Newsletter 23

Welcome to the June 2011 issue of our occasional newsletter.


Market halls are found in many old market towns across England and are generally Victorian constructions or occasionally modern replacements for a 19th-century building. Most market halls came into existence to provide a better environment for the market traders and the local people who came to buy from them than was offered in the open street. Such halls provided shelter against bad weather, allowing the market to flourish all year round rather than tail off in the winter months. They improved hygiene and allowed the local authorities better control over the itinerant market stallholders, who frequently had regular stalls in several market towns, constantly travelling between them on non-market days.

The entrance to the Pannier Market Hall in Tavistock, Devon
The entrance to the Pannier Market Hall in Tavistock, Devon

A West Country phenomenon:

In most towns the market hall is simply called that – the Market Hall – but in the counties of Devon and Cornwall in England’s West Country many of them are called ‘Pannier Markets’. These markets can often trace their existence back to medieval times, with charters of that date to prove their long history. The very name ‘pannier market’ is a relic of the days when all market trade in West Country towns was carried on horseback, often in panniers. A pannier is sometimes defined simply as ‘a basket’ (from the Old French panier), and some people have conjured up romantic visions of buxom farmers’ wives walking to market with a couple of small baskets of fruit and vegetables on their arms. If such a rustic idyll ever took place, you can be sure that the farmer’s wife was also leading at least one mule, pony or donkey with two large baskets (panniers) slung across his back, carrying enough goods to fully stock a market stall. The 1773 edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, among many other dictionaries, gives the game away, with the definition: ‘PANNIER [panier, Fr.] A basket; a wicker vessel, in which fruit, or other things, are carried on a horse.’

Inside Tavistock’s thriving Pannier Market
Inside Tavistock’s thriving Pannier Market

Travellers’ tales:

Early travellers to the West Country noticed this feature, such as Celia Fiennes, who toured this area on horseback in 1698. At Exeter in Devon she noted the Market Hall, which was reserved at that time for the principal product of the area, serge cloth:

‘Exeter is a town very well built, the streets are well pitched – spacious noble streets and a vast trade is carried on … Their market day is Friday which supplies with all things like a fair almost. The markets for meat, fowl, fish, garden things, and the dairy produce takes up 3 whole streets, besides the Market house set on stone pillars which runs a great length in which they lay their packs of serges. Just by it is another walk within pillars which is for the yarn. The whole town and country is employed for at least 20 mile round in spinning, weaving, dressing and scouring, fulling and drying of the serges.’

She observed how everything was transported on horseback:

‘The carriers I met going with it [the serge cloth] all entering into town, with their loaded horses, they bring them all just from the loom and so are put into the fulling mills, but first they will clean and scour their rooms with them [the serges], which, by the way, give no pleasing perfume to a room, the oil and grease, and I should think it would rather foul a room than cleanse it because of the oil.’

From Exeter, Celia Fiennes travelled to Chudleigh and then Ashburton: ‘From Chudleigh to Ashburton is 11 mile more, in all 20 mile from Exeter, the roads being much the same as before. This Ashburton is a poor little town, bad was the best inn.’ It was on the journey from Ashburton to the port of Plymouth that she began to see why all trade was carried on horseback, and not by cart:

‘Thence I went for Plymouth 24 long miles, and here the roads contract and the lanes are exceedingly narrow and so covered up you can see little about. An army might be marching undiscovered by anybody, for when you are on those heights that shews a vast country about, you cannot see one road. The ways now became so difficult that one could scarcely pass by each other, even the single horses, and so dirty in many places and just a track for one horse’s feet, and the banks on either side so near, and they were not well secured and mended with stones struck close like a dry wall everywhere when they discovered the banks to break down … I passed through several little places and over some stone bridges.’

As Celia Fiennes worked her way through the West Country, it was the same in many places, with narrow lanes and badly maintained hedge banks that broke open and allowed debris to fall on the road in tiny landslips. She reached Redruth in Cornwall just in time to witness the harvest – also being carried on horseback:

‘These places, as in some other parts, indeed all over Cornwall and Devonshire, they have their carriages [carry everything] on horses’ backs. This being the time of harvest (though later in the year than usual, being the middle of September) but I had the advantage of seeing their harvest bringing in, which is on a horse’s back with sort of crooks of wood like yokes on either side, two or three on a side stands up in which they stow the corn and so tie it with cords, but they cannot so equally poise it but the going of the horse is like to cast it down sometimes on the one side and sometimes on the other, for they load them from the neck to the tail and pretty high, and are forced to support it with their hands. So, to a horse they have two people and the women leads and supports them as well as the men, and go through thick and thin. Sometimes I have met with half a score of horses thus loaded, they are indeed but little horses, their Canelles as they call them.’

The method of transporting everything by packhorse continued in Devon and Cornwall until at least 1800. Heavier loads were dragged on a contraption known in Devon as a ‘truckamuck’. This was simply two poles held up at one end by the horse’s harness and the other end dragging on the ground. Cross poles lashed between these two poles supported the load. Other loads could be dragged on sleds by oxen, and in villages with steep paved streets, such as Clovelly, sleds are still used for transporting small goods to individual houses.

A tradition of jams and bottlenecks:

Through the 19th century main routes were improved by turnpike trusts, which were established later here than elsewhere in Britain, but by the 1880s the turnpike days were over, the trusts were gradually abolished, and the local authorities took responsibility for roads. In his directory for the County of Devon, published in 1879, William White gave an overview:

‘In 1839, there were in the county 29 turnpike trusts, the total income of which was £62,024 6s. 1d., of which £11,187 4s. 4d. was expended on improvements. In 1839, the expenditure on 6898 miles of highway was £37,356. The great roads which cross the county from Somerset and Dorset, to Cornwall, meet at Exeter. The roads which radiate from that city and the principal towns in the country, and the cross roads interlacing them, are very numerous. From the high fences and narrowness of the roads, together with the perpetual recurrence of hills and valleys, all extensive prospects are often shut out, but on the tops of hills, and where there are no enclosures, there are many delightful views over the vales and coasts in their vicinity.’

Despite the turnpikes and the improvements of the main routes, other roads in Devon saw little change from the time of Celia Fiennes. The minor roads might now be wide enough to allow a cart to pass, but the sides of these lanes were still steep and trees grew overhead, making the road dark and almost invisible in the landscape. As William White commented,

‘The principal roads are generally in excellent condition, but many of the others are narrow, with high banks and hedges, and have the disadvantage of frequent steep ascents, even where they might have been easily carried along the sides of the hills, or through the valleys, with but little loss in distance, and a great saving in labour, and the wear and tear of carriages.’

Today, this legacy of roads originally designed for packhorses continues its ‘wear and tear of carriages’. Once off the beaten track in Devon, speed has to be reduced because often two cars can only pass at specific ‘passing places’, and then with difficulty, and blind bends and sudden steep hills are frequent. Much time can be lost in reversing to the nearest good passing place when a lorry or large agricultural vehicle is encountered, and progress can be slow and wearing. Another reminder of the packhorse era lies in the preservation of numerous narrow packhorse bridges (now often bypassed and replaced by wider ones) over streams and rivers, and by the persistence of the name ‘Pannier Market’ on many market halls.


Our latest magazine article is ‘The common smith’, pages 38 to 41 in the July 2011 issue of Family History Monthly. This issue of the magazine focuses on the countryside, and in our article we talk about how blacksmiths were so important in communities from the time when iron began to be widely used, about 2,000 years ago. Blacksmiths were needed especially for shoeing horses, which were the main form of transport for hundreds of years, but other forms of livestock also wore shoes. Before the spread of railways, herds of cattle had to make long journeys to market, often to London (where the best prices were to be had), from as far away as Wales and Scotland, and so they were given temporary iron shoes by blacksmiths to prevent their hooves wearing down. There were specialist blacksmiths who did nothing but make nails and shoes, and then shoe the cattle.


The urge to pay tribute:

The desire to leave some marker to honour a dead person who was known and loved is easily understood, and one of the common sights along Britain’s roads these days are floral tributes laid at points where fatal accidents have taken place. The same phenomenon can be observed in cemeteries, where the tombs of famous and infamous people attract offerings, frequently something that is found nearby, like a smooth rounded pebble. In stony upland areas, you might encounter a mound of stones – perhaps a cairn covering a prehistoric burial or maybe a more recent boundary marker. Passing walkers seem to have an innate urge to pick up a stone or two and add to the pile, even though this piecemeal addition is posing a threat to some of the ancient burial cairns, as they are in danger of expanding out of all proportion. This impulse to leave something as an offering to a feature of the landscape, rather than to a known dead person, partly explains the occurrence of rag trees.

Trees with strips of cloth tied to their branches are known to have been created in various parts of the world at various times, and they persist today. At the start of the 20th century, Sir James Frazer published a huge work on magic and religion, The Golden Bough, based on his own research and on the observations of anthropologists. He recorded instances of rag trees from Patagonia, Papua New Guinea and the Arabian Desert, as well as a rag well at Onaght in the Aran Isles (off the west coast of Ireland).

A flourishing rag tree in Cyprus
A flourishing rag tree in Cyprus above an ancient monument

known as the Catacomb of St Solomon. This catacomb

was converted to a Greek Orthodox crypt or catacomb church

from a much earlier Hellenistic chamber tomb

Within the British Isles today, the majority of rag trees and rag wells are clustered in the ‘Celtic fringe’ of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, and are most common in Ireland, where they have a variety of names such as ‘Raggedy Bush’ and ‘Fairy Tree’. In Scotland the rag wells are known as ‘cloutie wells’, but increasingly spelled ‘clootie well’. This is an interesting slip, because the word ‘cloutie’ is an old Scots dialect word meaning ‘strip of cloth’, while the word ‘clootie’ is also old Scots dialect meaning ‘the devil’.

Holy water and tree nymphs:

It is not surprising that rag trees are often associated with wells and springs, especially where the water is regarded as holy or magical, with healing properties. Offerings are left either in gratitude for prayers answered or as a physical reminder of a prayer request to the deity, spirit, force of nature or whatever is perceived as responsible for the healing power of the water. If offerings at wells and springs are in the form of small cloths or strips of cloth, it would be natural to tie them to the nearest bush or tree to stop them blowing away, and instantly a rag tree is formed. Rag trees in association with rag wells are referred to as a prevalent superstition in Britain in John Brand’s Observations On Popular Antiquities, which was published in 1810. Many rag trees are well away from any water source, and in these instances it is the tree itself which is the focus of attention.

To Sir James Frazer, those who believed in such superstitious practices were from ‘primitive societies’. He recorded that they believed the trees to contain and even embody the souls of dead people, powerful magicians or deities of some kind. This concept of tree nymphs is an idea dating to before the Romans and Greeks, who formalised such beliefs into regular religious practices. Traces of sacred trees have been detected in Neolithic contexts in Britain, which makes the practice of tree worship at least 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

Deep-rooted rituals:

Today, ‘tree huggers’ is a disparaging term given to people seen as overly keen in their desire to protect the environment, but a respect for trees, not to say a love of trees, is interwoven with modern Anglo-Saxon as well as Celtic society. In cidermaking districts, ‘evil spirits’ are still driven away from the apple trees in local rituals each year, while the ritual of decking out the Christmas tree is almost universal. The highly decorated and ritualised Christmas tree was literally a Victorian invention, imported from his native Germany by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. Its parallels with the ritual of the rag tree are obvious, though rag trees were in existence long before then.

The origin of such beliefs is not hard to see. Walk through any wood when the wind is singing through the branches and it is difficult to avoid imagining that some trees are not just large plants, but are alive in some more vigorous and perhaps sinister way. Some seem to have a threatening air about them, while others appear benign. It is a short step from such idle thoughts to practical offerings placating the sinister ones and asking for help from the benign ones, and people in early societies were very ready to take that step. They lived much closer to nature than we do, and were much more at the mercy of the elements, having no means of taking a wider view of events as we are accustomed to do rapidly through radio, television and now the internet. If a natural disaster happened, they had only their own experience and that of their neighbours to rely on, and perhaps one or two newspaper reports to widen their view a little. Superstitious practices thrived in the absence of more effective practical remedies and, once established, such superstititions are hard to get rid of.


The Norfolk village of Happisburgh (confusingly pronounced something like ‘Haysborough’ or even ‘Hazebra’) is sometimes on the news for all the wrong reasons. The old wooden sea defences have long since been ineffective and both local and national authorities have done little to renew them. Because the cheapest option is to do nothing, the whole Norfolk coastline at that point is being allowed to fall into the sea through erosion.

There has been a settlement at Happisburgh since at least Anglo-Saxon times, and the place name probably derives from a man’s name (something like ‘Haep’) with the suffix ‘burh’, meaning ‘stronghold’ – doubtless any coastal settlement, in danger from sea raiders would have to be a ‘stronghold’. Archaeological evidence includes the recent find of the earliest flint tools found in Britain so far. The tools, dating to at least 800,000 years ago, and more probably upwards of 900,000 years ago, were once used by hunter-gathers passing though what was a totally different landscape at that time – marshlands flanking an early river system, when the North Sea did not exist.

Coastal erosion at Happisburgh, NorfolkCoastal erosion at Happisburgh, Norfolk

A flat stone monument:

In the churchyard of St Mary’s church at Happisburgh, which is so far safe from the encroaching sea, there is is a monument that reads:


On 16 March 1801, HMS INVINCIBLE
was wrecked off Happisburgh when
on her way to join a fleet with
Admiral Nelson at Copenhagen.
The day following, the Ship sank with
the loss of some four hundred lives.
One hundred and nineteen members
of the Ship’s Company lie buried here,
“And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it…”
Revelation 20:13
This memorial stone was given jointly
by the Parochial Church Council and
the Officers and Ships Company of
HMS Invincible 1998

Plaque commemorating HMS Invincible
Plaque commemorating HMS Invincible

Lost in sight of land:

The shipwreck it commemorates was a tragedy that took place just a few months before a hesitant and shortlived peace was signed between Britain and Napoleon’s France. The battleship HMS Invincible, a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line with a crew of more than 600 men, ran aground on the notorious Hammond Knoll at around 2pm on 16th March 1801. The Hammond Knoll is a 6-mile long sandbank lying just offshore from Happisburgh and has less than three fathoms of water covering it at its highest point. A few days later, on 20th March, The Times newspaper carried a report of the loss:

‘The Invincible, commanded by Captain Rennie, with Rear-Admiral Totty’s flag on board, got under weigh at an early hour in the morning, and was clear of Yarmouth Roads between twelve and one o’clock. About half past two P.M. she struck, with a most violent shock, on the sand-ridge called Hammond’s Knole, within five leagues of Yarmouth. It was immediately apprehended by the Admiral and the Officers that she had broke her back, and orders were given to cut away her masts by the board. They were executed with the utmost dispatch, but notwithstanding every exertion, it was found impossible to get the ship afloat with any effect, as her rudder had been carried away. She remained in this melancholy state off and on the sand-ridge until nearly three P.M. the following day, when she got clear off the bank, but was so materially damaged as to go to the bottom almost immediately after.’

What had happened was that the ship, once free of the sandbank, was immediately into seventeen fathoms of water. The ship lost its rudder and became unmanageable, being driven back on the sandbank again and started to sink. Two of the ship’s boats were successfully launched, and men in these were picked up by a passing fishing smack. The boats returned for a second load, one of which reached the fishing smack successfully. The other was driven away but was fortunately met by a collier who picked up the survivors. A total of 196 people were rescued from the ship, which was carrying about 50 passengers in addition to the crew. More than 400 people drowned when the ship finally sank.

The aftermath:

On 21st March 1801 The Times carried a follow-up story:

‘Fifteen of the unfortunate seamen who escaped out of the Invincible died after being landed at Yarmouth from the fatigue they had undergone. We are extremely sorry to learn that Capt. Rennie, of the Invincible, is among the unfortunate sufferers who went with her to the bottom. Capt. Rennie, after the ship had sunk, attempted to swim to the launch, and after a severe exertion got within reach of the oars, when, exhausted with fatigue, and unable to make any farther effort, he calmly resigned himself to his fate … All the other Commissioned Officers of the ship, except Lieutenants Tucker and Quash, together with all the Officers of Marines, and most of their men, likewise went to the bottom. About 70 or so of the crew were saved by means of the launch, the whole of whom had assembled upon the forecastle, but those who remained in the poop were lost.’

Pilot error:

HMS Invincible was part of a fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with Horatio Nelson second-in-command, that was sent to Denmark to bombard Copenhagen’s harbour in order to neutralise the threat from the Danish fleet of warships.The Invincible, apart from being a line of battle ship, was carrying stores and troops for the campaign. The sinking of the ship was a significant loss to the fleet, and the loss of over 400 lives was more than the total number of British who would be killed in the forthcoming battle. At a court-martial to determine the cause of the wreck, the blame fell solely on the local pilot from Yarmouth and the sailing master, who was himself a North Sea pilot. Both had declared at the time that the sandbank was unknown, although officers on board were said to have produced charts and argued with them. Both the pilot and the sailing master lost their lives in the wreck. For days afterwards, bodies were washed up on the nearby beaches, and cartloads were taken to a mass grave by Happisburgh church, although others were buried at various points along the coast. The commemorative plaque in Happisbugh churchyard today marks the slight mound of the mass grave.


Sites to see:

We made a flying visit to Falmouth in Cornwall recently and refreshed our memories about what a pleasant place Falmouth is to visit. The port is steeped in history. In one of the main shopping streets, Arwenack Street, the fine old Customs House was once the headquarters of the local Customs Officers whose job was to collect the taxes on imports and curb smuggling. The building dates from 1676 and has only recently gone out of use by the Customs and Excise Service. At the rear of the building, on one of the quays, is a brick structure known as ‘The King’s Pipe’. This was added to the Customs House in 1814 and was used to burn smuggled tobacco that had been seized by Customs Officers.

To the east of the Customs House on the continuation of Arwenack Street, near the National Maritime Museum building, is a strange obelisk built of granite blocks. For many years, in accordance with the wishes of the man who paid to set it up, this monument had no inscription or explanation of its purpose. Nowadays there is plaque which tells us that the obelisk commemorates the Killigrew family, who built up Falmouth from a little village to a major West Country town. The monument was actually commissioned by Martin Lister Killigrew in 1737, and it was moved to its present location in 1871.

To the west of the Customs House, on Fish Strand Quay, there is a plaque explaining that on 4th November 1805 Lieutenant Lapenotiere landed from the schooner HMS Pickle carrying news of the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson. From Falmouth, Lapenotiere travelled day and night in a post-chaise to take the news to London. He made it in record time – just 37 hours. Travelling in a post-chaise on today’s congested roads, it is doubtful if he would be able to equal that record now!

Mail packets and ocean liners:

Falmouth became the most westerly port of any size, and it also had a large anchorage in the adjacent inlet, called Carrick Roads. This anchorage lay between the the headland on which the little port of Flushing was situated and the Roseland Peninsula to the east. Both the port of Falmouth and Carrick Roads were protected by the twin headland castles at Pendennis, above Falmouth, and St Mawes on the Roseland side. The westerly position of this harbour made it ideal for the Packet Service run by the Post Office. This organisation moved the headquarters of the Packet Ships to Falmouth as early as 1688, and from here the small, lightly armed civilian ships carried the mail and a few passengers to destinations all over the world. The Packet Service was taken over by the Royal Navy in 1823, but Falmouth remained the main base for the Packet Service. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the Packet Ships gradually began to expand their role as passenger ships, and rival packet services sprang up. In 1839 the partnership of Samuel Cunard, George Burns and Davis MacIver established the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which soon became widely known as the Cunard Line. In this way Falmouth’s Packet Service eventually spawned one of the world’s most famous Cruise Liner Companies. The history of Falmouth is intertwined with the history of the Packet Service, and there are some interesting exhibits in the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth.

An unexpected bounty:

Falmouth is one of the ports often used by tall ships of all kinds, which adds to the charm of this beautiful Cornish town. During our brief visit, we were lucky to find HMS Bounty in port. Not the original ship of course, because that was broken up for anything that could be reused and the hulk deliberately burned by the mutineers who set Captain Bligh adrift in 1789. This ship was built in 1960 for the 1962 film of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ which starred Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh

The 1960 replica of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty
The 1960 replica of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty

The original Bounty, known as His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, or more accurately, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, was actually a converted merchant ship with a deck length of just over 90 feet. The 1960 replica has a deck length of over 110 feet, yet even this larger ship is hardly big enough for the mission Captain Bligh was sent on, which was effectively a round-the-world cruise.

Epic voyages:

At the start of the voyage, William Bligh was 33 years old and had been sailing master on HMS Resolution during Captain Cook’s final voyage. HMAV Bounty was cramped, with a crew more than double the size intended for the ship. Their orders were to fetch breadfruit tree saplings from Tahiti to the West Indies, where the breadfruit trees could be grown to provide cheap food (breadfruit) to feed the slaves on the sugar plantations. The mission entailed a long voyage around the treacherous Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America to Tahiti and back round Cape Horn to the West Indies. However, Bligh was delayed in setting sail from Portsmouth, and he arrived at Cape Horn during the stormy season. After a month of battling against unbelievably violent weather conditions, he realised it was impossible to get round Cape Horn and instead sailed east across the Atlantic, stopping at Cape Town in South Africa to replenish his supplies and repair the ship. He then sailed across the Indian Ocean and around the southern coast of Australia before swinging north towards Tahiti.

After over five months of living ashore at Tahiti in what the crew regarded as an earthly paradise, it is hardly surprising that there was a mutiny on board soon after the Bounty set sail to try to round Cape Horn once again, the route that had proved impossible on the voyage out. Crucially, although the Admiralty had supplied too large a crew for the ship, they refused Bligh a complement of marines. Without marines to keep order, there was little to stop even a half-hearted mutiny. Bligh and most of the men still loyal to him were set adrift in an open boat. It was judged unsafe to land on any of the nearby islands, because many of the inhabitants were by now hostile. Instead, using just a compass, a sextant and a pocket watch to find his position, Bligh embarked on another epic voyage, and after 41 days they reached the island of Timor, off the northern coast of Australia.

Breadfruit Bligh:

The replica we saw at Falmouth was built in 1960 for MGM Studios, and from the outside it is still a passable representation of the original ship, although it has some modern additions on deck. The same cannot be said for the film, which made Captain Bligh out to be a monster, yet contemporary records of him seem to show that while he may have been moody and had various character faults, not least a bad grasp of the principles of managing a ship’s crew, he was an excellent navigator and a relatively benign commander. After the mutiny, he successfully carried out the mission of taking breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies – this time with a suitable ship and crew. In later life, though, he could not shake off the nickname ‘Breadfruit Bligh’. Since filming Mutiny on the Bounty, the replica ship has been used in other films such as Treasure Island and, more recently, Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest.