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Objects of Intrigue: 18th Century Ship’s Instruction Manual

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HENRY SIMPSON’S NAVIGATION EXERCISE BOOK
A hand-written instruction manual created by an aspiring sailor
c. 1711-1715
Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, Whitby Museum, Whitby, England

Learning to maneuver the many-masted, cumbersome seagoing vessels of the 18th century was nothing to take lightly, and 18th century Whitby, England, was one of the best places to learn. Although perhaps better known to modern explorers for its vampiric literary connections, Whitby was once the third largest shipbuilding town in England, and was home port of the explorer James Cook and the builder of his ship the HMS Endeavor.

Established in 1823, the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society founded a museum to house locally discovered curiosities and a library to preserve local heritage. Today the collection includes many wonderful and strange items as well as an extensive library and archive focused on local seafaring and history.

This rare example of a student’s workbook, showing a young man’s mastery of complicated ship maneuvers is part of the library’s collection of artifacts, documents and books on Whitby’s shipping and shipbuilding past. The archive also includes nearly 8,000 merchant seamen’s muster rolls from 1747-1818, account books from the Whitby Merchant Seamen’s Hospital, as well as ships’ logs, local wills, deeds, and family papers.

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Christiane Kroebel with the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society at Whitby Museum told us more about it:

The Simpson family were early members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Whitby and, on September 7, 1703, the Friends recorded in their monthly meeting minutes: “Our friend Francis Salkeld began to keep school at Whitby ye 22th last month…”

Members of the society sent their children, both girls and boys, to be educated at this school and it is said to have been the only school of its kind in Whitby until Lionel Charlton opened one 45 years later. Henry Simpson (1694-1741) was a very clever scholar and was educated by Francis Salkeld. To the best of our knowledge Simpson produced this workbook to demonstrate to both his teacher and his parents how well he understood his lessons.

Like so many in Whitby at his time, Henry decided to pursue a career at sea. This beautifully illustrated exercise book shows the high standard of presentation and the meticulous calculations expected of any young man who wished to be a successful master mariner. He may well have seen it as a manual or souvenir for himself. It is to be expected that few workbooks survive many decades unless of particular interest and quality. We have other volumes in our collection, but none as beautifully written and illustrated or so early. Other collections in England hold similar exercise books, but we have not heard of one done so handsomely.

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It is not surprising that Henry Simpson was a member of the Society of Friends or that he attended a Quaker School. By the end of the 17rg century, Whitby was already known for merchant shipping and ship building. These activities increased in importance during the following century and lead several families, of which the Simpson’s were one, to establish banks. Many of those involved belonged to the Society of Friends which was an important religious group in the town and the area as a whole. Their reputation for honest trading made them trusted by others. On the other hand, some of their beliefs led to difficulties. For example their refusal to arm their ships was a serious disadvantage in dealing with pirates and privateers, let alone the many wars of the time. Henry Simpson’s illustration of how to avoid “pirites” is one of the most endearing pages of his book.

Henry was the father of Wakefield Simpson, a draper and grocer who, in 1785, founded the Simpson, Chapman and Simpson Bank in Grape Lane in Whitby. Henry Simpson was only 47 years old when he died and he was buried on October, 9 1741 in the Friends Burial ground in Whitby.

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The Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society acquired this manuscript as a gift in 1973 from one of its members, and it was restored in 2009 in memory of another.

Christiane Kroebel has been a volunteer at the Whitby Lbrary at Whitby Museum for 15 years. With her colleagues she undertakes helping researchers with their queries and organizing and improving access to the collections. They have just created a new archive room so that the material is housed in better conditions.

All photographs courtesy of the Whitby Library and Archive

SEE IT FOR YOURSELF:

WHITBY LIBRARY, MUSEUM AND ARCHIVE, Whitby, England
Open: February-Christmas, Tues-Fri 10am-1pm, appointments recommended. Closed on bank holidays


OBJECTS OF INTRIGUE is our fortnightly feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here>