Newsletter 26

Welcome to the March 2012 issue of our occasional newsletter.


The Julian Calendar

Happy New Year – or perhaps that should be ‘Happy Old Style New Year!’. It is strange how something that seems like a fixed point in the cycle of seasons has varied so much over the centuries. When Britain was a Roman colony, New Year’s Day was fixed as the Kalendae Ianuariae (1st January) in line with the Roman calendar. To make the calendar more accurate, it had been adjusted by Julius Caesar (not long before he was assassinated) and so is often referred to as the Julian Calendar.

During the period between the end of Roman rule and the beginning of the medieval period, various influxes of people into England brought different systems of reckoning time, but when a system was widely adopted across the country, it was the Julian Calendar again. New Year’s Day was 1st January and remained so until 1155. At that time England was ruled by the Plantagenet King Henry II, who was essentially a French king ruling a large area of France as well. Possibly because it was believed that the Roman calendar had actually started in March, not January, 25th March was officially made New Year’s Day for all legal and administrative matters. For most other purposes, 1st January continued to be celebrated as the beginning of the new year.

Lady Day…

In the Christian Church 25th March is celebrated as the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly called Lady Day. This became a traditional time to enter into contracts, for rents to fall due and for contracts to terminate. In an agricultural society this was especially true of tenancies for farmers, and Lady Day was the traditional time for a tenant farmer to vacate premises and/or take possession of a different farm.

…and Lost Days

The arrangement of an official and an unofficial New Year’s Day continued until the Julian Calendar was abandoned in England and the more accurate Gregorian Calendar was adopted in 1752. The Gregorian Calendar was an adjusted, more accurate form of the Julian Calendar, and it had been drawn up under the authority of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. By 1752 the Julian and Gregorian Calendars had become so out-of-step that 11 days had to be lost to bring England into line with Europe. Consequently, in the year 1752 the days 3rd to 13th September were omitted, and England converted to using the Gregorian Calendar, which is in essence the calendar we are still using. As a result of this change in calendars, there can be significant discrepancies in dates before and after this year, and so dates are often specified as ‘Old Style’ before 1752 and ‘New Style’ afterwards.

With the change to the Gregorian Calendar, 1st January was recognised as New Year’s Day, but presumably because the Crown did not want to lose 11 days of taxes, the start of the financial year was moved forward 11 days – to 5th April. However, Lady Day remained a traditional time for other legal and financial transactions, particularly among farmers. In 1800 another adjustment to the calendar resulted in the beginning of the tax year being moved one day to 6th April. So, in these austere times, perhaps we should be saying ‘Happy New Tax Year’!


Talking of lost time, if we have an idle moment in front of the computer, then it is therapeutic browsing, the website of the photographers Mick Sharp and Jean Williamson, whose beautiful work (much of it archaeological) we have featured in a previous newsletter. We see that Jean has branched out into a select line of greetings cards based on some of her stunning photographs, many with a heart theme. There are currently 18 cards to choose from, and they can be seen and ordered online from their website. Click the ‘cards’ tab, and that takes you to six cards, and you can navigate from there. The website does not say if these are limited edition cards, but they are certainly not on sale (as yet) in run-of-the-mill high street shops. The added attraction is that they can be framed afterwards as prints, because of the high production standards. Having now seen some of the actual cards, we think they look even better in reality than they do on the computer screen.

Two spring-like cards
Two spring-like cards


A mega-hillfort

Close to the southern border of the county of Somerset stands the largest hillfort in Britain, called Ham Hill or Hamdon Hill, covering an area of 85 hectares. Its earth ramparts and defensive ditches are thought to be largely of the Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago, although there is evidence of fortifications dating to the Late Bronze Age. There are also indications of activity on the hilltop as far back as the Mesolithic period, with Neolithic, Roman and medieval finds as well. In short, the hill has been used throughout prehistory and into the historic era. An annual fair took place here from soon after the Norman conquest in 1066 until well into the 17th century, and there is still a flourishing traditional pub called The Prince of Wales. Indeed, it is the only hillfort in the country to have a pub within the ramparts! Nowadays, much of the hill forms part of a country park, providing pleasant walks and stunning views of the Somerset landscape.

An early 18th-century print showing the sprawling mass of Ham Hill, with St Michael’s Hill at Montacute on the extreme left
An early 18th-century print showing the sprawling mass of Ham Hill,

with St Michael’s Hill at Montacute on the extreme left

A golden quarry

Such a large hill dominated the surrounding countryside, but its influence spread far wider through its main natural resource – the beautiful, honey-gold coloured ‘hamstone’, which has been quarried from the hill and used in buildings throughout the region. The stone was used from at least Roman times, such as for stone coffins at Roman Dorchester in the neighbouring county of Dorset. In more recent times it has been used in buildings right across southern England. Hamstone is a Jurassic limestone, and being easily worked and with such an attractive colour, it has often been used for architectural details such as door and window frames and fireplace surrounds. It makes a fine contrast with the more mundane grey limestones commonly used for building.

A street of hamstone cottages at Montacute
A street of hamstone cottages at Montacute

Harold’s cross

Standing alongside Ham Hill is a much smaller hill, almost conical in shape. The village of Montacute took its name from this hill, which was described as ‘Mons Acutus’ (Latin for ‘steep hill’) after the Norman Conquest. It may well have been given this name by the new Norman overlord, because in Saxon times the village was called Lodegaresbergh and the hill seems to have been a holy site. A legend recorded in a manuscript at Waltham Abbey in Essex tells the story of how a local Saxon lord by the name of Tovi found a miraculous flint cross in a deep hole on top of the hill. Tovi also owned land in Essex, and he founded a church there to hold the cross, which later developed into Waltham Abbey, a few miles north of London. The cross allegedly had miraculous powers and was said to have cured King Harold of sickness. On the eve of the Battle of Hastings, Harold was supposed to have prayed before the cross, and on the day the English battle cry was ‘the Holy Cross’.

So much for the story of the manuscript at Waltham Abbey. Despite the miraculous powers of the cross, Harold lost the battle and the Normans took control of England. Whatever the truth behind the legend, the hill at Montacute may well have been a holy site to the Saxons, and soon after the Conquest the Normans erected a castle on the summit – one of only two such castles in Somerset. It was built by the local Norman lord, Robert of Mortain, who was a half-brother of William the Conqueror. The castle, in part at least, may have been intended to neutralise the holy site. Some years ago, we did a small excavation on top of the hill and found evidence that this early castle had been built of stone.

St Michael’s Hill, with the village of Montacute on the right
St Michael’s Hill, with the village of Montacute on the right

In 1068 there was a Saxon revolt against Norman rule, and the castle at Montacute was attacked. It was unsuccessfully besieged, and the revolt was put down. By 1102 the castle was no longer needed, and the site was given to a newly founded priory at the foot of the hill. A chapel dedicated to St Michael was built on top of the ruins of the castle, and from then on the hill itself was known as St Michael’s Hill.

Montacute House

By the mid-18th century both the castle and chapel were gone, although some stone ruins may have been visible, and the hill formed part of the estates of the Phelips family. In 1760 a folly in the form of a tower was built on top of the hill, using the local hamstone, and it still stands today. The hill is in the possession of the National Trust, which also owns the nearby Elizabethan mansion of Montacute House. This is considered to be one of the finest stately homes of south-west England, and it is of course built of hamstone. Throughout the area there are many buildings, even whole villages, where the main building material is hamstone, giving a warm golden glow in summer sunshine and helping to lift the gloom in the dreary light of winter.


Maiden Castle cache

Keeping to the geological theme, natural rounded pebbles are not exactly a rare occurrence in archaeological excavations in Britain. Because of the number of rivers and old river valleys, few sites are very far from a source of gravel containing pebbles. However, when a large quantity of such pebbles are found, such as the 40,000 or so recovered from excavations at Maiden Castle near Dorchester in Dorset, it points to something unusual. Maiden Castle is an Iron Age hillfort covering approximately half the area of Ham Hill, and its underlying geology does not produce pebbles. It is thought that the pebbles had been transported to Maiden Castle from the nearest source – a long, massive shingle bank some 8 miles away, known as Chesil Beach. For 15 miles Chesil Beach runs parallel to the coast of Dorset. It is, on average, 12 metres high and 160 metres wide, and is reckoned to have 180 billion pebbles. At Maiden Castle, masses of pebbles were stored as caches of ammunition for the defence of the hillfort from any attack.


Pebbles intended as slingshot, recovered from an Iron Age pit on Ham Hill, Somerset
Pebbles intended as slingshot,

recovered from an Iron Age pit on Ham Hill, Somerset

Slingers and slingshot

Stores of such pebbles have been found in excavations at other hillforts. At Ham Hill, we once excavated (in advance of a hamstone quarry extension) some massive Iron Age pits, which contained substantial numbers of pebbles, again probably from Chesil Beach. It is thought that the defences of hillforts developed to make best use of pebbles (slingshot) thrown from leather slings. A shot from a trained slinger has a surprisingly long range. The Roman author Flavius Vegetius Renatus (usually known as Vegetius), writing in the late Roman period, probably the 4th century AD, recorded that Roman:

‘archers and slingers set up bundles of twigs or straw for marks, and generally hit them with arrows and stones … at a distance of 600 feet. They acquired coolness and accuracy from repeated practice and exercise in the field. Slingers should be taught to whirl the sling only once around their head before they cast the stone.’

The work that Vegetius wrote was an account of the Roman army called De Re Militari (‘On Military Matters’), and the quotation is from his discussion on training and drilling the different specialist soldiers within that army. If Roman slingers had an accurate range of 200 yards, it is reasonable to assume that the defenders of hillforts would be able to match that. Using their slings from an uphill position, firing downwards on the enemy, would give them an extra advantage. The multiple banks and ditches of hillfort ramparts were doubtless enhanced with other obstacles, such as palisades and sharpened stakes. This would slow down an attacking force when they were well within slingshot range, and a group of slingers could concentrate their fire, producing the same deadly result as a shower of arrows.

One effective attack against such firepower was the ‘testudo’ (Latin for ‘tortoise’) formation used by Roman legionaries. By packing tightly together to form a wall of shields in front and a roof of shields overhead, this formation could advance in the face of such opposition. To maintain this formation required excellent discipline, and this was so often a key factor in the success of the Roman army. Before the Romans arrived in Britain, it seems unlikely that there was any force with sufficient discipline to march in protected formation into a hail of slingstones. Even so, many hillforts had been abandoned in the Late Iron Age, but some were rapidly refurbished at the time of the Roman invasion. The Romans either captured these hillforts or secured their surrender, and within a few years all the hillforts in Roman-controlled territory were abandoned. Pebble slingstones were not a match for the mighty Roman army.

A demonstration of the testudo formation performed by the Ermine Street Guard re-enactment group
A demonstration of the testudo formation performed

by the Ermine Street Guard re-enactment group

Wheeler dealer

Even the most advanced scientific methods cannot squeeze much information from natural pebbles that were collected as ammunition but never used, akin to getting blood out of a stone. So such surplus stones are usually disposed of once they have been recorded for the excavation report. There is an apocryphal story that circulates among archaeologists about how Sir Mortimer Wheeler solved the problem of the 40,000 pebbles found at Maiden Castle in an unusual way. To supplement excavation funds, he sold them off to visitors as cheap souvenirs. They proved so popular that eventually the supply of pebbles was exhausted, so he sent someone with a lorry down to Chesil Beach to fetch some more.

If the story was true, Wheeler was duping the public into thinking their pebbles had an archaeological value. The ones found in his excavations were Iron Age because of their context. Ones found on Chesil Beach were obviously not Iron Age. With scientific analyses of objects producing results that were unthinkable a few decades ago, it is too easy to forget that the excavation itself has to be a rigorous discipline, because ‘context’ is all important. Without a reliable record of how and where it was found, a pebble is simply a pebble.


From Chesil Beach to Olympia

At the very end of Chesil Beach lies the ‘island’ of Portland, which is just round the coast from Weymouth. While the Olympic Games will take place at London this year, the sailing events will be at Weymouth and Portland, about 120 miles south-west of London. The Olympic Games today are very different to the original games. They took place at Olympia, which lies in the north-west Peloponnese, the peninsula that forms southern mainland Greece. It was a religious site, possibly founded as early as the 11th century BC, and Greek tradition reckoned that a religious festival was held here every four years from 776 BC. Certainly by the 6th century BC the festival was attracting contestants from all over Greece, and it continued even after Greece was conquered by the Romans.

The Games that formed part of the festival were in honour of the Greek God Zeus, king of the gods, and there were temples at Olympia from an early date dedicated to both Zeus and his wife, the goddess Hera. The Games largely consisted of races (including one in full armour), jumping, wrestling and fighting. Despite being situated in a river valley, Olympia had no water sports like the modern Olympic games. The festival was finally abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in AD 393.

The ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia in Greece. Dating to the early 6th century BC, this is the earliest temple on the site.
The ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia in Greece.

Dating to the early 6th century BC, this is the earliest temple on the site.

Royal Weymouth

In 2012 the revived, modern Olympic Games are being held in London, which also lies in a river valley, but the sailing events from July to September will not be held in the Thames Estuary. Instead, the venue is off the Dorset coast in Weymouth Bay. The seaside town of Weymouth and the ‘island’ of Portland are along the western rim of the bay, and for a short time, these places will be household names.

Neither of them need the fleeting fame of association with the Olympics, though, because both places have a notable history. By the beginning of the 18th century Weymouth was at best neglected, if not in decline, having been alternately held for Parliament and for the King during the Civil Wars. Having been taken and re-taken several times, the town’s economy was left in ruins, but in the 1760s it began to be used as a bathing-place by fashionable people, mainly from Bath. Weymouth became famous for its seawater, and in a retrospective article in 1837, the Penny Magazine told its readers:

‘In 1780 the Duke of Gloucester spent a winter at Weymouth, and was so much gratified with his sojourn, that he built a house for his own residence. In 1789 George III paid his first visit to Weymouth, and evinced his attachment towards it by visiting it several times.’

In fact, between 1789 and 1805 hardly a year passed without George III spending a long summer visit at Weymouth, and this had a galvanising effect on the town, as the Penny Magazine recorded:

‘The inhabitants made great exertions to merit the favour of royalty. Where rubbish was once deposited, they formed a fine esplanade. This public walk is half a mile long and thirty feet wide. A theatre and assembly-room were built, and libraries and reading-rooms established. Houses for the accommodation of increasing visitors rapidly sprung up wherever there was an agreeable sea or inland view.’

During this period, possibly in 1795 but perhaps as early as1787, an anonymous local doctor (usually identified as John Crane) published a book called Cursory Observations on Sea-Bathing; the use of Sea-Water Internally, which advocated both bathing in sea water and drinking it, which helped to popularise Weymouth as a health resort. Eventually the security risk thought to be posed to the King by the threatened French invasion and the possibility of French raids on the coast, plus the King’s deteriorating mental condition, brought an end to his visits.

Weymouth survived as a fashionable resort, even after peace in 1815 finally opened up the Continent to British travellers again, and the arrival of the railway in 1857 provided another boost to the town. Back in 1837 the Penny Magazine reckoned that ‘Weymouth possesses no architectural antiquities, and there is nothing to render the appearance of so many modern buildings in any way incongruous.’ Today, Weymouth remains a holiday resort, and the ‘modern buildings’ noted in the magazine are now ‘architectural antiquities’ that form part of the town’s prized Georgian heritage.

Detail from a map of the County of Dorset by William Kip, dating to the 1630s, showing Portland and Weymouth.
Detail from a map of the County of Dorset by William Kip, dating to the 1630s, showing Portland and Weymouth.

The long white strip running diagonally upwards to the left of Portland is Chesil Beach.

Portland fortress

Portland, by contrast, has its fame rooted in solid rock. Described by the novelist Thomas Hardy as the ‘Gibraltar of Wessex’, Portland rises abruptly from the sea to form a formidable natural fortress. From various points high up on Portland, there are magnificent views of Dorset. On such a site with good natural defences, it was inevitable that it would be used as a stronghold. Rufus Castle, otherwise known as Bow and Arrow Castle, may have been built for King William Rufus during his short reign of 1087–1100. Only a fragment of wall from this castle survives, and it remains a mysterious ruin. The present Portland Castle was constructed in 1540 on the north side of Portland to cover the sea approaches to Weymouth Harbour. This castle was one of a chain of forts that King Henry VIII built along the south coast to protect against invasion from the Continent, and today it is one of Portland’s main attractions. The third castle on Portland is Georgian, completed in 1800 during the reign of George III. This is Pennsylvania Castle, which was built for John Penn, grandson of William Penn who founded Pennsylvania in North America.

Portland stone

Despite its attractions for visitors, Portland is most famous for its limestone. This stone was quarried in Roman times for fine quality building material and particularly for stone coffins, just like the Somerset hamstone. These coffins were carved out of solid blocks of stone, and the name ‘coffin’ perhaps gives the wrong impression. As very expensive items, they should perhaps be called ‘sarcophagi’ and might well have been used to contain an interior coffin of lead.

Portland stone was also quarried for use in some churches during the medieval period, but the stone really became popular from the 18th century when it was used extensively for all kinds of buildings. In London, for example, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the British Museum, the national war memorial known as the Cenotaph, and even Nelson’s Column were built using Portland stone. It has a fine, white appearance, but another attraction was that it was quarried on a coastal site and so could be transported to London relatively cheaply by sea. What is perhaps more surprising is that it has been exported to many foreign countries. The United Nations Headquarters in New York, for example, is of Portland stone.

The Olympic venues of Portland and Olympia do have a tenuous connection in stone. Olympia was for some time home to the famous Greek sculptor Pheidias, who lived approximately 480–430 BC. The workshop of Pheidias at Olympia has been discovered and excavated, and although he is best known for his work in bronze, ivory and precious metals, he also worked in stone. While Portland stone was exported far and wide, the influence of Pheidias and others in his workshop likewise spread all over ancient Greece, carrying out major sculptural commissions.


From Olympic sailing to Jack Tar sailing. We were contacted recently by Mike Rossouw, who was reading our book Jack Tar. He was disappointed not to be able to get hold of a copy of our book in New Zealand, but had to get his copy from Amazon in the US. Mike runs the Jack Tar Sailing Company in New Zealand. This company has a gaff rig yacht which is available for cruises and charters by parties of up to six people. As a refurbished boat originally built in 1902, it is something of a historic vessel in its own right. Judging by pictures on the website, in Britain the boat would fit nicely into the range of individually designed local coastal vessels so beloved of fishermen and smugglers around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Mike is based at Lyttleton near the city of Christchurch. The historic Timeball Station at Lyttleton collapsed in the earthquake of February 2011. It resembled a castle overlooking the harbour, and from 1876 to 1934 a ball would drop from its mast on the timeball tower to let the shipping in the harbour know the precise time. This was an internationally important landmark and a loss to maritime history. The website of Jack Tar Sailing says it is currently closed.


Family history research has become very fashionable in recent years, with many more people taking up the pursuit. The result has been increased interest in history generally, but also a greater appreciation of how the results of family history research can enhance more general history. With various military anniversaries such as the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain, and other World War I and II anniversaries fast approaching, such research has added significant detail to the narrative of such events. Since Britain is an island and still a maritime country, most family trees contain at least one ancestor who went to sea. Of these, many served as naval seamen or marines, while a large proportion of merchant seaman joined, or were conscripted into, the navy at some stage in their working lives.

Navel Ancestors Cover

A book has recently been published that provides an up-to-date guide to the British sources for researching naval seamen. Tracing Your Naval Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Fowler is a good overview of archives, libraries and online resources for tracing your naval forebears. Since Britannia ruled the waves through the 19th century, the Royal Navy was constantly in need of sailors of all ranks, and the two world wars saw thousands of men serving in the navy. If you are researching your family history and haven’t found a naval ancestor yet, you probably will eventually! There is a wider application of this book, though. The sources for family history in this area are to a large extent the same resources for more general naval history. Those sources that were once thought to be ‘exclusively’ for family historians have been demonstrated to be of use in shedding light on ‘mainstream’ history. This book should therefore be on the shelves of anyone who is doing any kind of research into the naval history of Britain.


There is something fascinating about old newspapers. They are by definition topical and ephemeral, which is perhaps part of the attraction. It is rather special holding in your hands something that has survived perhaps 100 years or more, when most other copies have been used for wrapping purposes, lighting fires or, as the Victorians said, ‘other base uses’. Sometimes they are the only surviving record of a particular incident and as such assume the importance of medieval chronicles or papyrus fragments from the Egyptian deserts.

When we are researching and writing books, we are often led to newspapers in the pursuit of clues. This can be time-consuming as it is so easy to be sidetracked by all the other stories and advertisements. We used to have a section on our website called ‘snippets’, where we posted such things, but as the website grew and became cluttered, we removed this section to make room for new ones. It is easy to forget the simple fact that once something is published on the internet, it will survive in some form. This was brought home to us when we were contacted recently by Joan Francis about an item in a newspaper from our ‘snippets’ section. She was writing to say that our item had at last made sense of a note by an ancestor at the front of her family Bible, which mentioned a hail storm at Brentford in June 1813.

We searched on the internet and found a cached version of this old part of our website. The story came from Flindell’s Western Luminary of 6th July 1813:

Freak Weather
‘The hail-stones which fell, during the storm, at Brentford, on Monday last, exceeded three inches in circumference. Many of the cellars and kitchens of that town were filled with water. The damage done at the Botanic Garden at Kew is computed upwards of 100£.’

In 1813 Brentford was a small town in the county of Middlesex, a few miles west of London, though now very much part of the conurbation of Greater London. This was the only reference that Joan had found to this incident, and it is strange that such an item would appear in a West Country newspaper, miles away from the incident itself, but weather affected people’s lives so much more than today. Usually such stories were copied from other newspapers, but so far we have been unable to find another report of this incident. Perhaps on this occasion they have not survived or are not available for research. Without the piece in Flindell’s Western Luminary, the only surviving record may well have been the enigmatic note in the family Bible.


In our newsletter for December 2010 we featured the monument of Romulus and Remus on the hill above the city of Wells in Somerset, which was built by the Italian Gaetano Celestra while he was held nearby as a prisoner-of-war during the Second World War. At that time we had no idea what had happened to him after he left Britain, although it was thought he went to Zimbabwe. It seemed like that was the end of the story.

The Romulus and Remus monument in the hills above Wells, Somerset
The Romulus and Remus monument in the hills above Wells, Somerset

We have recently been contacted by his grandson Alessandro Celestra in Italy, who has provided some more information. Gaetano Celestra was born in Palermo, Sicily, but spent most of his early years in Tripoli where he met his wife Maria, and they had five children. He moved many times during his lifetime, and Alessandro is still researching his life, but he has found out that Gaetano built another monument like the one in Somerset – this time in Cape Town, South Africa. Gaetano died in Cape Town in 1981 or 1982. His wife Maria died in 2011 at the age of 99! We are very grateful to Alessandro Celestra for this fascinating new information.