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RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2012

July 23, 2012

This year’s RGS-IBG conference was held a Edinburgh University from 3rd – 5th July and packed in a massive 279 sessions!
I came up to Edinburgh on the 2nd as the RGS-IBG Post-graduate forum held a training day. The day itself was very useful, dispelling myths on what a viva actually entails and suggesting career options after PhD. It was also great to meet up with friends made at previous conferences, to see how everyone was getting on with their research and of course, network and meet new people. The Post-graduate forum was well represented through-out the main conference programme with several sessions on ‘New and emerging themes in post graduate geography’ and a new trail session on ‘Challenges and connections in your research’; the latter of which I presented in. It was an interesting session as although aimed primarily at post graduate researchers, it was well attended by seasoned academics. The session took the form of a round table discussion and then a series of focus groups based around the emerging themes. The session continued into the pub and I certainly found it very useful to get fresh opinions and methodologies from others who are in totally different research areas.

It was good to see documentary climatology represented in the form of Alex Berland’s (University of Nottingham) PhD research on the climate history of Antigua. His paper, titled ‘”Another visitation of elementary strife”: climate and crisis in a colonial Antigua’ focussed on the occurrence of extreme weather events, namely drought and/or hurricanes that had massive impacts on the islands population at the time and some of his early results show a close correlation between extended periods of extreme climatic conditions and civil crisis. His research is archive based and draws on a number of sources including government records, plantation papers and missionary correspondence.
Alex’s abstract can be found below, along with other papers presented during the session. Unfortunately George Adamson (University of Brighton) was unable to make the conference which was a pity as I was looking  forward to hearing his presentation.

While in Edinburgh I took the time to have a search of the archives held in the National Library of Scotland and National Museum of Scotland. William Scoresby Jnr (Whitby whaling captain and scientist) went to university in Edinburgh and was later made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. While there was no manuscripts belonging to/or relating to Scoresby, the library held Sir John Franklin’s original field diary from 1821 when he and his crew became trapped in the ice while searching for the fabled North West Passage. The diary is written in pencil and very faint. A lot of it is indecipherable but  the sections that are legible give an air of grave concern regarding the situation with many of the crew not surviving the perilous conditions. A fascinating document of a national hero which gives a truely personal insight into the human endeavour of the sailors who entered this region.

The conference was so well organised and fluid it was hard to tell it was as big as it was. Thanks to RGS-IBG and Edinburgh University for a very interesting and enjoyable few days….see you RGS-IBG ac2013!


More information on this conference and the full program can be found here:


A strange sail in the NE quarter…

April 26, 2012

ARCdoc is drawing on a number of sources to build up a picture of the climate of the far North Atlantic and the Arctic. The focus to date has been on transcribing weather observations from logbooks kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and whaling ships, with a view to turning our attention to the Royal Navy discovery ships’ logbooks, once this is complete.

When you are working on a particular source it is easy to think of those particular ships operating in isolation, but in fact the HBC, whalers and Royal Navy were all operating in similar areas at one time or another and on occasion, they did ‘bump’ into one another.

It is rather helpful  when this occurs because this offers us the chance to compare their encounters. A rather nice illustration of this occurs in July 1821 when HBC ships the Prince of Wales and Eddystone, together with the Lord Wellington (transporting settlers) meet with the discovery ships HMS Hecla and Fury in the Davis Straits, off Resolution Island.

From the Prince of Wales logbook:

13th July 1821 “at 8 two ships in sight from the mast head WSW off us 12 or 14 miles appearing to be grappling which we take to be the discovery ships”.

16th July 1821 “the discovery ships grapple near us and Captain Parry sent his boat for me to go on board the Fury”

From the logbook kept on board HMS Fury:

14th July 1821: “At noon strangers ENE 7 or 8 miles”

16th July 1821: “At 8 moderate and cloudy, 3 strangers and Hecla close to. Hauled sails. Sent letters on board the Prince of Wales for England. Captain Davidson of that ship came on board”.

As well as the logbook observations, many of the Captains of the discovery ships later recounted their adventures in printed narrative accounts. These accounts can prove useful in providing more detailed  information about the encounter, as we see in Parry’s description of their ships meeting in his ‘Journal of a second voyage for the NW passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, performed in the years 1821-22-23 in Hecla under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry RN,FRS and commander of the expedition’ London: 1824

The Meeting of the Hudson’s Bay Company Ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone with Captain W.E. Parry’s Ships Hecla and Fury

16th July 1821:  “The ice being rather less close on the morning of the 16th, we made sail to the westward, at 7:45 am and  continued ‘boring’ in that direction the whole day, which enabled us to join the three strange ships. They proved to be, as we supposed, the Prince of Wales, Eddystone and Lord Wellington, bound to Hudson’s Bay. I sent a boat to the former, to request Mr Davidson, the master, to come on board, which he immediately did. From him we learned that the Lord Wellington, having on board one hundred and sixty settlers for the Red River, principally foreigners, of both sexes and every age, had now been twenty days among the ice, and had drifted in various direction at no small risk to the ship. Mr Davidson considered he had arrived here rather too early for advancing to the westward, and strongly insisted on the necessity of first getting to the northward, or in-shore, before we could hope to make any progress; a measure, the expediency of which is well known to all those accustomed to the navigation of icy seas”.

Mr Davidson’s comment that he “considered they had arrived too early for advancing westward” is an interesting and useful one as it shows us how familiar the HBC master’s were with the environment they operated in and in particular, their knowledge of the timing and extent of sea ice in the Davis Straits.


When we come to the analysis stage of the project, combining the data from the ships’ logbooks with secondary sources such as the one above, will undoubtedly provide us with a richer picture of the weather conditions and  presence of ice experienced on those voyages.

Visualising ships’ logbook data

April 17, 2012

Today I came across some great work done by Ben Schmidt who has taken positional data from ships’ logbooks and visualised them to show the voyages of British, Dutch, Spanish  and other ships over a period of 100 years (1750-1850).

This visualisation uses positional data which were transcribed as part of the CLIWOC project back in 2001-2003 and include data from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) logbooks, a source we are continuing to work with as part of ARCdoc project.

In this visualisation you will see that the HBC ships start to appear from 1760  (further data are available and being transcribed as part of ARCdoc) travelling from the UK over to Hudson’s Bay.

Two interesting points to note are the small seasonal window in which these ships operated as they left the UK in June and returned in September or October in order to avoid the worst of the ice in the David Straits and the Bay and that although generally they would voyage north from the Thames up to the Orkney’s before heading west to Hudson’s Bay they would, on occasion, take a southerly route though the English Channel.

Visualisations such as the one above are an extremely useful tool for us, for several reasons:

  • Quality control: they can show us where there are errors in the data. For example where positional data is plainly incorrect, e.g. a ship voyaging on land!
  • Analysis: The ship’s progress in time and space and any instrumental observations recorded on board  can be compared against various modern climatologies such as wind direction and strength, temperature, air pressure and  extent and timing of sea ice.

A nice example of the latter is this visualisation created by one of the ARCdoc team Philip Brohan which shows the progress of HMS Hecla on its voyage to the Arctic in search of a NW passage from 1819-1820 with modern climatolological sea surface temperatures (SST) and sea-ice overlain:

As we collect more data we hope to make more visualisations, and in particular, it will be interesting to see the whaling logbooks represented.

Isles of ice

January 6, 2012

The logbook, kept by Master Jonathan Fowler Senior on board the Seahorse I on its outward voyage to Hudson Bay in 1754, provides us with a stark reminder of the often treacherous conditions in which the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) ships operated. Although HBC master mariners were highly experienced navigators, possessing a good understanding of the icy conditions they were likely to encounter as they voyaged north into the Davis Straits and into the Bay; they were still very much at the mercy of the natural environment.

In 1754 as the Seahorse and her ships in company voyaged  north into the Davis Straits, ice was sighted on the 8th July “At 8am saw an isle of ice” and as the days passed, the presence of ice increased with Fowler noting on the 11th  “At noon many isles of ice in sight”. By the 13th, the Seahorse I together with the Prince Rupert and King George reached 61° N and found themselves “enclosed in a body of ice” and in danger of being crushed.

On the 19th,  Fowler states “Between 11pm and noon in a body of ice . Was drove by the tide within 20 yards of a large isle of ice that I think not inferior in bulk to St Pauls and the top of it not much lower which if we had touched the consequence might have been such as I pray god I may never have occasioned to wright (sic)”.

John Ross, watercolour, N.B. Sketch of an Island of Ice seen by H.M. Ship Scipion on Davis Straits, dated 1818. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1973-9-4.

The ships remained locked in “a body of ice” for a month when finally, on 13th August, Fowler reports  “At 2pm sailing though the open ice”.

It is possible, based on the positional data recorded in the logbook, that the ships fell in with what is known as the “middle pack”; a tongue of ice that reaches down from Baffin Bay into Davis Strait and sometimes, as far as the Labrador Sea. This southward moving ice stream is composed of deteriorating winter ice from the north and icebergs; the latter of which can be numerous and very large.

As we continue with our transcription and begin analysis of both the terminology and extent of sea ice encountered each year by the HBC ships, we hope to be able to put the experiences of the voyage of the Seahorse I in 1754 into context.

England’s oldest ship logbook?

November 30, 2011

Although the ARCdoc project has as its time frame the period 1750 to 1850, it is inevitable that other items will come to the team’s attention. Sure enough, team member Matthew Ayre, whilst working in the British Library, came across the logbook of William Baffin; a remarkable document that dates from his voyage to the Arctic in 1615. But Baffin was no stranger to those hazardous waters and this logbook is for his fourth voyage.

William Baffin by Hendrick van der Borcht

It is not known for certain, but it is widely believed that Baffin was born in 1584 of humble parentage, working his way to a respected position as navigator and explorer. He first ventured into the Arctic in 1612 under a Captain James Hall as chief pilot. He then spent time in the whaling grounds off Spitsbergen in the employ of the Muscovy Company who, at that time, controlled English whaling. The purpose of his 1615 voyage in the Discovery was however to find the fabled North West Passage, and whilst he enjoyed no more success in that direction than did his successors, he did put together a volume of scientific observations unmatched for two centuries and much admired by Sir Edward Parry (whose logbooks, incidentally, form part of the ARCdoc remit). Baffin Island and Baffin Bay both bear his name to this day.

Baffin returned to the Arctic the following year after which he took employment in the East India Company sailing to Surat in 1617. He died in 1620 of wounds received in an Anglo-Persian assault on a Portuguese fort in the Persian Gulf.

His logbook may yet prove to be the oldest such English document. It will be the object of study by the ARCdoc team who plan to write a short paper on this remarkable collection of observations and the equally remarkable author.

Hull History Centre

November 21, 2011

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Hull History Centre. The Centre is the new home of the Hull City Archives, Hull Local Studies Library and Hull University’s Archives.

It is here where the UK’s largest collection of original whaling logbooks is kept under the watchful eye of Christine Brown, the Conservation and Preservation manager. Christine gave me an excellent guided tour of the Centre, through the public areas and then into the archives themselves. The archives are ‘state of the art’ to say the least, all the documents are kept in climate-controlled rooms with highly sensitive smoke detectors. It’s good to know so much work has gone into preserving the documents held here and their survival for future generations.

After the tour, Christine showed me the original whaling logs, that only a few decades ago could be taken out as library books! It was great to see the original logs having previously worked only with digital images.

Whaling Logs waiting to be imaged

Next it was time to see how the logs are being imaged. Imaging is important in the preservation of such documents as it provides a more accessible version of the document as well as a back up if something were to happen to the original. It’s not quite as simple as pulling out a camera, the Centre has a 100 megapixel document specific camera and rig, as well as various equipment for safely positioning the document before imaging begins.

Logbook all set up for imaging

This standard of imaging provides the best possible digital representation of the document. After each image is taken, Christine carefully crops the image and has the option to adjust the image settings if needed. It is a long and time consuming process, but Christine’s hard work is ensuring the continued survival of these historically important documents as well providing a medium that makes them readily available to anyone, anywhere in the world!

Thanks to Christine and Hull History Centre for a fascinating day

Visit to Shetland Museum and Archives and Lecture – Robb Robinson, University of Hull

November 16, 2011

In July I had the opportunity to visit Lerwick in Shetland to examine the whaling archives and discuss records with the museum staff. During this time I had discussions with various people including Ian Tait, Curator and Brian Smith, Archivist, both of the Shetland Museum and Archives as well as Bobby Gear – a PhD student jointly supervised by the North Atlantic Fisheries College, the Shetland Museum and the University of Hull – who is also very knowledgeable about the museum’s archives – and was able to study a number of records to ascertain their value for the ARCdoc Project.

Shetland Museum & Archives, Hay's Dock, Lerwick, Shetland

Background to Arctic Whaling and Shetland

The Shetland Islands had long-term involvement in the Arctic whaling trade. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries vessels voyaging northwards, particularly those heading for the Svalbard archipelago would call into the Bressay Sound to recruit additional crew and victual. Shetlanders made up a substantial proportion of the crew of the whaling ships that sailed northwards from the Bressay Sound. There were several reasons for their involvement.  Firstly, Shetlanders were superb small boat handlers, thanks in particular to their involvement in the offshore cod fisheries and their skills were invaluable in the business of whaling and the second was that their rates of pay were low due to a dearth of other employment opportunities on the islands.

The whaling ships recruited crews from both Orkney and Shetland. Ships making a voyage direct to the Davis Straits might call into to Stromness in Orkney to engage additional crew whilst vessels voyaging to the Svalbard Archipelago would visit Shetland for the same purpose. However, vessels such as the Diana of Hull often made a preliminary sealing voyage to Svalbard early in the season and returned to the Bressay Sound to offload their catches before making their main whaling trip to the Davis Straits and so recruited their additional crews for both voyages in Shetland.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands were also to have an enduring interest in the whaling trade that lasted well into the modern whaling era with many islanders from both archipelagos joining twentieth century whaling activities in the southern oceans.

Much of the business of recruitment, victualling and the like were handled by agents, firms such as Hay and Company. My visit to the museum provided me with the opportunity to assess the usefulness of the records that survived.

Survey of the Records

The port of Lerwick was not a home port for whaling ships but, as I have said, a place where whaling ships could victual and recruit labour and this is reflected in the whaling archives to be found in the museum. The archives do not appear to include any ship’s whaling logs which is to be expected and therefore the opportunity to trace individual voyages, weather conditions and the like through this medium do not exist. However, a number of letters and short anecdotes from those involved in whaling voyages contained in the archive do furnish some qualitative information, the most substantive of these relate to the tragic voyage of the Hull whaleship Diana in 1866/7 during which ten Shetlanders and three Hull crew died.

The 'Diana' the last whaler out of Hull, locked in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle from an original painting by Edward Holt 1989

They include a number of accounts of the voyage recalled by individuals themselves or recorded by commentators, though, of course, the Diana voyage was concerned with the post 1850 period.

DIANA RELIC – Ref SEA 74146: Manuscript pages from a notebook containing verses.

The archive also includes an extensive run of material from Hay and Company who had a long involvement with whaling ships from various ports involved in the whale fishery and these seem to provide material relating to voyages in terms of people recruited, repairs to vessels and victuals etc rather than climatic details and the like.

Furthermore, the archive also includes some interesting surveys from the Napoleonic War period of the inhabitants of various parts of the archipelago which appear to provide detail on the proportion of members of households involved in the whale fisheries and Royal Navy Service. These may prove to be of particular value for social historians of the whaling trade.

Lecture and Radio Broadcast

During my visit I gave a very well attended public lecture on fisheries and whaling in the Shetland Museum and was able to use this opportunity to explain the role of ARCdoc and distribute information and records. This provoked some interesting questions. I also repeated the lecture for broadcast of Radio Shetland and took the opportunity to do some filming for the BBC on the voyage of the whaleship Diana.


Robb Robinson, 2011