Maritime History Expert writer, editor and consultant - Denis Stonham

Background and Previous Works

"There has been in recent years a quickening of interest in our seafaring past and one has only to notice the proliferation of maritime museums, the projects to create replicas of historic vessels and the increasing number of maritime festivals held internationally to be aware that the influence of the sea in shaping the lives of each one of us still exerts a strong fascination."

I wrote those lines as part of the editorial that introduced the seventh issue of the magazine Maritime Heritage, of which I was editor during the journal's existence. To the list of examples demonstrating a continuing absorption in maritime history among many I might have added the number of magazines dealing with differing aspects of the topic that have appeared during the past few years, and the success of television series such as Hornblower and documentaries describing the investigation of shipwrecks.

All of this welcome activity requires a sound basis of knowledge and expertise in its planning and execution. I am able to offer wide experience in maritime historical matters which will be of value to any individual or organisation wishing to present the topic in any form.

Background

On finishing full-time education I joined the Corporation of Lloyd's where I worked as a sub editor on Lloyd's Shipping Index.

After three years working with Lloyd's I left and joined the staff of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, as a curator in the Department of Pictures. During the major part of my service at the museum I was responsible for the collection of historic photographs. This collection comprises some half a million items dating from the 1840s. I led a small team of curators identifying the subject of photographs and creating catalogues of the images.

Seafaring Under Sail Cover 1981Whilst at the museum I was joint author, with Basil Greenhill, then Director of the museum, of the book Seafaring Under Sail, published by Patrick Stephens Ltd., in 1981. I also compiled the museum's General Catalogue of Historic Photographs Volume II, Merchant Sailing Ships and I have, since leaving the museum, written the text for the official publication Historic Photographs at the National Maritime Museum; An Illustrated Guide. On a number of occasions I have lectured on the museum's collection of historic photographs and on various topics of maritime historical interest.

Among the exhibitions in which I was involved at the National Maritime Museum, I was responsible for Man's Encounter With The Sea, a show of some of the best images in the collection, which spent many years travelling; On The Rocks, an exhibition of the stunning photographs of shipwrecks in the Isles of Scilly made by the Gibson family over three generations from the 1860s; and Pull Together, the official exhibition celebrating the centenary of the National Union of Seamen, which took place in 1987.

Latterly, I was appointed head of the Ship Technology Branch at the museum, which gave me responsibility for the curatorial sections devoted to the collections of ships' equipment, boats, ship models, ships' plans, historic photographs and archaeology.

Since leaving the service of the museum in 1991 I have spent time dealing in marine antiques and in the second-hand maritime book trade. I am now a freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising exclusively in maritime affairs, both current and historical.

Maritime Heritage November 1998

Writing and Editorships

For the two years of its existence, between December 1996 and December 1998 I was editor of the magazine Maritime Heritage. This impressive glossy journal was produced in nine issues (one unpublished when financial difficulties brought the magazine to a close), each of sixty-two pages. It broke new ground in its editorial policy of commissioning articles which concentrated on describing and explaining projects being undertaken to preserve and interpret maritime heritage internationally. There were contributions reflecting the ambition and effort being devoted to the preservation or reconstruction of important vessels and many simply celebrating the legacy of our seafaring past. Latterly, there was an important series of articles by eminent directors of maritime museums across the world in which these distinguished museum professionals contemplated the role of the maritime museum in the twentieth century.

Windjammer CoverSince the end of 1996 I have produced the journal Windjammer for Mariners International Club. Although published on a minuscule budget, and modest in comparison with Maritime Heritage, this little magazine has a role in reporting on developments in the world of contemporary sail training, opportunities for sailing in many of the square-rigged and smaller vessels that comprise today's fleet of sail-training ships, as well as including articles devoted to historical topics associated with square-rigged ships. Windjammer is published quarterly. As was the case with Maritime Heritage, I contribute articles myself to Windjammer.

Lecturing, broadcasting and other commissioned work

Among the lectures which I have delivered, principally at the National Maritime Museum, both during my time there as a curator and subsequently, have been Steam on the Atlantic, a history of the development of steam navigation on the Atlantic from 1819; Merchant Ship Design, 1850s - 1950s and Revealing the World Apart, an illustrated talk describing the nature and experience of seafaring as experienced by the merchant seaman under sail in the nineteenth century.

On several occasions I have recorded pieces for broadcast by Radio Telefis Eireann in their Seascapes programme. These have generally been on maritime historical topics but occasionally on contemporary items of news such as the decision in 2002 by the newspaper Lloyd's List to discontinue referring to ships as 'she'.

I am commissioned from time to time by various corporate bodies and individuals to undertake research, produce texts, or as a general consultant. Recently, most notably, I have written descriptive texts and undertaken picture research in support of the gallery displays at the new Museum of the Port of London and Docklands (the Museum in Docklands project) which is situated in the startling, new commercial area which was once occupied by the West India Docks in the East End of London. This is a remarkable new museum and I was privileged to have been asked to contribute to its display.

Other examples of the work I have been asked to undertake are contributions to the publicity that preceded the International Festival of the Sea at Portsmouth in 2001 and the gathering of tall ships in the same port following the Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Races of 2002. On a number of occasions I have been commissioned by a marine artist who specialises in pictures of sea battles to conduct research which he uses to ensure accuracy in his works.

Twice I have been asked to edit manuscripts of books being prepared for publication. The subject of each of these works was within my own area of expertise and I was able not only to ensure correct grammar and syntax but to suggest amendments and contributions to the authors' texts.

The Vic 56For the past twelve years I have been a member of the small team which maintains and operates the former Admiralty steam victualling lighter Vic 56. This eighty-five-foot vessel was built at Faversham in 1945 and is propelled by a compound steam engine and Cochran coal-fired boiler. She is berthed at the late Trinity House depot, situated on the river Thames at the mouth of the river Lea, opposite the Millennium Dome, and is steamed on London River and the east coast of England each summer. The Vic 56 has her own website at www.vic56.co.uk.

Anyone with an interest in the preservation of historic ships should visit this site at which it is possible to see and hear the Vic's engine in operation! The vessel is practically unaltered since she first served the Admiralty; working on board and navigating the ship by only traditional means affords considerable insight into, and experience of, seamanship as it used to be practised. We sail with a minimum of five or six experienced hands and it is always hard work!

I have sailed in a number of traditional vessels, including the schooner Sir Winston Churchill and the brig Royalist.