modified its rules of engagement. After the infamous sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitaniamarker in 1915, Germany promised not to target passenger liners. Britain armed its merchant ships. Finally in early 1917 Germany adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, realizing the Americans would eventually enter the war. Germany sought to strangle Allied sea lanes before the US could transport a large army overseas.

The U-boat threat lessened in 1917 when merchant ships travelled in convoys escorted by destroyers. This tactic made it difficult for U-boats to find targets. The accompanying destroyers might sink a submerged submarine with depth charges. The losses to submarine attacks were reduced significantly, but the convoys system slowed the flow of supplies. The solution to the delays was a massive programme to build new freighters. Troop ships were too fast for the submarines and did not travel the North Atlantic in convoys. The First World War also saw the first use of aircraft carriers in combat, with Furious launching Sopwith Camels in a successful raid against Zeppelin hangars at Todern in July 1918.

Maritime events of World War II

In the North Atlantic, German U-boats again attempted to cut supply lines to Britain by sinking merchant ships. In the first four months of the war they sank more than 110 vessels. In addition to supply ships, the U-boats occasionally attacked British and Canadianmarker warships. One U-boat sank the British carrier Courageousmarker while another managed to sink the battleship Royal Oakmarker at her home anchorage of Scapa Flowmarker.

In the early stages of the war the Royal Navy placed much faith in ASDIC (an early form of active sonar) to detect submerged U-boats but the Germans countered this by the use of the "wolf pack" which attacked on the surface at night. To form this pack, the U-boats communicated to their base by radio, to coordinate the action of several U-boats. The British eventually broke the German Naval code, which allowed this tactic to be defeated. The Germans then switched to attacking shipping off the American coast.

HMS Hood sinking after a catastrophic explosion during battle with Bismarck.
The British sank the Deutschland class cruiser (German pocket battleship) Admiral Graf Speemarker in December 1939 and the battleship Bismarckmarker in 1941. However the threat caused by the Tirpitzmarker was only countered later after many attacks. The Royal Navy suffered significant losses in the early stages of the war including the battlecruisers Hood, which had been sunk by Bismarck, and Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales, both of which were sunk by Japanese bombers in late 1941.

The Royal Navy provided critical cover for the British and French troops during the Dunkirk evacuation and rescued the bulk of the troops, the remainder being evacuated by a fleet of small ships. Later the Navy provided cover for the Dieppe Raid catastrophe, that saw 3,623 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore killed, wounded, or captured.

In the summer of 1941, the Soviet Union entered the war on the side of Britain. Although the Soviets had tremendous reserves in manpower, they had lost much of their equipment and manufacturing base in the first few weeks following the German invasion. The Allies attempted to remedy this by sending Arctic convoys, which travelled from Britain and later the United States to the northern ports of the Soviet Union, Arkhangelskmarker (Archangel) and Murmanskmarker. The treacherous route around the North Cape of Norway was the site of many battles as the Germans continually tried to disrupt the convoys using U-boats, bombers and surface ships.

Maltamarker was an important base for attacking the Axis supply lines to North Africa. Submarines, aircraft and surface ships were used from Maltese bases. In 1941 "Force K" was based in Malta which caused the Italians to suspend their convoys but the Germans insisted that they be resumed. Force K ran into a minefield and warships were also lost by attacks by U-boats and human torpedoes. Axis aircraft attacked Allied supply convoys to Malta and the situation became desperate. Eventually in 1942 "Operation Pedestal", 14 ships with a large escort was sent. However only 5 ships got through and many escorts were lost. The renewed attacks by the submarine force prevented full use of the Axis held port of Tobrukmarker and eventually to victory in North Africa. Gibraltarmarker was also an important naval base, as was Alexandriamarker.

In late 1941 Winston Churchill tried to prevent Japanesemarker aggression against British territories in the Far East by sending a naval deterrent called "Force Z". The Royal Navy could only spare one new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, an old battlecruiser HMS Repulse and the carrier HMS Indomitable. The latter hit an uncharted rock and was put out of action but Churchill insisted on the other two ships being sent. They arrived at Singaporemarker on 2 December 1941. A day after the attack on Pearl Harbormarker, the ships with escorting destroyers sailed to attack Japanese transports. They were spotted by reconnaissance aircraft and eventually sunk by torpedoes from planes.

The turning point in the "Second Battle of the Atlantic" was in early 1943 as the Allies refined their naval tactics, making effective use of new technology to counter the U-boats. The Allies produced ships faster that they were sunk and lost fewer ships by re-adopting the convoy system. Improved anti-submarine warfare meant that the life expectancy of a typical U-boat crew would be measured in months. The vastly improved Type 21 U-boat appeared at the end of the war but was too late to affect the outcome. In December 1943 the last major sea battle between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine (War navy) took place. At the "Battle of North Capemarker" Germany's battlecruiser Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York, HMS Belfastmarker and several destroyers.

For the D-Day landings in 1944 the Royal Navy provided most of the warships and three-quarters of the landing craft. After the German surrender, a force was sent to the Pacific Oceanmarker to attack the Japanese.

Post War Operations

The "Falklands War" was fought in 1982 between Argentinamarker and Britain over the disputed Falkland Islandsmarker, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islandsmarker. Britain was initially taken by surprise by the Argentine attack on the South Atlantic islands, but launched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force, and to retake the islands by amphibious assault. The Navy disabled one Argentine submarine, the Santa Femarker, in South Georgia and sank the light cruiser General Belgrano but lost a number of ships due to air attack. Another Argentine submarine tried to attack the task force but was held off by the British anti-submarine warfare. The assault force was landed at San Carlos Watermarker in the Falklands. The British eventually prevailed and the islands returned to British control.

The Royal Navy took part in the 1990 Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the Afghanistan War and the 2003 Iraq War. In August 2005 the Royal Navy rescued seven Russiansmarker stranded in a submarine off the Kamchatka Peninsulamarker. Using its Scopio 45 remote-controlled mini-sub, the Russian submarine was freed from the fishing nets and cables that had held the submarine for three days.

Notable Individuals

Charles Hardy

Charles Hardy was a British naval officer and colonial governor. He was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of the British colony of Newfoundlandmarker in 1744. In 1758 he and James Wolfe attacked French posts around the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Rivermarker and destroyed all of the French fishing stations along the northern shores of what is now New Brunswickmarker and along the Gaspé Peninsulamarker.

Augustus Keppel

Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel was a British admiral who held sea command during the Seven Years' War and during the American Revolutionary War. In the final years of the latter conflict he served as First Lord of the Admiralty. During the Seven Years War he had seen constant service. He was in North America in 1755, on the coast of France in 1756, was dispatched on a cruise to reduce the French settlements on the west coast of Africa in 1758 and his ship Torbay was the first to get into action at the Battle of Quiberon Baymarker in 1759. In 1757 he had formed part of the court-martial that had condemned Admiral John Byng, but was active among others who endeavoured to secure a pardon for him. However, neither he nor those who had acted with him could produce any serious reason why the sentence should not be carried out. When Spain joined France in 1762 he was sent as second in command with Sir George Peacock in the expedition which took Havanamarker. His health suffered from the fever which carried off an immense proportion of the soldiers and sailors, but the £25,000 of prize money which he received freed him from the unpleasant position of a younger son of a family ruined by the extravagance of his father.

Edward Hawke

Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke was a naval officer of the Royal Navy. During the War of the Austrian Succession he was promoted to Rear admiral. In the Seven Years War Hawke replaced Admiral John Byng as commander in the Mediterranean.

Richard Howe

Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe was a British admiral. During the rebellion in North America, Howe was known to be sympathetic to the colonists. He had in prior years sought the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who was a friend of Howe's sister, a popular lady in Londonmarker society. During his career Howe displayed an uncommon tactical originality. His performance was unexcelled even by Nelson who, like Howe's other successors, was served by more highly trained squadrons and benefitted from Howe's concepts.

Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson was a British admiral who was famous for his participation in the sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars, most notably at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker a decisive British victory where he lost his life. He was born in 1758 in Norfolk and in 1771 joined Raisonnable. By the time he was 20 he had been to the Arctic, the Indies and the Caribbeanmarker. He was appointed Lieutenant in 1777, Post-Captain in 1779 and Commodore in 1796. He took part in the campaign in Corsicamarker in 1794 where he lost his right eye. In 1797 he was at the battle of Cape St. Vincentmarker at which he was promoted Rear Admiral of the Blue. That year he lost his right arm after the raid on Santa Cruzmarker, Tenerifemarker and was knighted. In 1798 he fought the French fleet at the Battle of the Nilemarker in Abu Qir Baymarker, Egyptmarker and was given the title "Baron of the Nile".

Nelson was noted for his considerable ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name "The Nelson Touch". His actions during these battles meant that before and after his death he was revered like few military figures have been throughout British history. Alexander Davidson was a contemporary and close friend of Nelson and is responsible for several acts that glorified Nelson's public image. These included the creation of a medal commemorating the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and the creation of the Nelson Memorialmarker at his estate in Swarlandmarker, Northumberlandmarker. As a close friend of the Admiral he acted as an intermediary when Nelson's marriage to his wife Frances Nelson fell apart due in large part to his affair with Emma Hamilton.

Hyde Parker

In 1778 Sir Hyde Parker was engaged in the Savannahmarker expedition, and in the following year his ship was wrecked on the hostile Cuban coast. His men, however, entrenched themselves and in the end were brought off safely. Parker was with his father, Sir Hyde Parker, 5th Baronet at the Dogger Bankmarker and with Richard Howe in the two actions in the Strait of Gibraltarmarker. In 1793, having just become Rear Admiral, he served under Sir Samuel Hood at Toulonmarker and in Corsica. Two years later, now a Vice Admiral, he took part under William Hotham in the indecisive fleet actions in 1795. From 1796 to 1800 he was in command at Jamaicamarker and ably conducted the operations in the West Indies.

Edward Pellew

Edward Pellew, 1st Viscount Exmouth, was a British naval officer who fought during the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars. Pellegrew is remembered as an officer and gentleman, earning his land and titles through courage, leadership and skill - serving as a paradigm of the versatility and determination of naval officers during the Napoleonic Wars.

James Saumarez

James Saumarez, 1st Baron de Saumarez was an admiral of the Royal Navy, notable for his victory at the Battle of Algeciras Bay. In 1801 he was raised to the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue, was created a baronet and received the command of a small squadron which was destined to watch the movements of the Spanish fleet at Cádizmarker. Between the 6 and 12 of July he performed a brilliant piece of service, in which after a first repulse at Algecirasmarker he routed a much superior combined force of French and Spanish ships at the Battle of Algeciras Bay. For his services Saumarez received the Order of the Bath and the Freedom of the City of London.

John Cabot

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) was probably born in Genoamarker or Gaetamarker around 1450 and was later a citizen of Venicemarker. He failed to persuade the royal courts of Europe to finance a voyage to China via the west and came to England in 1484. He persuaded the merchants of Bristol to finance him and obtained letters patent from King Henry VII, who helped pay for the voyage. John Cabot's ship, the Matthewmarker with a crew of 18 sailed in 1497 and possibly accompanied by his son Sebastian. He found large quantities of cod off the coast of Newfoundland and was rewarded by the king by the sum of £10. In 1498 he was given permission for a new expedition to continue from the point he had previously reached. He set off in May with five ships and 300 men, and a year's supplies. Four of the ships were not heard of again. A replica of the Matthew is based in Bristol.

Sir Francis Drake

Francis Drake was born in Tavistockmarker, Devonmarker around 1542. Because of religious disturbances his family were forced to move to Chathammarker, Kentmarker where for a time they lived on a laid-up ship. He stated going to sea while at Chatham at the age of 12 or 13. He was an apprentice on a small trading ship which was left to him when the owner died. After selling this he returned to Devon and sailed with a relative, John Hawkins. They made the first English slaving voyages, taking Africans to the New World. Drake attacked Spanish ships sailing back from South America laden with silver. He took their treasure for himself and his queen. He also raided Spanish and Portuguese ports. He undertook a circumnavigation of the world in 1572 and 1573. He discovered that Tierra del Fuegomarker was not part of the Southern Continent and explored the west coast of South America. He plundered ports in Chilemarker and Perumarker and captured treasure ships. He sailed up to Californiamarker and then across the Pacific Oceanmarker to the East Indies. He returned to England with his ship full of spices and treasure, so gaining great acclaim. In 1585 with more than 1,000 men he attacked Santiagomarker in the Cape Verdemarker but no treasure was found. In 1586 he captured Santo Domingomarker in Hispaniolamarker (now the Dominican Republicmarker). He carried out raids on Cádiz and A Coruñamarker in 1587, known as "singeing the king of Spain's beard", that delayed the sailing of the Spanish Armada. He was active in the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, capturing the Spanish flagship. He died at sea in Nombre de Diosmarker bay, Panamamarker in January 1596.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Humphrey Gilbert was a half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh. He gained a licence from Queen Elizabeth to found colonies in the New World, and in 1583 took possession in the Queen's name of the town of St. John'smarker, Newfoundland and Labrador. On his death the licence was taken over by Raleigh.

Sir Walter Raleigh

During his lifetime (1554-1618) Walter Raleigh (Ralegh) was a soldier, courtier, sailor, historian and poet. He first came to notice after he went to Ireland and quelled a rebellion there. He came to the English court and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. He was given a number of perquisites by which he became wealthy. He built a warship which he named the "Ark Raleigh" and later gave this, in exchange for an IOU for £5,000, to the queen who changed its name to the Ark Royal. During the threat from the Spanish Armada, Raleigh was Vice-Admiral of Devon, in charge of its defences. He took part in raids on Cádiz in 1596 and in the Azores in 1597.

Raleigh organised and financed exploration in North America, the first voyage being in 1584. He sent a party of settlers to Virginia in 1585 and in 1587. He is generally credited with introducing tobacco and potatoes to Britain, but probably only made them fashionable. Because he had married without permission, Raleigh was put in the Tower of Londonmarker but was released to oversee the distribution of treasure from a Spanish ship. However he had to leave court and settled at Sherbornemarker, Dorsetmarker. He tried to regain his position at court by interesting the queen in a plan to find El Dorado. He took an expedition to the Orinoco river in Guyanamarker but was unsuccessful. After the succession of King James he was again put in the Tower where he wrote his "The Historie of the World". He was released in order to undertake another voyage to Guyana, equally unsuccessful, where he attacked a Spanish town. For this he was eventually executed.

William Dampier

William Dampier made voyages from Weymouthmarker to Newfoundland, Javamarker, Jamaica and Hondurasmarker. From his experiences he wrote a book A New Voyage Around The World that was much admired and resulted in his command of the first voyage of exploration organised by the Admiralty. He reached Australia but found no wealth so it was not a success. Dampier later took up privateering and rescued Alexander Selkirk, which was the basis for Treasure Island.

James Cook

James Cook was born in Yorkshiremarker in 1728. Having worked in a shop, he decided that a life at sea was what he wanted and he became apprenticed to a firm of Whitbymarker coal shippers. He then joined the navy as a seaman and worked his way up to command. The Royal Society wanted to observe the transit of Venus due in June 1769 and to find the supposed southern continent. They persuaded the Admiralty to provide a ship and James Cook, a navigator who had prepared charts of the St Lawrence river. For the voyage Cook chose the HM Bark Endeavour which was a Whitby collier. It was adapted in the Royal Navy Dockyard at Deptfordmarker, and scientific instruments for observing the transit were loaded. Accompanying Cook were the astronomer Dr Green, a botanist Joseph Banks and two artists. The Endeavour sailed around Cape Hornmarker to Tahitimarker, then to New Zealandmarker and finally to Australia. After a year at home, Cook took two colliers, Resolution and Adventure, to the Antarcticmarker and then to Tahitimarker, testing the new timekeeper of John Harrison. He made a third voyage, to try and find the Northwest Passage, with Resolution and HMS Discovery. After encountering ice he turned back to Hawaiimarker. There he was treated as a god but on leaving was forced to return. When Cook tried to take the king hostage, because of the theft of a ship's boat, he was killed on 14 February 1779.

George Vancouver

George Vancouver was born in King's Lynnmarker in 1757. He became a captain in the Royal Navy and carried out surveys of the west coast of America, using a different ship also called the Discovery, of Australia and New Zealand. Both the city of Vancouvermarker and Vancouver Islandmarker are named after him. He also negotiated agreements with the king of Hawaii but died at the age of 40.

Admiral Anson

George Anson, 1st Baron Anson took a squadron of British ships around Cape Horn in 1740-4 to harass the Spanish. He captured several ships, raided the Philippinesmarker and visited Cantonmarker (now Guangzhou). He returned with much gold and silver to great acclaim.

Sir John Franklin

John Franklin was an officer in the Royal Navy and an Arctic explorer. He was born in 1786 and joined the navy at the age of 16. He sailed on Matthew Flinders voyages around Australia and took part in the Battle of Trafalgar, but is best remembered for his four Arctic voyages. He made maps of over of the coast of northern Canada. On his final voyage in 1845 he had two ships the Erebus and the Terror. He was seen off Baffin Islandmarker but then disappeared. Various expeditions were mounted to find him and his crew. One expedition met Inuit who said that the ships had been crushed in the ice. Messages from the explorers were found but all later died. Franklin had died in 1847 and the remainder had tried to travel south. Robert McClure completed the route in 1850.

James Clarke Ross

James Clark Ross surveyed Victoria Land in Antarctica in 1842. The Ross Seamarker and Ross Islandmarker are named after him as is a ship of the British Antarctic Survey.

Robert Scott

Robert Falcon Scott surveyed the Great Ice Barrier in the Antarctic in 1901-4 in RRS Discoverymarker. He died in 1910 on the journey back from the South Polemarker.

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to try to cross Antarctica in 1914. His ship became crushed in the ice but he led 28 men to safety on Elephant Islandmarker. To get help Shackleton and six men crossed of sea in an open boat to South Georgia and then crossed the mountains to Grytvikenmarker. He returned to rescue all his men from Elephant Island. He died on South Georgia in 1922.


Shipbuilding in Britain started in the many small creeks and rivers around the coast. As ship sizes became larger, specialised facilities grew up. A 14 m x 4 m Anglo-Saxon cargo boat (about 900 AD) was found at Graveneymarker, Kentmarker. A 13th century ship has been found at Magor Pill on the River Severn.

Originally open, ships began to have decks around the 12th century. Rudders were fitted on the stern by 1200 rather than the quarters as previously. In 1416 the king's ship "Anne" had two masts while the "Edward" was built in 1466 with three. Topsails were added by 1460, then a spritsail under a bowsprit. By 1510 a large warship had 12 sails but usually there were four.

By 1500 there were about 60 types of vessel, mostly cogs with deep hulls. However, from about 1450 "carvels" began to built, based on the Portuguese caravel. These had non-overlapping planks on a frame. Gunports became used in the mid 16th century. The main type of English galleon had a low bow, a sleek hull and a large number of heavy guns. It was both speedy and manoeverable.

In the 16th century the Thames region had become the main shipbuilding area. Royal Dockyards were built and the Honourable East India Company also had shipbuilding facilities there. The East India Company built large well-defended ships which became known as "East Indiamen".

Extra royal dockyards were built in the 17th century at Harwichmarker, Sheernessmarker and Plymouthmarker. A mechanised block mill was set up at Portsmouthmarker in 1806 that was cheaper and faster than producing them by hand. Shipbuilding centres in East Angliamarker declined and those in the north east of England expanded.

Ship sizes increased in the 19th century due to the change from wood to iron and then steel. Yards in the north east and in Scotland became dominant. British yards produced the majority of the world's shipping at the end of the century, mostly tramp steamers.

In 1913 Britain had 61% of the world market, with 40% in 1920 but this had declined to 0.7% in 1997. Modernisation of the shipyards took place in the 1960s allowing construction of supertankers. The British yards were nationalised as part of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 and renamed "British Shipbuilders" but were privatised again in the 1980s. Rosyth Dockyardmarker was started in 1909 while HMNB Clydemarker (Faslane) submarine base was created in the 1960s. American nuclear submarines were based in Holy Lochmarker but have since left.

Famous ships

Mary Rose

The Mary Rosemarker was built in Portsmouth for Henry VIII between 1509 and 1511. She was the flagship of his navy and was one of the first with gunports. She was rebuilt in 1536. Mary Rose sank on 19 July 1545 off Portsmouth as she was leaving for an engagement with a French fleet that had attacked the English coast. Her remains were discovered in the 19th century but it was not until 1982 that she was raised from the seabed. Many artifacts were recovered and these are now on display in Portsmouth at the Royal Dockyard together with the ship's remains.

Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sarkmarker was a clipper ship built in 1869 to carry 600 tons of cargo. She raced the Thermopylae and other clippers in the tea trade from China and later in the wool trade from Australia. She was capable of sailing at over . Built as a full rigged ship, she spent her final trading years as a barquentine. She was dismasted in 1916 but restored in 1922 then used as a training ship. Cutty Sark was taken over by a preservation society in 1952 and moved to Greenwichmarker. In 2007 she was damaged by fire during restoration work but is to be repaired.


HM Bark Endeavour was built in 1768 as a collier at Whitbymarker. She was full rigged ship and sturdily built with a large hold. Endeavour's flat bottomed hull was well suited for sailing in shallow water and was designed to be beached. She was acquired by the Royal Navy, and after a major refit at Deptford she was used by James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific Ocean. She ran aground on "Endeavour Reef" in the Great Barrier Reefmarker but was refloated and repaired. On her return to Britain, Endeavour was used as a store ship and then sold out of the navy and used as a merchant ship. Her later fate is uncertain.

A replica was built in Fremantlemarker from the original drawings, starting in 1988. This was completed in 1994 and Endeavour undertook a voyage to Whitby where she stayed from 1997 to 2003. She is now at the Australian National Maritime Museummarker in Sydneymarker.

Great Britain

The SS Great Britainmarker was Isambard Kingdom Brunel's second ship design, after a wooden paddle steamer called the SS Great Western. She was the first steamship to make regular crossings of the Atlantic. This was the first large iron steamship and the first to use a screw propellor. After a long career she was abandoned in the Falkland Islands but was brought back to the drydock in Bristol in which she was built. There she has been restored.

Great Eastern

The SS Great Eastern was launched in 1858 and was six times bigger than any ship before. She was the third ship designed by Brunel. The Great Eastern had six masts as well as coal fired engines driving paddle wheels. It was designed to carry enough coal to travel to Australia and return, and was intended to carry 4,000 passengers (or 10,000 soldiers). Work started on the ship in 1854 but there were many problems in building and launching the ship. After fitting out at Deptford she undertook trials in September 1859 but the heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded. As the ship had been fitted with watertight bulkheads she survived and was repaired. Because of the opening of the Suez Canalmarker, she was not used on the Australian route as envisaged but on the Atlantic crossings. Passengers did not like the rolling in storms and she was sold to a cable laying company after only six years. The Great Eastern was used to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable and many others subsequently. She was broken up in 1888.


The Titanicmarker and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic were built the White Star Line to outdo the Mauritania and Lusitaniamarker which belonged to the rival Cunard Line. Titanic was 269 m long and weight 46,000 tons. She was described as a luxury hotel at sea and as "unsinkable". She was fitted with a double bottom and 16 watertight compartments so that even if two were flooded she would not sink. Titanic departed from Southamptonmarker on 10 April 1912 on her maiden voyage to America. She called at Cherbourgmarker and then Queenstownmarker (now Cobh) before heading for New York Citymarker. Despite warnings of icebergs, she continued at on the night of 14 April. About midnight she hit an iceberg and five compartments started to flood. Two hours afterwards she sank. There was only enough lifeboats for half the passengers and 1,503 people perished. In 1985 her wreck was identified by sonar 4,000 m down and explored using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Some objects from the wreck have been recovered.

Queen Mary

RMS Queen Marymarker was built in 1936 by John Brown & Companymarker in Clydebankmarker, Scotland for what is now the Cunard Line. She made runs across the Atlantic between Southampton, Cherbourg and New York City in partnership with Queen Elizabeth. The Queen Mary was used as a troop ship in the Second World War, carrying 16,082 people on one voyage. After the war she resumed Atlantic runs but these became loss making. She was withdrawn from service in 1967 and is now in Long Beachmarker California as a hotel and tourist attraction.


HMY Brittaniamarker was the name given to two yachts owned by the British royal family. The last one of these was built in 1953 and served the British royal family for nearly 43 years. Britannia is 5862 tons with an overall length of . During her time in service she steamed 71 million miles. She has been preserved in port at Leithmarker in Scotland. She was designed to be used as a hospital ship in time of war but did not undertake this role.


HMS Victorymarker was built between 1759 and 1765 at Chatham Dockyardmarker with over 100 guns. She fought at Ushantmarker in 1778 and 1781, and at Cape St. Vincent in 1796. Victory was reconstructed in 1798 with more guns and then fought at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker in 1805. Later she sailed on many naval expeditions. However, in 1889, Victory became home to the "Naval School of Telegraphy". She got into in a poor state and was restored 1922-8. Victory is now in drydock at HMNB Portsmouthmarker (Portsmouth Historic Dockyard), where she received some damage in the Second World War. Victory is still the flagship of the Second Sea Lord.


HMS Warriormarker was built in 1860 in response to the French ship La Gloire. She was the first iron-hulled ironclad, with three skins of iron, teak and iron. Warrior was broadside firing with 9 ton muzzle loading guns. She was described by Napoleon III as a "black snake amongst the rabbits". Her construction started a revolution in shipbuilding which meant that she was soon outclassed. She ended her days as an oil jetty at Pembroke Dockmarker but was restored and has been on display since the 1980s at HMNB Portsmouth.


HMS Belfastmarker is a Town-class cruiser launched in 1938. At the start of the Second World War she was part of the force mounting a blockade on Germany. After sustaining mine damage she was reconstructed and became the heaviest cruiser of the class at 11553 tons. Belfast fought in the Battle of North Capemarker against the Scharnhorst and took part in operations against Tirpitzmarker. She was part of the bombardment force during the D-Day landings and later served in the Far East. Belfast also took part in the Korean War. Belfast was then modernised and went to the Far East again. She was paid off from the Royal Navy in 1963 and is now a museum ship on the River Thames at Londonmarker.

Famous Voyages



Shackleton (Endurance)

Franklin (Erebus)


Instruments and guides

The magnetic compass was known in Britain in the 12th century while sounding leads possibly had been used since pre-historic times. Ship speed was measured by means of a knotted rope and the sand glass was used for timing a ship's runs. In the 15th century astrolabes, quadrants and cross-staffs were used to measure the sun's altitude and hence to determine latitude.

Sailing directions became written in English from 1528, giving coastal features and including small maps. English sea charts were available from the 1530s. The "Mariners Mirrour" was published in 1588 while a coasting pilot for Great Britain was published in 1693. Between 1735 and 1760 John Harrison developed four types of marine chronometers for use at sea to allow accurate determination of longitude.

The gyrocompass was introduced in 1908 while ship's radar came in after the 1930s. Radar is also used on land for monitoring the position of shipping, for example in the Strait of Dovermarker which is the busiest area of sea in the world. The Decca Navigator System was a hyperbolic radio navigation system that was installed around the coasts of Britain in the 1940s. It was phased out after the introduction of satellite-based navigation from the 1960s. The echo sounding was introduced in the 1930s to determine water depth.


There are the remains of a Roman lighthouse at Dover and other lighthouses are evidenced from the 12th century. However, it is said that early monks maintained a primitive lighthouse on one of the Holme islands in the Bristol Channelmarker. St. Agnesmarker on the Isles of Scillymarker had a lighthouse from 1680. The first offshore lighthouse was that built on the Eddystone Reef in 1699. This was washed away in a great storm but a replacement was built. As its foundations were unsatisfactory it was taken down and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoemarker. The third lighthouse on the reef still stands. The first lightship was positioned at the Noremarker in 1732. Foghorns were incorporated in the 19th century to provide warning in low visibility. In the late 19th and early 20th century underwater bells were used as warning devices.

Navigation marks

Trinity Housemarker of Deptford was founded in 1514 to look after navigation marks in the Thames Estuarymarker. Similar organisations were founded at other places later. These were subsequently amalgamated and its authority was increased in 1836. Trinity House now looks after most of the marks in England and Wales, with the Northern Lighthouse Board in Scotland and the Commissioners of Irish Lights for the whole of Ireland.

Shipwreck, safety and rescue

Wrecks and wrecking

There are numerous shipwrecks around the coast of Britain, dating from pre-historic times onward. Sailing ships were particularly in danger when caught on a lee shore. Notable wrecks include those from the Spanish Armada and Sir Cloudesley Shovell's fleet that went aground on the Isles of Scilly.

It is said that in some areas, such as Cornwall, it was sometimes the practice to lure vessels onto shore deliberately. Though this activity has been the subject of many books, actual evidence is sparse.

Plimsoll line

In the 19th century it was sometimes the practice to send heavily-insured "coffin ships" to sea that were old, poorly maintained and overloaded. In 1868 Samuel Plimsoll became concerned by the scandal and published Our Seamen which revealed the situation. A load line (which became known as the Plimsoll Line) was required by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 but it was not until 1890 that the Board of Trade became responsible for determining where it should be.


There were some locally organised lifeboat in the 18th century, the first being in 1789 as a result of a tragic accident at the entrance to the River Tyne. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded by Sir William Hillary in 1824 and is financed voluntarily. It maintains many lifeboats and lifeboat stations around the coast of Britain, the stations being run by paid engineers but mostly manned by local volunteers. An exception is the station at Spurn Headmarker which is isolated so it is manned fully by paid crew. The boats were rowed with oars until the 1890s when steam-driven boats began to be introduced. Nowadays there are large diesel-driven offshore boats and small fast inshore boats. In some places hovercraft are used for rescues. The RNLI boats cooperate with the other rescue services, particularly the rescue helicopters.

Maritime and Coastguard Agency

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency was formed in 1998 to look after safety in British waters. It coordinates the search rescue services and determines safety standards. It incorporated the Coastguard Agency, that had been formed from Her Majesty's Coastguard, and the Marine Safety Agency.

Ports and harbours

Around the coast of Britain there are hundreds of ports and harbours, varying from the tiny (such as Porlock Weirmarker) to the large (such as the Port of Felixstowemarker). Ships were also simply drawn up on beaches. Over the centuries the relative importance of each port and harbour has changed due to such factors as silting and trade alterations. In later periods deep water access has been a major factor in determining a port's success.

In Saxon times a number of ports were developed as trading places, which may be identified by the place name element wic. These include lundenwic (London) and hamwic (Southampton).

London was the largest medieval port then Bristol, York, Newcastle, Bostonmarker, Great Yarmouthmarker, Kings Lynn and Southampton. Carmarthenmarker, Cardiffmarker and Tenbymarker were the major ports in Wales while Leith was probably the main one in Scotland, with Dundeemarker and Perthmarker. Bristol and Chester were the main ports for the trade with Ireland.

In the 18th century there were major harbour improvements with dredging of channels and construction of piers. Wet docks were built at London, Liverpoolmarker, Hull and Bristol.

London was still the largest port in the 19th century when new docks were built. Cardiff became a major coal exporting port after a railway link was built, as did other South Walesmarker ports. The railways were responsible for developing new ports such as Newhavenmarker as ferry terminals and the Manchester Ship Canal enabled Manchester to become a significant port though far inland.

When oil replaced coal after the First World War, coal ports like Cardiff declined. London, Southampton, Manchestermarker, Liverpool, and Glasgow increased in trade during the inter-war years, and ferry ports such as Harwichmarker and Dover grew. Oil terminals were built from the 1920s and the larger ships required new docks at existing ports. After the Second World War new cargo handling methods were introduced, such as pallets (1950), containerisation (1960s) and roll-on/roll-off ships. Dockers at some ports resisted this change so leading to the development of new facilities at ports such as Felixstowemarker and Tilburymarker.

Older port facilities became redundant and were redeveloped, such as Canary Wharfmarker in London. In 1977 the major ports of Britain were London, Tees and Hartlepoolmarker, Grimsby and Imminghammarker, Forth, and Milford Havenmarker. Many of the small ports were redeveloped as marinas, such as Watchetmarker.



In earlier times bulk goods were more easily moved by sea than by land. The coastal trade was mainly in tin, slate, coal and household goods. Coal was the largest trade after the Great Fire of Londonmarker had caused laws to be passed encouraging its use. The coastal trade resulted in the majority of ship movements, for example it accounted for three quarters of those at Exetermarker.

Between the 12 and 15th centuries exports were mainly of raw materials, but cloth became a major factor after 1420. The Company of Merchant Adventurers of London exported the latter to the Antwerp cloth market until its collapse. Imports were of Gascony wine (mainly) from Bordeauxmarker to Bristol and Plymouth. Salt came from western France, canvas from the Baltic and iron from Spain. Italian ships brought spices and alum. There was a trade in dried and salted cod from 1408/9 and line fishing from 1490.

The Navigation Acts of 1382 onward required goods to be exported in English ships only and in 1563 the coastal trade was closed to foreign ships. The government issued safe conducts and licences to trade but insurance was little known in the 15th century. Instead owners got together in groups to spread the risk.

With the collapse of the Antwerpmarker market British traders were forced to seek other outlets. By 1581 "Leghorn" (Livornomarker) in Italy was a base for English merchants and the Mediterranean was a major source of trade. Scottish trade was with France, Scandinavia, the Baltic and the Low Countries.

An Elizabethan survey in 1582 lists 1,518 ships totalling 67,000 tons, with 16,283 seafarers. By 1628 there was a shift in seamen from the southwest to the south east. The 16th century was the start of the sailcloth industry and by the end 90% was English.

The Navigation Ordinance of 1651 cut out Dutch shippers from English trade which led to war. In the 17th century trade expanded with imports of fish and sugar. Exports were of corn and manufactured goods. The Royal African Company had a monopoly of the African trade until 1712 but there was much privateering. Later a major part of this trade was in the "Triangular trade" which involved taking goods from Britain to West Africa, slaves from Africa to the West Indies and America, then sugar to Britain. The main ports involved were London, Bristol and Liverpool but there were many others, with a total of 11,615 sailings with 3.4 million slaves between 1662 and 1807. William Wilberforce and his supporters got the slave trade abolished in 1808 and subsequently the Royal Navy tried to suppress it.

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth had given the Honourable East India Company the right to trade east of the Cape of Good Hopemarker. By 1804 the company's fleet from India was said to be worth £6M. The Virginia Company failed in 1624. The South Sea Company had been set up to trade in the Pacific but became involved in domestic politics. The Levant Company was set up to trade with Turkeymarker.

The Industrial Revolution caused a large increase in shipping movements. Raw materials were imported and manufactured goods were exported. In addition there was a need for coal. In the 19th century Britain built up the largest merchant fleet in the world. Around half the ocean-going tonnage was under the Red Ensign.

Examinations for masters and mates of large merchant ships were introduced in 1845 for foreign-going ships and in 1854 for coastal ones. Engineers tickets were required after 1862. Logs were required to be kept after 1850.

In the First World War a fifth of Britain's pre-war merchant shipping had been sunk by 1917, including 1349 ships in August of that year. Most deep water ships were sunk by torpedoes while most coastal ones hit mines. The fleets of neutral countries had expanded and in the 1920s there was a slump in shipping. Development of refrigerated ships allowed the importation of lamb and other meats from places such as New Zealand. A large number of merchant ships were sunk in the Second World War, but Britain's fleet had expanded by the end due to new construction. In the 1950s "flags of Convenience" were taking an increasing share of world trade and the Eastern Bloc's shipping was expanding to earn foreign currency.

Excluding tankers and the US War Reserve, Britain still had the world's largest merchant fleet in 1957. However since then there has been a sharp decline, partly because of "re-flagging" to cut costs. Britain now the world's fifth largest trading nation, exports 26% of its gross domestic product with 95% of this trade going by sea.

Passenger liners

The first paddle steamer was used in 1793 and by 1821 there were services between Leith and London. The first British steamer to cross the Atlantic was the Sirius in 1838, closely followed by the Great Western. The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company was originally set up to take passengers to Gibraltar and this was extended to India, the company eventually becoming "P&O". The "White Star Line" originally concentrated on the emigrant trade but had fast liners after 1871. During war time the liners were used as troop ships. Southampton became the main passenger port because of its deep harbour with four tides.


Some 20,000 people emigrated from Britain to North America in the 20 years after the Mayflower's voyage. After the loss of the American Colonies, Britain used Australia as a penal colony. The First Fleet in 1787 consisted of 1,200 people including 780 convicts. After the Second World War emigrants travelled by sea to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Ferries and cruise boats

Ferries operate across the English Channel, the Irish Sea, to the Isle of Manmarker, to the Isle of Wightmarker, the Isles of Scilly and to many Scottish islands. Ships have probably sailed these routes since prehistoric times. However, regular ferry services only started in the 18th century. On the Isle of Man route, sailing ships were used until 1830 but steamships proved faster and more reliable. The ferry trade expanded with the advent of roll-on/roll-off ship designs. The ferries across the English Channel were badly affected by the opening of the Channel Tunnelmarker in 1994.

Cruise boats became popular in the 19th century. They operated from beaches in Dorset and Devon, and from Liverpool to North Wales. They also operated in the River Clyde, Thames and Bristol Channelmarker. A paddle steamer, the Waverley built in 1946, is still running, making trips for example to Lundymarker.

Customs men and smugglers

Customs duties are payable on specified goods imported or exported. The range of goods on which there are charges has varied over time. A customs system was set up by King John in 1203/4 but the first officers were not appointed until 1294. A Board of Customs was set up by Parliament in 1643 (as well as the Board of Excise responsible for collecting taxes on goods within the country). Customs men were put into the various ports and they tried to keep watch over the adjoining coasts. These boards were combined as the Board of Customs and Excise (later Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, which was formed in 1909, and became part of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs in 2005.

In the 18th and 19th centuries there was extensive smuggling by sea from the continent to Britain because of the high duty on luxury goods. The later was to finance the wars with France and the United States. Silks, spirits and tobacco came from France while gin came from Holland. Revenue cutters were used to try and intercept the smugglers but with little success. After the Napoleonic Wars there was surplus manpower that was used to try and suppress smuggling. In certain areas (such as in Kent and Cornwall) smuggling was for many communities more economically significant than legal activities such as farming or fishing.

Privateers and pirates

Privateers have a commission in the form of a "letter of marque" authorizing the capture of enemy ships, while pirates do not. Both are robbery at sea or sometimes attacks from the sea onto shore. The first known attacks by sea on Britain are those during Roman times, while in the Post-Roman period Saint Patrick was captured by Irish raiders. Later Britain suffered many attacks by the Vikings. In 937 Irish pirates sided with Scots, Vikings and Welsh in an invasion of England but were driven back by Athelstan.

An Englishman called William Maurice was convicted of piracy in 1241 and is the first person known to have been hanged, drawn and quartered. In the Medieval period piracy was widespread and most pirate attacks came from France, which led to the organisation of the Cinque Ports.

Until 1536 piracy was a civil law problem and difficult to prove but it then became a common law offence. In the 1550s English gentlemen opposed to the reign of Phillip and Mary took refuge in France and were active in the English Channel as privateers having gained ships, money and men with letters of marque from Henry II of France. Six of their vessels were captured off Plymouth in 1556. Some of these men went on to assume positions of authority under Queen Elizabeth, such as Edward Horsey. The Sea Beggars (Geuzen) were a small group of Protestant noblemen in Queen Elizabeth's time and who were determined to drive the Spanish out of the Netherlands. They were led by William the Silent.

Queen Elizabeth allowed attacks on the Spanish but tried to prevent war. Gentlemen, merchants and sea captains combined to fit out ships. Perhaps the most famous British privateer was Sir Francis Drake, one of many operating against the Spanish treasure fleet. Thomas Cavendish was another and obtained valuable charts of the East during a circumnavigation.

Barbary pirates came from North Africa to attack British shipping. In 1621 an expedition to North Africa was made against the Barbary pirates. In 1655 Blake routed them and started a campaign against them in the Caribbean.

Sir Henry Morgan, Captain William Kidd and Edward Teach were just three of the many British pirate leaders who operated in the Atlantic and Caribbean in the 17th century. In 1700 an Act of Parliament was passed to try pirates in Vice Admiral's Courts. Pardons were issued in 1717 and then rewards were offered for those pirates that had not taken them up. The Royal Navy was used to suppress piracy at Algiersmarker in 1816 and in the South China Seamarker.

Fishing and whaling

The Magna Carta took away The Crown's rights to most fisheries apart from that for oysters and salmon. The Crown's remaining rights are exercised through various Port Authorities. Catching fish from foreshore traps has been undertaken from prehistoric times in Britain and is still carried out. Increasing river pollution may have caused an increase in sea fishing in the Middle Ages.

In the 16th century British fishermen were prominent in fishing on the Grand Banksmarker off Newfoundland.

19th and 20th centuries

In the 19th and early 20th centuries herring fishing was a major activity in Britain. Herring fishing stopped in England and Wales during the 1960s but continued in Scotland until 1977/8. In 1937 the herring catch at Yarmouth dropped dramatically, then that at Lowestoftmarker declined.

Trawling has also been a major activity, with the use of radio navigation aids and echo sounders making life easier now. Fishing in waters off Icelandmarker became important, which led to three "Cod Wars" from the 1950s to the 1970s. British boats were excluded from Icelandic waters in 1976. In 1977 a fishing limit was set up by the European Economic Community, and British waters were opened to other Community members. This led to overfishing. Landings decreased 28% between 1967 and 1997, with fishing now mainly off Scotland.

Other sorts of fishing also take place on a commercial basis such as for crab, lobster, shellfish and mackerel. Sport fishing is popular from coasts and boats, including for shark off south west England.

In the past local conditions led to the development of a wide range of types of fishing boats. The bawley and the smack were used in the Thames Estuary and off East Angliamarker, while trawlers and drifters were use on the east coast. In 1870 paddle tugs were being used to tow luggers and smacks to sea. Steam trawlers were introduced in 1881, mainly at Grimsby and Hull. The steam drifter was not used in the herring fishery until 1897. In 1890 it was estimated that there were 20,000 men on the North Sea. The first trawlers fished over the side but in 1961 the first stern trawler was used at Lowestoft for fishing in Arctic watersmarker. By 1981 only 27 of 130 deep sea trawlers were still going to sea. Many were converted to oil rig safety vessels. However the "inshore" boats landed a greater weight of fish even in 1973.

Herring fishing started in the Moray Firth in 1819. The peak of the fishing at Aberdeenmarker was in 1937 with 277 steam trawlers, though the first diesel drifter was introduced in 1926.


Gas and oil

The first British tanker was launched in 1886 and could carry 1,950 tons of oil. By 1961 the typical tanker was around 80,000 tons which grew to over 100,000 tons by 1967 and to over 250,000 tons by 1973. By 1965 BP had 170 tankers.

The gas fields in the North Sea have been in production since the 1960s while oil was discovered off Scotland in 1975. This led to the development of several support bases in Scotland. Platform construction has declined since 1985. The imminent decline of North Sea gas has led to the construction of liquid gas tankers and import facilities at Milford Haven.

Oil spills

There have been a number of major oil spills around the coast of Britain. The wreck of the Torrey Canyonmarker in March 1967 resulted in the first major oil spill. The ship grounded on the Seven Stones reefmarker between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The ship was bombed to break it up and detergent used to disperse the 700 km² oil slick. It is estimated that 15,000 birds were killed and there was also a large effect on marine life. As a result of this incident many lessons were learned on how to handle such problems and it led to changes in regulations. The grounding of MV Braermarker in January 1993 in the Shetlandsmarker led to the loss of 84,700 tons of light crude oil. There was again a large effect on wildlife, both birds and mammals. Because of the stormy conditions, the oil slick became broken up and had dispersed by October 1994. The Sea Empressmarker hit a rock off Milford Haven in February 1996. Some 730,00 tons of oil were spilt, resulting in an estimated 5,000 birds being killed with much oil being washed up on beaches. It is estimated that the cost of the spill was £60 million.

Offshore wind farms

Britain started installing wind farms off shore in the year 2000. By February 2007 this had reached 2 GW capacity though its average output was much less. It could provide up to 1.5% of the United Kingdom's electricity. The capacity of offshore wind farms exceeds that of the onshore ones and is expected to rise over the coming years with many proposals being made.


The coastline of Britain is constantly changing by erosion and deposition of materials. One area suffering from major erosion is the east coast of England, where in particular the town of Dunwichmarker has been swallowed by the sea. At one time it was one of the largest ports in England but is completely gone. Another place that was largely destroyed is Hallsandsmarker, which was hit by storms in 1917, its defences having been removed by offshore dredging. Many beaches have had groynes constructed on them to control the movement of material.

Some areas of Britain are now under threat from rising sea levels while in the past the North Sea, Bristol Channel and English Channel have been flooded. The land is also still recovering from the deposition of ice on northern parts in the last ice age. Thus southern England is sinking while Scotland is rising. In some cases it has been decided to not defend areas against sea encroachments in storms, such as in Porlockmarker bay, while valuable areas are being protected. The Thames Barriermarker was completed in 1994 to prevent flooding in the upper Thames estuary.

Leisure activities


In the 18th century people began visiting places on the coast of Britain for pleasure. Initially this was for medical reasons but became popular when King George III made Weymouthmarker his summer home around 1800 and later King George IV built a palace at Brightonmarker. Many resorts such as Blackpoolmarker became popular when they were linked by railways to the big conurbations. More recently there has been a decline in popularity of British resorts due to the advent of cheap package holidays abroad with their better weather.

Rowing, yachting and power boats

Offshore rowing races are popular in the southwest of England using gigs based on those originally used in the Isles of Scillymarker for pilotage and attending wrecks as well as smuggling. These are six oared vessels up to about 10 m long with nearly a 2 m beam.

Many yacht club "one designs" were popular between 1920 and 1960, such as the Salcombe yawl which was later built in plastic as the Devon yawl. Later more wide spread dinghy designs became more popular such as the "Enterprise" introduced in 1960. In the late 19th and early part of the 20th century great yachts such as the J-Class were built, including "Shamrock V" constructed to attempt to win the America's Cup which originated in 1851. Cowes Week has been held since 1826 and includes a race around the Isle of Wightmarker. The Fastnet race was first sailed in 1925. The first single-handed circumnavigation by a Briton was by John Gusswell between 1955 and 1959, while the first Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race was held in 1960 and won by Francis Chichester. The first non stop circumnavigation race in 1968 was won by Robin Knox-Johnston while the first "wrong way" circumnavigation was by Chay Blyth in 1970. A Round Britain Single Handed Race was instituted in 1966. A sailing speed world record of was set at Portlandmarker by a catamaran in 1980.

Frederick W. Lanchester built the first power boat in 1898 using a , water cooled engine. Since then power boats have been used as run-abouts and for racing, as well as for water-skiing. Both inboard and outboard engines are used. The British Power Boat Company built many power boats between 1927 and 1946 including Miss Britain III and PT9 that became the basis of Motor Torpedo Boats and the US PT boats during the Second World War. The power speed record rose from in 1930 to in 1939. After the war the record speed rose again with runs by Donald Campbell, who was killed during an attempt on the record in 1967.


The increasing popularity of yachting and power boating has led to the creation of many purpose-built marinas and the conversion of existing harbours. See List of marinas#United Kingdom for those in the United Kingdom.

Marine science


The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (first the Admiralty then the Ministry of Defence) is responsible for publishing navigational nautical charts in Britain, now with worldwide cover. It also produces related publications. Originally based in London, it moved to Tauntonmarker in the Second World War.

Thomas Cavendish captured charts of the East Indies from the Dutch in 1586. A map of the New Englandmarker coast was made by Captain John Smith in 1614, followed by maps of the Pacific and Australia. The first "Hydrographer to the King" was appointed in the 17th century. The Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty was set up in 1795 and had seven vessels by 1820. One of its chief interests was in finding a Northwest Passage around Canada. The first catalogue of charts was produced in 1825. The hydrographic squadron still forms part of the Royal Navy.


The first information on the seas around Britain was gathered in pre-historic fishermen who needed to know currents and tides as well as about waves. One of the first scientific articles on oceanography was by James Cook who included information on the oceans in his report on his voyages between 1768 and 1779. James Rennell wrote the first textbooks about currents in the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Oceanmarker around 1800. Sir James Clark Ross took the first sounding in the deep sea in 1840 and Charles Darwin published a paper on reefs and atolls as a result of the second voyage of Beagle in 1831-6. The Royal Society sponsored the Challenger expedition (1872-76) that resulted in a 50 volume report, covering biological, physical and geological aspects. The 1910 North Atlantic expedition headed by Sir John Murray and Johan Hjort resulted in the classic book The Depths of the Oceans.

The Institute of Oceanology was set up at Godalmingmarker but was transferred to the Southampton Oceanographic Centre in 1994. The latter was renamed the National Oceanographic Centre. It operates a number of vessels that undertake exploratory cruises as well as various unmanned vehicles and buoys.

Maritime studies


A number of places in Britain provide facilities for the study of the various aspects of seamanship, such as Orkney Collegemarker. These courses lead to Certificates of Competency for particular jobs. Other places, such as Liverpool John Moores Universitymarker, provide more academic courses on mercantile practice, ship design and operation. The University of Exetermarker is one of those places that has specialised in maritime history.

Admiralty law

Admiralty law governs relations between entities that operate vessels on the oceans. Admiralty laws were introduced into England by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century. In England special courts handle all admiralty law cases. There was a High Court of Admiralty in London and Vice Admiral's Courts in other ports. Originally they dealt with administrative and naval matters but then included piracy cases (from 1700). By the 16th century they had wide powers but these were later reduced until restored in the 19th century. Trade disputes generally are dealt with by the commercial court. The admiralty laws were a prominent feature in causing the American Revolution.

Law of the sea

This is a body of law governing international relations at sea. There have been three United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea - in 1956, 1960 and 1967 - which have been ratified by Britain. The last one came into force in 1994.

Ship design

Originally ship design, or naval architecture, was by the skill of the shipwright only. In the 16th century shipwrights were authorised by the crown and under Henry VII a list of master shipwrights was produced. A treatise on ship design was written in the 16th century. A school of naval architecture was set up at Portsmouth in 1811. Nowadays ship design can be studied at a number of colleges in Britain. The professional body for ship designers in Britain is the Royal Institution of Naval Architects

Maritime museums

The main maritime museum in Britain is the National Maritime Museummarker at Greenwichmarker. However there are nearly 300 smaller ones (including ships) at various ports around Britain. These include museums at Kingston upon Hullmarker, Hartlepoolmarker and Liverpoolmarker as well as HMNB Portsmouthmarker. These provide much information on the maritime history of Britain.

Maritime archaeology

Maritime archaeology is important in Britain because of the large number of shipwrecks around the coast and because of the large areas off the coast that have been submerged by rising sea levels. The archaeology of shipwrecks covers sites from the Bronze Age onward. Many artifacts have been obtained from the southern North Sea, for example. A recent find on the coast was Seahenge. The subject can be studied at universities in Bristolmarker, Bournemouthmarker and Southamptonmarker while English Heritage is also interested.

Maritime subjects in the Arts


Britain has had many authors who wrote on marine topics, the sailing era being a popular period. Joseph Conrad, who was born in Polandmarker in 1857, came to Britain in 1878 and was naturalised in 1886. He undertook a voyage in a collier and then a wool clipper, obtaining a master's ticket in 1887. His last voyage in 1916 was in a Q-ship during the war. Conrad wrote many stories based on his experiences, such as "Lord Jim". Basil Lubbock went out to the Klondikemarker and then sailed back from San Franciscomarker on a grain ship. From this he wrote "Round the Horn before the Mast" describing the life of an ordinary seaman. After settling down in England he collected facts on sailing ships and wrote books about them. Alan Villiers first sailed in a British square rigger and then in Danish ones. He bought a small Danish fully rigged ship and sailed around the world. After his return he wrote books about square riggers. Many works of fiction have also been written, perhaps the most famous being the series on Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester.


Many works of Marine art have been produced by British artists and on British maritime topics. One of the most well known paintings in Britain is "The Fighting Temeraire" by J. M. W. Turner that hangs in London's National Gallerymarker. A lot of seaside resorts have art galleries selling marine subjects.

In addition there is art produced by the sailors themselves, such as scrimshaw.


There are a large number of sea shanties that have been collected, many by Cecil Sharp at Watchetmarker.

See also


  • Brenton E P (1837). The Naval History of Great Britain.
  • Calio J ((2004). Whos Who in Naval History.
  • Camphill J (1841). Lives of the British Admirals and Naval History of Great Britain.
  • Corbett S (1965). Drake and the Tudor Navy.
  • Friel, Ian (2003). Maritime History of Britain and Ireland.
  • Harrison H (1980). John Cabot in "The Maritime History of England under the Tudors".
  • Hattendorf, John (2007). Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History.
  • Heiney, Paul (2005). Maritime Britain.
  • Hervey F (1779). The Naval History of Great Britain, from the earliest times to the rising of Parliament in 1779.
  • Mahan A T (1969). Types of Naval Officers drawn from the British Navy.
  • Sobecki, S. (2008). The Sea and Medieval English Literature.
  • Simper, Robert (1982). Britain's Maritime Heritage.
  • Toogood, Brassey and James (1895). Index to Janes Naval History.
  • Wilson H W (1896). Ironclads in Action: a sketch of Naval Warfare from 1855 to 1895. London.

External links

  • International Commission for Maritime History
  • Society for Nautical Research
  • The Institute of Maritime History
  • The Sextant, an online community for maritime history and nautical archaeology
  • Shipwrecks UK, concerned with ship losses in the seas surrounding Britain and Ireland
  • The Museum of Underwater Archaeology

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