12 min read

Britain’s best places to see: Maritime and ship history 3

Being an island, the sea has unsurprisingly had an overwhelming impact on British history. Here we explore some of the best places to uncover the stories of Britain at sea

National Maritime Museum

photograph of exterior of the National Maritime Museum in London

National Maritime Museum entrance © Ben Sutherland (CC BY 2.0)

London’s National Maritime Museum is part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, which was recognised by UNESCO as having significant historic importance, particularly in its place during Tudor and Stuart times as a centre for astronomy, navigation and navy welfare and education.

From the NMM’s 2 million strong collection, more than 1,000 objects on display revealing the history of Britain at sea, looking in particular at Tudor and Stuart seafarers, Arctic and Antarctic exploration, the exploration and exploitation of the pacific and personal stories from the sea.

One particularly interesting item to look out for is the painting of a kangaroo, by celebrated British animal painter George Stubbs. Stubbs created the famous painting based on sketches, writings and the inflated pelt of a kangaroo, all of which were recovered on Captain Cook’s famous voyage on the ‘Endeavour’ – the first ever British voyage to the Pacific, and the first to be devoted entirely to scientific discovery.

As well as this gem, you’ll also find a wealth of maritime art, cartography, scientific and time-keeping instruments and ship models.


National Maritime Museum Cornwall

photograph of exterior of large modern museum building next to a harbour

National Maritime Museum © Tom Parnell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Located at the harbour side in Falmouth, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall was built on land formerly occupied by boatbuilder sheds and today the mammoth building takes you on a journey through British maritime history. The museum reveals how, as an island nation, Britain – and in particular Cornwall – has been impacted by the sea, and how it has shaped Cornish life.

The museum houses the National Small Boat collection, and you can see several examples from this floating above your head in the main hall’s spectacular Flotilla. Elsewhere in the museum you’ll learn about local lifeboats and see unbelievable stories of survival; learn about navigation; see how the moon and sun affects the sea and look out into the harbour to see the rise and fall of the tide. You can even have a go at sailing yourself in the interactive model boat pool.

But it doesn’t just look to the past – you can even see shipwrights at work today, as part of the museum is a working boatbuilding workshop, proving that seafaring is still very much in our blood.


The Diving Museum

photograph of two large metal yellow vessels with air locks and small windows

Diving Chambers at the Diving Museum © Barry Shimm (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Don’t let the small size of The Diving Museum put you off – Situated in a Victorian military battery on the shores of the Solent, the strait separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland of England, the museum draws on Gosport’s claim as the home of the global diving industry. This claim comes from Gosport resident John Deane, who with his brother Charles invented the first diving helmet and later carried out the first ever commercial dive in the Solent in 1832. Deane became a prolific diver and recovered items from the wreck of the Mary Rose when it was discovered in 1836.

At The Diving Museum you can see one of the best collections of diving equipment in Europe. The diverse and interesting collection covers early diving as well as military diving, commercial diving, sport diving and scientific diving through history.

One display not to miss features objects belonging and relating to Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a World War Two underwater ‘frogman’ who suffered a grizzly and controversial death.


Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and The Mary Rose

photograph of preserved shipwreck in large museum gallery

The Mary Rose © Johnny Black

Where to start? You can easily spend well over a day in Portsmouth visiting the many museums relating to maritime history and the Navy. As well as the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Nelson’s legendary ship the HMS Victory and the HMS Warrior, at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard you will also find, of course, The Mary Rose.

The attractions at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offer an-depth and incomparable look at the history of the Royal Navy over several centuries. A visit isn’t complete without climbing aboard Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory, built in 1759, and exploring above and below deck of this living museum to the Georgian Navy.

The Mary Rose – a Tudor warship of Henry VIII sunk in 1545 and raised in 1982 – is a truly unique and rousing sight. Visitors can see the ship, which lay at the bottom of the Solent for over 400 years, up close, along with many of the objects recovered from the wreck. The sheer scale and age of the ship, along with the stories of life aboard the boat and the effort required to preserve this piece of British history make The Mary Rose a truly mind-blowing experience that is not to be missed.


Titanic Belfast

photograph of exterior of modern museum building showing historic slipway in the foreground

Titanic Belfast © Titanic Belfast (CC BY 2.0)

Standing on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the infamous ship, RMS Titanic, was built, Titanic Belfast tells the story of the ill-fated ocean liner which famously sank in 1912, killing more than 1,500 crew and passengers. The museum is set in an imposing angular building reminiscent of a ship on a voyage out to sea, and it stands 126 feet tall – the same height as the liner.

Titanic Belfast brings to life the booming industry of Belfast in the early 20th century, and the busy shipyard, which is explored through a dark ride. The high-tech displays allow you to experience the excitement of the launch on the 31st May 1911, discover the ship’s luxurious interior through objects, CGI and models, and learn about the maiden voyage, the sinking and the aftermath. Galleries also reveal the state of the wreck today and the myths, legends and popular culture surrounding one of history’s most famous shipwrecks.

Outside you can see the slipways where Titanic and its sister ship Olympic were launched into water for the first time and even pay a visit to the SS Nomadic – constructed at the same time as the Titanic and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world – which is berthed nearby.


SS Great Britain

photograph of old ship in dry dock

S.S. Great Britain © Hugh Llewelyn (CC BY SA 2.0)

Designed by one of Britain’s most influential engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Britain was built in 1845 and was once the longest ship in the world. Its design revolutionised sea travel.

The ship has been carefully and lovingly restored to its former glory, having been neglected, then scuttled, in 1937. In 1970 an ambitious plan to raise and preserve the important ship came to fruition, and the triumphant and emotional return saw SS Great Britain travel 8,000 miles from the Falklands back to the dock it was built in, exactly 127 years to the day after its launch. It’s remained here ever since.

In a specially-designed dry dock you can see the hull of the ship up close, and its famous propeller. Visitors can step onto the ship and see it as it was in its heyday, experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of a busy transatlantic passenger steamship, from the opulence of first class to the squalor of steerage.

An in-depth museum reveals the history of the ship – the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic – through objects and interactive displays. Those for a head for heights can even scale the ship’s rigging, taking in views of the dock from a dizzying 25 meters above ground level.


Merseyside Maritime Museum

photograph of exterior of tall red brick warehouse building with large metal anchor outside

The Merseyside Maritime Museum © Pete Carr

Occupying an old warehouse at Liverpool’s Royal Albert Dock – which was opened in 1846 and was a popular store for high value cargoes such as tea, cotton, sugar, tobacco and ivory – the Merseyside Maritime Museum celebrates Liverpool’s seafaring heritage.

The social and commercial history of this important area in the North West is explored through ship models, maritime paintings, original posters as well as some full-sized vessels.

A major exhibition tells the story of the tragic sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship torpedoed by a German submarine during the First World War with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives. You can also learn about Liverpool’s link with the Titanic, which was registered in Liverpool and carried the city’s name on its stern, and take a tour of the historic dock with expert guides.

The museum also houses the International Slavery Museum, which recounts the story of the mass enslavement of Africans by Europeans – a hugely important aspect of maritime history. The museum reveals the brutality of the Transatlantic slave trade, including a particularly harrowing gallery dedicated to the horrific journey many slaves were forced to take to the Americas.


Scottish Maritime Museum
at Dumbarton and Irvine

photograph of interior of warehouse with pieces of machinery on display

The vast Linthouse warehouse © Beth (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Split across two sites, in Dumbarton and Irvine, the Scottish Maritime Museum reveals the story of the shipbuilding industry and sea travel in Scotland, celebrating Scotland’s influence on the maritime history of the world from the 18th century to today.

Situated within the historic 1870s Linthouse building, which was dismantled and rebuilt in its current location more than 100 years later, the site at Irvine has nationally-important vessels including Kyles, the oldest Clyde built vessel still afloat in the UK, and Spartan, the only surviving Scottish-built steam-powered ‘puffer’. There is also a selection of marine engines, industrial machinery and maritime art, as well as a recreated 1920s shipworker’s tenement flat.

If naval architecture is more your thing, the Dumbarton site is located at the former William Denny Shipyard and has the world’s first commercial ship testing facility, the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank. The tank is a whopping 100 meters long and is the world’s oldest working experiment tank; to this day it is still used to test potential ship designs.


Cutty Sark

photograph of a ship silhouetted against a sunset

Cutty Sark © Samuel Ramkalawan (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Once the fastest ship of its time, this historic British clipper which was built on the River Clyde in 1869 is now a museum ship, open for the public to explore its exciting history. One of the last tea clippers, the Cutty Sark was originally used on the competitive route from China to London, which saw boats racing for a higher price for their cargo. Between 1870 and 1877 the ship carried nearly 10 million pounds of tea.

On board you can see recreated cabins, take part in interactive activities and marvel at the clipper’s narrow, hydrodynamic hull which was designed to cut through the waves, rather than riding on top of them. Remarkably, despite the ship celebrating its 150th birthday in 2019, more than 90% of the hull structure is original.

Visitors can also meet characters from the ship who tell stories of the ship’s life and the age of sail. The ship’s builder, cook, captain and others are brought to life through costumed re-enactors. The museum also has the world’s largest collection of ship figureheads, which includes famous figures from history and literature, including Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Lancelot.


Lancaster Maritime Museum

photograph of exterior of grand Georgian building

The Lancaster Maritime Museum © Terran Brown (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Situated on the quay, Lancaster Maritime Museum is located within in the lovely Georgian Customs House, which was designed in the mid-18th century for the Port Commissioners by Richard Gillow, and used as a customs house for 118 years. The museum also occupies the adjacent old bonded warehouse, which has been transformed into a clever gallery space.

This museum may be fairly compact but it’s brimming with local, social and maritime history. The old customs house reveals the history of the Port of Lancaster, and the local fishing industry, while the warehouse explores the Lancaster Canal as well as the natural and social history of Morecambe Bay.

The museum also tells the story of the city’s role in the slave trade, which Lancaster Port was involved with until abolition.


Time and Tide
Great Yarmouth

photograph of exterior of red brick building with two small historic boats outside

Newly conserved boats at Time and Tide Museum. Courtesy Norfolk Museums

Situated in the former premises of the Tower Fish Curing Works, Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life is in the perfect location to tell the story of Great Yarmouth’s busy herring industry – the scent of the Victorian smokehouse still remains to this day.

Time and Tide offers an exciting journey into the past and gives an insight into how the people of Great Yarmouth made a living from the sea. You can see a recreated Victorian ‘Row’ – a very narrow kind of street lined with houses and unique to the town – and see inside an example of a fisherman’s home. Interactive displays let you experience the charm and kitsch of the 1950s quayside, take the wheel of a boat and hear tales of wreck and rescue on the sea.

Outside, a collection of historic fishing boats evoke Great Yarmouth’s roots as a fishing port – an industry which has now all but disappeared from the town.


Captain Cook Memorial Museum and Captain Cook Birthplace Museum
Whitby and Middlesbrough

photograph of exterior of red brick building with british and australian flag poles outside, overlooking a boy of water

Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby © Philip N Young (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Famous for being the first European to make contact with Australia and Hawaii in the 1770s, British explorer Captain James Cook has several British museums dedicated to his life and his voyages.

Located on the harbourside in picturesque Whitby, the Captain Cook Memorial Museum is in a house formerly belonging to Captain John Walker, who took James Cook on as an apprentice seaman in 1746. Cook lodged here during his time as an apprentice, and returned to visit in 1171-1772 after his first voyage. Highlights include the attic room where he would have stayed with other apprentices; now a space for special exhibitions, you can peer through the window and see the sea calling, as Cook himself would have seen centuries ago.

There is a rich collection of objects relating to Captain Cook, including maps, charts, letters and artwork from the voyages. The museum also has models of Cook’s ships, which were all built in Whitby.

The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum is located in Middlesbrough, on the site of the cottage where Captain Cook was born. The biographical museum features a small collection of objects once belonging to Cook, information and artefacts focusing on the science and art of Cook’s voyages, and an ethnographic collection of artefacts from different world cultures; the museum’s most notable ethnographic collection is of Aboriginal objects. The museum also explores life at sea in the 18th century, and Captain Cook’s legacy – including a collection of Captain Cook memorabilia produced following his death in Hawaii, right up to today.

3 comments on “Britain’s best places to see: Maritime and ship history

  1. Linda Averill on

    Excellent article but I would like to add the Historic Harbour at Hartlepool together with the frigate Trincomalee both of which are well worth a visit. The harbour brings to life how life would have been there in Georgian times.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *