Newsletter 13

Welcome to the Christmas (December) 2008 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Jack Tar

As you know from the previous newsletter, our latest book Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy was published in hardcover in the UK at the beginning of October. As you will also have seen, the bookstores and newspapers are obsessed more than ever this year with celebrity books, an own goal with the recession. Against the celebrity odds, we have garnered some reviews here and there (see the Jack Tar page of this website), as well as some very enthusiastic feedback. The Daily Mail did a very generous extract of the book in mid-November, and in their round-up of Christmas books, we were delighted that Jack Tar was the first of their pick of six history books, which they said was ‘an extraordinary read’. What is frustrating is that Amazon and other online retailers have sold out, many bookstores can’t get hold of copies, and the publisher is reprinting the book [it’s now been reprinted three times, but too late for Christmas].

Latest Expedition – Sheffield and Doctor Who

We were in Sheffield recently, giving a Jack Tar talk at their Off The Shelf Literary Festival. The following day we had a couple of hours free to look around before catching the train back to Devon. It was many years since we were last in Sheffield, but even then the city had lost its Victorian reputation for steel, smoky grime and dire poverty. This heritage was encapsulated in the folk song The Grinders (better known as The Sheffield Grinder), which appeared in the middle of the 19th century. With lines such as

The Sheffield grinder’s a terrible blade.
Tally hi-o, the grinder!
He sets his little ‘uns down to the trade…,

the song describes the poor health and short lives of the people who worked in the cutlery industry. The final verse pointed out that the blame for this did not lie with the workers themselves, but with the people who exploited them:

At whose door lies the blacker blame?
Tally hi-o, the grinder!
Where rests the heavier weight of shame?
Tally hi-o, the grinder!
On the famine-price contractor’s head,
Or the workman’s, under-taught and –fed,
Who grinds his own bones and his child’s for bread?
Tally hi-o, the grinder!

Nowadays, Sheffield is a light and airy city of the arts, wearing culture on its sleeve, or rather its modern architecture – there is even a poem by the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, emblazoned in huge letters on a tall building of Sheffield Hallam University near the railway station.

As we wandered around the centre of the city, we spotted a police box and were reminded of Doctor Who. For overseas readers who might not understand the cultural significance, Doctor Who is a science fiction series of television programmes for children, detailing the adventures of a super-hero called The Doctor. This person never reveals his exact identity, hence the title of the series. The Doctor travels through time and space, saving the Earth from all manner of aliens and villains, in a time machine called the Tardis.

Sheffield Police Box
The Sole Surviving Sheffield Police Box

The Tardis was supposed to be able to blend into any background, but (according to the story) after landing in London in the 1960’s disguised as a police box, the circuitry that enabled it to blend in became broken. It therefore always looks like a London police box, even when landing on an alien planet. This is not likely to have originated as a quirky plot device by the writers, but rather a reflection of the tight budget when producing the first programmes. It was cheaper to use the same model of police box rather than run to the expense of a new form of Tardis for each new location. This was in keeping with other cost-cutting measures, such as scenes on an alien planet that looked as if they were filmed in a gravel pit (because they had been!), flimsy backdrops that wobbled when the actors breathed on them, and ‘advanced’ alien technology built from cheap spare parts. One of the most successful villains The Doctor encountered were the Daleks, who rode around in something akin to armoured wheelchairs from which various protuberances menaced mankind. One such appendage was instantly recognisable as a long-handled plunger – a wooden shaft with a rubber suction cup on the end, more commonly used by plumbers to unblock drains.

Despite such props, which would be laughable in today’s era of computer-generated special effects, such was the power of the story-telling that when the first programmes appeared in 1963 they were an instant success, and the series ran until 1989. People who had seen the programmes as children regarded them with nostalgia, and considered them as classic television: so much so that an up-dated version was relaunched in 2005 and is still running. This is not to say that the storylines were watertight. What of a super-hero, who is supposed to be a technical wizard and master of advanced technologies, who cannot even mend the circuit on his own time machine to stop it standing out like a sore thumb wherever it lands?

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005, the Tardis retained its form as a London police box, since this had become an icon of the series, but even when the series began, police boxes were starting to be phased out in London and elsewhere in Britain. Originally, they functioned as a point of contact for policemen walking their beat. In a time before portable radios, let alone mobile phones, policemen could use the boxes to call for back-up, particularly if no-one responded to them blowing their whistles. They also provided shelter in bad weather and somewhere for the policemen to eat their sandwiches and write their reports. The telephones were mounted on the outside of the box, so that members of the public could phone the police.

In addition, the boxes acted as temporary prison cells for criminals who had just been arrested. In this respect, they were descendants of the old village lockups that held prisoners who were arrested by officers of the parish until they could be brought before whatever passed for justice in the neighbourhood. Their most common function was to keep unruly drunks out of harms way until they sobered up. Few village lockups survive and perhaps even fewer of the police boxes. If the Tardis landed in London today, it would be as out of place as if landing in the middle of a field. With reliable police radios and more particularly with the change from a single policeman walking the beat to pairs of police patrolling in cars, police boxes became redundant. The one we saw in Sheffield was the sole survivor out of 120 that were once scattered through that city alone.

What struck us was that the Sheffield police box is very different in form to the Tardis used in Doctor Who, because back in the 1960’s the programme makers based their design on a London box. Even then, the Tardis would have looked out of place if it had landed in Sheffield. Doubtless a London police box was chosen for reasons of costs, but the effect (as in so much of the media) was to produce a London bias. Surviving police boxes are today protected as historic monuments (and the original Doctor Who programmes are historic footage). It is only by coming across odd survivals, such as in Sheffield, that we are reminded that not all police boxes looked like London ones; that London is not Britain; and that there is all manner of life (perhaps better forms of life!) outside the metropolis.

Chesapeake Mill

Wickham in southern England lies just east of the port of Southampton. It is considered one of the finest historic villages in Hampshire, larger in size than many other places designated as towns. It is a picturesque spot whatever the weather, but is a perfect place for an outing during the Christmas season, because it is so beautifully traditional and festive. The heart of the village is a substantial square, dating from Medieval times, that has seen many fairs and markets over the centuries, and the architecture comprises predominantly brick buildings of the Georgian and Victorian eras. The watermill, built alongside the River Meon in 1820, is probably the most unusual building in the village. As if the name was not sufficient clue to its history, a bench beside the door has a plaque with the motto ‘Don’t give up the ship!’.

Chesapeake Mill
Chesapeake Mill

The story of the mill began at least ten years before it was built. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy dominated the seas and paralysed the navies of France and her allies by blockading their ports. In 1806 Napoleon attempted to close European ports to British merchant ships and to neutral vessels trading with Britain. The British government retaliated by placing restrictions on neutral merchant vessels, and in turn Napoleon declared it illegal to comply with these regulations. America was caught in the middle, and trade became a major source of aggravation between the United States and Britain. Another area of contention was manpower. Short of seamen, the Royal Navy constantly resorted to impressment. American merchant ships were frequently targeted, because thousands of British seamen (including Royal Navy deserters) worked on board American merchantmen, attracted by better pay and conditions, and some even enlisted with the US Navy.

The Royal Navy insisted on the right to board neutral merchant ships to impress British citizens and remove deserters. To America, this was a violation of sovereignty. If British seamen had been the only ones taken, there might have been less rancour, but thousands of Americans were also mistakenly or deliberately seized. From the start of the war with France in 1793 to the outbreak of war with America in 1812, between eight and ten thousand American seamen may have been pressed into the Royal Navy, while others were volunteers.

America hastily engaged in a war with Britain on the assumption that the British would be too preoccupied with events in Europe to take effective action. This was indeed the case, and in the early stages of the war in 1812–13, America had the best of the war at sea. British pride was stung by the failure of the Royal Navy to swat the handful of frigates that made up the tiny American navy, and it became a matter of honour to hunt down these ships. On the American side the reverse was happening – many officers began to think their ships were unbeatable. The result was probably inevitable.

In April 1813 the American frigate Chesapeake reached Boston after a cruise, and many of the crew were paid off. Several officers were sick, including the captain who was replaced by James Lawrence. Although the Chesapeake was ready to put to sea again, the harbour was blockaded by British ships including HMS Shannon. This frigate was commanded by Captain Philip Bowes Broke, who had been with the ship nearly seven years. He was unusually diligent about instilling discipline and training his men. He also had a passion for gunnery, introducing many innovations and adaptations for the Shannon’s guns.

Everyone was worried that the Chesapeake would slip away in the persistent thick fog. By now Captain Broke had sent his other ships away so as to set up a fair contest between the Shannon and the Chesapeake. Although Lawrence claimed his American crew was in fine spirits, they had barely practised together and some officers remained sick. At midday on Tuesday 1st June, they left Boston in greatly improved weather, watched by crowds of people on shore, who were sure of success.

The battle was short-lived and bloody. Two or three broadsides were exchanged, but right from the start the training of the crew of HMS Shannon proved devastating. Lieutenant Augustus Ludlow, acting first lieutenant of USS Chesapeake, remarked that ‘of one hundred and fifty men quartered on the upper deck, I did not see fifty on their feet after the first fire’. The two ships became so entangled that the Chesapeake could no longer fire. Lawrence gave orders to board the Shannon, but he was hit by a musketball and carried below. His last words before leaving the deck were ‘tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks!’, which became modified into a future rallying cry for the US Navy of ‘Don’t give up the ship!’. Soon afterwards, the Chesapeake surrendered, having suffered great loss of life – some from ‘friendly fire’ from the ship’s own inexperienced crew. It was all over in eleven minutes.

The people of Boston were devastated when the Chesapeake sailed away as a prize of the Shannon. The captured ship was brought to England and served in the Royal Navy until 1819, and was then sold to a Portsmouth builder. Much of the timber was used for new houses in the city, but some was sold on to John Prior, a miller of nearby Wickham, who rebuilt his watermill. It became known as Chesapeake Mill and operated until 1970. It is one of the finest surviving buildings constructed from old ships’ timbers. The mill has recently been restored, and is now home to an antiques market and tea rooms, a good Christmas shopping destination. So while you are inside looking for Christmas gifts, take the opportunity to glance up at the ceilings and see some of the old ship’s timbers. We give more details about this and other stories in The War for All the Oceans.

Monument of the Month

Well, everyone likes entertainment at Christmas, especially on Boxing Day, so how about some bear-baiting? Our reaction to bear-baiting today is one of horror, but it was formerly a great attraction. Audlem in Cheshire is a small, ancient market town that originally prospered from its position at the junction of routes that were vital for regional trade. The town is built around the crossing of a north-south road (now the A529) that runs from Market Drayton in the south to Nantwich and Chester in the north, and an east-west road (now the A525) that runs from Newcastle-under-Lyme to Whitchurch and on into Wales. To the west of the town the River Weaver once took north-south traffic, but was superseded by the Shropshire Union Canal, built by Telford and opened in 1835.

At the centre of the town, in the fork between the roads to Nantwich and Newcastle-under-Lyme, the church stands on a slight hill and overlooks the market square. Against the church wall is a boulder with the scars of where an iron ring was once fastened, and a plaque on the wall above explains that this is the Bear Stone and that it originally stood in the centre of the market square.

The Bear Stone at Audlem, Cheshire
The Bear Stone, Audlem

Bear-baiting was a Medieval blood sport dating at least as early as the 12th century in Britain and reaching its peak of popularity in Elizabethan times. The bears were either confined within an arena or pit, chained to a post or, as at Audlem, tethered to a rock. Dogs were then set to attack the bear. At the pageant at Kenilworth for the visit of Elizabeth I in 1575, thirteen bears were acquired as part of the entertainment. Robert Laneham described each event in detail, including the bear-baiting:

‘The bears were brought forth into the court, the dogs were set to them … Very fierce both one and the other, and eager in argument: if the dog in pleading should pluck the bear by the throat, the bear with traverse would claw him again by the scalp … thus with fending and proving, with plucking and tugging, scratching and biting, by plain tooth and nail on one side and the other, such expense of blood and leather was there between them, as a month’s licking, I ween, will not recover.’

Laneham did not feel revulsion, but enjoyed the spectacle:

‘It was a sport very pleasant of these beasts to see the bear with his pink eyes leering after his enemies, the nimbleness and wait of the dog to take his advantage, and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid the assault. If he was bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free; that if he was taken once, then what shift, with biting, with clawing, with roaring, tossing and tumbling, he would work to wind himself from them.’

At this time rich lords employed men called ‘bearwards’ to look after the bears used for baiting, and the monarch had a ‘master of the king’s bears’, but for the general population bears were kept by showmen to make money. Large towns might have a bear garden, perhaps as part of larger pleasure gardens, and the Bankside and the Paris bear gardens in London became famous. Such places became especially well known for boisterous spectators and excessive noise, with the result that expressions such as ‘like a bear-garden’ entered the language as a description of such behaviour. In the countryside, though, open spaces that could accommodate a paying, betting audience, such as a market-place, were the main venues for bear-baiting. In this respect Audlem market square was ideally suited, being overlooked by the elevated west end of the churchyard where the spectators could stand.

In the decades following the death of Queen Elizabeth bear-baiting was gradually suppressed because of opposition from the Church – not because of the cruelty to the animals, but because such entertainments supposedly distracted the common people from their devotions. James I prohibited baiting on a Sunday, and under Cromwell’s Commonwealth (where anything that amused the masses was vigorously repressed) a ban was enforced by killing any bears involved in bear-baiting. With the restoration of the monarchy baiting of animals as an entertainment was revived, but from then on bear-baiting started to wane, although bull-baiting and cock-fighting remained popular.

In part the decline in bear-baiting was due to the upper and middle classes turning away from baiting to concentrate more on hunting and shooting. Successive wars on the Continent also made it more difficult and expensive to obtain bears. By 1802 the baiting of animals had fallen so far from favour with the ruling classes that a bill for abolishing bull-baiting was presented to Parliament. It was supported by such eminent politicians as William Wilberforce and the playwright Richard Sheridan. Although Britain had been at war with France for nearly a decade, parliamentary time was set aside to debate what, in modern terms, was an animal rights issue. In reply to an opposing speech from George Canning, who in later years served as Prime Minister, Sheridan was scathing:

“The honourable Member (Canning) alluded to the practice of bull-baiting in Spain, but would he say that it is the effect of that sport, so prevalent among them, to raise the Spanish mind to heroism? Did he think that it was bull-baiting which caused the superiority of the Spaniards in courage over the English [A general laugh]. It was contended that the sport did not brutalise those concerned in it; that it is even not inconsistent with a humane disposition. Nothing could be less founded in truth than this.”

Despite the efforts of Wilberforce, Sheridan and their allies, the bill was defeated, largely through fear of the public reaction. Memories of the revolutions in America and France, as well as various republican disturbances in Britain, were very fresh in the minds of MPs. In war time it was felt that particular care should be taken to avoid provoking the lower classes unduly. It was not until 1835 that an Act of Parliament outlawed the baiting of animals for entertainment and prohibited bull- and badger-baiting as well as bear-baiting. At Audlem this coincided with the opening of the Shropshire Union Canal which, with the nearby flight of a dozen locks and wharf for trans-shipment of goods, changed the economic focus from the market square at the north end of the town to the canal in the south. Less than fifty years later the Bear Stone was moved from it central position in the square, as it was no longer an attraction on market days. Instead, it survived as a monument to a more bloodthirsty era of history.

Archaeological Monuments and Christmas

It is usually the case that festivities of any kind are the most difficult things to detect among archaeological remains. For example, you might be able to tell that all the food remains in a pit were put there at the same time, but is this clearing up after a party? Or clearing the floor of your dining room because years of accumulated food waste have got just too nasty to live with any more? In the northern hemisphere, Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and a time for celebration since the days now began to lengthen and people started to have realistic hopes of being warm again. Some archaeological evidence is associated with ritual at this time of year. At Stonehenge, for instance, the prehistoric stones are aligned with sunset at the winter solstice, although it is more fashionable nowadays for latter-day pagans and druids to celebrate the sunrise of the summer solstice there, when it is warmer!

Interpreting alignments of stone circles with astronomical phenomena can be tricky, particularly when, as at Stonehenge, some of the stones have been moved and some have been lifted out and concreted back into place, while others are bolted together with iron rods. At other types of prehistoric sites, most notably those known as passage graves, a connection with the midwinter solstice is more easily demonstrated. At the monument at New Grange in County Meath, Ireland, light from the sun penetrates down the underground passage of the tomb to the heart of the mound on that day, and the same is true at other places such as the passage grave of Maes Howe in Orkney. This type of alignment provides some straws at which archaeologists clutch in the hope of establishing a connection between monuments in the landscape and the rituals that were performed there.

We are on safer ground when dealing with later ceremonies and festivities that became connected with such monuments. There is no suggestion that such ceremonies are derived from prehistoric rituals – they merely show what is possible. An interesting example of this is also in Orkney, at the prehistoric stone circles called the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. According to an account of the Reverend R. Henry, dating to around 1784, young people in the neighbourhood used to meet at the local church on New Year’s Day, with enough food for four or five days, to conduct a marriage ceremony. The people to be married would go to the stone circle at Stenness, which they called the Temple of the Moon, where the woman prayed to the god Woden and made her vows to the man. After this they went to the Ring of Brodgar, called by them the Temple of the Sun, where the man similarly prayed. The couple then went to an outlying stone of the Stenness circle, known as the Stone of Odin and which had a large hole in it. They stood either side, clasped their right hands through the hole, and swore to be constant and faithful to each other. Presumably the feasting then began.

An echo of this ceremony is preserved in the folk song called The Standing Stones Ballad. There is enough detail in the song to place it firmly in the locality of the Stenness stones and the Ring of Brodgar, which lie within less than a mile of each other. The ballad refers to the stone with the hole in it as ‘The Lover’s Stone’. In the song, the ceremony takes place on Christmas Eve not New Year’s Day, and only two lovers are present, observed in secret by a second man who murders the first man after he has made his vows and parted from his lover. This ballad was first published in 1883 by John Mooney in a small collection called Songs of the Norse. It is not clear whether the song refers back to the overtly pagan ceremonies recorded by the Reverend Henry or whether it is based on a local form of ‘common law marriages’ that were to be found all over Britain.

The most frequent form of this ceremony was that the couple jumped over a broomstick or a bonfire to solemnise their marriage vows, rather than pay the cost of a church wedding. The Stone of Odin, or The Lovers’ Stone in the song, was moved and destroyed along with two other stones in the winter of 1814–15. This was done by a local farmer who was annoyed by the number of visitors to the site, and his vandalism made him extremely unpopular – there were at least two failed attempts to burn his farm to the ground. The strength of feeling among the local people implies that the stones were still revered at this date.

Competition Winner

Last month the competition prize was a copy of the revised The Handbook of British Archaeology. The answer to the question ‘what is lorica squamata?’ is a type of Roman armour. It was scale armour, which consisted of rows of overlapping iron or bronze scales. The scales were 10 to 50mm long and were held in place by wire ties passed through a hole in the top of each scale and then sewn to a linen or leather backing. This armour was worn by legionary soldiers, mainly in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The publisher Constable & Robinson kindly provided an extra copy, so we were able to give away two prizes.

Competition [now closed]

The poet Ezra Pound is reported to have once written about publishers, ‘These vermin crawl over and beslime our literature … and nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate them.’ Whether or not he actually wrote these words, there is no doubt that publishers and booksellers (who were often one and the same) have been unpopular with many people for many centuries. A sociologist is supposed to have stated that one mark of Napoleon Bonaparte’s greatness was the fact that he once had a publisher shot without a proper trial, and it is true that a German publisher was shot on his orders. To enter our competition this time, all you have to do is tell us the name of the publisher who was shot and the year of his death. Was it:

  • Johann Philipp Palm in 1806
  • Wilhelm von Schmidt in 1807
  • Johann Fuchs in 1808