Welcome to the second issue, for September 2006, of our occasional newsletter.
Our latest book, The War for All the Oceans, has just been published in hardback in the UK (by Little, Brown). It is the story of the efforts of the British Navy to defeat Napoleon, from his rise to power in the last years of the 18th century up to his final flight after Waterloo. Nelson was the first commander to defeat Napoleon at sea, while another naval officer, Sir Sidney Smith, was the first to defeat him on land. After Waterloo, it was to another naval officer that Napoleon finally surrendered. The book covers many incidents, particularly those after Trafalgar, that rarely see the light of day in history books, such as the disastrous Walcheren Expedition (the largest combined navy and army operation of the Napoleonic wars), and the war between Britain and America of 1812-15, during which a force under another naval commander, Vice-Admiral Cockburn, attacked Washington and burned down the White House. As well as the main storyline, there are fascinating minor episodes, like HMS Diamond Rock, not actually a ship, but a rock off Martinique that was garrisoned by the British Navy and treated as a warship.
If you read this book and enjoy it, please put a review on Amazon, if you don’t enjoy it, please email us with your comments!
In July, counting on the much-publicised drought in Britain to provide fine weather, we headed north for a few days, we should have known better. Frequent heavy showers and constant rain accompanied our visit. We broke our return journey at Ironbridge in Shropshire, the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and spent an entire day at this world heritage site. The weather was dry, although the sky was grey and the light poor, but Ironbridge itself was anything but dull. It is hard to appreciate now that the bridge of 1779 which gives the small town its name was so innovative that right from the start it was a tourist attraction. It remains a beautiful example of engineering skill, some would call it a work of art.
Broseley Pipeworks, Shropshire
The highlight of our fleeting visit, though, was a little-known gem within the Ironbridge complex. When we first saw mention of Broseley Pipeworks, our minds were focused on iron, steel and bridges, so the name conjured visions of huge iron sewer and water pipes, but in fact clay pipes for smoking tobacco were manufactured here until after the Second World War. As any archaeologist in Britain will tell you, white or off-white clay pipe fragments turn up in almost every excavation. The pipe bowls are accurate dating evidence, and experts can sometimes gain a broad indication of date just from pieces of pipe stem. Clay pipe fragments litter the soil of most gardens because pipes were cheap, sometimes given away free and liable to break easily. The discarded pipes, being of fired clay, are extremely durable and resistant to chemicals. Many an excavator has groaned out loud to find bits of clay pipe at the bottom of an interesting-looking prehistoric or Roman pit, betraying some sort of disturbance, such as by burrowing rabbits. In such a situation, archaeologists are unlikely to stop and marvel at the skill that went into forming the clay shape before it was fired, or wonder at the steadiness of hand needed to hollow out the stem by pushing a fine wire up the centre of a long floppy thread of damp clay.
There is a global dimension, too, that is often forgotten, since clay pipes were exported to every part of the British Empire, and were doubtless carried further afield by various expeditions, and clay pipes were also made locally in different parts of the world. In this way clay pipe fragments provide an unmistakable historical marker in many countries. Seamen of the Royal Navy resorted to chewing their tobacco, as smoking below decks was only allowed in the galley. They therefore welcomed the freedom of being able to smoke tobacco when taking part in the 1804 Diamond Rock operation, away from their warships. Midshipman Jackson visited the place, but he was a rarity, as he loathed smoking. He was not convinced by his colleagues telling him that, the more beastly a pipe looks and smells, the nicer it is to smoke, these were, of course, clay pipes.
The Broseley Pipeworks is a time capsule, surviving in much the same state as when the works shut down in the 1950s. Apart from the exhibits, it is a fantastic bonus if you are there when the clay pipe expert, Rex Key, is on hand (often at a weekend) to talk about the pipes and demonstrate how they were made. There is also a short video in one of the workshops that explains the manufacturing process and includes unique footage of one of the last workers at the factory making clay pipes. If you are passing Ironbridge, look at the bridge and then visit Broseley before you do anything else! Information about opening times is on the main Ironbridge website.
We have made some changes to our website, with a few new additions. Under the ‘Latest News’ page, you can see what talks we are giving.
Monument of the Month
Gravestone of Frederick Marryat
In the years immediately after Waterloo, Captain Frederick Marryat rose to prominence as a novelist, at times rivaling Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Nowadays his best-known works are probably Mr Midshipman Easy and Masterman Ready, but he wrote a whole string of books for both adults and
children, often drawing on his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. He served under Thomas Cochrane (dubbed the ‘sea wolf’ by Napoleon) and took part in raids on the Spanish coast and the attack on the French fleet at Basque Roads in 1809. Afterwards, Marryat was in the Walcheren Expedition and was one of thousands to catch malaria there. He fought in the war against America, but was taken ill again and was eventually sent home in 1814. By the time he recovered, the war was over.
Being young at the time (he was born in 1792) Marryat had only attained the rank of master and commander, although he could, and did, lay claim to the title of ‘captain’. He was not yet a post captain, and so his half-pay was meagre, and he found it impossible to obtain another commission in the navy for some years. He later commanded a ship guarding Napoleon on St Helena and also an anti-smuggling ship in the Channel. He published his first novel in 1829, and for many years his writing career ran in parallel with his naval career. Through his children’s books in particular, he did much to inspire subsequent generations of sailors, but he died in 1848 at the early age of 56. He is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew and St Mary at Langham in Norfolk. The inscription on his tomb reads simply:
TO THE MEMORY OF
AETAT 56 OBIIT AUG. 9TH
BEING JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, WE HAVE
PEACE WITH GOD THROUGH OUR
LORD JESUS CHRIST. ROM. V. VER. I.
The Beer Ration in Nelson’s Navy
Think of the sailors of Nelson’s navy and inevitably we think of ‘grog’ – that mixture of rum and water (often with lime or lemon juice added) that is named after its inventor, Admiral Edward Vernon. He was known to the sailors as ‘Old Grogram’ because of the heavy type of grogram cloak that he always wore, and so the drink was called ‘grog’. It became closely associated with the navy and was often referred to as ‘Nelson’s Blood’, so it comes as some surprise that the official alcoholic drink ration was actually beer. Seamen were allowed a gallon of beer a day, but this was not quite the recipe for a ‘groggy’ crew that might be expected. The beer was generally weak, around 2–3 percent alcohol by volume, whereas modern British beers are 4 percent and higher, while European and American lagers are often about 5 percent alcohol. Also, the gallon measure was not the modern British gallon, but a ‘wine measure’ gallon (equivalent to a modern American gallon), which is roughly five-sixths of a British gallon.
Beer was issued to the sailors because the fresh water on board ship was often undrinkable. As one midshipman put it, ‘water so putrid, thick and stinking, that often I have held my nose with my hand while I drank it strained through my pocket handkerchief’. They were of course only reduced to drinking water when all forms of alcoholic drink had run out. The problem with water arose mainly from the method of storage. It was usually drawn from rivers and was not filtered, treated or purified in any way, but put straight into wooden casks. These were seldom clean and were reused until worn out, and sometimes the casks had been previously used for other substances, such as oil. Even the best of fresh water rapidly became tainted in such storage conditions.
The problem with beer was that it took up as much storage space as water, but could not be replenished as easily. Even if it did not go sour or cloudy because the storage or brewing temperature was too high, the beer on board usually only lasted a month into a voyage, and from then on the sailors were issued a pint of wine a day or a half-pint of spirits. The wine was sometimes fortified with brandy to increase the length of time before it spoiled, and the spirits might be anything obtainable locally such as brandy, arrack or rum. Rum became the most common spirit, and was considerably stronger than the types of rum sold today. Because it was diluted with water, which could be replenished during a voyage, rum took up much less space than beer, and yet beer continued to be issued where available, especially when ships were in home ports. In part this may have been because in port and on the first part of the outward voyage, sailors were not thought to need the extra ‘boost’ from a strong alcoholic drink, so the weaker beer would do. It is possible, though, that it was also because the excise duty was much lower on beer than on wines and spirits, so beer was drunk in port and on the way out of home waters. Such was the fear of navy stores of wine and spirits being smuggled ashore and sold on the thriving black market that it was forbidden for casks of wine or spirits to be opened within reach of the British coast.
The problem of keeping beer on long sea voyages had already been solved 50 years earlier, with the invention of a bitter, sparkling ale with a higher alcohol content that evolved into Imperial Pale Ale (now generally known as IPA). Originally brewed for export to India, and sometimes known as India Pale Ale, the market for this type of beer expanded with the spread of the British Empire. It was a popular drink with the British overseas and was often preferable to the cheaper and more potent local wines and spirits. It was not adopted by Nelson’s navy, probably because of the limited number of suppliers and its relatively high price. The navy needed beer on an industrial scale and much of it was brewed by the navy’s Victualling Board. While IPA was destined to become associated with the army overseas, and despite the fact that rum was often issued to the lower ranks of that army, grog will always be thought of as uniquely a navy drink.
The last competition was a tricky one that essentially asked which was Nelson’s good eye that was protected by an eyeshade sewn to his hat. Anyone who has seen the rather misleading portrait by Arthur Devis would be forgiven for assuming it was over his right eye, but in fact there is plenty of evidence that the shade was to protect his good left eye, including a letter from Nelson himself asking Emma Hamilton to make him some eyeshades. Nowadays it is usually only in cartoons that Nelson is portrayed with an eyepatch covering his blind right eye, but in the 19th century many forgeries of ‘Nelson’s glass eye’ were made, and a collection of these is on display in Monmouth Museum in Wales. In fact, Nelson’s right eye was badly grazed so that he lost most of the sight and could only distinguish light from darkness with it, but the damage to the eye itself was barely visible, and he certainly did not have it replaced with a glass eye! The two winners in this competition of signed copies of our book, The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs, are Douglas Courtney and David Wilkinson.
Competition [now closed]
Now that we are on the slippery slope to Christmas and soon we will be plagued with advertising telling us how few shopping days are left, spare a thought for people in western Europe in October 1582 who suddenly found they had a shorter distance to slide. Until that time the Julian Calendar had been used, which reckoned that the year was 365¼ days long, when in fact the year is just over 11 minutes shorter.
Over the centuries this tiny discrepancy had accumulated, and this situation was remedied by the introduction in 1582 of the slightly more accurate Gregorian Calendar, drawn up under the authority of Pope Gregory XIII. In England, this did not happen until 1752, when ten days were lost out of the year.
Quite simply, by decree, the day after October 4 was October 15. This led to protests, with the notable cry of ‘give us back our ten days!’. Although some recent historians have dismissed these protests as almost mythical, the adjustment did have a profound effect on people’s lives: tenant farmers paying an annual rent, for example, did indeed lose ten days’ use of their land for which they had to pay. Many people clung to the old dates for annual celebrations, but because they used the new calendar to calculate these old dates, the celebrations were fossilised at the point they had reached when the Julian Calendar changed to the Gregorian – always ten days adrift. As late as 1808, a rural vicar writing in his diary recorded that his servant ‘begged for a holiday tomorrow, it being Old Christmas Day’. The question for the competition, therefore, is what date (in the Gregorian Calendar, which we still use today) is the ‘Old Christmas Day’ that the vicar’s servant wanted to celebrate? Two winners will each receive a signed copy of Trafalgar. The Biography of a Battle.
In the Next Issue
Christmas in Napoleonic times, Monument of the Month, and all our latest news.