Wooden Ships and Fungi

Mushrooms and Toadstools by John Ramsbottom

Many years ago when I was a young man at the University of Glasgow in the early 1950s I became the PROUD possessor of a book called ‘Mushrooms and Toadstools’ written by a distinguished mycologist called John Ramsbottom. The book was published by Collins in their CLASSICAL ‘New Naturalist’ series on the wild life of Great Britain.

In its day and this was a remarkable book - a mycological GEM - with extensive text material full of marvelous information on fungi. More than this! Scattered throughout the book were EXCEPTIONAL photographs of fungi in black and white and colour. This was the first time I had ever seen colour pictures of fungi.  Most were taken by Paul L. de Laszlo who while serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy spent much of his leisure time photographing for Dr. Ramsbottom’s book. I can still recall the feeling of euphoria I got flipping through the book again and again to enjoy the pictures so beautifully taken by De Laszlo. Anyone familiar with the photographic equipment available at that time, not to mention the availability of colour film will be IMPRESSED by his accomplishments in the late 1940's.   For me De Laszlo’s imagery was a HIIGHLIGHT of the book and one of the sparks that launched me into a lifetime hobby of photography. To indulge yourself with macrophotography at that time you had to be fairly well off to afford a suitable camera (35 Exakta or a Plate Camera) and even 35mm colour film of the day was expensive and very slow (Kodachrome was ASA 10!).    So it was some years before my finances caught up with my ambitions and extended to a personal purchase.    Although I was lucky when I went from Scotland to Canada for postgraduate work -  click here .

It was the text of Ramsbottom's book that was invaluable.   In the early years in my Introductory Mycology course I emphasised classification of fungi, but later emphasis on taxonomy was reduced and biology of the fungi became the flesh,  blood, and body of my course.    I always had an eye open for information on fungi that gave an interesting slant to the topic at hand.    Ramsbottom’s book, together with the exceptional book by Large on 'The Advance of the Fungi', provided a wealth of excellent information to spice up my lectures on mycology.   


Click here for Sea Shanty http://www.contemplator.com  

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HMS Foudroyant - a  74-Gun Ship of the Line

(for source and more info go to  www.3rdcb.org.uk/rn/hms_foudroyant.php)

Wood rots are a case in point, and Ramsbottom had very good stuff on this.   Below, I paraphrase some of his thoughts on this topic.   One of the big problems with the large wooden ships of earlier times was the rapid rate of deteroration of the hull due to wood rotting fungi.   The holds were damp often with water slopping around in the interior for prolonged periods.   The 'Hearts of Oak'  that made up the British Fleet were often rotting at the core.  

As Ramsbottom tells it, Samual Pepys (of diary fame) was called in by the Admiralty Board in 1684 to survey and inspect the British fleet with particular attention to 30 new ships that lay at harbour at Chatam.  This was apparently a depressing visit as outlined in Ramsbottom below with pertinent quotes from Peyp's report.

"The greatest part of these thirty ships (without having yet lookt out of Harbour) were let to sink in such Distress, through Decays contracted...lye in danger of sinking at their very Moorings".   The planks were "in many places perish'd to powder" and the ships' sides more disguised by patching  "than  has usually been seen upon the coming in of a Fleet after a Battle".   "Their Holds not clear'd or aird, but (for want of Gratings and opening their Hatches and Scuttles) suffer'd to heat and moulder, till I have with my own hands gather'd Toadstools growing in the most considerable of them, as big as my Fists."

Well said Samuel Pepys!  We needed someone like this to inspect (prior to purchase!) the nuclear submarines foisted off on Canada by the British a few years ago.

Ramsbottom also documents the case of  HMS Queen Charlotte, built following the Battle of  Trafalgar (1805).  This pride of the British Navy (Rule Brittania and all that!) was launched in 1810 as a first rate Ship of the Line with 110 guns.   Ramsbottom notes that the Queen Charlotte rotted so quickly  that it was necessary to rebuild her before she could even be commissioned for sea service.    Repairs up to 1816 cost  94,499 pounds which exceeded the original cost to build the ship (88,837 pounds).  By 1859 the total cost of repairs was a staggering (for that time) 287,837 pounds when her name was changed to HMS Excellent.  As pointed out by RAmsbottom - a whimsical choice.   The ship was 'broken up' in 1892.  More likely it fell apart!

If  you can get hold of a copy of  Ramsbottom's book  it has also contains good stuff on Dry Rot (the REAL dry rot, click here) with some GREAT  pictures by Paul de Laszlo showing the dramatic results of walking across the floor in a house riddled with dry rot.   A termite infestation could have done no more!  

  A year or so ago I saw a copy of  Ramsbottom's book for sale for $10.   Bargain of the century.


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Cubic Rot     -  caused by a diverse wood-rotting fungi

Fungi are the best wood rotters in the natural world.   Breaking down lignin and lignified cellulose is the primary role of a large number of forest fungi.  Many wood rotting fungi attack the wood at the lines of weakness such as the vascular rays and the junctions of the annual rings.   As it is decomposed and dries out the wood cleaves along these lines.   Small sections of the circumference give the illusion of a straight line and the pieces of wood appear to have broken at right angles, hence the term "Cubic Rot".     For MORE on wood decay click here

  All images copyright MycoAlbum CD by George Barron