Newsletter 18

Welcome to the first issue of our occasional newsletter for the new year, February 2010.

Jack Tar paperback

In the run-up to Christmas, we had a another wonderful review of the paperback of Jack Tar, this time by Toby Clements in the Telegraph newspaper, who referred to the book as ‘extraordinary’ and as ‘wonderful history’. The reviewer also made the point that this is social rather than military history, something we ourselves have been trying to emphasise. For the second year running, the book suffered from supply problems in the run-up to Christmas, and so it wasn’t available with most online retailers (even Amazon had no copies from mid-December until about 6th January). The publisher assured us that there was plenty of stock, but that these online retailers aren’t good at updating their website information. Well, we wish the industry would get its act together, because they are losing sales – and so are we! The notable exception was The Book Depository, and we have heard nothing but praise about their service, which (at the last time of checking) offers free delivery worldwide.

Panorama of History

In the last newsletter, we said that Travel Editions was hosting a Panorama of History weekend special break at the end of January. This has been moved to 19th–21st March 2010, and is being held at a hotel in Charlecote village near Stratford-upon-Avon. It looks to be an excellent weekend, and we are giving a talk on Saturday 20th. Other speakers include Bettany Hughes and David Reynolds. You need to book in advance, and further details are on their website (at www.traveleditions.co.uk – click on “Tours & Destinations”). We have two or three other talks lined up for later in the year, which we’ll mention in later newsletters, or you can look at the ‘Latest News’ on this website.

Old Maps

Our latest magazine article to be published is “Know Your Place” in Family History Monthly for February 2010, pages 42 to 46. This is on old maps, for which we have a particular weakness, and so we decided to include a map-related competition question at the end of this newsletter.

Theatre Fire

In the family history magazine, Ancestors, issue 90 for January 2010 (published by The National Archives), pages 30 to 34, we have an article called “Tragedy in the Theatre”. When we go shopping in Exeter (Devon, England), about 5 miles from where we live, we often park in the Howell Road car park and walk up Longbrook Street, which leads to the shopping centre. At the top of Longbrook Street, there is a featureless office block, and on the other side of the road yet another featureless building. With its depressing brick façade and greyed-out windows, there is no hint whatsoever that this building is a big branch of Waterstones, the leading bookseller in the UK. Where is the excitement in bookselling?

The site of the office block was once the Theatre Royal. On 5th September 1887 a terrible fire took hold during the opening night of one play. The casualties were taken across to the New London Hotel, the site of which Waterstones now occupies. We discovered that a “Jack Tar” was one of the heroes who rescued several people. He was Able Seaman William Hunt, who was sufficiently agile and fearless to shin up ladders and bring people down. Another hero was Bombardier Francis Scattergood, who saved several people but was badly burned and died in hospital. He has a memorial in the Higher Cemetery in Exeter, but does anyone know when William Hunt died and where he is buried? [since answered in newsletter 31] About 188 people lost their lives in the fire, though the numbers may have been higher because the fire was so fierce that it completely destroyed bodies. This represents the worst loss of life in a single fire in Britain, possibly even Europe, but it probably saved many more lives because it was the catalyst for much better safety regulations in theatres, including the installation of safety curtains.

Family History and Nelson

We have to admit that we don’t know about family history magazines that are published outside Britain, but the magazines published over here are very relevant to those living far and wide. These magazines also give insights into fascinating aspects of the past. Millions of people are engaged in researching their family history, which gives them a real link to the past, making history relevant. Family history is big business, with magazines, online companies, online forums and television programmes. In the snobbery stakes, family history was once treated as the lowest of the low, local history came in second, while real History (with a capital H) was political, royal, economic and military in nature and outclassed the lot. Of course, it is now recognised that they are all real history, all intertwined, with no spurious divisions.

Many people are all at sea when it comes to researching naval ancestors, but what can seem like an impenetrable problem is often sorted out rapidly by those who are accustomed to dealing with records of this type. If one of your ancestors was definitely or possibly in the Royal Navy around the time of Nelson, you may want to find out more about his ship, his service record, his commanding officers or the life he might have led. Online forums are a good place to ask for and exchange information, and they always welcome newcomers. One forum is at http://forum.sailingnavies.com, and it has sections such as “Ships”, “Events” and “Marines”. A particular aspect of this forum involves people trawling through old newspapers and posting details they come across. Another forum is www.ageofnelson.org, and especially valuable here is the list of officers and the directory of ships (Ships of the Old Navy), your first port of call if you want to know about a specific warship.

The Nelson and his World forum (at www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk) is devoted to anything to do with Nelson and the navy of that time. This is a lively discussion group, with lots of comment and exchange of information, ranging across subjects as diverse as poetry, Nelson’s attitudes to war, naval medicine and relevant items for sale on eBay. Anyone struggling with their naval family history research can register and ask a question – there is no point taking months to sort out a problem, when somebody else may have done the work already and can answer your query straightaway.

Postcards from the Frontier

Our local city of Exeter seems to be a theme in this newsletter, as we decided to include a piece on William Hoskins, who was born there in 1908 and is famous for his research on local history. Hoskins was working at a time when local history tended to fall through the cracks (sometimes yawning chasms) between history, archaeology, geography and architecture. He championed “local history” as a subject when academic historians and archaeologists tended to disparage it, dismissing it as parochial and of minor significance. Usually known as W.G. Hoskins through his classic books such as The Making of the English Landscape and Local History in England, this historian can be seen as one of the first “environmentalists” in the real meaning of that word – someone concerned with all aspects of the environment.

In his book Fieldwork in Local History, published in 1967, he made the point that “there is no opposition between fieldwork and documents. Both are essential to the good local historian”. It is a statement more easily accepted today than at the time it was written, when archaeologists regarded fieldwork as their sole preserve, and historians rarely dreamed of setting foot outdoors, unless to a library or record office. Hoskins was known for his sense of humour, and when he refers to “the good local historian”, there is more than a suspicion that the word “good” should be emphasised – in much the same way that authors and publishers say that their books are available “in all good bookshops” – with all that this implies.

Nowadays more than just lip-service is paid to all sources of historical evidence, and Roman Britain is one area of study that benefits from such an approach. Hadrian’s Wall, for example, has been known about for many centuries, and the evidence for this monument derives from archaeological excavation and fieldwork, as well as a wealth of historical documents. In simplified terms, Hadrian’s Wall was built from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle) to form the northern military boundary of the Roman Empire. It has now become an attraction for people with all kinds of interests, and walking the Wall is a popular holiday activity. In 1801, at the age of 78, William Hutton decided to walk the length of the Wall in both directions. The fact that he lived in Birmingham did not deter him, though he wisely chose the summer months for his journey.

A section of Hadrian’s Wall and a milecastle
A section of Hadrian’s Wall and a milecastle

Hutton walked from Birmingham to Carlisle through the Lake District, accompanied by his daughter who rode pillion on a horse behind a servant, but after that he was on his own. From Carlisle he first went west as far as Bowness, then all along the Wall to Wallsend and back to Carlisle, before meeting up with his daughter again and returning on foot to Birmingham! The only major difficulty he encountered was on the trip home from Carlisle, when his leg was bitten by a dog, a painful injury that also raised fears about rabies. Fortunately the bite healed, and Hutton’s account of his journey and the places he visited was published in 1802 as The History of the Roman Wall.

His account is valuable since it shows how Hadrian’s Wall was being destroyed, giving an insight into the processes responsible for archaeological sites dwindling from something substantial into almost nothing. Hutton wrote of the Wall west of Haltonchesters (near Turret 25b for those of you with a map), “Had I been some months sooner, I should have been favoured with a noble treat, but now that treat was miserably soured. At the twentieth milestone, I should have seen a piece of … Wall seven feet and a half high, and two hundred and twenty four yards long: a sight not to be found in the whole line. But the proprietor, Henry Tulip Esq., is now taking it down, to erect a farm-house with the materials. Ninety-five yards are already destroyed, and the stones fit for building removed. Then we come to thirteen yards which are standing, and overgrown on the top with brambles.”

This process had gone on for centuries – knock down part of the masonry wall, select the useful bits and leave the rest for someone else to pick over later. It is unlikely that many of the stones travelled very far, and some can certainly be identified in walls of nearby buildings and in the foundations of roads. In his handbook to the Wall, J. Collingwood Bruce recorded a local legend that William Hutton wept to see the devastation, causing Henry Tulip to preserve the surviving section of the Wall here.

It is not just relatively recent historical documents that can shed light on archaeological remains. At the fort of Vindolanda, to the south of the Wall, excavations have recovered a substantial number of wooden writing tablets that were dumped with the domestic rubbish in what was damp soil. Organic materials like wood and leather are mainly attacked and destroyed by bacteria which need air to survive. In conditions with little or no air, such as in waterlogged deposits or underwater, wood can survive for thousands of years.

The term “writing tablet” is misleading, since this implies a wooden tablet with a shallow depression holding a layer of wax into which letters were incised. There are some like this from Vindolanda, but the majority are effectively wooden sheets of writing paper – thin sheets of wood about the size of a postcard, with messages written in ink or even scratched directly on to the wood. These sheets were used in a similar way to paper in today’s world: for letters, notes, shopping lists, reminders and so on. They are rare contemporary documents recording snippets of life on the Wall in Roman times. Both military and civilian records have been discovered, so that alongside a note from a Roman soldier asking if he can be granted leave, there are lists of household goods and clothing. In addition, there are drafts and copies of outgoing letters, ranging from official military communications right down to an invitation to a birthday party sent from one Roman lady to another. What history could be more “local” than a birthday party on Hadrian’s Wall nearly two millennia ago? As W.G. Hoskins said, “there is no opposition between fieldwork and documents”.

New (Old) Books

It is amazing what you find on the internet. Trawling (rather than surfing) a little while ago, we came across two books that we had written and which we did not know had been published. “How does that happen?” you might ask. Well, more years ago than we care to remember, we were approached by a specialist publisher (known in the trade as a packager) to write a book called An Introduction to Archaeology. This was the first such introduction to be fully illustrated in colour, and they were offering a flat fee. The disadvantage is that packagers buy the copyright and we would not be entitled to future royalty payments, only the one-off fee. We took the money and wrote.

After this book, we did two other “packaged” books (Abandoned Places and Introduction to the Romans), and the relatively modest fees were very welcome (they’d be welcome now!). Over the years these books have been sold from publisher to publisher, each time receiving a new cover design to make them look different. We are not informed each time any of these books is sold on and republished, but two or three years ago we came across a Spanish translation of An Introduction to the Romans on a bookstall in a Spanish market. Last week we were pleasantly surprised to find two further translations, German and French, both published in 2008. The German version was published by Taschen Deutschland with the title Die Römer – Kultur und Mythen (ISBN 9783836502740), and the French version was published by Evergreen with the title Mythes et culture romains (ISBN 9783836502733). We haven’t been able to find a picture of the French jacket, but at long last one of our books has been translated into French!

Jacket of the German translation of An Introduction to the Romans
Jacket of the German translation of An Introduction to the Romans

E-books (electronic books) are becoming increasingly popular, though we ourselves are yet to be persuaded that you can curl up with an e-book in the same way as a “proper” book (though we can see that e-book novels and guidebooks would be wonderful for taking on holiday or when commuting). By chance, we found out on the internet this week that Nelson’s Trafalgar (the US version of Trafalgar) is available as an e-book for $16 from the online retailer fictionwise.com, while a Kindle version (sold by Amazon.com) sells for $9.99.

Monument of the Month

There are few graveyards in a more beautiful setting than the Barnoon Cemetery at St Ives on the north Cornish coast. The cemetery takes its name from the hill on the slopes of which it is set – one of several hills that surround the picturesque little port. This month’s monument is a gravestone belonging to the Tregerthen Short family, and the inscription on it reads:

“In Memory of Elizabeth, Wife of John Tregerthen Short, who exchanged mortality for life 18th December 1857 aged 64 years. Also of the above named John T. Short, of St. Ives, who departed this life Decr. 13th. 1873, aged 89 years. He was a prisoner of war in France from 1804 to 1814. Also of three Richards, sons of Thomas & Mary Short, and grandchildren of the above, all of whom died in their infancy”.

The Short family gravestone, Barnoon Cemetery, St Ives, Cornwall
The Short family gravestone, Barnoon Cemetery, St Ives, Cornwall

Apart from the tragedy of a family who gave the name “Richard” to a newborn son three times, only to see each child die in infancy, the stone refers to John Tregerthen Short being a prisoner-of-war in France during the Napoleonic Wars. John was a 19-year-old apprentice seaman on board the merchant ship Friendship, which sailed from St Ives on 2nd January 1804, carrying various cargoes from port to port around the English coast. In March the Friendship was in the Downs anchorage, off Deal in Kent, and joined a convoy bound for Portsmouth, but the ship was captured by a French privateer off Beachy Head on 28th March. The crew was landed at Dieppe and imprisoned for a few days, before being marched to Givet on the River Meuse in the Ardennes, in what was the French Netherlands.

Givet was a fortified town that was serving as a “depôt” – a prisoner-of-war camp. Conditions for prisoners in France was miserable. When the Reverend Robert Wolfe was appointed chaplain to all British prisoners-of-war in France, he based himself at Givet and wrote:

“I found the depôt in the most deplorable state. Both in a moral and physical point of view, it would be difficult to conceive anything more degraded and miserable … So great was their distress, at that moment, that, unable to satisfy the craving of hunger, they were seen to pick up the potato peelings, that were thrown out into the court, and devour them … The little money that was received by the prisoners, instead of being applied to the relief of their wants, and to make them more comfortable in food and clothing, was spent in riot and excess. On these occasions, sailors … never think of to-morrow.”

For those of you who have read our books The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar, you will recognise these names, because we mention their stories when talking about prisoners-of-war during the Napoleonic Wars. Once the war had resumed in 1803, after the collapse of the Peace of Amiens, arrangements governing prisoner exchanges were entirely abandoned, with Napoleon only allowing them on rare occasions. Before that, officers could expect to be exchanged for captured French officers fairly quickly, while ordinary sailors were exchanged in batches. Once hostilities resumed, prisoners were kept in France until the war was over. It is difficult to imagine that the merchant or naval seamen captured at the beginning of the war remained incarcerated for over a decade, far longer than any POW in, say, World War 2.

Many of the prisoners made the best of their lot as each dreary year dragged by. A school was established at Givet, and John Short was one of the teachers, presumably because he could read and write. Over 400 seamen learned basic literacy, and he himself was able to study navigation. John was a prisoner for a decade, not returning to St Ives until May 1814, and he then became a teacher of navigation. He married Elizabeth Curnow on 29th March 1818, and they had six children. John was also a good artist, and so it is fitting that his gravestone on Barnoon Hill overlooks a town that later became famous for its artists. If it were taller, his gravestone would cast a shadow over the Tate St Ives Art Gallery, which stands at the foot of the hill.

Salty Sagas

No, not further tales on the high seas, but wintry weather on land. With all the harsh weather that ushered in the New Year, salt was very much in the news in Britain, because supplies ran short just when it was needed to help keep the roads and footpaths clear of snow and ice. Businesses must have lost a great deal of money, with extra costs involved in clearing up car accidents and treating patients in hospitals for injuries after falls on icy surfaces. You would imagine that the cost of treating patients must far outweigh that of stockpiling plenty of salt beforehand, but different departments, different budgets, different priorities… Not too long ago, footpaths were taken care of by householders and businesses, by spreading ash and cinders from coal fires, while local authorities concentrated on keeping roads safe.

Salt has been used for all kinds of things for thousands of years. A certain amount of salt in the diet is necessary for health, but salt in quantity is a poison. It is this dual quality that makes it an ideal preservative for food, as it restricts the action of bacteria but can be washed off or soaked out of food to make it more palatable. These qualities were known by trial and error from earliest times, and salt has been highly prized throughout history. From the Bronze Age in Britain, seawater was evaporated in purpose-built coastal pools and lagoons (salt pans), and the resulting brine boiled until salt was left. This method of salt production continued to the 19th century, and the abandoned saltworking sites are often known as ‘redhills’ (and may be the reason for some local ‘Redhill’ place-names), because of the heaps of discarded clay pots, tanks, firebars and cinders, all burnt red.

The Romans used salt as a medicine, as a preservative for food and as a seasoning. One derivation of the modern word salary is from the Latin word salarium, which meant a regular payment and possibly a salt ration. Pliny the Elder wrote that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is misleading, but it is believed that during the Republic, soldiers were issued with a food ration, including a portion of salt, that went by the overall name of salarium, and that these rations were replaced by a money payment which retained the same name. Such a derivation is linked to the expression “not worth his salt”, meaning “not capable of doing the job” and so “not worth the wages he is paid”. The Roman Via Salaria (Salt Road) in Italy, from Rome to Reate, was an old salt route.

Traditionally the Romans were thought to use salt as a poison in the destruction of enemy cities. If they wanted to wipe a city from the face of the earth the buildings were destroyed by fire, the ruins demolished, the area ploughed, and salt supposedly sown to prevent anything growing. The rival city of Carthage was thought to have been destroyed in this way by Rome, but over 20 years ago an Australian scholar, R.T. Ridley, pointed out that the earliest reference to this use of ploughing-in salt was early 20th-century in date, and this assertion was copied, unchecked, by later historians. There appears to be no evidence that the Romans ever used salt in this way.

In Britain one of the chief salt-producing areas is in Cheshire, particularly around Nantwich and Northwich. At Nantwich salt springs, bringing salt from underground, were exploited by evaporating and boiling the water. Latterly production was increased by using pumps to raise more and more of the spring water, but eventually this source was eclipsed by Northwich, where mineshafts were dug to collect the rock salt deposits directly. The demand that drove this increase in production was not just the rising population needing more preserved food, but new industrial uses for salt in chemical processes, such as the manufacture of soap and glass. Today the vast majority of salt comes from rock salt.

Memorial to Jonathan Bawden, salt officer, in St Gregory’s Church, Seaton, Devon
Memorial to Jonathan Bawden, salt officer, in St Gregory’s Church, Seaton, Devon

Inevitably, because it was an essential commodity, many regimes saw salt as an easy target to tax. Just as modern government taxes fuel and energy, so previous governments taxed salt. In England there was a tax on salt as early as the 17th century, but the main period of taxation ran throughout the 18th century, until the salt tax was repealed in 1825. The salt tax was collected by specialist excise men called salt officers, who were stationed in coastal and other salt-producing areas. The tax was usually several times the real retail value (like the taxes on petrol and diesel in Britain today), and at its worst it was nine times the retail value. The modern equivalent would be a massive tax on frozen and canned food, with lesser taxes on a whole range of products from washing powder to wine glasses. In short, the salt tax affected everyone, but fell heavily on the poorer classes. It is not surprising, therefore, that salt became an item traded by smugglers, who brought in cheaper salt from abroad. There was never a shortage of those willing to buy contraband salt, just as they bought luxury goods like alcohol, lace and tea from smugglers.

Competition [now closed]

If you don’t have, or do not trust, a satnav or GPS device in Britain, you are reliant on maps to find your way around. The most versatile and comprehensive series of maps are the OS maps. These began to be compiled in the 1790s, during the wars with France, but the first of these maps was not published until some years later. To enter the competition, please tell us what the initials ‘OS’ are short for. Do they mean,

  • A. Orthographic Survey
  • B. Ordinary Survey
  • C. Ortelian Survey
  • D. Ordnance Survey
  • E. Ordinal Survey

The first two correct answers out of the hat will be the winners and will each receive a mystery prize.