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Dr Cathryn Pearce

Senior Lecturer

Cathryn Pearce


A former Alaskan and career maritime historian, I bring to Portsmouth experience of teaching and research on the history of coastal communities, from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic shore. I am a member of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures research team and I teach on the MA Naval History course as a social and cultural historian. I am also Chair of the British Commission for Maritime History.

My book Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860 is the first full length study on the topic of wrecking (plundering shipwrecks). It has generated new projects on the social and cultural history of wrecking internationally. 

My current research focuses on  the social and cultural history of British coastal communities, including local Coastguards, who responded to shipwrecks on their shores in 18th and 19th centuries.

I welcome applications for PhD projects on social and cultural history of the Royal Navy (at sea and ashore) in the 18th-early 19th centuries, Royal Navy voyages of scientific exploration, and studies that feature knowledge exchange and sense of place.


I grew up on the Alaskan coast, which gave me an appreciation for the sea and for maritime history. This love of maritime history has shaped my career from the beginning. I was fortunate to come to the University of Portsmouth in 2017 to teach on the MA Naval History programme.

I received my PhD from the Greenwich Maritime Institute, University of Greenwich, where I investigated the practices of wrecking (shipwreck plundering) mainly in Cornwall, but also in other parts of the UK. My previous history qualifications include a BA in History from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and an MA in British and Maritime History from the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada.

I worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage and its various branch campuses for 22 years, in both a part-time capacity and full-time as a tenured professor of history before moving to the UK. I was a member of the history team and Greenwich Maritime Centre at the University of Greenwich for five years prior to joining Portsmouth.

Teaching Responsibilities

I coordinate and teach Naval History Research Skills, coordinate Naval Research Project, and supervise on the Project and Naval History Dissertation modules at the postgraduate level along with PhD supervisions.

In previous posts, I have taught undergraduate modules on Making History, Global Exploration; Maritime Nation: Britain and the Sea from 1500; various European History from the Early Modern period to 1945; Maritime History of Alaska and the North Pacific; Russian America: A Social and Cultural History; Alaska History; History of the Gold Rush; Colonies and Revolution (US); American Women's History to 1870; World War II in the Aleutians; and the History of Discoveries.

At the postgraduate level I taught Environmental History and the Sea; Global Travel, Exploration and Empire, 1600-1911; Emergence of a World Power: Britain and the Maritime World, 1688-1914 (Merchant Navy).

I am first supervisor on two PhD projects: Elizabeth Libero and 'Navigating a British South Atlantic,' on the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic from 1800-1815 and their activities and knowledge exchange; and Ida Jorgensen, 'Knowledge Exchange in 18th century European Shipbuilding,' a transnational study that focuses on cross-boundary exchange of knowledge in naval shipbuilding between the UK, Denmark, Sweden and France.

I am also second supervisor for Rhys Phillip's project, 'The forgotten volunteers: The role of the Sea Fencibles during the British response to the threat of Napoleonic invasion, 1798-1810.'

Research Interests

My research interests have followed on from my PhD and include local and regional maritime and coastal history, centring on shipwrecks and coastal communiites. This work comprises:

  • Wrecking--the plundering of shipwrecks--with focus on the development and use of wrecking narratives around the coasts of the UK, including folkloric narratives. My work not only informs media and film, but its relevance emerges whenever there's a shipwreck on British shores.
  • Lifesaving--with particular focus on those individuals and organisations involved after survivors are brought ashore. This research is particularly relevant as in 2014 England and Wales saw the closure of many Coastguard stations, lessening the government role in lifesaving, and increasing the responsibility of volunteer and charity lifesaving organisations. Yet no academic studies exist that give agencies a contextual history of lifesaving, including the cooperation and conflict which ensued between the public and charity sectors as lifesaving grew in importance through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This project can be used to inform policy as the search for equilibrium between the sectors is again played out.

I have also maintained a lifelong interest in European exploration of the Northwest Coast of North America, particularly on Royal Navy voyages.

Media Availability

I am happy to take calls and emails from the media on my research, and I'm aware of the need to respond to journalists in a timely manner. Please contact me through email.

I have appeared on BBC2's Timeshift: Shipwrecks, BBC Radio 4's Making History, and BBC2's flagship documentary Timewatch for an episode 'In Search of the Wreckers.' I even heard a rumour that my work was used for such programmes as Poldark and Jamaica Inn.

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