Writing Home: Nineteenth-Century Sailors’ Personal Logbooks

This blog post is written by Emily Cuming.

Emily Cuming is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.

On the move

The imperative to “stay home” at a time of crisis is more problematic than it appears. Indeed, among the many things that the global pandemic exposed was how the ability to pivot to a home-centred life, including working from home, was linked to questions of class privilege (Weinar 2021). Beyond recent history, home for many workers, migrants and refugees, has had to be negotiated in transit, on the move, in conditions of flux, precarity and through a variety of practices (Ralph and Staeheli 2011).

My paper presented at the Stay Home conference focused on historical subjects whose working lives were defined precisely by a departure from home – British sailors of the “ordinary” rank who formed part of a floating global proletariat, servicing merchant ships on international journeys that could stretch from a matter of weeks to several years[i]. Many of the individuals who formed the merchant navy workforce signed on to ships not, as the popular phrase had it, to “see the world,” nor to join the ranks of those engaged in the Victorian “flight from domesticity,” but to earn a living wage that was often critical to the support of a family and homestead on shore[ii]. In the predominantly all-male space of the merchant ship, workers had to adapt to the “separate sphere” of their floating work-homes. There sailors worked, slept, fraternized (and sometimes fought) within the confines of the ship, in which principles of collectivity were key and privacy at a premium.

“Our Berth.” National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. JOD/64. Sketch from Account of a Voyage to China and New York in the Tamesa, by Robert Brown, 1874-1875.

The importance of home for sailors was not necessarily diminished by their departure from it (Cuming 2019). On voyages, sailors maintained their shore-based attachments through a variety of practices, including letter writing and craftwork (Wassell Smith 2018). Some devoted private leisure time to personal journals, logbooks and handwritten notebooks, a number of which have been conserved in museum archives or among family papers[iii]. While existing studies of this writing have tended to view them as providing useful evidence of shipboard work and the broader culture of the ship (Blum 2008; Cummings and Publicover 2021), my work demonstrates that these documents also have the potential to point to aspects of self-identity, kinship and emotional lives. This interpretation has sometimes necessitated reading against the grain of work-focused entries, to trace the personal within the writing.

At home on the waves

While sea-journals are often preoccupied with the rote details of shipboard life – nautical coordinates, weather, and work – like diaries, they can also offer glimpses of sailors’ personal lives. One seafaring carpenter, John Dand, for example, was thinking of his young daughter as he set sail from Swansea to Caldera in Chile on the barque Sir Henry Pottinger on March 18th 1858, noting on the first page of his “Private Journal” that it was his “dear little daughters birthday at 11 O clock this morning”. As Easter Sunday came round, he used the occasion to reflect on domestic pleasures: “My third Sunday on the sea. I am thinking of England and the happy youngsters with their new clothes, and wondering if my dear little daughter has got a new frock, I think its fond mother would get it one, at least its father would if he had been at home.” Adopting the generic trope of one type of diarist, his entries shifted to the second person voice as he directed his comments to his family as if writing an unsent letter: “Capt B[arnes] and I have had a long chat about home and friends,” he wrote in one entry, adding “we are wondering what you are all doing, and thinking about, no doubt you are all in your beds and most likely asleep as by you it will only want a few minutes till midnight.”[iv]

Some journals reveal the extent to which sailors suffered from that other well-known affliction at sea: homesickness. This formed the dominant note of the pages of 22-year-old George Mansfield’s sea journal, another ship’s carpenter who had worked at the profession since the age of fourteen. On a Sunday at sea, the day of relative rest even for sailors, he reflected: “Today can not help thinking about home & its comforts & fancying myself seated round a comfortable fireside of a winters Sunday afternoon. Far different here cold & wet & deprived of almost every comfort. Still the thought of Home & the Hope of meeting again, cheers us up a little.”[v] Neil Smith, a general sailor on board the Finisterre barque sailing from Cardiff to Java in 1876-1877, was also afflicted by the miseries of homesickness, as noted in the diary from the very moment the ship left port. While doggedly jotting details of the many jobs he performed around the ship, in a phonetic style that revealed his inexperience at writing, he seamlessly blended mundane tasks with intimations of family and home in Greenock: “I have finished the Lader. I am fixing [little jobs] about the deck. I wonder how my darling Jane is getting on and hir wee Boys. … The snow will begun to fal there now. They will not be much out now. The cold will keep them in the house. May God Bless and Keep them and take me safe back to them agane.​”[vi] Like Dand and Mansfield, he imagined home through visions of family togetherness and the perennial image of the Victorian hearth. Loneliness is a bodily emotion, experienced corporeally, and captured in writing through images of heat and comfort, as noted in Joanne Begiato’s blog for this series. In this way, sailors’ diaries evoked home-spun images of terrestrial routines and sentimental tropes of home. Of course, such figurations have to be evaluated in the context of the writers’ nostalgia and necessary detachment from mundane familial routines: absence from home may well have made the hearts of seafaring men fonder.

Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still. Boston, 1870. Lithographed sheet music. Photo credit: Courtesy the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The sea diary as property

Sea journals, or personal logbooks, could offer a multifunctional form for working sailors – a document into which they poured details of passing days, work performed, and a repository for thoughts of family, home and kinship stretching across oceans. Superficially, this writing can appear to be fairly generic and rote; the writers were mostly unprofessional or “amateur,” and a few may have been keeping journals for the first time. Yet it is important to recognize that this writing – ordinary as it might appear – was an intentional act within the context of shipboard life.  Given that physical space, including sleeping quarters, was shared, private writing would have necessitated at least temporary removal from the rest of the group. Notebooks would need to have been bought and packed in advance in order to form part of a sailor’s necessarily slim cache of possessions, and they required careful preservation in conditions of perpetual wetness. The paratextual elements of sea journals – details marking the front and back covers, including marginalia, inscriptions and doodles and signatures – reveal their significance as forms of personal property. Some flyleaves display not only the sailor’s name, but their dedication to family members, suggesting their intended readership and the role of the notebook as a potential souvenir to be returned home after the voyage. Sometimes diarists wrote out their home addresses on the front pages, confirming the diary’s status as personal property while also signaling how the journal logged space as well as time.

Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool. DX/871, Voyage Diary by J. William Archer, Crew on Board Ship Lizzie Bell, 1883.

As with the writings of the inmates of other non-domicile environments, such as institutions or workplaces, ordinary journals served a wider function than that indicated by their surface content. For as the historian Amanda Vickery suggests, throughout history, material objects of the most mundane or plain kind have enabled the poor and those enduring forms of deprivation to keep hold of a sense of self through possessions – from clothes, to locking boxes, mementoes, and small ornaments: ‘Access to a small place of privacy held out a promise of some autonomy and independence” (2010: 27). Viewed in this way, the diaries fulfilled not only a practical but also a symbolic function as private property.

Photo credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Four Sailors Relaxing on a Deck, One Reading. Drawing. 1820: https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-154255

This is not to imply, however, that diaries were a place into which sailors disclosed “private” or confessional thoughts. Indeed, life writing scholarship has shown that the idea of the diary as a receptacle for innermost feelings is anachronistic in relation to this period (Henderson 2018:165). Like diaries, logbooks might be written in full view of others, read by other individuals, and written with an intended readership in mind. Indeed, as Maya Jasanoff puts it, on a ship the sailor was in the paradoxical position of being “never alone… always isolated” (2017: 91).  Yet this does not diminish the significance of the personal logbook as a Victorian article of self or “ego document.” As an artefact and practice, the journal fulfilled an important role for these Victorian mobile workers. It was a “place” to return to at the end of a day or week, on the ocean, when there was nowhere else to go.  As a piece of private property, it also situated the writer as a social self, entangled in family and kinship relations that extended beyond the immediate society of the ship.

How do logbooks end?

In his well-known essay, the life writing theorist Philippe Lejeune reflected on the question: “How do diaries end?” (2001). We cannot know for sure how logbooks ended, whether, for example, sailor-authors morphed into more standard diary writers on their return from voyages. Nor can we know for sure how they were received by the loved ones they evoked in journals on their way home – celebrated as returning breadwinners, or received more indifferently by children who viewed them as strangers. In some cases, logbooks survived their authors, returning as personal property in the event of the writer’s death at sea. Yet a closer look at the journals as material cultural objects can offer clues about the return of the sailor-diary. In some cases, the inscription of family names, including dates of birth and death at the front of journals, suggests that they wound their way home to take up a place as family books: read, perhaps, by the sailor’s children, preserved and passed on as heirlooms. In this way, the personal logbook completed its journey into its new role as a form of family book.


[i] This research was supported by a Short-Term Caird Research Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK, and by the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. The blog is based on work from my forthcoming monograph, Maritime Relations: Sailors, Family and Writing Networks, c. 1850-1914.

[ii] On the “flight from domesticity,” see Tosh 2005: 330–42.

[iii] In archive catalogues, the terms range from “diary” to “journal” to “logbook,” with other variations in between. Using research methodologies drawn primarily from the field of life studies, my work suggests that sailors’ personal logbooks were hybrid forms, lying at the intersection of a number of other genres to create new documents of the Victorian self.

[iv] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. JOD/278/1-2. Log and Journal Kept by John Dand, Carpenter on the Barque Sir Henry Pottinger, 1858.

[v] National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich. MXX/75/007. A Transcription of the Journal of George William Mansfield on his Voyage from Liverpool to San Francisco and Back on the Lady Heathcote in 1868-69.

[vi] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. MSS/84/052. Transcript of the Diary of Neil Smith, Carpenter on the Barque Cape Finisterre, 1876 to 1877.


Begiato, Joanne. “Close to Home. The Emotional Spaces of the Home in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain.” https://stayhome.hypotheses.org/404 (Accessed 26 June 2023).

Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Cuming, Emily. “At Home in the World? The Ornamental Life of Sailors in Victorian Sailortown,” Victorian Literature and Culture. 47, no. 3 (2019): 463–85. doi:10.1017/S1060150318001523.

Cumings, Eli, and Laurence Publicover. “Shipboard Diaries as Navigational Instruments.” In Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, edited by Susann Liebich and Laurence Publicover, 107-29. Basingstoke: 2021.

Henderson, Desirée. “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive.” A/b: Auto/Biography Studies 33, no. 1 (2018): 157-74. doi: 10.1080/08989575.2018.1389845.

Jasanoff, Maya. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. London, 2017.

Lejeune, Philippe. “How do Diaries End?” Biography 24, no. 1 (2001): 99- 112.

Moran, Joe. “Private Lives, Public Histories: The Diary in Twentieth-Century Britain.” Journal of British Studies. 54, no. 1 (2015): 138-62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24701728.

Ralph, David, and Lynn A. Staeheli. “Home and Migration: Mobilities, Belongings and Identities.” Geography Compass 5 (2011): 517-530. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2011.00434.x

Tosh, John, “Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800–1914.” The Journal of British Studies 44, no. 2 (2005): 330–42. doi:10.1086/427129.

Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven. 2010.

Wassell Smith, Maya, “‘The Fancy Work What Sailors Make:’ Material and Emotional Creative Practice in Masculine Seafaring Communities.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): https://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue142/smith.html (Accessed 5 January 2023)

Weinar, Agnieszka. “The Privilege of Staying Home: COVID and the Highly Skilled Workforce.”  OpenDemocracy, 21 December 2021: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/pandemic-border/the-privilege-of-staying-home-covid-and-the-highly-skilled-workforce/ (Accessed 9th June 2023)

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