Newsletter 20

Welcome to the September 2010 issue of our occasional newsletter.

THE END OF THE BOOK?

What other retail industry would sell the latest, long-awaited product – a must-have thriller or memoir, for example – for a fraction of the recommended price, when most potential buyers would happily fork out the full price? It is total madness. To judge from the media, books are doomed, with publishers commissioning fewer decent titles for far less money, defeated by supermarkets and chain booksellers who sell books as loss leaders. To make matters worse, we are now told that e-books are the final nail in the coffin. These are electronic versions of books that you download, for a fee, from online retailers and which you can read on an e-reader. Many people do not realise that when you buy an e-book, you do not actually own it! It is like a computer program – you are merely licensed to use it. To us, reading a book on an e-reader is an alien concept, and research published last month in the UK showed that only 2% of adults, mostly young men, have access to an e-reader. Indeed, we have yet to meet anyone who relishes the idea of reading a book on such a reader, including young students and more mature readers. Yet the impression is given that publishers are obsessed by this market. When Paul McCartney was interviewed several weeks ago on BBC Radio 4, he declared that he had no interest in e-books but loved proper books. Publishers and booksellers should follow his lead and save the book! We appreciate that e-readers could be useful at times, such as when travelling in order to avoid carrying piles of heavy books. It would be great to use such a device with a variety of travel books – we love the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides, which are immensely heavy to carry, and the Blue Guides, with their mass of information on history, art and architecture. Our two versions of Greece weigh in at over 1.3kg! However, with many e-books stored on it, losing an e-book reader would be more like losing a library.

A TOURIST GUIDE TO GREECE

Early travel guides:

Unfortunately, the tourist industry in Greece and elsewhere has been suffering of late, which inevitably has affected sales of guidebooks. On top of the problems caused by global financial mismanagement, which produced a drop in tourist numbers, there was further disruption to holiday flights by volcanic ash from Iceland, industrial action by airline and airport staff, tour companies going bust, and then civil unrest in Greece itself, with growing protests against repressive measures introduced after the financial crisis. This is a country that has thrived on tourism for centuries. In the Greek and Roman periods, books on interesting areas of the known world, which might now be described as ‘geography books’, ‘history for travellers’ or ‘tourist guides’, were already an established genre, but they survive mainly as fragmentary texts. The exception is the ‘Description of Greece’ by Pausanias.

Manuscript copies:

Works such as that by Pausanias have come down to us as handwritten copies, or to be precise, as copies of endless copies. There is never any way of telling how many times a manuscript was copied over the centuries and how many errors and omissions have crept in. Pausanias was writing in the 2nd century AD, but the surviving copies date to the 15th century, more than a thousand years later. The versions that are available to modern readers (in translation or ancient Greek) are edited texts compiled from those manuscripts that appear least altered by the constant copying. Pausanias’s guidebook is more-or-less intact. Although there are some gaps and obvious copying errors, it is certainly one of the better texts to have survived, and is an invaluable source for historians and archaeologists.

Pausanias the author:

We know little about Pausanias, and what we do know has been deduced from clues within his text. He seems to have been born in Roman Asia Minor, in an area that is now Turkey. He was writing for an audience of wealthy Romans who were interested in old Greece, especially Athens, Sparta, Olympia and Delphi. He concentrated mostly on the monuments, producing a Roman equivalent of a Blue Guide. To the Romans, Greece was the ancient source of civilisation, an inspiration for art and a source of antiques (which we would now regard as ‘antiquities’) for their villas. Despite writing for the Romans, Pausanias wrote in Greek, not Latin, because Greek was the ‘Latin’ of its day – the language used for writing by educated Romans, just as Latin was used by educated Europeans into the 19th century. In Britain, grammar schools have a long history, and their original (and primary) function was to teach Latin grammar, so that pupils could read all the serious scientific, religious, philosophical and historical texts, both ancient and modern, that were written in that language.

The Collingwood monument at Tynemouth
A view across Athens to the Acropolis

Pausanias on the Parthenon:

The value of Pausanias’s writing is it accuracy. Not every part of the text is a reliable record of Greece in his time, but as ancient sources go, it is one of the better ones. Although Pausanias made use of other people’s writings, he also seems to have visited most of the places, so that his descriptions are based on first-hand observation. For the Parthenon (the temple of the goddess Athena Parthenos – the Virgin Athena) on the Acropolis at Athens he says:

‘As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself [of Athena] is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx – the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my decription of Boeotia – and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief … The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief … The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates [a famous Athenian soldier], who accomplished many remarkable achievements.’

This account by Pausanias is crucial to modern interpretations of the Parthenon, since nothing of the centrepiece of the temple (the statue of Athena) has survived and only fragments of the pediments. Equally interesting is the fact that he completely fails to mention the sculptural frieze that ran below the pediments. Fragments from this frieze form the main attraction of the controversial ‘Elgin Marbles’ at the British Museum in London. Was this frieze, now so highly regarded as a work of art, totally eclipsed by the pediments and other sculpture?

The Parthenon in history:

Over the centuries the Parthenon has had a chequered history. It was originally built in the 5th century BC to replace an earlier temple that was destroyed by the Persians during their invasion of Greece in 480 BC. In the 6th century AD the Parthenon was converted to a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin, and after Greece was annexed by the Ottoman Turks, it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century. In 1687, the Venetians attacked Athens. The Turks fortified the Acropolis, and the Parthenon was used as an ammunition dump, as well as a shelter for women and children. Unfortunately, during a bombardment of the Acropolis by the Venetians, the Parthenon was a conspicuous target. A shell ignited the stored ammunition, blowing the Parthenon apart and killing about 300 people.

A print of the Parthenon ruins published in 1797
A print of the Parthenon ruins published in 1797

Later, the ruin was exploited in various ways, with local people selling sculptural fragments to tourists or reusing the shattered stones in other structures. Buildings were erected within the ruins and elsewhere on the Acropolis, which became yet another residential area of Athens. At the time when Lord Elgin controversially ‘stole’ or ‘rescued’ his marbles from the site [depending on your point of view], the Parthenon was a series of ruined fragments standing between the buildings, and fallen stones and sculptures were being ground up to make cement. Now, of course, the Acropolis looks completely different, having been cleared of any remains not dating back to ancient Greece, so that the Acropolis and Parthenon ruins are solely a tourist attraction and a World Heritage site.

The Acropolis and Parthenon
The Acropolis and Parthenon

All change:

The Parthenon may be famous, but what has happened to this monument is quite the opposite of unique. Any site in continuous use is likely to have undergone a series of dramatic changes over such a long period. Even smaller, less prominent sites change radically over the centuries. The importance of the works of Pausanias and other early geographers, historians and travel writers is in the clues they provide to help us interpret archaeological remains. Who knows, perhaps the World Heritage site of Stonehenge would be better treated and displayed if a writer like Pausanias had written about it 2,000 years ago? As it is, the UK government has recently withdrawn funding from the long-awaited improvements to the monument.

JACK TAR

The paperback edition of Jack Tar continues to sell well, and the book has just been reprinted for the second time this year. Alas, it is still not (officially) available in the US. A recent review on Amazon says that ‘If you have even the slightest interest in this subject matter, then I cannot recommend this book enough … the only negative aspect being that it wasn’t longer.’ Another reviewer has commented that ‘Anyone reading Patrick O’Brian’s 20 Captain Aubrey novels should read this book – it complements the novels perfectly.’

WHITE HOUSE BURNED DOWN

The competition question in the previous issue was: which year did the British land on American soil, march to Washington and burn down the White House? The answer was 1814, because the action was part of the so-called ‘War of 1812’ between Britain and the United States, which actually lasted between 1812 and 1815. It was a pointless war that achieved virtually nothing for either side and was brought to a close by a negotiated peace. Due to various factors, not least a superior design and build of heavy frigates, America had superiority over the Royal Navy. It was the first time for many years that the British had been seriously challenged at sea, let alone have ships captured. The war therefore had some impact in Britain, but on the whole British eyes were fixed on the continuing Napoleonic conflict in Europe. From the British side of the Atlantic, the War of 1812 was very much a ‘forgotten war’. Whether the landing of British troops in America can be classed as an invasion rather than a large raid is open to debate, but the American successes at sea were not matched on land, and President Madison and his entourage were forced to flee from Washington. Lieutenant James Scott was with the party that sacked the White House and later recorded:

‘We found the cloth laid [in the White House] for the expected victorious generals, and all the appliances and means to form a feast worthy the resolute champions of republic freedom. A large store of super-excellent Madeira and other costly wines stood cooling in ice in one corner of the spacious dining-room … dusty, feverish and thirsty, in my extremity I absolutely blessed them for their erring providence. Never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods, than the crystal goblet of Madeira and water I quaffed at Mr. Madison’s expense.’

All change:

The only legacies of this war that have any continued resonance today are songs. The American national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, was composed by the poet Francis Scott Key at the bombardment of Baltimore in September 1814 and later set to music, while ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ was written in 1936 by an American folk singer/songwriter called Jimmy Driftwood (real name, James Morris). He was working as a teacher and wrote this song in an attempt to interest the schoolchildren in their own history. The Battle of New Orleans took place in January 1815 and was a disaster for the British. Driftwood added the song to his repertoire, and it was taken up by other perfomers who made it very popular. In 1960 the song won a Grammy award as best song of the year. In Britain it was recorded by Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group, and so it became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It is true to say that virtually no-one in Britain knew what the song was really about, and most assumed it described an imaginary event, or at best had something to do with the earlier American War of Independence. We deal with Washington, Baltimore, New Orleans and other aspects of the 1812 War in our book The War for All the Oceans.

The two competition prizes were copies of the hardback edition of the Recollections of James Anthony Gardner, volume 31 of the publications of the Navy Records Society, who kindly donated these as prizes. The Navy Records Society, which has charitable status, receives no grants or public money, but continues to flourish through the dedicated support of an international membership. The website of the NRS can be found at http://www.navyrecords.org.uk

US NAVAL INSTITUTE

Another respected naval organisation is USNI – the US Naval Institute. This is a non-profit member association, with no government support, that does not lobby for special interests. Its mission statement is to ‘provide an Independent Forum to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.’ As part of its work, the Institute hosts conferences and publishes a variety of works, including a monthly ‘Proceedings magazine’ and a bi-monthly ‘Naval History magazine’. The Naval Institute Press has published over 1,000 books. Membership is available to all, American and international, with a variety of options, such as standard, basic, online and student. The online membership, useful for those overseas, includes online editions of the two magazines and all other member benefits and discounts. Their website is www.usni.org

SOUTH WEST MARITIME HISTORY SOCIETY

This society was founded in 1984, and the aim is to encourage interest in all aspects of our maritime heritage (not just naval) and to promote research in these fields, leading where possible to publication. The society focuses on the four counties of south-west England – Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. However, much of the work is relevant far beyond these shores, and so members come from much further afield. The society has a varied programme of meetings, visits and events, and also publishes newsletters and the journal ‘Maritime South West’, as well as occasional monographs. Their website (with details on membership) is www.swmaritime.org.uk, and it has a very useful archive as well as an online forum.

VICTORIAN VALUES

The Victorians have been popping up everywhere recently, including television and radio programmes and magazine articles. All too often, the Victorian way of life comes over as much closer to our own than it was in reality. Television documentaries, particularly where actors or presenters masquerade as Victorians, tend to give only a partial view of life in the century before last. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to gain access to newspapers of that period, and these give a better (though still partial) flavour of life in Queen Victoria’s Britain. Below are a few snippets taken from The London Journal for the year 1863. This was a weekly newspaper that carried serialised novels as well as news items, and it often used condensed ‘fillers’ gleaned from the daily newspapers. To set the scene, it should be remembered that 1863 was almost halfway through Queen Victoria’s long reign and also halfway through the American Civil War. The British Empire was at its height, and Britain was a rich and powerful country whose success was built on worldwide trade. 1863 was the year that the world’s first underground railway system opened in London, with steam trains running in deep cuttings and tunnels. It was also the year that the Football Association was established in London and formulated the rules for football – or ‘soccer’ as it would become known in some parts of the world. On the other hand, horse-riding was still the main (and fastest) method of travel, other than by steam train, and the only way to get off the ground was in an experimental hot-air balloon.

Modern communications:

In 1863 inventions such as radio, television, telephones and the internet were unheard-of. The telegraph, though, transmitting messages by morse code, was spreading rapidly – even in war-torn America. The London Journal reported the latest achievement under the headline ‘The Telegraph in America’:

The Atlantic has been united to the Pacific by an electric cord 3,500 miles in length, and through this, the largest electric circuit in the world, messages have been flashed. New York and San Francisco now hold daily converse. This is one of the grandest commercial and scientific achievements of the age. The history of the electric telegraph is as wonderful as the story of ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’. It is but eighteen years since the first line of telegraph was laid on the continent of America, between Washington and Baltimore, and now more than 50,000 miles of wire throb daily with messages of love, hope, fear and business, conveyed between every city and almost every hamlet in the land. When the first line was laid, California was almost an unknown land, and was in the entire possession of the wandering Indian and the degenerate Spaniard … It is hoped that a railroad across the continent will soon follow the telegraph.

Life and Death:

One element of Victorian life that is difficult to convey in television programmes was the preoccupation with death. To us now, this can easily seem morbid, but the Victorians saw people dying all around them, literally on a daily basis. The lack of detailed knowledge about the causes and methods of transmission of diseases was largely responsible for a high death rate, particularly among the young, which produced a startlingly low average life expectancy, as revealed in this piece in The London Journal called ‘Singular Facts in Human Life’:

The average length of life is about 28 years. One-quarter die previous to the age of 7; one-half before reaching 17. Only 1 of every 1,000 persons reaches 100 years. Only 6 of every 100 reaches the age of 65, and not more than 1 in 500 lives to 80 years of age. Of the whole population on the globe, it is estimated that 90,000 die every day, about 3,700 every hour, and 60 every minute, or 1 every second. These losses are more than counterbalanced by the number of births … The rate of mortality in 1781 was 1 in 29, but in 1850, 1 in 40. The rich men live, on average, 42 years, but the poor only 30 years.

Modern music:

Not only were there no easy methods of communication in 1863, there was no method of recording sound – and of course iPods, CDs and sound systems were not even a dream. Music was passed from person to person via live performances (in theatres and concert halls, and by the singing of ballad sellers in the streets), or through sheet music. Instead of reviews of the latest album by a boy band, the newspapers carried notices and reviews of the latest sheet music to be published, as in this report by The London Journal entitled ‘New Music Received’:

“The Rosebud” (third edition) song by Robert Burns; music by R. Lincoln Cocks.– “The Sleep of Sorrow;” “The Sleep of Joy,” songs by J.E. Carpenter; airs by W. Vincent Wallace. (The poetry of these two songs is the true language of inspiration; it is simple, touching, and artistically adapted to the airs. We prefer the air of “The Sleep of Joy,” to that of “The Sleep of Sorrow,” it is graceful, spirited and melodious.) Robert Cocks and Co., London.

Lack of dirt:

The things that have a strikingly modern feel to them are the various controversies about over-population, dwindling natural resources and damage to the environment. In 1863 the scare of the moment was that agriculture would fail because the earth was running out of dirt, but The London Journal disagreed, in a paragraph called ‘The Earth is Safe’:

The Times says mankind are using up the world too fast. Incessant cultivation, it is alleged, is stripping the earth of its coat of mould, which cannot be replaced except by a return to the primeval forest. There are facts in existence a little inconsistent with that alarming statement. The plain around Benares has certainly been cultured for three thousand years, and is as rich as ever. The country around Damascus was a garden in the beginning of history and is a garden now. No forest ever renewed the soil of Northern Italy, nor is the glorious fertility of Asia Minor artificial. Districts have, it is true, perished, but it has always been from human folly, the cutting-down of the trees till the rain ceased, and the wells sank, as is now occurring in some parts of Upper India. When we conquered the Punjab that vast province did not contain one tree, and in thirty years would have become like the Babylonian desert, a sterile plain, and from the same cause.

The issue of deforestation continues, but at this distance in time, the fear that there will not be enough soil in which to grow crops seems ludicrous, largely because we now know so much more about soil formation and how to grow plants (with or without soil). In 1863 the state of knowledge (or ignorance) made such fears appear valid and urgent. Who knows which of our fears people will find laughable when they look back a couple of centuries from now?

Irish emigration:

In Ireland by 1863, the worst of the famine years and the mass emigration had passed, but conditions remained difficult and people were still leaving the country as fast as they could, even to America with its Civil War:

The exodus from Ireland is something extraordinary, and the report is that it is only beginning. Singular to say, this is the result of prosperous times. At the very first chance of getting away which presents itself, by the accumulation of a few harvest sovereigns [money from selling crops], the population seems inclined to move en masse for any place – even unpromising America. Certainly, the hole to be filled up there by the war is a large one, and Irish immigrants may, therefore, light upon pretty fair times.

Women at work:

In 1861 a census had been carried out, and one of the ‘filler’ items in The London Journal two years later examined the diversity of occupations for women that had been revealed. It is a very selective list, since professional nurses, midwives and schoolteachers are not included, and there is no hint of the huge numbers of women employed as domestic servants:

Much has been said … respecting occupations open to women; the census has its disclosures upon that subject, and gives a very funny catalogue of callings to which the soft sex apply themselves – namely, 10 bankers, 7 money-lenders, 247 commercial clerks, 25 commercial travellers, 54 brokers, 38 merchants, 29 farriers, 419 printers, 3 shepherds, 43,964 out-door agricultural labourers; 13 ladies were doctors, 2 were bone-setters, 6 were reporters or shorthand writers, 3 parish clerks, 4 choristers, 4 teachers of elocution, 17 dentists, 2 knackers, 4 conjurors, 1 astronomer, 8 naturalists.

WEATHER FORECASTS

Old newspapers are a very lively source of all kinds of historical information. The Times regularly published weather reports with detailed instrument readings from around the country. In 1861, just two years before The London Journal carried the items referred to above, The Times published a weather report on Thursday 1st August that had an additional short paragraph:

‘General weather probable during next two days in the :–
North – Moderate westerly wind; fine.
West – Moderate south-westerly; fine.
South – Fresh westerly; fine.’

This short, two-day prediction is thought to be the very first published weather forecast, and such forecasts would become a regular feature of the weather report. The man responsible was Robert FitzRoy, who had enjoyed a distinguished naval career and had commanded HMS Beagle, the ship that made a five-year voyage of exploration around the world, with Charles Darwin on board. FitzRoy had also been a Member of Parliament for Durham, and at one time was Governor General of New Zealand. In 1854 he was given the post of head of an experimental Meteorological Department of the government’s Board of Trade that is today known as the Meteorological Office, or ‘Met Office’ for short.

Forecasts ridiculed:

FitzRoy was convinced of the value of predicting storms to save lives at sea, and did much pioneering work, such as getting sturdy ‘coastal barometers’ put on display in ports and harbours as a warning of imminent storms. He also had weather reports from around Britain and on the nearby Continent transmitted to him via the telegraph. From this he compiled ‘synoptic charts’, a term that is still used. FitzRoy’s work and his forecasts soon came in for criticism as being inaccurate and unreliable, and the Board of Trade decided that his forecasts should cease. In 1865, ill and depressed (in part, it is thought, because of the widespread ridicule of his valuable work), he committed suicide, which was a profound loss to science. In 2002 FitzRoy was honoured by having the sea area previously known as ‘Finisterre’ renamed as ‘FitzRoy’. In 2004 the Met Office moved to a brand new purpose-built office block in Exeter in Devon, and the new road in which this building is located was named FitzRoy Road. Meanwhile, the public perception of official weather forecasts as unreliable and inaccurate has continued.

WOOD, STONES AND WATER

Groynes:

A familiar sight, particularly on the shingle beaches of England, are the lines of old timber groynes (or groins in the USA) running down into the sea. These structures
have been used since at least the 16th century to control coastal erosion. Because the water of an incoming tide rarely, if ever, strikes the coast exactly at a right-angle, the force of the water tends to shift sand and pebbles a short way along the beach. In a bay (and any coastline can be regarded as a series of large and small bays), the relentless effect of two tides each day (not to mention storms) will eventually strip the sand and pebbles from one end of the bay and pile them up at the other. The tides then begin to eat into the end of the bay that is left unprotected, and erosion accelerates. One way of stopping this erosion is by building a series of groynes, running down into the water and dividing the beach into compartments. This prevents a beach from losing all its pebbles, as they can only be shifted about within each compartment.

Erosion in fields:

This process is very familiar to archaeologists, because this is exactly what happens in ploughed fields. Any field that is not absolutely level, but on a slight slope, suffers from soil creep. The speed with which soil migrates downhill is dependent on the frequency of ploughing and the steepness of the slope. The soil tends to build up against hedges, walls and fences, which act in the same way as groynes, though usually what actually stops the soil is the unploughed field margin that runs alongside the fence or hedge. When such field boundaries are removed after centuries of ploughing, there is often a pronounced difference in height between the accumulated soil on the uphill side of the boundary and the depleted depth of soil on the downhill side. The earthen banks that are formed in this way are known as lynchets, and they can often be seen on the sides of gently sloping hills, particularly on good agricultural land that has been farmed for thousands of years.

Timber groynes at Middleton in West Sussex
Timber groynes at Middleton in West Sussex

Traditional landscape:

Seaside groynes can be built of unattractive materials such as stone or concrete, but in Britain they have in the past been made out of massive timbers, which mellow and decay over time and become an accepted part of the landscape, often seen in Victorian paintings of seaside scenes. Nowadays, some of the authorities responsible for controlling coastal erosion have been using a fleet of lorries to transport sand and pebbles from one end of a beach to the other every year. This is an increasingly expensive method of neutralising a process of nature, but rather than make the long-term investment of building groynes, it is likely that the current financial climate will lead to more avoidable coastal erosion.

SCHOOLS AND ALMANACS

Our two latest magazine articles to be published are both with Family History Monthly. In the August 2010 issue, pages 28–9, we have an article on ‘School Records’. This issue of the magazine concentrates on the records of childhood, such as schools, child migration and chimney sweeps. The October 2010 issue (their 15th anniversary issue), pages 36–8, has an article called ‘Forecasts & Facts’, in which we talk about how almanacs developed into local directories. As with newspapers, these were ephemeral publications that are a fascinating source of information.