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From Ship's Cook to Baronet: Sir William Reardon Smith's Life in Shipping, 1856-1935.

From Ship's Cook to Baronet: Sir William Reardon Smith's Life in Shipping, 1856-1935. By David Jenkins. (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 223. $25.00.)

This is not a conventional biography of a shipowner, but it does add up to a history of the firm of William Reardon Smith and its eponymous founder. There are a number of components in this volume. They include a partial autobiography, written by the founder but unfinished and never before published, a biography by David Jenkins of the period not covered by Smith, and a fleet list of most of the vessels owned by the firm with a listing of their standard technical details. There are ten illustrations of sailing ship rigs used by some of Smith's early acquisitions, eight maps, and a nearly comprehensive bibliography.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this volume? Firstly, the topic is a strength because it deals with a tramp shipping firm, and this is a market segment that is underresearched and underpublished, especially when it is compared to the large number of volumes on liner companies. Thus the topic has scarcity value and is to be welcomed for trying to fill that gap in the maritime history market. Secondly, it contains forty pages of autobiography, a useful source, for Smith began writing his memoirs, but he never finished them. He got as far as 1895, covering roughly half his life. However, it does not cover the interesting period when his business was expanding and he was becoming very wealthy. Also, his reminiscences are not as revealing as a modern "kiss and tell," and thankfully so.

The illustrations are another strength. There are about sixty, eight of them in color, and they are clear and relevant. They are of ships, ship launches, the founder, his family and friends, and, of most interest, ships loading or unloading cargoes. Many of them show the nature of the cargoes and the methods of loading and discharging, some labor intensive, some ingenious, and others downright dangerous.

Another great strength, and a potential opportunity, is Jenkins's fleet list. It occupies about thirty pages and covers more than seventy ships. Each entry has a range of standard information. Although not all of Smith's ships are here, there are enough to be a representative sample. Some interesting questions could be answered using these lists. Jenkins has not done this, but he has provided the raw material for others to use.

Another weakness may be the work's contextualization or, rather, its lack thereof. When reading this book, the obvious comparison is William Burrell & Son of Glasgow. It was a tramp shipping firm whose founder made large donations to charity. It might have been interesting to have made some comparisons.

Overall, this is an interesting, informative addition to the publications on Cardiff tramp shipping at a good price. Perhaps the time is now ripe for an overview of this industry.

John Armstrong

Thames Valley University

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Author:Armstrong, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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