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Breaking Seas, Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks & Britain, 1854-2007

Reviewed by Rory McAlevy

How do you explore the last 150 years of British seafaring history in just one book? One shipwreck at a time, according to the author of Breaking Seas, Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks & Britain, 1854-2007. Ian Friel followed Britain and the Ocean Road, a deft and historically sound coverage of the history of British maritime history from the Middle Ages to the Victorian period, with this work which carries the narrative into recent years. With Breaking Seas, Broken Ships, Friel covers a range of stories from Britain’s height of imperial power to the very different world of the early twenty-first century, and throughout each story he maintains the impressive focus on the human connection that made the first book in the series so personal and impactful.

Just as in the first installment, the author does not shy away from rendering frank historical judgements of both individual captains and companies, as well as the state of British sea power as a whole. Often, where blame might have been placed on a shipmaster or other individual at the time for political reasons, Friel does not hesitate to implicate the broader systems of government and industry that played a role in disaster and shipwreck. While he uses the featured wrecks as examples to support his larger commentary, as in Britain and the Ocean Road, he often presents lesser known wrecks as waypoints for the reader, which serves to add breadth to any person’s knowledge.

The Titanic likely conjures up images of grand staircases and ballrooms, class divided accommodations, and ultimately tragic gaps in ocean liner safety; 58 years before that, however, came the disaster of the City of Glasgow. That ship similarly had the extravagant Victorian stylings, and it was a pioneer in steerage class tickets. Friel begins the book with this early passenger liner marvel, highlighting it for its revolutionary designs in watertight compartments, but also using its last, calamitous voyage in 1854 as a talking point for the lack of strong regulation and enforcement that led to lifeboat shortages and iceberg collisions. Remarking upon the expansion of emigration that steam powered boats offered, Friel balances the narrative with broad assessments of the budding liner industry and the personal stories of the people left behind in a disaster.

This book covers a shorter time period than Friel’s preceding volume but covers massive shifts in seafaring during a 150 year span. The last death rattles of the age of sail are part of this volatile transition, and Friel captures them up close to show how trading formed part of Britain’s heritage since the wine trade of medieval times. The half dozen sailors of a doomed collier brig, each one painted in detail, help to illustrate a broader picture of how shipowners kept these very old ships running until they failed. Friel notes how, when disasters like this shipwreck happened, the owner was quickly exonerated through his local status; Friel takes a more balanced approach in his own critique. The focus of this chapter returns again and again to the widows and children left behind, and the systems of support that tried to help them in the aftermath.

Tackling the legacy of a legend, Friel next addresses the loss of the HMS Victoria in 1893. The cause of the tragedy was the infallible reputation of the visionary Admiral Sir George Tryon coupled with the strict command structure of the Royal Navy. In covering this well documented historical episode, Friel still finds a different tact in the story of one of the wreck’s survivors, the Stoker James Curran, who went on to perform live shows to tell his story. The author indicts the rigid Royal Navy structures that lead to senior officers blindly obeying the orders of their commander, and also works to humanize those that used the story of the wreck to their advantage.

On the topic of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland and the likes of Admiral Jellicoe spring to mind, but Friel again affects a hard left turn on the historical narrative, choosing to feature the battle between the merchant ship SS Terence and a trio of German U-boats. The valiant efforts of the merchant ship captain who fought for survival also underscore the broader wartime theme of British dependence on trade. The merchant marine narrative in Breaking Seas is vital to understanding one of the books’ broader theses; Britain was dependent on the sea, and her ability to defend herself was challenged in the world conflicts of the early 20th century.

Just as he highlights the courage of the captain of the SS Terence in WWI, Friel profiles the compassion and determination of the crews who survived the wreckage aboard two WWII heavy cruisers, the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall. Touching upon the quickly changing nature of naval warfare, the author highlights how the importance of the warship for projecting seapower was quickly diminishing relative to the ascending star of naval aviation. The loss of these two ships to Japanese dive bombers in the Indian Ocean drives this point home, while still keeping the plight of the sailors in mind.

From the classic maritime themes of trade, warfare, and social issues, Friel is also able to nimbly weave environmental issues into the narrative. Covering the transition from sail to steam to oil in this work, the author chooses a well known tanker wreck as a waypoint marking our impact on the ocean and coastlines. Achieving a wonderful balance between international connections and local concerns, Friel covers the impact of the Torrey Canyon disaster on the waters of Cornwall, Guernsey, and Brittany, and how the legacy of the wreck spurred better regulation and response procedures to spills.

Closing the book with a summation of the modern state of the maritime domain, Friel covers the vast changes caused by the advent of container ships on the maritime economy to which we are all tied, and the negative impact on dockland communities around the globe. This massive change in world trade was pivotal, and the consequences of its global reach were crystallized by the recent blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021. Friel as usual balances the big picture of increased consumerism with the loss of dockhand jobs and the surrounding culture.

Breaking Seas, Broken Ships carries the torch from Britain and the Ocean Road with grace, placing the human connections at the heart of each chapter. Based on original scholarship and taking refreshing perspectives on many episodes of British maritime history, the work offers a treasure trove of history for enthusiasts and professionals alike.

Rory McAlevy is studying archaeology and history at the University of Virginia and is currently an intern at the Naval Historical Foundation.

Breaking Seas, Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks & Britain, 1854-2007 (Ian Friel, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).

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