Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Review: The Ship Asunder: A Maritime History of Britain in Eleven Vessels, by Tom Nancollas

28 February 2022

Book Review: The Ship Asunder: A Maritime History of Britain in Eleven Vessels, by Tom Nancollas

Available for pre-order from

If Britain's maritime history were embodied in a single ship, she would have a prehistoric prow, a mast plucked from a Victorian steamship, the hull of a modest fishing vessel, the propeller of an ocean liner and an anchor made of stone. We might call her Asunder, and, fantastical though she is, we could in fact find her today, scattered in fragments across the country's creeks and coastlines.

This meandering journey through Britain’s maritime heritage is rich with anecdotes and snippets of history. Although Tom Nancollas follows the stories of eleven relics of important ships. I was expecting more about each ship, but as Tom Nancollas points out, 

“at the heart of this book is an absence, for ships are definingly perishable things. Sea washes, wears, squishes their hulls. Wind pulls, pushes prises apart structural members or hull coverings. Salt abrades, corrodes, dissolves until a ship may scarcely be identifiable. This is not just a story of ships’ live, but of their afterlives too.” 

There are many ‘detours’ and no sense of urgency. We pause to visit Spike Milligan’s ‘Celtic’ grave in Winchelsea, and the ornate chair, allegedly made from the timbers of Drake’s Golden Hinde. 

I enjoyed the historical details, such as how the Romans would cut the prow from captured enemy ships, then use it as a platform from which to deliver victory speeches - the origin of the ‘rostrum’ sill loved by orators today.

Tom Nancollas has an engaging and relaxed style, and this is a book I’m sure I’ll return to, and makes an ideal gift for anyone with an interest in maritime history. Recommended.

Tony Riches

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About the Author

Born in Gloucester in 1988, Tom Nancollas is a writer and building conservationist based in London. After university, he joined English Heritage to work on church repair grants before moving on to the City of London and its historic townscape. Of Cornish ancestry, Tom maintained a love of seascapes during his work in the capital and became fascinated with offshore rock lighthouses, which were the subject of his critically acclaimed first book, Seashaken Houses, published in 2018.

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