Newsletter 12

Welcome to the October 2008 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Nelson’s Birthday

September 29th 2008 was the 250th anniversary of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s birth. Although there were some commemorative events to mark the occasion, particularly in Norfolk (the county where Nelson was born), the anniversary was a low-key affair compared to the Trafalgar celebrations in 2005. Doubtless this was partly due to the continuing ‘doom and gloom’ orgy indulged in by the media and also the political turmoil that seems to be prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment. Coming so soon after the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar, it was probably inevitable that the anniversary of Nelson’s birth was eclipsed, but it seems a pity that the occasion slipped by almost unnoticed.

Latest Expedition

There is an old rhyme that says:

Where Avon’s waters with the sea are mixed,
Saint Michael firmly on a rock is fixed.

The river Avon that is referred to is not the one that feeds into the Bristol Channel, but a smaller one that flows to the sea in Bigbury Bay on the south Devon coast. The rock mentioned in the rhyme is Burgh Island, which lies about 300 yards off the coast and is accessible at low tide over a sand causeway. Burgh Island seems to have been one of its earliest names, although the first maps to show it call it Bur Island, and it was known as Burrow and Borough Island for a time before reverting to Burgh. The presence of Saint Michael in the rhyme reflects the fact that the island once had a chapel. In AD 709 Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches, founded a church dedicated to Saint Michael on the Mont-Saint-Michel in France. Even before this, there were legends of the saint appearing in visions on mountains and rocks, and through the early medieval period a rash of chapels were set up on various ‘mounts’ and dedicated to Saint Michael. Burgh Island had a chapel to Saint Michael, probably built in the 14th century, and was then known as Saint Michael’s Rock.


View from Burgh Island
View from Burgh Island to the mainland –

the sand causeway is on the left and the hotel on the right

There is no longer any trace of the chapel, but the Pilchard Inn is thought to date to the 14th century when a monastery occupied the island. It is believed that the modern hotel is on the site of monastic buildings. The hotel grew from a wooden summer house built by George Chirgwin, a music hall entertainer, right at the end of the 19th century, at a time when the island was occupied only by a few fishermen’s huts and the Pilchard Inn. The present hotel was built in the late 1920’s and is best known for inspiring, and providing the setting for, two of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries. One of these, Evil Under the Sun, is part of the series of novels about the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. It was the other one, And Then There Were None, that pushed Agatha Christie from being a very successful novelist to something of a legend. The island, cut off from the mainland at high tide, when it is only accessible by a sea tractor, is an ideal setting for murder mysteries, where the characters cannot escape their fate.

The Huer’s Hut on Burgh Island
The Huer’s Hut on Burgh Island

Today, apart from the picturesque Pilchard Inn, the most interesting feature is a small stone ruin on the very top of the island. Although this shows obvious signs of repair, and marks of a gun emplacement probably dating to the Second World War, the walls are the remains of a huer’s hut. One of the main catches on the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall used to be pilchards. These fish would appear in great shoals, close to shore in late summer. It was the job of the huer (from old French huer, meaning ‘to shout’) to alert the crews of the fishing boats and guide them to the shoal. From his high vantage point, the huer directed the boats, telling them where and when to cast their nets to trap the shoals in the shallow water, and then they were brought ashore. The pilchards were pressed and exported, largely to Mediterranean countries and Ireland and especially to Naples in Italy. Pilchard oil, also known as train oil, was a by-product of the pressing process. It was used for lubrication and for waterproofing on board the fishing boats, but its main use was as fuel in simple lamps, which were often of a design reminiscent of ancient Roman oil lamps. The pilchard industry flourished from the 14th century right through to the 19th century, when other species of fish began to offer better opportunities for profit. Now a few ruined huers’ huts and some pilchard cellars, where the fish were processed and stored, are all that remain of this thriving industry outside of maritime museums.

Monument of the Month

Monument to Horatio Nelson
The monument to Horatio Nelson,

erected by Alexander Davison at Swarland

Last month was the 250th anniversary of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s birth, so it seems fitting that this month we should feature a monument to Nelson. After his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, there were many monuments to Nelson, set up all around the world, but particularly in Britain – probably the most famous of these is Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square in London. However, an earlier and in many ways more interesting monument was set up in England by Alexander Davison, on his estate at Swarland in Northumberland. The memorial is in the form of an obelisk and was originally erected alongside the Great North Road that ran from Newcastle to Edinburgh. This part of the A1 road has been changed, turning the Great North Road here into a quiet side-road, and the obelisk is no longer a major landmark.

The inscription on the monument reads “Not to commemorate the public virtues and heroic achievements of NELSON which is the duty of England: But to the memory of Private Friendship this erection is dedicated by ALEXANDER DAVISON. Swarland Hall.” Although seemingly straightforward, this inscription may have been quite pointed at the time the monument was set up. Davison had been a close friend of Nelson ever since they first met in Quebec in 1782, and Davison acted as his prize agent, dealing with much of his financial affairs. Like Nelson himself, Davison felt that the King and his government did not adequately reward Nelson and the men who served under him for their successes, and after the Battle of the Nile Davison spent £2000 of his own money having medals struck for all those who took part in the battle. When Davison’s monument to Nelson was put up in 1807 it was already obvious that the government was going to ignore Nelson’s dying plea for Emma Hamilton and their daughter Horatia to be looked after at public expense, so the reference to the “the duty of England” may well have been a reproach to the highest in the land, set up in a very public place.

Davison had amassed a fortune as a government contractor and shipowner before he became Nelson’s agent, and he was no stranger to controversy. In 1803 he stood for Parliament but was accused of bribery and sent to prison for a short time. He was probably guilty of the charge, as were the majority of sitting MPs. In 1807, he faced the more serious charge of financial malpractice while he had acted as a government contractor. Despite the appearance of many character witnesses, including senior naval officers, he was sentenced to nearly two years in prison. He died in Brighton in 1829 and was buried in the churchyard of the village of Kirknewton in Northumberland.

Our Publications – Latest News

Cover of Jack Tar - Life in Nelson's NavyCover of The Handbook of British Archaeology>/p>

Our book Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy was published in the UK on Thursday October 2nd. Publishers have an arrangement to publish books on a Thursday, and October 2nd was dubbed “Super Thursday” in the media because 800 books were published that day, each one hoping to sell large numbers as Christmas presents. Inevitably many of them will end up as “Christmas turkeys” as they are known in the trade. This time of year sees the release of many “celebrity” books which the publishers, with vast amounts of money at stake, push hard to make people buy, and they and the booksellers tend to neglect other books. This is of course a tragedy for most decent books, and we suspect that there will be more turkeys than normal this year, as people will surely be turning their backs on the wealthy celebrity culture?

Because the bookstores are stuffed to overflowing with all these celebrity books, you may have problems finding Jack Tar and other suitable books for Christmas presents for your nearest and dearest and yourself. Keep trying! Fight your way past those heaps of celebrity memoirs and cookbooks at the front of the store, be an intrepid explorer and make your way up the stairs into the furthest recesses where history, archaeology, science, fine fiction and other books will be hidden.

Jack Tar recounts the everyday experiences of life at sea for the ordinary seamen and marines, and you can find out more about the book on our website. It is 429 pages long, with another 50 preliminary pages. You can find a few reviews on our website and on Amazon, and feel free to leave your own review on Amazon. Actually, it’s important to post reviews about any book that you enjoy on websites like Amazon, otherwise publishers and booksellers end up believing that absolutely everyone likes all these celebrity books and nothing else! If you want a taster of Jack Tar you could check out some of the magazine articles that have appeared recently – there are excerpts with colourful illustrations in the November issue of The Sea magazine, and articles in the August issue of the BBC History magazine, the September issue of the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine and the November issue of Ancestors magazine (these last two are family history magazines in the UK).

While Jack Tar is on sale in the UK, to our regret it still isn’t available in the United States, despite the huge interest there in naval history, both non-fiction and fiction. We’re sorry about this, but it is entirely out of our control. What we were going to suggest is that those of you in the US should try to buy it online from Canada – we recently gave our UK publisher the rights to Canada because we were told that a big order had been placed, only to find that the book is not yet available. We haven’t a clue what is going on.

On a happier note, we have just had another book published. The very first book that we wrote, more years ago than we care to remember, has just appeared as a completely revised edition. This is The Handbook of British Archaeology, published in paperback by Constable, 532 pages, £25, though you can get it cheaper online. It is available on Amazon in the US, but with a 2 to 3 week shipping time, and the blurb incorrectly refers to the old version of the book. And on Amazon in Canada, it is unavailable, for no good reason.

When we wrote the original book, many of you will be horrified to learn that computers were not in general use, and so we used typewriters and compiled the index with index cards. There was no such thing as the internet then, and the physical side of research and writing now seems unbelievable. Even the memory of writing using a manual (not electric) typewriter still leaves us feeling tired! Since that time computers and many other electronic instruments have made a great impact on archaeology, new techniques have been developed to exploit the possibilities of these tools, and of course research has continued to advance our knowledge and ideas about the past. When it was suggested that we should revise the book, we declined the invitation, since to do the job properly would have taken us an immense amount of time. Instead, Victoria Leitch at the University of Oxford has assembled a team of ten specialists, all experts in their field, and three illustrators to do the job. All the previous chapters were expanded and updated, and an extra chapter on post-medieval archaeology was added. Even for such a team it was a huge amount of work, and Victoria certainly had her work cut out in pulling all the results together. We were in the enviable position of sitting back giving advice and guidance where necessary and doing very little work. The result is much larger, more comprehensive, and hopefully more useful than the original version.

Two of our other books have recently been published in translation. The Keys of Egypt has been published in paperback in Japan by the publisher Shincho Sha under the title Rozetta-Stone-Kaidoku (they previously published it in hardcover), and our updated Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece has been published in hardcover in Russia by the Moscow publisher Veche – the first time we have ever been published in that country.

The “Kydd” novels

Last month the competition prize was a copy of Julian Stockwin’s latest novel Treachery, and we asked for the URL of Julian’s website. The answer is Treachery is the ninth novel in Julian Stockwin’s series of naval fiction books featuring Thomas Kydd. This series is unusual in that the hero started out in the first book, called simply Kydd, as a landsman (or landman) seized by the press gang. The novels follow his progress in the navy, from pressed man to admiral, and in the latest book the war with France has resumed after the peace of 1802–3. Kydd has had a run of bad luck, been disgraced and dismissed from his ship, but is given the chance to salvage his fortunes as captain of a privateer – for the rest of the story you will have to read the book!

Julian (who works in partnership with his wife Kathy) originally planned to do eleven books in the series, but happily the wealth of material has led to an expansion of the series, and at least eighteen novels are now planned. The novels are published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton and in the US by McBooks Press. There are also several foreign translations.

As well as the novels, Julian’s excellent website is a treasure chest of all things nautical, including sections related to himself and the Kydd novels. You can also sign up for his fascinating newsletters, and backnumbers of the newsletters can be read on the website itself.

Competition [now closed]

This time the competition has an archaeological theme, since the prize is a copy of the revised The Handbook of British Archaeology, which is published this month. In that book there are short definitions of many things, including Lorica Squamata. The competition is to tell us what Lorica Squamata is. Is it,

  • A type of Roman fish sauce
  • Dried squid imported from Lorica
  • A type of Roman armour
  • A Roman battle formation

The first one out of the hat will be the winner.

In the Next Issue

This will be a Christmas special!