Obituary: Dr Robert Prescott, academic who became an internationally renowned maritime historian

Dr Robert George Whitelock Prescott FSA Scot. Senior Lecturer in Maritime Studies and champion of maritime heritage. Born 9 December, 1938 in Gillingham. Died 15 March 2018, in St Andrews, aged 79.

Dr Robert Prescott
Dr Robert Prescott

Robert Prescott’s first memory was of watching a spritsail barge glide by, a sight that captivated the three-year-old standing on the Kent sands. It also sparked a fascination for the sea and ships that endured all his life.

That love of maritime ­matters, combined with a background in human behaviour and enthnograpy, particularly in relation to the past as oral history and archaeology, eventually led to him becoming a champion of the UK’s maritime heritage.

As the driving force behind the founding of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at St Andrews University and a hands-on supporter of the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, he was an internationally-renowned maritime historian and pioneer in ship preservation, saving the iconic Fifie sailing herring drifter Reaper and identifying what is believed to be the remains of Darwin’s research ship, the Beagle.

Born in Gillingham, he was academically bright and an enthusiastic ornithologist. He won a state scholarship to London’s historic Latymer Upper School and demonstrated an independent mind when, aged 12, he travelled alone to an ornithologists’ meeting in the Netherlands. His fascination with the way the past is represented was fuelled by the great collections he saw on regular boyhood visits to the Natural History Museum and his affinity with the sea continued as a teenage deckhand on a Thames spritsail barge.

His hero was Charles ­Darwin and when he went up ­Cambridge, studying at Peterhouse, he developed interests in zoology, archaeology and geology. In 1959, he took part in the university’s Sedgwick Museum Spitspergen expedition, surveying ice cliffs and trekking 50 miles across the icecaps. The following year he joined the Peterhouse ­Concordia expedition to Western Algeria.

After graduating BA in 1961 in the Natural Sciences Tripos he completed his PhD in animal circadian rhythms in 1965. Around the same time he won at Nato Research Fellowship at Yale University and continued to study animal behavior and physiology, becoming a senior research assistant at Cambridge on his return to the UK.

He moved to St Andrews in 1974, as a psychology lecturer with a focus on the natural behaviour of animals. Prescott chose the town because it was on the sea and soon became a trustee of the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.

With his academic interests increasingly focusing on human behaviour, both currently in ethnography and in relation to the past as oral history and archaeology, when the university’s department of archaeology was threatened with closure he conceived the idea of founding an institute for the interdisciplinary study of marine history and culture.

In 1984, with the academics Professor TC Smout, currently Scotland’s Histiographer Royal, and Dr CJ Martin, he established the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies (SIMS), ­fostering a new generation of scientists to further the ­pioneering work of conserving and preserving the country’s maritime heritage.

Under his 18-year directorship the institute acquired upwards of £1million in research grants and the contract to advise the Government over the operation of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

SIMS also won the contract to provide research services to the National Historic Ships Committee and his team carried out the most extensive audit ever made of significant ships and boats in the UK.

From 1995-2001 he was project director for National Historic Ships and was instrumental in setting up the National Register of Historic Vessels. He later became the first chairman of the advisory committee on National Historic Ships and was responsible for many initiatives set up to support historic ­vessels.

After retiring from his university post he remained an active researcher and teacher in many areas relating to museum and heritage issues: he was a Caird Senior Research Fellow at the National Maritime Museum in 2002 and led the search for Darwin’s research ship the Beagle – a fantasy project for a man who loved Darwin and ships. The 2004 BBC television programme The Hunt for Darwin’s Beagle told the story of the quest, in which Prescott’s team identified what is believed to be the vessel’s remains in an Essex marsh.

Prescott, who contributed to various other programmes, including Coast and The Scots at Sea, also worked tirelessly for the Scottish Fisheries Museum, acquiring what would become its flagship vessel, the Reaper, that has appeared on everything from tourist information literature to the documentary The Boats that Built Britain and Outlander.

He identified the vessel, a traditional fishing boat known as a Fifie, and was the prime mover in saving her. He interviewed the few remaining men, then in their 90s, who had crewed in her, consulted accurate models to ensure faithful reconstruction, developed a restoration plan and laboured for the two Pittenweem boatbuilders who reinstated the vessel.

“Robert was a long-standing trustee and vice president of the Scottish Fisheries Museum and was very influential in guiding the museum through the process of attaining national status,” said museum director Simon J Hayhow.

“He had a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of maritime history, particularly ­historic and traditional boats, how they were sailed and how restoration should be carried out sensitively and in keeping with significance and avoiding ‘heritage drift’. He was an influential member of the museum’s Boats Club and the museum has named the whaling gallery after him in recognition of his work.

“His research from an eroded ship carving in stone led to an understanding that the 18th century Anstruther Whaling Company had operated out of the museum buildings. He was an inspiring teacher, an amazing source of knowledge, a pioneer in ship preservation and a true gentleman.”

Prescott, a charismatic tutor, continued to teach in the University of St Andrews museums studies programmes until 2012 – the same year he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma,a terminal condition classed by the government as a workplace injury. He believed its cause was rooted in asbestos discovered in renovations during his tenure at St Andrews in the 1970s and 80s.

Motivated by a sense of injustice, he raised an unsuccessful civil court action against the university, not in his own self-interest but because he was public-spirited and felt morally obliged to repay the taxpayer the automatic payment he received from the government as a mesothelioma patient.

Although never formally recognised for his contribution to maritime heritage, the esteem in which he was held was evident from the many bodies he was invited to join. He also served three terms with the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland and was a guest of the Queen at St James’s Palace and at the Duke of Edinburgh’s 90th birthday celebration at Trinity House. But his greatest legacy is his inspirational teaching at SIMS, testament to the number of former students who today hold maritime heritage positions here and abroad.

He is survived by his wife Dr Lloyd Carson, an academic and chartered psychologist, daughters Helen and Cordelia from a previous marriage and his sister Joyce.