Dr Steven Gray has been awarded the Boydell & Brewer Prize for the best doctoral thesis in maritime history in 2013-14. The prize is due to be presented at the 2015 New Researchers in Maritime History Conference, April 10th-11th at the Old Royal Naval College, hosted by the University of Greenwich. Dr Gray will also be giving a short lecture on his research.
The thesis examines how the expansion of a steam-powered Royal Navy in the second half of the nineteenth century had wider ramifications across the British Empire. In particular, it examines how steam propulsion made vessels utterly dependent on a particular resource – coal – and its distribution around the world. In doing so, it makes an original contribution to knowledge by showing that the ‘coal issue’ was central to issues of imperial and trade defence, created infrastructures which spanned the globe, and connected British sailors with a plethora of different imperial, maritime, and foreign peoples.
The work considers the wider context of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in order to understand the significant place of coal in discussions about imperial defence. In doing so, it shows coal’s place within broader changes to political ideologies, imperial defence schemes, popular imperialism and navalism, knowledge collection, and the growth of the state apparatus.
For quality naval coal to be available globally, a robust coaling infrastructure on a huge geographical scale was required. The thesis shows that although naval coaling relied heavily on the coal export industry, the Admiralty adapted its management of the infrastructure, particularly after 1880, to cope with increases in ship size and number and competition from its rivals. Furthermore, it shows how these processes worked on the ground, from testing and purchasing coal to the methods and labour used to load in on warships.
The thesis also demonstrates that the necessity of coaling in foreign stations made new connections between the navy, the wider empire and the world. Naval visits to these places are a prime example of British interaction with the wider world at the zenith of empire, and the project explores how the interactions with local populations, other maritime visitors, and the stations themselves shaped the experience of sailors abroad, and also created a maritime community which spanned large oceanic spaces.