Newsletter 15

Welcome to the Summer (June) 2009 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Latest Expedition – Langport

Langport in Somerset (south-west England) is one of those towns that you can easily pass through without giving it a second thought, before moving on to something more interesting. The town is not helped by the narrowness of the main street, which is also a key route between Taunton and Glastonbury. It is frequently congested, with large vehicles having to mount the pavement in order to get past one another, so making it difficult to linger and look. But the town is worth a second glance.

The River Parrett flows northwards from the hills in Dorset to Langport and then on to Bridgwater and out into the Bristol Channel. At Langport, the river is still tidal. Because there is also an old customs-house, you might therefore assume that the name ‘Langport’ derives from ‘long port’, but in fact it means ‘long market-place’ and refers to the main street. Nevertheless, the town did rely on revenue from river traffic from earliest times, with fishermen and traders setting out downriver to the Bristol Channel and then destinations such as Wales and southern Ireland.

Bow Street
Bow Street: the main route through Langport.

In medieval times an important cloth industry grew up here but later declined. The river traffic continued, and in the 18th century a trading company was founded by the famous economist, Walter Bagehot, who lived in a house in the main street (above) and is buried in the churchyard. He went into partnership with George Stuckey, whose son Samuel founded Stuckey’s bank in Langport in 1770. Both ventures prospered. By 1866 the trading company owned fourteen East Indiamen (the merchant ships of the East India Company). They were served by nineteen barges that carried goods up and down the river between Langport and the port of Bridgwater. It later developed into the Somerset Trading Company.

Stuckey’s bank continued to expand, eventually absorbing thirteen other private banks. In 1909 it was taken over by Parr’s bank, at which time the banknote circulation of Stuckey’s bank was second only to the Bank of England. Parr’s bank was taken over by the Westminster, which in turn merged with the National Provincial Bank in 1968 to become the National Westminster Bank. This developed into the NatWest, which in 2000 was acquired by the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS) in a £21 billion deal. This banking group, along with many others, has recently made disastrous losses and been baled out by the government. However, back in 1796, because of the threat of French invasion, there was a run on the banks in Somerset – except for Stuckey’s. The saying among the local farmers at that time was that they trusted Stuckey’s bank as much as their old sock for keeping their money in. It would seem that modern bankers have a lot to learn from the history of their industry.

In the heart of the Somerset Levels and often besieged by winter floods, Langport now seems a sleepy town off the beaten track, but it has seen its share of excitement. Not far away is the

Winter floods around Langport
Winter floods around Langport.

island of Athelney where, in the year 878, King Alfred fortified the island in the marshes as a final stronghold and base of operations against the Danes. From there he gathered an army to defeat the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire and force them to become Christians. The Danish King, Guthrum, was baptised at Aller, which is also close to Langport.

During the English Civil War Langport was fortified by a Royalist garrison in 1643, but they were defeated in the Battle of Langport which took place just outside the town in 1645. The

Re-enactment of the Battle of Langport in 1995
Re-enactment of the Battle of Langport in 1995

Royalists fled north towards Bridgwater where they regrouped, but were defeated again. Langport suffered from buildings being set on fire as the Parliamentary cavalry pursued the remnants of the Royalist garrison through the town, slaughtering many of them at the bridge over the River Parrett. That was the last major conflict witnessed by Langport, and from then on it was a peaceful trading and market town, benefiting greatly from waterborne traffic until the coming of the railway line in 1853. This was greeted with enthusiasm by the people of the town, and for a time it opened up trade to fresh markets. Eventually, though, the railway killed off the river trade and then cuts in rail services made it even more isolated, and the town declined. Nowadays the town is a pleasant stop on a tour through the picturesque, low-lying Somerset Levels, with a mixture of architectural styles, an interesting church and beautiful riverside walks.

Monument of the Month – Everything Including the Kitchen Sink

This month’s monument is a Royal Mail post box on the way to the picturesque port of Clovelly on the north Devon coast (south-west England). On the face of it there is nothing particularly remarkable about this post box. As can be clearly seen from the ‘E II R’ at the top, it dates to the reign of the present Queen Elizabeth II, and although not very old, such boxes are gradually being replaced with slightly larger ones that have a more modern design.

Rural post box near Clovelly, Devon
Rural post box near Clovelly, Devon

The interest of this box lies in the writing at the bottom, which reads ‘Carron Company Stirlingshire’. The Carron Company was founded in Scotland in 1759 on the north bank of the River Carron, about 2 miles from Falkirk in Stirlingshire. The first blast furnace on this site, using coke as fuel, came into use in December of the following year. The company produced all kinds of iron objects, from elegant fireplaces for country mansions and stoves for use by American pioneers to steam engines and post boxes – both small rural ones and the more familiar ‘pillar boxes’.

Pillar Box

Over the years the works had many famous visitors and collaborators. James Watt experimented with steam engine designs at the Carron works before he moved south to Birmingham, and Benjamin Franklin is said to have left a design for a stove (‘Dr Franklin’s stove or the Philadelphia stove’) at Carron after his visit there.

The early fame of the Carron Company rested on its production of armaments. Wellington remarked in 1812 that he only wanted cannons from the Carron Company in his army, and examples of such cannons that were used at Waterloo were exhibited in London in 1965 on the 150th anniversary of the battle. What the company was most famous for, though, were the short-barrelled, large-calibre naval cannons it produced, which were called carronades. These had a considerably shorter muzzle than conventional cannons, so reducing their range and accuracy, but at the same time making them considerably lighter. Conventional large-bore cannons were so heavy that they could only be carried on the lower decks of warships, which meant that at close range they fired mainly into the thickest part of the hulls of enemy ships. The importance of the lighter large-calibre carronades was that they could be carried on the upper decks without making the warships top-heavy and liable to capsize. Being on the upper decks, carronades could fire more easily through the relatively thin-walled upper hulls of enemy ships.

The other benefit of the carronade was that the design could be kept the same, but just scaled up or down for different-calibre guns, so that smaller ships such as brig-sloops could be armed with carronades that had a larger calibre than the cannons they were carrying. Sailors referred to them as ‘smashers’ because of the devastation they caused.

Unlike cannons, carronades came with their own carriages that were manufactured at the Carron works. Ordinary cannons were mounted on a truck supported on four wheels, and when they were fired the wheels allowed the whole cannon and truck to roll backwards with the recoil. Carronades were fixed to a mounting on a wooden slide, so that the recoil forced the mounting down the slide, but the slide itself did not move. This removed the danger of the gun carriage running over the feet of the gun crew on the recoil, which often caused terrible injuries. It also made it easier to ‘traverse’ the carronade (aim it from side to side), because the slide was fixed at the front but rested on small wheels at the rear. Although the slide could not move backwards, the rear of the slide could be swivelled from side to side to aim the gun. Although a few carronades were used by other navies, and the design was copied abroad, the carronade was one of the few technological advantages that Nelson’s navy had over the enemy.

Thoughout the 19th and into the 20th century the Carron Company made diverse products from cast iron, including bathtubs, telephone kiosks and rings for the lining of tunnels under the Rivers Tyne and Clyde. Gradually the market for cast iron diminished, and despite diversifying the company folded in 1982. Part of the company continues under the name of Carron Phoenix and specialises in high-quality kitchen sinks.

Green (or Unripe) Archaeology

In 1586 William Camden published his topographical description of Britain called Britannia. Originally published in Latin, later editions of the book were in English, and of the Roman military base at Richborough in Kent he wrote:

‘Age has erased the very tracks of it, and to teach us that cities die as well as men, it is at this day a corn field in which, when the corn is grown up, one may observe the lines of streets crossing one another because where they have gone the corn is thinner… Nothing now remains but some ruinous walls of a tower, of a square form, cemented with a sort of sand extremely binding… the plot of the city, now ploughed, has often cast up the marks of its antiquity: gold and silver coins of the Romans.’

This is thought to be the earliest record of a cropmark – an occurrence that became, and remains, a key element in the discovery of archaeological sites which have become totally buried. What Camden noticed was a difference in the growth of what he called corn (probably wheat), caused by the underlying Roman remains. Because the soil was thinner and poorer over the Roman roads, the crops did not grow very well, so making the lines of the roads visible.

Cropmarks depend on a number of variable factors, such as weather, the type of soil, the fact that some crops are more sensitive to local factors than others, and of course the necessity for an area to be under some form of uniform crop in the first place. Just as artificial camouflage relies on the breaking up of identifiable patterns to make them less noticeable, so an area of grass, scrub and isolated trees does not readily betray the presence of a buried archaeological sites. Some buried archaeological sites are also much more easily detected by cropmarks than others because they have a greater effect on the crops that have been planted. The remains of a stone wall, for example, will only have relatively shallow soil above it and so will tend to dry out more quickly than the surrounding areas, producing a stunted crop that ripens too soon over the top of the wall. The opposite effect is produced by a deep ditch, which gives a deep moist soil that makes the crop grow taller and stay green for longer.

On archaeological excavations, different soil colours can often be better understood when observed from a height, such as from a scaffold tower or a hydraulic lift, or else photographed from a telescopic pole, a model aircraft or even a kite. The same is true of cropmarks, which are better understood and observed from a height. At Richborough, Camden was writing long before the first successful manned flight of a hot-air balloon – he was actually recording cropmarks that were visible from the ground, which is unusual. Aerial observation of cropmarks did not actually become a major tool for archaeologists until aircraft had become relatively common, in the early decades of the 20th century. The first aviators soon began to notice cropmark patterns and the fact that these marks were not constantly present. A cropmark might appear for a few days one summer and not be seen again for many years, so it became essential to take photographs whenever they were seen.

The study of aerial cropmarks soon became a regular part of an archaeologist’s work, and the technique was given a boost after the Second World War because archaeologists who had worked in military intelligence had become very skilled at interpreting aerial photographs. They had often been given the task of studying aerial photographs to extract military intelligence, but could not fail to notice archaeological features which also appeared on the photographs.

As sites noticed on aerial photographs were investigated by archaeological excavation, it became apparent that some cropmarks could be deceptive. Tractors and other heavy machinery had recently replaced horse-drawn ploughs and harrows, and these could compact the soil and produce patterns that resembled the remains of buried walls or a stone rampart. Some cropmarks that resembled archaeological sites were also discovered to be formed by natural geological features such as cracks in the underlying rock.

And then there are mushrooms. The most common form of cropmark in Britain is a simple ring that is often the mark left by the ditch that once surrounded a circular burial mound. Such mounds often date to the Bronze Age, but several types of wild fungus can also produce cropmarks that look like the remains of circular ditches when they appear on aerial photographs. The main one of these is the Fairy Ring Fungus (Latin name Marasmius oreades), which spreads in a ring in the topsoil. The fungus produces nitrates that make the grass above it grow greener. Such rings were probably noticed centuries before Camden visited Richborough and were interpreted as places where fairies conducted their circular processional dances.

Developing technology has greatly increased the capacity of aerial photographs to portray buried archaeological sites. Infrared photography can often show up cropmarks that are undetected by ordinary cameras, and LiDAR (which stands for Light Detection and Ranging) uses pulses of light, recorded by a digital camera, to produce a 3-D image of the landscape. This shows up the remains of earthworks in much the same way as stereo pairs of aerial photographs can be used to produce a 3-D effect. Digital imaging and increased computer processing has led to the ability to use higher and higher vantage points without a drastic loss of detail, so that now it is not just photographs taken from aircraft and balloons that can be used for detecting archaeological sites, but also photographs taken from satellites.

In the end, though, any amount of sophisticated interpretation techniques and computer analyses cannot confirm that a cropmark on an aerial photograph actually shows an archaeological site. Investigation on the ground, usually excavation in some form, is needed to do this, and sadly very many such sites are destroyed by development or by intensive farming before such investigation takes place.


Quarterdeck is a free downloadable newsletter of nautical and historical fiction and non-fiction, which you can sign up for by going to and clicking on ‘Quarterdeck Newsletter’. The newsletter is created by the US publisher McBooks Press, and they also run an online bookstore. We are very pleased to say that they are selling our three naval books, Nelson’s Trafalgar (which is the US title), The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar – so at last anyone living in the US can now get hold of Jack Tar. You can read all the issues of Quarterdeck online, though you do need to sign up for the latest issue (May/June 2009) in which there is an interview with us both.

Some of you have asked us from to time for advice on where to buy books, and for those of you who do not live in the UK, we tend to mention the Book Depository. They are based in Gloucester, England, and sell many books at a discount. In addition, they deliver free of charge to 90 countries worldwide – no shipping charges. It sounds too good to be true, but we have received excellent feedback from those of you who have tried them (how do they make a profit?). You can select pricing in British pounds, euros or American dollars.

Jack Tar – the continuing story

The hardback of Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy is still available, but the paperback will be published by Abacus from 3 September. The jacket has been revamped and looks very attractive, and the publisher came up with a new subtitle, which captures the flavour of the book much better – ‘The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy’.

Other Books

Our Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome and Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece (the revised versions) are currently being translated for publication in Czechoslovakia. Well over a decade ago the Rome handbook (and maybe the Greek handbook) was translated into Japanese for the publisher Toyo Shorin in Tokyo. We never saw a copy – does anyone know if it was published in Japan? We would love to have a copy of the book, but failing that we would really like to have a picture of the jacket – can anyone help? Does anyone have contact with this publisher?

Our Website

It may seem careless to have lost sight of the Japanese translation of the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome but the original negotiations were done between us in the UK, the publisher in New York and a publisher in Japan, in the days before the internet, so there were no rapid exchanges of emails. Even so, we did at that stage keep a close eye on what was happening with new technology, and in 1998 (maybe a bit before that) we set up a website with the URL We think that this must have been one of the first author websites, but it would be interesting to know who else had one then. We kept this up for three or four years, but then changed to and now use

Does anyone know if these compuserve websites were archived? It would be interesting to pinpoint the exact date of us setting up that first website.

Jack Tar Talks

Our next two ‘Jack Tar’ talks are in Devon, south-west England, in an area known as the South Hams – the word hams is derived from the Old English ‘hamme’, meaning an enclosed or sheltered place. The first talk is on Wednesday 15th July 2009, 11.30am, at the Dartington Ways with Words literary festival (near Totnes). The festival itself is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, and you can even book for a residential weekend, for 5 days or for 10 days, and these packages include tickets that give you free entrance to most events.

The festival takes place at Dartington Hall, a conference centre that until recently housed the Dartington College of Arts (but which merged in 2008 with University College Falmouth). Dartington Hall was described by Nikolaus Pevsner in 1952 in his book The Buildings of England: South Devon as ‘the most spectacular medieval mansion of Devon’. Most of the Hall was built in the late 14th century by John Holand, and after his death in 1400 his wife Elizabeth continued to live there. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and the sister of Henry IV. A century and a half later Dartington was in the possession of the Champernowne family, and various alterations were made to the buildings. Luckily the place escaped Victorian renovation, although the adjacent St Mary’s church was demolished in 1878, with the exception of the tower, which can still be visited.

The tower of St Mary’s church, Dartington
The tower of St Mary’s church, Dartington

From the late 19th century the estate declined, and in 1925 the ruined buildings of Dartington Hall and 1,000 acres were purchased by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who set about creating a revolutionary school and bringing the estate back to life.Around the restored buildings today are spectacular gardens, which are open at all times free of charge.

Our second talk will be at Ugborough, near Plymouth, and will take place at 8pm on Trafalgar Day, 21st October 2009, on what will be the 204th anniversary of the battle. We know that many of you were disappointed when the library at nearby Ivybridge had to cancel our ‘Tars and Tarts’ talk back in April, but we have since been invited to give a talk with the same name at Ugborough village hall, which is just off The Square, postcode PL21 0NJ for those of you who need this for your sat nav (though please note that parking in the village is limited, so you are advised to share cars if at all possible). You can take a look at the village by going to ‘Google maps’. As we said in our adverts for the previous talk, come dressed as a tar or tart if you wish (though this is optional!). The talk is hosted by the Ugborough Local History Group, and entrance is free to members. For non-members turn up on the night and pay £1 – surely this must be the recession’s cheapest night out! All are very welcome.

Although Ugborough is not too far from where we live, we have never visited this large village. The unusual place-name may derive from ‘Ugga’s fortified place’. On one side of The Square is a large impressive church dedicated to St Peter, dating from the 14th century and with a tower 94 foot high. We hope to see some of you at these talks.