Other than persons, pets and places, ships and boats are among the few things to which humans have long assigned names in order to distinguish one exemplar from another. In this paper we analyze the names of almost 200,000 merchant ships that operated in England from the late thirteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Our maintained hypotheses are that these names will reflect the attitudes and aspirations of the owners who named them and that these owners are representative of the well-to-do citizens of English port towns. The ship names trace out a number of social and cultural trends. They show the rise from the late thirteenth century in the use of names with religious associations and their subsequent decline from the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century saw a rise in names drawn from nature and in the eighteenth century names drawn from classical history and mythology became more common. Throughout the centuries most ships were named after persons, but the nature of these personal names changed in several ways. Male forenames were more common in the middle ages, but by the eighteenth century female forenames predominated. From the sixteenth century diminutives were more widely used, indicating greater informality in family relationships and they were often conjoined, as in Betsy & Peggy. From the eighteenth century naming after identifiable individuals became more common, perhaps reflecting the social aspirations of their owners.
Peter M. Solar, retired from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is affiliated with the Université Saint-Louis—Bruxelles and the Faculty of History, University of Oxford. Much of his recent work has dealt with the history of the British shipping industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including articles on the East India trade, the slave trade, increased safety at sea, and tonnage measurement. He also continues to research the economic history of pre-famine Ireland and the history of the British cotton textile industry.
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