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You may have realised by now that  I like to know the teeny-tiny  details of social history…How exactly did people make a whipp’t syllabub ? What exactly did having a putrid throat mean? How was it treated? The list is endless…Hence this blog.

But I confess that until I read Dr Helen Doe’s  fascinating book Enterprising Women and Shipping in the Nineteenth Century, I had not really given a second thought to how the ships on which Captains Benwick, Wentworth and Harville ( not to mention Admiral Croft) sailed to war were actually created. And not for one moment did I consider that among the shipyard owners would be some amazing  women who were not only owning the yards but were hands-on running some of the ship yards that created the British naval fleet of the early 19th century, managing complex business scenarios, and importantly,  ordering labouring and professional men.

Dr Doe’s book is a tour de force. A very readable and detailed overview of the ship making process, the communities  that surrounded the shipyards, the law relating to women- most of the female owner of ship yards inherited them from their husbands, ancillary maritime trades and the women who were involved in them.

The book does cover the whole of the 19th century and therefore a lot of the content, while of  great interest, does not specifically have much relevance to  Jane Austen’s era. But the chapters on warship builders and the detailed studies of shipyard owners such as Mrs Frances Barnard of Deptford are engrossing.

(Remember you can click on the picture above- not included in the book,sadly-and all the illustrations in this post to enlarge them.)

The story of  Mrs Mary Ross  of Rochester, Kent (below) is,  to me, a revelation.

The most prominent business in a maritime community was the shipyard. It was physically large, noisy and used a large amount of labour and on its output rested may other businesses  such as sailmakers, ropemakers and blockmakers. The largest yards were major industrial concerns in their time directly employing hundreds of men…The building of warships was high value  and high risk to the shipbuilder and the peak time for navy contracts with merchant yards was during the French revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars.


Frances Barnard inherited her shipyard form her husband in 1760,and it was one of the  foremost yards on the Thames at Southwark. She eventually retired from the business in 1803. Mary Ross inherited her ship yard  from her husband in  1808. Mary took control of the yard, showing amazing business acumen and skill. Dealing with the rather slippery Navy Board could be difficult: she managed it  with aplomb.

This book will alter your perceptions of genteel women in our era. Once widowed they  resolved not to live the life of a poor dependant widow ,but with practical sense and intelligence ran shipyards-  for profit. Rational creatures indeed.

Admittedly, this is a very expensive book, but I have to say as someone who is not that keen on  reading about  matters maritime ( low be it spoken), I found it fascinating. The depth of detail is  so just so satisfying to read. Dr Doe, a Fellow of the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies at the University of Exeter, leaves virtually no stone unturned in her attempt to convey to us that, in our era, the term a woman in business did not  automatically mean that this woman was a milliner  or a manuta maker.

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