Newsletter 24

Welcome to the September 2011 issue of our occasional newsletter.


For some miles the River Severn forms the boundary between Wales and England as it flows in a south-westerly direction towards the sea. The river estuary gradually widens out to form the Bristol Channel, the body of water separating Wales and England. The coast of the county of Somerset is on the southern side of the Bristol Channel, and one long stretch is called Bridgwater Bay. Note that the spelling is Bridgwater, not the more normal Bridgewater, as it derives its name from the nearby town of Bridgwater (and nobody seems to agree why it lost its ‘e’). In this bay, the difference in height between the sea level at high tide and at low tide is over 30 feet or 10 metres – one of the largest tidal variations in the world.

The beach at Brean Down within the Bridgwater Bay area of the Somerset coast
The beach at Brean Down within the Bridgwater Bay area of the Somerset coast

When the tide goes out on the Somerset coast, it leaves long flat beaches of fine sand and mud, which can be treacherous, and so a distinctive method of fishing evolved. Because the sticky mud and quicksands were extremely difficult and dangerous to walk across, the fishermen used ‘mud horses’, which function rather like sledges or surf boards. The fisherman lays across the upper frame of the mud horse, so that his weight is spread much more evenly over the surface of the mud, preventing him from sinking. He propels himself by a kicking-out action, rather than an upright walking motion. His fishing gear is hooked to the frame of the mud horse or carried in baskets fitted to the frame. In this way, a man on a mud horse can skim across the mudflats much faster and more safely than someone on foot. A working mud horse can be seen in the picture here, photographed in 1989 at Stolford, an isolated Somerset coastal village that was for centuries occupied by fishermen who worked in this way. If archaeologists excavated a contraption like this, who would ever imagine that it was used in this way?

A working mud horse at Stolford, Somerset
A working mud horse at Stolford, Somerset

Once a fisherman had travelled sufficiently far out and found a suitable site, nets were spread in a line held up by stakes driven into the mud. The fisherman would then head for shore and wait until the tide came in to cover the nets. When the tide receded, he made the trip over the mud once more to collect the catch and make sure the nets were set up again. The main catch was shrimps, but fish such as cod and whiting might be gathered in winter, and skate and sea bass in summer. As recently as fifty years ago, this way of life was carried on by many families along the Somerset coast, but at the end of 2010 British newspapers reported that there was only one mud horse fisherman left – Adrian Sellick of Stolford. It seems likely that this distinctive rural occupation will soon die out completely.


Throughout history the axe (which we believe is commonly spelled ‘ax’ in the US) was a common and versatile tool and weapon, whether made of metal or stone – so much so that when archaeologists first encountered large flint tools dating to the Palaeolithic (literally, ‘old stone’) period, they gave them the overall name of ‘handaxes’. They assumed these tools were axes that were held in the hand. Palaeolithic handaxes come in various shapes and sizes and were if anything even more versatile than axes. However, it is highly unlikely that they were used for the large-scale working of wood, let alone cutting down branches or trees.

Settling down

Axe heads proper were fixed in some way to a wooden handle. In Europe the use of flint axe heads dates back to the Mesolithic period, some 10,000 years ago, long before metal tools. The Mesolithic (literally, ‘middle stone’) can be seen as a long transition period between the preceding Palaeolithic period, when people survived by hunting and gathering food, and the subsequent Neolithic (‘new stone’) period, when people relied on agriculture and the domestication of animals for their existence. Inevitably this is a crude summary of a much more complex and uneven process, but the use of flint axe heads in the Mesolithic points to the increased felling of trees, either to clear land for settlements or for woodworking – or both. Even without the evidence from other tool types and from surviving environmental remains, these axe heads demonstrate a more settled way of life.

A modern axe with a steel head and a wooden haft
A modern axe with a steel head and a wooden haft

of a type used as early as the 18th century

The earliest axes

The axe heads of the Mesolithic are relatively crudely flaked tools made from flint, though they were nonetheless very effective. In the Neolithic period (starting around 6,000 years ago in Europe) axe heads became much more sophisticated, and other types of stone were also used. The axe heads were not only shaped by knocking flakes off a piece of flint or stone with a large pebble, but some were also ground smooth by rubbing against another stone, or even polished. These techniques of grinding and polishing may originally have been necessary for improving the shape of axe heads made from stones other than flint, but presumably the laborious effort was thought to be worthwhile.

Flint can be flaked to make a very sharp axe head relatively quickly, but the sharp edge is soon blunted, and flint is brittle and easily broken. Axe heads made from other stones would be more resilient, but not so easily sharpened. The techniques of grinding and polishing were applied to axe heads of all stone types, even flint, and the resulting objects can be quite beautiful. Some were made with such care and are of so impractical a form that they would have been quickly broken if used in woodworking. Instead, it is thought that they were ‘ceremonial axes’, perhaps used in religious rituals, as badges of office or symbols of wealth and status.

A modern axe with a steel head and a wooden haft
A Neolithic polished flint axe head,

found in the remains of a Roman villa near London

The first factories

Because they are so distinctive, easily distinguishable from other types of flint and stone tools, Neolithic axe heads have been the subject of various research projects. It was soon recognised that most stone (not flint) axes could be traced to relatively small areas of manufacture by analysing the type of stone from which they were made. Investigations in these areas soon found what are termed ‘axe factories’. In reality, these are usually open areas of scree on rocky hillsides where a vast number of waste flakes, discarded and broken axe heads in various stages of manufacture and other debris show that axes were produced on a large scale and then ‘exported’ to other parts of the country. Particularly large numbers of stone axes are known to have been made in the Langdale area of the Lake District of England, the Penmaenmawr area of Caernarvonshire in Wales and Perthshire in Scotland.

Neolithic axe factory at Great Langdale
Neolithic axe factory at Great Langdale

Flint axe heads were also produced in large numbers, but flint cannot be securely traced to a single place of origin. It is thought that most flint axe heads were manufactured at or near the flint mines, which mainly occur in the chalklands of southern Britain where the chalk contains good-quality flint. Other chalk areas, with poor-quality flint, seem to have been largely ignored. The best-known flint mines are at Grimes Graves in Norfolk, where many shafts were dug deep into the chalk with primitive tools to obtain the flint. The tools for digging the shafts would have comprised shovels made from ox scapula bones and picks made from antlers. Ladders were of wood, and the waste chalk and flint were hauled up in baskets. Flint mines and axe factories were not a purely British phenomenon, but are known from continental Europe and further afield.

A Neolithic flint mine in the chalk at Grimes Graves, Norfolk
A Neolithic flint mine in the chalk at Grimes Graves, Norfolk

Trade goods or gifts?

The way in which axe heads were ‘exported’ from axe factories and flint mines may never be fully understood, because to do so we need to know the viewpoint of the prehistoric people who were using them. Were these axes moved around the country as items of trade that were exchanged for other commodities? Did the axe heads themselves function as a form of money? Were the axe heads gifts from one group of people to another? If gifts were exchanged, was this really any different from trade? Did the axe heads have a religious significance? These questions continue to be argued over without finding definitive answers, but one thing is apparent: all kinds of axes were ‘exported’, including both very practical, functional tools and fragile status symbols. It is likely, therefore, that there may be more than one reason why these objects were moved around the country. A parallel might be the products of a pottery factory, supplying everyday plates, cups, bowls and so on for general use, and also high-quality porcelain vases and decorative items for gifts and perhaps even presentation to ambassadors and other dignitaries.

Changing uses

The introduction of bronze for making tools and weapons marked the end of the Neolithic period, but flint and stone axes must still have been used by those who did not trust this new metal or could not afford it, and many axe heads were possibly kept as curios or for magical purposes. By the Iron Age (from about 800 BC), the original purpose of these stones as axe heads may have been long forgotten, but they were certainly picked up and kept as curiosities, charms and amulets with magical powers. In the Roman period, they were believed to be ‘thunderbolts’, produced by a lightning strike. Perhaps as an extension of the belief that lightning does not strike twice in the same place, stone axe heads therefore began to be incorporated into houses, under the eaves or in the roof space, in order to ward off lightning strikes. Marbodaeus, a Bishop of Rennes in France who died in the year 1123, wrote a succinct account of this belief. Referring to these axe heads he said,

‘He that carries one will not be struck by lightning, nor will a home or house that has this stone. Someone in a ship on a river or the sea will not be sunk by storm or struck by lightning. It provides victory in battle and in court cases as well as sweet sleep and sweet dreams.’

Such beliefs persisted, even though they were at times almost recognised for what they were (in the west of England they were known as ‘thunder-axes’). Their magical powers were still being called upon until at least the beginning of the 20th century, and in the 19th century in Cornwall water in which a stone axe head had been boiled was supposed to ease or cure rheumatism. Superstitions around stone axe heads were widespread throughout the world, with similar beliefs being recorded in the 19th century at places as far apart as Africa, Japan, Burma and Brazil. In Europe axe heads were also believed to have medicinal value and so were often placed in drinking troughs to prevent or cure diseases in cattle.

Symbols of power

The axe has also been used as a symbol from earliest times. It is thought that the double-headed axe of Minoan Greece had a religious significance associated with lightning and may have been a symbol of power, but certainly by Roman times the axe was incorporated within the fasces, which was a badge of authority. Originally the fasces (from which the word ‘fascist’ is derived) was a double-headed axe bound up in a bundle of rods that signified the power of early Roman kings to execute (with the axe) or beat (with the rods) the Roman people. With the coming of the Republic, such powers were transferred to the chief magistrates and eventually to the emperors. In fact, the axe has been such a versatile tool and weapon across the world from earliest times that it is not surprising how frequently it has been used as a symbol. But for how long will that continue? Now that the chainsaw is the main tool used for felling trees and cutting branches, how long will the axe retain its symbolic power? To borrow a journalistic cliché, ‘Will the axe be axed?’

EBOOKS (or e-books?)

We still can’t quite envisage ourselves curling up with a good ebook (electronic book) on a long winter’s evening, but ebooks are becoming very popular, especially for those on the move. We are lovers of real books on real shelves, and we also relish rummaging around secondhand bookstores. All this is killed off by ebooks, though we appreciate that they have a purpose! Back in February 2010, we reported that by chance we had spotted Nelson’s Trafalgar being sold as an ebook in the US (on We recently tried to find out if any of our other books were available as ebooks, but strangely we couldn’t even find the Trafalgar book. Perhaps we had imagined it. However, we were told two weeks ago that Nelson’s Trafalgar has been available as an ebook for quite a while, along with The War for All the Oceans, though only in the US. On trying to find out more, we have discovered that something odd happens when we view (the US version of the retailer Amazon). These two ebooks are not displayed, but American friends tell us that they can see the ebooks listed perfectly. We can only assume that the website hides them from customers like us based in Britain because of territorial restrictions. Anyway, those same two books should also be available as ebooks in Britain before the end of the year. We’ll keep you updated.

In passing, we also see that several websites are offering cheap or free pirated pdf versions of some of our other books, like The Keys for Egypt. It is often said that such download sharing sites can be a magnet for criminals looking for ways to spread computer viruses, so we did not investigate further, but in a perverse way it is rather flattering to think that such people thought our books popular enough to use as bait for the unwary. Anyway, our advice is to buy ebooks from reputable retailers only and not risk free downloads from unknown sources!


One series of books that has not (yet) reached the high street bookshops, although stocked by online suppliers, is the ‘Fighting Sail’ series of novels by Alaric Bond. These are available as ebooks or as print-on-demand paperbacks, and as you might expect from the title, they are maritime (mainly naval) adventure stories set in the time of Nelson. Many readers still regard Patrick O’Brian as the master of maritime fiction, but several authors have in recent years launched successful series of nautical novels of the same era. This particular series is different in that it does not follow a single ‘hero’ from book to book, but instead follows the lives of a group of people, not all of whom appear in every book.

Cut and Run Cover

We assumed that Alaric Bond was American, as he is one of the key authors published by an American company, so we were surprised to learn that he lives near the south coast of England, about 170 miles due east of us here. His Fighting Sail books are published by Fireship Press, which specialises in nautical fiction and non-fiction, mainly as ebooks and print-on-demand books. The publisher’s name is curious, because a fireship was an expendable ship (usually old and decrepit) filled with combustible material and deliberately set alight in order to spread fire and panic amongst enemy ships. Maybe the publisher is intending to set the world alight with these books, which would be welcome. Of course, the word ‘fireship’ is also old sailor’s slang for a prostitute who spreads disease.

However, the publisher is irrelevant, since the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The author, Alaric Bond, is a very good storyteller and (allowing for fictional licence in the plot) is very accurate with his historical and maritime facts. Perhaps more importantly, the history does not intrude on the story but provides an authentic background for the action. There is nothing worse than a historical novel in which the author wears his or her erudition and research on their sleeves. If you like reading naval novels of the Nelsonian era and are looking for a fresh series to start on, we recommend you try ‘Fighting Sail’. The first one (which we haven’t read yet) is called His Majesty’s Ship. We are at a disadvantage, having read the two most recent novels when we might have been better off beginning with the first one, but those we have read are certainly on a par with quality novels found in major bookstores. The latest one is Cut and Run.


Through the telescope, or even the microscope, of history, the men who commanded ships in Nelson’s navy usually appear two-dimensional. Because the navy of this period was idolised by the Victorians and later imperialists, naval officers from the days of sail were portrayed as unblemished heroes, single-mindedly pursuing the interests of their country with no regard for anything else. This led to the active suppression of evidence to the contrary, so that Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton was blamed exclusively on Emma – Nelson had to appear whiter than white in his role as a hero. The same ‘tidying up’ process was applied to many other aspects of the navy. For instance, the presence of huge numbers of prostitutes on board warships in port was played down as much as possible, and the fact that many warships sailed with women on board was officially denied for many decades.

The outsider

In the middle of this deluge of whitewash, one character stood out from the very first as being far too controversial to be remodelled as a classic British hero – Thomas Cochrane. For one thing, Cochrane was a Scot, eldest son of the impoverished Earl of Dundonald. While the seamen in Nelson’s navy were a polyglot fraternity of all colours and creeds who worked together as best they could, among the officers snobbery and observance of class distinctions were rife. From an early point in his career Thomas was known as ‘Sawney Cochrane’, ‘Sawney’ being a derogatory word for a Scotsman.

Another point against him was that he was a radical, which at that time meant anyone who thought about issues for themselves and did not automatically toe the government party line. In Georgian Britain this was close to social suicide, but in Georgian Britain at war with Revolutionary France, some people regarded it as treason. The British establishment was afraid of being toppled by revolution, and revolutionary or even democratic ideas from the Continent were feared as much as a military invasion. The wealthy and powerful had a great deal to lose whereas the majority of the population had very little, so anyone who did not openly support the establishment was potentially an enemy of the government. Under these conditions, it is surprising that anyone with the independent attitude and quick temper that marked out Thomas Cochrane could survive very long in the Royal Navy.

Early years

Cochrane was born in 1775 and joined the navy in 1793, serving in various ships and eventually being promoted to lieutenant in 1796. Not long after, while serving in the Barfleur, he fell out with his first lieutenant and was court-martialled. It appears to have been a storm in a teacup that should never have gone to court. He was acquitted for lack of evidence, but warned to be more respectful. It is remarkable that he had not been in trouble before, as he had difficulty holding his tongue in the face of obvious incompetence and abuses of the system among his fellow officers. Certainly he spoke out freely later on. Perhaps his exceptional talent as a naval officer had already been recognised. It was not until he gained his first command, of the little sloop Speedy, that his skills became widely known, but after that he was definitely a larger-than-life character.

The Speedy

HMS Speedy was described by Cochrane as ‘little more than a burlesque on a vessel of war … about the size of an average coasting brig, her burden being 158 tons … crowded rather than manned, with a crew of eighty-four men and six officers.’ The armament ‘consisted of fourteen 4-pounders! a species of gun little larger than a blunderbuss,’ and the broadside fired seven iron cannonballs with a total weight of 28 pounds, at a time when the broadsides of the largest warships were measured in tons.

Cochrane claimed that he could comfortably carry a broadside’s worth of cannonballs in his coat pocket. Despite its many shortcomings, the Speedy was his first independent command and he was proud of the tiny ship – and in 1801 he made it famous. On 5th May of that year Spanish gunboats were spotted off the coast of Barcelona. As they made for the cover of the port, the Speedy gave chase and ran right into a trap. The Speedy was attacked by a Spanish frigate called the Gamo, a much larger ship, with a crew nearly six times bigger and with a broadside weighing a total of 190 pounds. The contest seemed a foregone conclusion.

The commander

By skilful manoeuvring and sailing as fast as possible, Cochrane took the Speedy alongside the Gamo. At this range, the guns from the Gamo could not be made to fire down into the tiny Speedy, and the Gamo’s broadside flew harmlessly over the top of the British ship. They were so close that the orders of the Spanish officers could be clearly heard, and every time the Spanish assembled to board the Speedy, Cochrane took his ship out of reach. This stalemate could not continue, and eventually Cochrane led all of his crew in a desperate attempt to board and capture the Spanish ship, leaving only the ship’s surgeon on board to steer the Speedy. Taken by surprise, the Spanish were overwhelmed and forced below deck before they could realise that they vastly outnumbered their opponents, and Cochrane took his prize triumphantly back to Port Mahon, the British naval base in Minorca.

If this reminds you of a Patrick O’Brian novel, you are not mistaken. Cochrane’s naval career inpired his Jack Aubrey series of novels, based on Cochrane. In the novel Master and Commander, O’Brian drew heavily on this incident. The Speedy was renamed HMS Sophie, while the Gamo became the Cacafuego. The surgeon was named Stephen Maturin.

The politician

From this point Cochrane’s career became a legend. He was an extremely successful, if unorthodox, naval captain, but he continued to fall foul of the establishment. In 1806 he decided to stand for Parliament to represent Honiton in Devon. At that time many members of parliament ‘won’ their seats by bribing the voters. This was possible because of the so-called rotten boroughs, where only a handful of men were eligible to vote, so that bribing the electors was not impossible or financially ruinous for the wealthy. Honiton was one such rotten borough, but Cochrane refuse to pay any bribes and lost the election. Afterwards, he did pay a £10 reward to everyone who had voted for him – a larger amount than the bribe paid to the other electors. At the next election the voters all voted for Cochrane in expectation of a reward, which of course was not forthcoming.

The 1861 two-volume 2nd edition of ‘The Autobiography of a Seaman’ by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald
The 1861 two-volume 2nd edition of ‘The Autobiography of a Seaman’

by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald

To say that Cochrane had an eventful life seems an understatement. There have been several modern biographies of him, and these usually warn of about the unreliable nature of the autobiography that Cochrane himself wrote in later life. This does not stop the book being a gripping read. Called The Autobiography of a Seaman, it provides a fascinating insight into this very complex character. Cochrane inherited the title of Earl of Dundonald and rose to the rank of Admiral. He died at the age of eighty-four in 1860, the year his autobiography was published, and he is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.


Recently the website was brought to our attention because of its associations with the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era. The backbone of the website is a series of cartoons by Galf about the antics of two lower deck seamen in the navy of that time. As far as we know, this is the only cartoon series with this setting, and it is refreshing to see some humour introduced into the subject. There are other parts to the website as well, including a very useful glossary/dictionary of nautical terms, a page about old-style weights and measures, and explanations of some of the common English expressions that have their origin in a navy that relied on sailing ships – the whole lot laced with humour and cartoons. All in all, this website is well worth a look.


Nowadays the Roman Empire is the setting for many series of historical novels, but until just a few years ago there were very few, and the best of that select band was the ‘Falco’ detective novels of Lindsey Davis. As archaeologists we were immediately attracted to the idea of a detective story set in the early Roman Empire, but when we found that the first of the series, The Silver Pigs, was set in Britain at archaeological sites we knew well, we had to take a look. The ‘hero’ Marcus Didius Falco was believable, the history and archaeology were accurate, and it was well written, intelligent and with a dry style of humour that seemed to fit the situation like a glove.>/p>

We have been fans of the series ever since, and after winning the Authors’ Club Prize for Best First Novel, the Falco series of novels have become classics of the genre. The settings of the novels (twenty in all) have strayed all over the Roman world, and Nemesis is the latest one in the series – and possibly the last. Lindsey Davis’s website is

We were therefore surprised and flattered to discover that in the website of the Guardian newspaper on 18th February 2009, Lindsey Davis picked our Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (Facts On File) in her top ten Rome books, ones that she said are ‘scholarly but user-friendly. They are all books I have enjoyed, all influenced my love of ancient Rome and most of them are in regular use for my work.’ Of our book she wrote: ‘I have always found this an excellent encyclopaedia of Roman facts, people, places and habits. It has good photos, drawings and maps. The gazetteer, which gives the modern equivalent of Roman provinces and towns, is particularly useful, and the book answers all those tricky questions about time, numbers, personal names. And whether the Romans wore underwear.’


The politician

We were drawn to live in the West Country (of England) many years ago, and we make no apology for including more than a fair share of stories from this part of the world in our newsletters. However, this particular story goes halfway round the world before ending in Devon. The Higher Cemetery in Exeter, Devon, not far from where we live, is a classic Victorian burial ground with a mixture of gravestones, monuments and the occasional weeping stone angel. The cemetery was opened in March 1866 as a response to the pressure on the other graveyards, caused in part by successive cholera epidemics. Among the rows of stones is one commemorating Thomas Whistler. The simple stone that was set up to mark his grave is like many others in the cemetery. The inscription reads: ‘To the memory of Thomas Whistler who died at Exeter on 1st August 1896’.

The gravestone of Thomas Whistler in the Higher Cemetery, Exeter, Devon
The gravestone of Thomas Whistler

in the Higher Cemetery, Exeter, Devon

What immediately draws the attention of the visitor to this stone, though, is a second stone that has been attached to the original one. The inscription on that stone carries a fuller description:


Early settlers

Unley in South Australia was originally a settlement close to the newly founded city of Adelaide. The site of Adelaide had been chosen by South Australia’s first Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light. The city, founded in 1836, was laid out with a grid pattern of wide avenues, bounded on one side by the River Torrens and surrounded by a green belt of around 1,600 acres of parkland. Four years later Thomas Whistler emigrated to Australia, having purchased from the British Government an area of over 400 acres of land on the outskirts of Adelaide.

Suffolk origins

As Whistler was born at Lakenheath in Suffolk, he gave the village that he founded in Australia the name of ‘Undley’ – after the village of Undley near Lakenheath. Over time this name changed to ‘Unley’ as the ‘d’ was dropped in people’s speech. The original settlement consisted of three streets and an adjacent space called Unley Park, and Whistler used other Suffolk place names to label his new venture. He then began to sell off parcels of land for development and is thought to have made a fortune in the process. Being immediately south of the new city of Adelaide, one of Unley’s attractions was as a dormitory suburb for workers in Adelaide, but the main occupations of the place itself were agriculture and horticulture. Other people holding land adjacent to that held by Whistler also sold off smaller pieces for development, so that the whole area was expanding, but it took its overall name from his foundation.

Rising expectations

By 1866 Unley was functioning as a prosperous suburb, as was recorded that year in Bailliere’s South Australian Gazetteer and Road Guide:

‘UNLEY (Co. Adelaide) is a postal village suburban to Adelaide … It is situated on the Brownhill creek, which flows through the village and through Unley park, the mount Lofty ranges being about 3 miles distant in an E. direction. The district is an agricultural one, the population (exclusive of gentlemen having business in the metropolis, and residing in this picturesque and salubrious suburb) consisting principally of persons engaged in farming or gardening pursuits … The hotels are the Unley and Cremorne. Unley has a post office, several stores and tradesmen’s workshops, and numerous well-built residences. The surrounding country is flat, and the soil alluvial and of good quality, there being abundance of water near the surface.’

The city

In 1856 Thomas Whistler returned to England with his housekeeper Mrs Elizabeth Bayley, and they lived at Exeter in Devon, but the settlement that he had helped to set in motion continued to grow. By 1890 the population was over 11,000 and Unley was now a town in its own right, and in 1906 it became a city with a population of 20,000 people. In 1999 a delegation from the City of Unley visited Exeter, and the plaque on Thomas Whistler’s grave was unveiled by the Deputy Mayor of Unley.

Competition [now closed]

On land the saying ‘flogging a dead horse’, meaning trying to revive something that is past reviving, is still in common use. In the days of sailing ships, and even later, sailors were familiar with the term ‘working for a dead horse’. For our competition, we want to know what ‘working for a dead horse’ means. Is it:

A. Working for a useless captain
B. Flogging a lazy seaman
C. Working to pay back an advance on wages
D. Pumping to save a sinking ship

Please note that this competition is now closed, and the answer will be revealed in the next newsletter!