Newsletter 16

Welcome to the Autumn (September) 2009 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Latest News

Our book Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy has just been published in paperback (by Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-12034-8) under the revamped title of Jack Tar: The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy. You may find that some online retailers haven’t caught up with the new subtitle and are using the old one still. The jacket has also had a facelift, with a much crisper, clearer design, as you can see here.

Jack Tar Cover

Once the hardcover has sold out, it will not be reprinted, so this is your final call if you would prefer a hardcover!


Studies of a particular area of Britain in book form are becoming less common these days – good ones are even rarer. The excellent Anglesey: Past Landscapes of the Coast that has recently been published by the Windgather Press (ISBN 978-1-905119-29-5) is one such book. For speakers of Welsh there is a parallel edition called Môn: Tirluniau’r Arfordir Gynt, but this book deserves a far wider readership than that confined to Wales or even to Britain.

The first thing you notice is the thought that has gone into the book’s design. Opposite page 1 is a very clear, simple map (alas, no scale!) showing Anglesey with every place mentioned in the book, so that the reader always has a quick reference for orientation – it is surprising how many non-fiction books are published without maps or plans. Our one grumble with this book is that the publisher did not consider its potential wider readership – a few introductory sentences on the size of Anglesey and its topography would be handy (it is in fact about 20 miles from the Menai Bridge to Holyhead), as well as a map depicting the island in relation to Britain or Europe. Perhaps in the next reprint!

The seven chapters are in chronological order, starting with early prehistory and coming right up to date with developments in the 20th and 21st centuries. The text, by the well-respected archaeologist Frances Lynch, is clear and concise, gradually building a picture of this important yet compact island off the north-west coast of Wales. Even if you are unfamiliar with the place, a glance at the map shows that this book’s focus on the coastline actually covers much of the island itself and rightly draws attention to the fact that coastal activities have played a disproportionately important part in the history and development of Anglesey. To some extent this is true of most islands, and it is true of Britain as a whole.

For those who have never been to Anglesey, the photographs in this book with their detailed captions almost make the trip unnecessary. Virtually all the pictures are by Mick Sharp and Jean Williamson, two photographers renowned for their landscapes and ancient monuments. If you yourself are not yet familiar with their names, you will probably be familiar with their work, not least because their pictures are increasingly used in guidebooks to many ancient monuments in Wales and as cover photographs for the purple Ordnance Survey landranger maps.

In this book their colour photographs grace almost every page, bringing the text most vividly into focus. When, for instance, the text says that ‘the Deer Park at Penmon is enclosed within a high stone wall 4km long’, the accompanying photograph shows the 18th-century wall, demonstrating how impressive such a simple landscape feature can be. The book deals with all manner of monuments and landscapes, from prehistoric burial mounds and estuary sand dunes to lighthouses and open-cast mines. We also can’t resist mentioning the photograph of the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson at Plas Newydd. The beauty of the photographs is quite stunning, making this a book that you absorb rather than read. It leaves you with a yearning to visit Anglesey, just to see if it really is as beautiful as the photographs suggest. But if you can’t visit the island, this book is a good substitute, taking you into the heart of this very Welsh corner of Britain in its words and pictures.

We have long admired (well, envied really) the work of Mick Sharp and Jean Williamson, and they have a new website (an evocative URL). Under ‘gallery’ you can see a selection of the photographs they used in this Anglesey book, including the Penmon Deer Park wall. Another section of the website features many of the books and other publications (such as calendars, magazines and maps) in which their photographs have been used. Everyone reacts differently to photographs as works of art, in the same way that people react in different ways to music or paintings, but our own favourite photographs include Haworth churchyard in snow, which was published on the cover of the magazine British Archaeology in December 1998; Snowdon clouds, which was the cover picture for Beauty of the Beloved; and Llyn Padam, which was the cover picture for Wales: The Incentive Destination. So next time you are using an Ordnance Survey map in Britain, check out the photographer of the cover picture!

Holidays and Gibraltar

The traditional holiday season has come to an end, at least for us in the western hemisphere, but the concept of holidays is a recent phenomenon of the industrial age. The aristocracy did the Grand Tour, but before the rise of factories, the mass of people generally only had days or part-days off on Sundays and feast days for religious observance. Holidays were part of the Industrial Revolution because of the need to regiment all aspects of a worker’s life in order to maximise profits. When industry was less mechanised and on a smaller scale, with much manufacturing done by piece workers, often at home, it didn’t matter much if a few workers took some time off. When output came to depend on machines in factories, though, it was essential to have workers on hand to keep the machines running – all day, every day, if possible.

The idea of foreign holidays is an even more modern concept, especially in Britain where such holidays for less wealthy people than the fabulously rich have only been available within living memory. Before that, the best way to see the world cheaply was to join the navy or the merchant navy. In Jack Tar we mention Thomas Rees from Carmarthen in south Wales who was bored with being a tailor’s apprentice and so first joined the militia and then, in April 1808, the Royal Marines because of his ‘very great desire to engage in active service, and to be able to visit foreign countries.’ Two centuries ago opportunities for ordinary people to visit foreign countries were virtually non-existent, and apart from the records of travellers and explorers who deliberately set out to see foreign lands and record what they experienced, the letters and journals of seamen are one of the few sources of information.

The men of the navy often took a rather narrow, pragmatic view of foreign places. The British naval base at Gibraltar was a frequent port of call, and the sailor George Watson had two things to say about Gibraltar in his memoirs – and they both concerned drink. According to him, ‘the wine generally drank by seafaring people at Gibraltar is Malaga, a sweet port-coloured liquor, and another species by the tars called “black strap”, rough unpalatable heady stuff; these cost about fourpence a quart, and the best not more than a shilling.’ To be stationed in the Mediterranean, where this wine was commonly given to seamen, was known as being black-strapped.

The fiery white Spanish Mistela wine was more acceptable, although the naval officer Basil Hall reckoned it was ‘a most insidious tipple, called Mistela in Spanish, but very naturally “transmogrified” by the Jacks into Miss Taylor.’ Watson’s other observation was that the people of Gibraltar ‘appear on all occasions ready to buy poor Jack’s clothes, which are generally disposed of at a very low rate to procure wine &c. I sold a waistcoat here, I paid half a guinea for at Portsmouth, for the small sum of half a crown, and I have no doubt they would get as much again for it, when they sold it to another having plenty of money, and wanting such an article.’

Whatever the sailors of Nelson’s time thought about it, Gibraltar has had a long and interesting history. Gibraltar is not an island now, although it was in the distant past and can still appear so from some angles. It is a limestone outcrop that is a remnant of a land bridge that once joined Europe with Africa. Many thousands of years ago, when sea levels were much higher and the sea had broken through that land bridge, Gibraltar was an island more than a mile from the mainland, but now it is joined to Spain by a low-lying stretch of land on which the airport has been built.

Gibraltar viewed from the Spanish coast

Some people assume that Gibraltar is the nearest point in Europe to the Continent of Africa, but it is not. Nor is it the most southerly point of Europe. The Spanish town of Tarifa, a few miles to the west of Gibraltar, is actually the most southerly point. Gibraltar is very close to Africa, though, and even on hazy days it is usually possible to make out the coast of North Africa looming out of the mist. In the time of the ancient Greeks, Gibraltar was one of the Pillars of Hercules, marking the boundary between the Mediterranean Sea with its civilisation and the Atlantic Ocean to the west that was home to barbarians. It was to the Greeks the limit of the known world.

The Greek legend was that Hercules went mad and killed his wife and children. To atone for this he was set twelve tasks, the ‘labours of Hercules’, and on completion of one of these he split a mountain in two, allowing water to rush in and form the Mediterranean Sea. The two halves of the mountain were the Pillars of Hercules. The Romans named the peak in Africa, that was regarded as the southern pillar, Mons Abila. They named Gibraltar Mons Calpe, and the name Calpe is still used by Gibraltarians today. For the Romans Gibraltar offered little strategic advantage, although they incorporated the rock in their Spanish province of Baetica.

It was some time later, after southern Spain had been under Islamic rule for several centuries following an invasion by the Moors of North Africa, that Gibraltar began to be regarded as a natural fortress. The campaign of the Spanish to push the Moors out of Spain, which is known as the Reconquista, was a long struggle for territory reminiscent of the First World War in Europe. First one side would push forward and gain some ground and then the other side would regroup, counter-attack, and recapture it. The Reconquista lasted several centuries, but by 1309 the Spanish were gradually pushing the Moors into the sea and had laid siege to the coastal town of Algeciras, which is just across the bay from Gibraltar. To stop the Moors sending supplies to the besieged town by boat, the Spanish made an attack on Gibraltar which developed into its first siege. Between 1309 and 1350 there were five sieges, but few fortifications survive from that time, mainly a castle and what is called the Moorish zig-zag wall.

By the end of the 15th century the Moors had finally been expelled from Spain, and Gibraltar was ruled by the Spanish. Under King Charles I of Spain, who became the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and who was a contemporary of Henry VIII of England, the defences of Gibraltar were strengthened. The Rock remained in Spanish hands until the War of Spanish Succession, which broke out in 1701. With such a name, this sounds an insignificant conflict, but the stakes were high. There were three possible successors to the throne of Spain: the Archduke Charles of Austria, Philip of Anjou and the Elector of Bavaria. If Philip of Anjou succeeded to the throne of Spain, France and Spain would be ruled by the same family, because Philip was the grandson of the king of France. With France the most powerful country in Europe, and Spain with its colonies in North and South America providing gold and silver, the French dynasty would effectively rule the world. To prevent this, Britain, Holland, Austria and Prussia formed an alliance and declared war on France.

During the course of this war, in the summer of 1703, a British fleet with an invasion force attacked Barcelona on the north-east coast of Spain, but they were fiercely opposed and had to retreat. Barcelona had been chosen in order to provide a naval base for British ships in the Mediterranean, and so the British fleet looked for another suitable place and chose Gibraltar. They called on Gibraltar to surrender, but the Spanish governor refused, despite having a garrison of only 200 men. The British attack lasted less than one day, and since that time Gibraltar has been in British hands.

The war did not prevent Philip becoming king of Spain, and the fighting rumbled on for 12 years. The result was a political and economic mess through most of Europe, but the war did at least curb the power of France and prevent the French royal family dominating the world. Gibraltar continued primarily as a naval base, withstanding many attacks and sieges. After the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place at Cape Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, the Gibraltar Chronicle had one of the biggest newspaper scoops in history. A schooner called the Flying Fish passed the British fleet soon after the battle and took the news and dispatches to nearby Gibraltar. On 24th October the Gibraltar Chronicle published the very first newspaper report of Trafalgar. Eventually the battered British warships limped into Gibraltar and anchored in Rosia Bay on the west coast of the Rock. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, was so badly damaged that the hulk had to be towed to Gibraltar for repairs.

One of the more obvious reminders of Trafalgar at Gibraltar is the Trafalgar Cemetery, which is something of a misnomer. Apart from a relatively recent Trafalgar monument, the cemetery only has the graves of two men who died in the hospital at Gibraltar from the wounds they received during that battle. The Trafalgar cemetery was actually consecrated in 1798 under the less romantic title of the Southport Ditch Cemetery, but was renamed sometime after the battle.

If you walk around Gibraltar, fortifications of all dates are some of the most striking aspects of the landscape. Even in the main square, called Casemates Square, many of the buildings are barracks built in the 19th century and now converted to other purposes. There are only three small beaches on the Rock, because in most places the cliffs plunge straight into the sea, so it is not the best destination for lovers of sea, sand and surf to take a holiday, but for anyone interested in many aspects of history, it is a fascinating experience.

Monument of the Month – Standing in Church

This month’s monument is a set of eight box pews in the north transept of the church of St Winifred at Branscombe in Devon. This type of seating was installed in the church in 1810 and was in use for a century before being replaced by the more familiar open bench pews. Most of the old box pews were removed a century later, but this set of eight (referred to as ‘horsebox pews of cheap deal’ in one early guidebook) was installed in the transept as a reminder of how the church had once been furnished. The change from enclosed box pews to open benches is just one of several changes in seating arrangements that has occurred in most Christian churches over the centuries – reflecting changes in the way the church has been used and also the changing social order.

Box pews at St Winifred’s church, Branscombe

In most places in Britain, the church is the oldest surviving building. It is frequently on or near the site of an earlier church dating to before the Norman Conquest and may incorporate walls and windows constructed well over a millennium ago. The earliest churches had more in common with pagan temples and were often built in locations that were considered holy by pagan religions, which was a deliberate attempt to convert pagan people to Christianity.

Seating arrangements within a church were dictated by the methods of worship, and early churches had little or no seating. In most pagan religions, rituals and prayers were carried out by priests without a ‘congregation’ being present to observe, and the early churches operated in a similar way. Such churches were small, not just because of the restrictions of primitive building practices and smaller populations, but because there was seldom a need for more than a few people to be gathered together in the church itself. Preaching to the masses was usually done outside, with a stone or wooden cross to mark the gathering point, and such preaching was more concerned with conversion than with the moral and spiritual well-being of those present.

Towards the end of the middle ages, as churches grew larger and wealthier, it became fashionable for priests to preach sermons as part of a service within the church. By this time seats were already being provided in the chancel for clergymen and choristers, but the chancel was strictly off-limits to the masses (just like the inner sanctum in a pagan temple) and was divided from the nave by a screen, usually made of wood and elaborately carved. The carvings often featured a statue of Christ on the cross, known as a ‘rood’, and so the screens became known as rood screens. With sermons to lengthen the services, there was soon a move to introduce seats into the nave of the church where previously the congregation had stood to listen to the chanting of the priests, responding by rote at the appropriate points with phrases in Latin – a language that few of them understood.

By the time of the Reformation in the early 16th century, which converted England’s church to Protestantism, sermons were a well-established part of the ritual, and open bench pews (often with back supports) were provided for the congregation in the nave. By this time a tradition had grown up that the clergy were responsible for the upkeep of the chancel and the parishioners for the upkeep of the nave. The change from Roman Catholic rituals to Prostestant ones had little effect on such practicalities, and among the methods used to raise money was that of renting pews to those who could afford them and selling space for pews of a grander design that were constructed by the wealthier members of the congregation.

Ostentatious pews were designed to raise envy, but even ordinary pews could spark arguments. As early as 1575 Edward Arden and Alice Haynes of Mangotsfield near Bristol were accused of going to the church and ‘with iron bars, pickaxes and other such like tools did break down a pew in the church therein which Elizabeth Springall the wife of Thomas Springall hath always used to sit.’ Within a century elaborate and ostentatious pews were matching tomb monuments as symbols of status and were even appearing in the terms of property leases. The right to sit in a particular spot in the church became the subject of many disputes taken to the church courts, such as the case of Alexander Sampson of South Leverton in Nottinghamshire. In 1638 he was accused of having ‘made a seat in our church that is not uniform. It is higher than any other that is near unto it, and it continues still so high that it hideth the sight of the desk and the altar from all them that sit behind it.’

The ends of the open bench pews of the later middle ages were often decorated with carvings, sometimes with a pagan flavour, and these largely survived the depredations of the Puritans who destroyed so many other decorative elements within churches. Unfortunately, the coming of the enclosed box pew from the early 18th century seems to have caused the destruction of many of the earlier pews and their medieval carvings, as happened at Branscombe in 1810. From the point of view of the parishioners, the box pews provided a protection against draughts and a degree of privacy, but they seldom provided uniformity since they continued to provide funds for the upkeep of the church by being rented out or sold. The famous naturalist Gilbert White was curate of Selborne in Hampshire from 1751 to 1793 and he wrote that ‘nothing can be more irregular than the pews of this church which are of all dimensions and heights, being patched up according to the fancy of the owners.’

In such a situation, the congregations of churches could only become more class-conscious and stratified. By the early 19th century one of the principal measurements of a person’s standing in the community was where they sat in church. In the 1840s Joseph Leech published a series of articles about churches in the Bristol area, describing the service, the music and so on in a similar vein to that of a modern theatre critic. As a stranger to the churches he visited, he said that he often had trouble finding a seat: ‘Every pew is like a preserve; you must not put your hand on the first door you meet.’

The social hierarchy and snobbery increased throughout the Victorian era, but by the time enclosed box pews were being replaced once again by open benches, the church pew was already in decline as a status symbol. With the passing of the desire for status at church services, a useful source of revenue was lost, and the subsequent closure of churches has often been worse for the survival of interior fittings such as pews than the changes in fashions and patterns of worship over the preceding centuries. In rural churches various types of older pew can be found, including carved bench ends, and a few are still inscribed with the names of the farms of those who occupied them or the names of those who owned them.

Competition [now closed]

One of the favourite songs of naval seamen in Nelson’s time was ‘Spanish Ladies’, the first verse of which is;

Farewell and adieu to you Spanish Ladies
Farewell and adieu to you Ladies of Spain
For we have new orders to sail for old England
But I hope in a short time for to see you again

In the merchant navy this song was often used as a shanty to help men keep in step when hauling ropes or working the capstan, but in the navy songs were not allowed while working. Instead they were sung for pleasure and entertainment when the sailors were off duty. To enter the competition [now closed], please tell us what such an off-duty song came to be called. Was it,

A. A Forebetter, so-called because the sailors sang for the officers (from ‘afore their betters’)
B. A Forebitter, so-called because the sailors sang it towards the bow of the ship (from ‘afore the bitts’)
C. A Forebutter, so-called because the sailors sang it before the evening meal (from ‘afore the butter’)
D. A Foremaster, so-called because the sailing master was always present (from ‘afore the master’)