Newsletter 28

Welcome to the September 2012 issue of our occasional newsletter.


Autumnal weather

In the northern hemisphere, the third season of the year is autumn (usually termed ‘fall’ in North America), which is officially between 21 September and 21 December. In England, typical autumnal weather actually occurs in September and October, sometimes extending into November. John Keats captured the essence of the autumn season in England with the first line of his poem To Autumn – ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.

Autumn mists in the valleys east of Dartmoor, Devon, England
Autumn mists in the valleys east of Dartmoor, Devon, England

This year, autumn is likely to be just mists, with little of the fruitfulness, after a deluge of Olympic proportions all through the spring and summer. In early spring, several water companies declared that there was a drought in most areas of southern England and introduced hosepipe bans along with dire warnings. It then started raining and hardly seemed to stop. The result is a poor harvest, particularly of fruit trees, due mainly to the lack of bees for pollination, and the number of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects is noticeably reduced. Despite largely dry weather since the start of the Olympic Games in July, the ground is still saturated in many places.

Wet weather and roofs

Of course, wet weather is endemic in Britain, and so it might seem surprising that guttering and drainpipes to carry away rainwater from buildings was a rather late development. The main reason is that thatched roofs made from straw or reed were extremely common. Buildings with thatched roofs often had deep eaves – the bottom edge of the roof which overhangs the wall. This ensured that rainwater pouring down the roof was thrown well clear of the wall itself. This was essential for walls made of water-soluble materials such as mud or cob, itself a mixture of mud, animal dung, straw and other ingredients.

Reconstruction of a small Iron Age hut with a thatched roof
Reconstruction of a small Iron Age hut with a thatched roof

Around the excavated remains of such buildings, archaeologists often find evidence of eaves-drip gullies, which collected the water that ran off the roof. Sometimes these gullies appear to have formed naturally through the erosion caused by the rainwater, while others were deliberately dug. Such gullies therefore acted like ground-level guttering. With thatched roofs especially, it was difficult to fix guttering beneath the roof, but nowadays you occasionally see plastic guttering beneath thatch, which looks ugly. Old prints of buildings dating to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have a quaint appearance, and in part this is due to the absence of guttering and drainpipes.

Thatched cottages at Minehead, Somerset, in about 1815
Thatched cottages at Minehead, Somerset, in about 1815


Even in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many buildings still had significantly overhanging roofs. Because windows were often badly glazed or had no glass at all, it was still possible to ‘eavesdrop’ in the literal sense of the word. A dictionary of this era defines ‘to eavesdrop’ as: ‘To catch what comes from under the eaves, to listen under windows’. It was possible to stand in the shelter of the eaves of a house and listen to conversations taking place inside, and the word ‘eavesdrop’ is still used today for deliberately listening to other people’s conversations by secretive means.

Jane Austen

So what has all this weather and eaves to do with Jane Austen? Well, the title of our next book is Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How our ancestors lived two centuries ago. We have just finished writing the book, and its subject is life in England at the time of Jane Austen – life for the lower and middle classes, the vast majority of the population, not the aristocracy who usually get all the attention. We also show how Jane Austen fitted into this world. In effect, it is a companion to our last book, Jack Tar, as the date range is virtually the same.

When we began writing the book, we realised that when we trawled through archive manuscripts, old diaries, letters and so on, we were listening to the voices of people from two centuries ago, preserved in what they wrote. Most of those people never intended what they wrote to be published (or never dreamed that could be possible), as they were private documents. This is as near as possible to eavesdropping on the people themselves, and so we opted for the word in the title to give a flavour of what we were doing.

In the UK the book will be published in hardback by Little, Brown (who published our last three books, including Jack Tar), provisionally in June 2013. We think it will also be available as an e-book. In the USA it will be published by Viking Penguin. The publication date there will probably be August 2013, initially as a hardback and also as an e-book. The title in the USA, by the way, will simply be Jane Austen’s England. We’ll put more details on our website when things are a little clearer, and we will give more details in the next newsletter.


Origin of the bell’s name

One of the most distinctive landmarks of London is the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, usually known as Big Ben. It is so famous that in television programmes and films, a view of the tower is enough to establish the location of whatever follows. Although known as Big Ben, the tower actually takes its name from the bell that strikes the hours for its clock. How this bell gained its name is quite a complicated story.

The clock tower was part of the new design for the Houses of Parliament after the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1834. The main bell, which was cast before the new tower was completed in 1858, weighed 16 tons and was known officially as the ‘Great Bell’. It was nicknamed Big Ben, probably after Sir Benjamin Hall, who supervised the final stages of the rebuilding as Chief Commissioner of Works.

The bell

Since the tower was not ready, the bell was suspended from a temporary structure on the ground to be tested, and during this testing it cracked so badly that it was unusable. The bell had to be recast and was taken to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry where a slightly smaller bell weighing 13½ tons was made. The Whitechapel Foundry was established in 1570 and has cast many famous bells from its premises in Whitechapel Road in east London – the same area where Jack the Ripper was active in the 1880s. It used to be is possible to visit the foundry, but scandalously, it has been allowed to close down. This was heritage that should have been saved.

The new bell was installed in the tower and took over the name Big Ben, but initially it was not a success. A heavier hammer than the maximum recommended by the bell founders was used in the striking mechanism, and this bell also cracked. The bell was repaired, the hammer replaced, and the bell was turned slightly so that the hammer struck a different place – the cracked bell has been used to strike the hourly chimes of the clock ever since.

Big Ben from the River Thames
Big Ben from the River Thames

Origin of the tower’s name

The tower was known officially as the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament, but because the sound of the chimes is so distinctive, the tower itself came to be known by the name Big Ben. However, the name of the tower has just been changed to the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a change that was backed by Parliament. It is supposed to provide a balance to the tower at the other end of the building, which is known as the Victoria Tower in honour of Queen Victoria, the only other British monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee. It remains to be seen whether the tower ever becomes known as anything other than Big Ben.


Our book about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion, The Keys of Egypt, has recently been translated into the Korean language in South Korea by the Minumsa Publishing Company. The ISBN of the new translation is 978-89-374-8430-8, and there are more details (in Korean language and script) on the publisher’s website at The book is a hardback and has a rather striking cover design, which you can see below.

Cover of the Korean The Keys of Egypt
Cover of the Korean The Keys of Egypt


From June 2012, Lesley’s book Empires of the Plain has been available as an e-book, published by HarperCollins, with the paperback jacket below. This is the story of how Henry Rawlinson, soldier and explorer, made the breakthrough in deciphering the strange cuneiform script found on ancient sites in the Middle East. Suddenly, with cuneiform deciphered, languages mentioned in the Bible could be read – it was realised that cities recorded in the Old Testament actually existed and that the Bible contained historical texts as well as religious ones.


Author copies

Like all the other e-books of our books, we have not yet seen a copy. Authors are not automatically sent copies of e-books on publication. Nor are they sent copies when they grumble! (well, we aren’t – perhaps we haven’t mastered the art of grumbling). We must admit that we haven’t yet contacted HarperCollins about having a free copy of this e-book. One website says that the e-book of Empires of the Plain is text only. Does this mean that none of the photographs have been included? That may well be the case, but we are also curious about whether or not the cuneiform symbols within the text are visible. We see no reason why they should not be visible, but would like to know for sure.


While researching source material for our books, we have spent many hours looking at old newspapers, particularly those of two centuries ago. By 1800, the USA had been independent from Britain for only a generation, and the similarities between the two nations were still far greater than any differences. This is evident in the newspapers of the time, where similar sorts of advertisements appear on both sides of the Atlantic.

Transport theft was common, and there are frequent offers of rewards for the return of missing horses and occasionally carriages as well, as you can see below. Despite the revolution in industry, both Britain and the USA were still predominantly rural economies, and agriculture looms large in their newspapers. There are frequent notices of livestock markets, current prices for produce, comments on new methods of farming, inevitable notices about stolen livestock and occasional reports of stray animals being captured. Perhaps one of the most striking similarities is that of social ranking in British and American societies. It would be many decades before labour-saving devices revolutionised the recurrent chores of everyday life, and so servants were still in demand to perform those jobs now largely carried out by machines. Maids, manservants and even wet-nurses still figure among what would now be the ‘jobs’ and ‘services offered’ sections of newspapers.

New-England Paladium (a Massachusetts newspaper, published in Boston) for Friday 15th July 1803
New-England Paladium (a Massachusetts newspaper,

published in Boston) for Friday 15th July 1803

On both sides of the Atlantic, the system of apprentices bound to a craftsman, often for a period of seven years, was still the normal start to good working career. Those children whose parents or a charity were able to pay their fee had the chance to become craftsmen and advance up the lower rungs of the social scale. Those who were too poor to enter apprenticeships might consider themselves lucky to obtain a place as a servant, but usually they were doomed to a life of poverty as an unskilled labourer working for low pay. Even so, apprentices often ran away, no doubt for all sorts of reasons, and their employers placed advertisements warning others not to give them credit or employ them, sometimes offering rewards for their capture and return as well.

Hampshire Federalist (a Massachusetts newspaper, published in Springfield) for Thursday 2nd June 1808
Hampshire Federalist (a Massachusetts newspaper,

published in Springfield) for Thursday 2nd June 1808

Often, though, it is the personal notices and advertisements that are the most interesting and intriguing, such as this one from the same edition of the Hampshire Federalist, 2nd June 1808:

‘LONGMEADOW, May 18, 1808. Mr. Shaw, if you do not come and settle with me, you will hear from me immediately. I have not forgot it. HANNAH WARREN.’


Over 200 years later we are left wondering who were Mr. Shaw and Hannah Warren, and just what had taken place that she had not forgotten?

RURAL WILTSHIRE (and our next talk)

Rural Rides

The town of Warminster lies in the extreme west of the county of Wiltshire, not far from the border with Somerset. In September 1826 William Cobbett, the farmer and radical writer on politics, passed through the town and recorded the visit in his book Rural Rides. At that time Warminster was just the kind of thriving market town of which he approved:

‘Warminster is a very nice town: every thing belonging to it is solid and good. There are no villainous gingerbread houses running up, and no nasty, shabby-genteel people; no women trapsing about with showy gowns and dirty necks; no jew-looking fellows with dandy coats, dirty shirts and half-heels to their shoes. A really nice and good town.’

Warminster was a very important corn market, and also had significant textile and malting industries. Cobbett went on to praise how the corn was sold:

‘It is a great corn-market: one of the greatest in this part of England; and here things are still conducted in the good, old, honest fashion. The corn is brought and pitched in the market before it is sold; and, when sold, it is paid for on the nail; and all is over, and the farmers and millers gone home by day-light. Almost every where else the corn is sold by sample; it is sold by juggling in a corner; the parties meet and drink first; it is night work; there is no fair and open market; the mass of the people do not know what the prices are; and all this favours that monopoly which makes the corn change hands many times, perhaps, before it reaches the mouth, leaving a profit in each pair of hands, and which monopoly is, for the greater part, carried on by the villainous tribe of Quakers.’

Bread riots

Leaving aside Cobbett’s religious prejudices, which were commonplace in his day, his rant about the way markets could be rigged by profiteers was quite valid. This kind of operation became rife during the Napoleonic wars, at a time when many people had been accustomed to buying their own small quantity of grain, taking it to the local mill to be ground and then making their own bread. By selling only in large quantities, often in private deals direct with millers outside the normal markets, farmers received inflated prices for their grain, the miller charged the baker inflated prices for flour, and the price of a loaf of bread soared. The result was hardship and sometimes famine, and in many places it sparked bread riots. In other places people took matters into their own hands, seizing grain from farmers and forcing them to sell small amounts at a reasonable price in the marketplace.

Possibly because the market was fairly well regulated, Warminster seems to have escaped the worst of the food riots of this period, although the market was not perfect. On 31 October 1793 The Bath Chronicle carried this notice about short measure there:

‘WHEREAS divers Quantities of Corn and Grain have been sold in this Market by less than the legal measure: The Buyers of Corn in general frequenting the Market, are desired to meet at the Organ in this Town, on Saturday 2nd November next, at three o’clock in the afternoon, to consult on some method to be taken for preventing such an evil in future.’

The relative peace of Warminster may have been due to swift suppression by the local magistrates. In 1801, after serious food riots in various parts of the country and while a serious disturbance at Bristol was continuing, the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper for 13th April 1801 reported one disturbance at Warminster: ‘A riot took place on Tuesday last, in consequence of the high price of provisions; but the magistrates seizing some of the ringleaders, and calling in a party of the 2nd dragoons, it was suppressed without much mischief.’

Meat market

When Cobbett visited the town twenty-five years later he was also enthusiastic about the local meat:

‘I was delighted, and greatly surprised, to see the meat. Not only the very finest veal and lamb that I had ever seen in my life, but so exceedingly beautiful, that I could hardly believe my eyes. I am a great connoisseur in joints of meat; a great judge, if five-and-thirty years of experience can give sound judgement. I verily believe that I have bought and have roasted more whole sirloins of beef than any man in England … with all this knowledge of the matter, I say, I never saw veal and lamb half so fine as what I saw at Warminster. The town is famed for fine meat.’

Textile riots

While Cobbett loved Warminster, his reaction to the next town on his route was quite different: ‘My road from Warminster to Devizes lay through Westbury, a nasty odious rotten-borough, a really rotten place. It has cloth factories in it, and they seem to be ready to tumble down as well as many of the houses.’ Like Warminster, Westbury was a major centre for the production of woollen cloth during the wars with the French, but peace brought a collapse in demand, and the decline of the industry led to a decline in Westbury’s fortunes.

High demand for cloth during the war years accelerated the industrial revolution in this region, forcing the movement away from piecemeal processing of yarn and cloth in the home of individual workers towards factory-based production. The efficiencies of factory organisation and labour-saving machines produced a prosperous industry, and the mill owners and merchants became wealthy. However, many workers were no longer needed and were thrown out of work, while the large scale of unemployment led to shrinking wages for those in the factories. Such factories therefore became the targets of Luddite action against the new ways of working, something the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper reported in August 1802:

‘The following account of outrages lately committed will shew the distracted state of the clothing districts in the neighbourhood of Bath. The discontents first manifested themselves about the beginning of April last … by a variety of anonymous letters, conceived in terms the most horrible, threatening fire and destruction to the clothiers. April 22 – A large hay-rick belonging to Mr. Warren, of Warminster, manufacturer, was set on fire in the night, but being discovered, was extinguished without much damage.’

The report detailed in chronological order the main disturbances, which grew in gravity as time passed. By June threats against the lives of the manufacturers had changed to action:

‘June 23 – A gun was fired in the dead of night into the window of a house where a workman of Messrs. Bleeck and Strode, manufacturers, at Warminster, lodged, but missed him by about seven inches. The bullets went through the house, across the street, and into a house on the other side of the road …
June 29 – An assemblage of workmen from Trowbridge, Westbury and other towns, in the evening at Warminster; and about one o’clock in the morning, a gun was fired into the chamber of Mr. Henry Wansey, manufacturer, but happily did no mischief except breaking the windows …
July 16 – This night the large pile of buildings at Clifford Mills, near Beckington, the property of Mr. Newton, manufacturer, of Stoke, were set on fire, and totally destroyed. The damage is estimated at nearly 1500l. [£1,500] Great part might have been saved, but the populace would not permit it …
July 21 – The mills at Littleton, the property of Mr. Naish, manufacturer, at Trowbridge, were attacked by an armed body of men with blackened faces, set on fire, and totally consumed; they went away, threatening destruction to other mills. The loss here is estimated at 8000l.[£8,000].’

The report covered several other incidents, right up to 9th August, when the newspaper was published.

Jack Tar talk

Warminster survived the slump that followed the end of the war in 1815, because it was still a significant market town for agricultural produce. Nowadays, the town is a much more peaceful place! Every two years, it hosts a Warminster Festival, and this year’s festival [for 2012] has the theme ‘Hidden Treasures’. It takes place from Saturday 6th October until Saturday 20th October. We will be giving an illustrated talk on Jack Tar at Warminster Library on Tuesday 16th October [this event has since taken place].