Newsletter 3

Welcome to the third issue, for December 2006, of our occasional newsletter.

Latest News

Thanks to everyone for feedback on our latest book, The War for All the Oceans.

It has been widely reviewed, and many of the reviews have been extremely complimentary. Here are extracts from two of them:

“[The] post-1805 section is packed with dramatic incidents and colourful personalities, leaving the reader breathless with its accounts of battles at all corners of the globe … the great celebrant of the sailing navy, novelist Patrick O’Brian, once said that naval history of the Nelsonian period is Britain’s Iliad. Like Homer’s epic, it is a story of ‘so many sturdy souls/ great fighters’ souls’. Lesley and Roy Adkins deserve our gratitude for allowing some of those ‘sturdy souls’ to speak again so vividly.”   (Colin White, Director of the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, The Observer)

“This is a fascinating, lively, tour d’horizon of the Royal Navy and its battles, its trials and tribulations, its way of life in an era of heroes known – Nelson, Cochrane, Hood – and heroes unknown, such as Capt Christopher Cole”   (Navy News)

We have been busy signing books in various shops. Not at ‘book-signings’, those terrifying events where an author sits and hopes that someone other than his mother will come and buy the book. Instead, we have been signing what books the shops have in stock, because they welcome this in the approach to Christmas, as signed hardback books are popular gifts. So, in case anyone is still looking for a Christmas present for a relative who has everything, we are keeping an up-to-date list on our website of places with signed copies.

Giving talks about some of the events in our book has also been keeping us busy – we have already given talks at Barnstaple, Warwick, Torquay and Tiverton, and talks for next year are being discussed and will be found on our website (under ‘Latest News’).

Latest Expedition

This summer we spent some time at Newcastle to do some research and visit some naval monuments set up to people we had mentioned in The War for All the Oceans. We were in the cathedral looking at the monument to Nelson’s friend and fellow-admiral Cuthbert Collingwood when a cloudburst occurred, so we decided to stay in the cathedral and explore further.










Tomb of John Collingwood Bruce


There are many interesting features tucked away in the shadows of the side aisles, but for us the prize was the tomb monument of John Collingwood Bruce on the south side of the chancel. Appropriately, the monument’s inscription is in Latin, and so it would be easy to pass by the dedication to ‘Johannis Collingwood Bruce’ and not immediately realise that this was the man behind the most famous guidebook to Hadrian’s Wall. Originally published as The Wallet Book of the Roman Wall in 1863, and later issued as The Handbook of the Roman Wall, it stood the test of time, and the last revised edition appeared in 1978. Early editions are now sought-after collector’s items, and later editions are still a useful source for archaeologists and historians.

Born in 1805, Bruce trained for the presbyterian church, but then assisted his father who owned a school called the Percy Street Academy in Newcastle. When his father died in 1834, Bruce ran the school himself until he retired in 1863. He died in 1892.Throughout his life he was an enthusiastic antiquary, publishing various research papers and books, and belonging to many societies. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1852, and served as secretary and vice-president of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. His interests ranged far beyond the Romans, and he published The Handbook of English History in 1848 and helped to revive interest in the folk music of Northumberland. But to many generations of historians, travellers and tourists, he is known as the man who wrote the guide to Hadrian’s Wall.

Monument of the Month


Tombstone of Alexander Scott

























In the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin acts as a spy, largely without the knowledge of his captain, Jack Aubrey. In reality the highly educated men on board the ships of Nelson’s navy, such as surgeons, chaplains and schoolmasters, often acted as gatherers of naval intelligence, but usually they worked in close co-operation with the senior naval officers on board. One such chaplain, who worked with Nelson himself, was Dr Alexander Scott. He was an exceptional linguist, being fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, so he could not only translate foreign newspapers andcaptured documents, but also assist in interrogating prisoners and in picking up information at foreign ports. In 1802, before he was Nelson’s chaplain, he was on board the frigate Topaz in the West Indies when the ship was struck by lightning. Scott was asleep in the captain’s cabin and the bolt ignited gunpowder cartridges stored above – the electric shock and explosion knocked out several teeth, injured his jaw and affected his sight and hearing. Scott was lucky to escape alive (the lightning strike killed or wounded fourteen other men), but he never fully recovered his health and understandably suffered from ‘nerves’ from then on.

With Nelson he served as chaplain and ‘foreign secretary’, and at the height of the Battle of Trafalgar he was helping the surgeons in the cockpit. This was one of the bloodiest naval battles of the Napoleonic war. The carnage that the surgeons were struggling to cope with was almost more than he could stand. He was just going on deck for some fresh air when the wounded Nelson was carried down. Scott followed him and supported the admiral until he died. He remained with the corpse, day and night, until the morning of Nelson’s funeral, and even then he almost had to be forcibly led away from the coffin.

In later life Scott led a more tranquil existence as vicar of Southminster, and then vicar of Catterick and chaplain to the Prince Regent. He died at Ecclesfield in Yorkshire in 1840 at the age of 72, and his tomb can be found to the north of the church. Many thanks to Christopher Catling of the Society of Antiquaries of London for suggesting this as ‘monument of the month’.

Christmas in Napoleonic Times

At least from Roman times, if not before, there have been celebrations around the time of the shortest day. This period sees the darkest days of the year, and before efficient lighting by electricity or gas they could be very bleak. People celebrated by feasting and drinking to cheer themselves up, and also to welcome the fact that the worst of the dark days were over. Even in cities, people were very aware of the changing seasons and knew that the weather was likely to become worse in January and February, but at least the days would become longer and brighter on the way towards spring. This midwinter celebration was adopted by the Christian Church, but when the Puritans tried to stamp out the festival, it was driven underground.

By Napoleonic times, although the season had not acquired the sentimentality and formality that the later Victorians would give it, the basic elements of eating, drinking, making merry and giving presents were all back in place. Apart from the modern commercial trappings of Christmas, perhaps the most striking difference between now and 200 years ago is that Christmas Day was not then a universal holiday – although people celebrated, they were not automatically allowed time off from work and had no rights to a paid holiday. It was in the hands of employers what, if any, holidays their workers were given.

During the Napoleonic Wars, as in any long period of warfare, civilians at home frequently suffered shortages, and the high price of some foods curtailed the Christmas feasting. In rural areas, as well as their liturgical duties, many vicars gave a dinner for the poor at Christmas. In 1800 William Holland, Vicar at Overstowey in Somerset, wrote in his diary for Christmas Day, ‘I gave this day a good dinner to the Sunday School children and had a great many to dine in the kitchen. I think that there were no less [than] thirty nine that dined at my expence.’ In the evening it was the turn of the adults, who were invited to dinner.

Many families were split up by fathers and sons being away fighting the French, and letters from them took weeks, if not months, to reach home. The men themselves made the best of it, particularly if they were in a position to celebrate. The seaman Robert Wilson spent Christmas 1807 on board HMS Unité at Malta. He wrote in his diary:


‘25th. Sent our powder on shore. Did no further duty this day but had a jovial day of it, everyone in the ship having an excellent dinner and extra liquor allowed on board us. There was mirth, glee, there was dancing, singing, quarrelling, fighting and such an uproar fore and aft, that if your life depended on it you could not make out a sentence that was said.’ Eventually the celebrations subsided, and Wilson recorded that ‘our surgeon came about to see that no one was hurt by falls, etc. I recollect he came to one man who was laying down, tipsy as you please, and ordered a clothes bag to be put under his head; which upon their lifting his head, I heard him say “another drop of grog and then I don’t care how soon I die”.’


Others, though, were not so lucky, and in 1814, towards the end of the war with America, Lieutenant George Gleig of the 85th Regiment was in a barn outside New Orleans. Spent cannonballs from an American warship on the nearby river were bouncing off the barn wall. In his diary Gleig spoke for many who were trying to celebrate Christmas after suffering many weary years of warfare:


‘At so melancholy a Christmas dinner I do not recollect at any time to have been present. We dined in a barn; of plates, knives and forks there was a dismal scarcity, nor could our fare boast of much either in intrinsic good quality, or in the way of cooking. These, however, were mere matters of merriment: it was the want of many well known and beloved faces that gave us pain; nor were any other subjects discussed, besides the amiable qualities of those who no longer formed part of our mess, and never would again form part of it.’

Competition Results

Last month’s competition was unfortunately too clever by half and – with hindsight – was rather misleading. The argument over the mismatch between the calendar and the seasons rumbled on for centuries after the initial introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, and different parts of Europe adopted different solutions: some even continued using the Julian Calendar. There was a further complication caused by the fact that with the passage of time the gap between the two systems grew larger, so that by the early nineteenth century it was not ten days but twelve. The rural vicar who let his servant have a holiday on old Christmas Day in 1808 was William Holland, and in his diary he constantly refers to 6 January as old Christmas Day. However, before 1800 the gap was closer to 5 days rather than 6, and from the way we set the question, we unfortunately implied that the answer was 4 January. So anyone who answered 4, 5 or 6 January we took as correct and the two winners, first out of the hat, are Terry Janes and Colin Winn, both of whom saw through the fog in the question and got the answer absolutely right.

Competition [now closed]

Just before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent six battleships from his fleet to Gibraltar for supplies: one of these was the Canopus. The Canopus was once the French ship Franklin that had been captured at the Battle of the Nile and then renamed Canopus after the ancient port of Egypt. The captain of the Canopus, whose first name was Francis, missed the Battle of Trafalgar and, as he said, lost ‘all share in the glory of a day, which surpasses all which ever went before’. Francis had a sister who would become a famous novelist. Was this novelist;

A) Jane Austen?

B) Charlotte Brontë?

C) Frances (Fanny) Burney?

D) Elizabeth Gaskell?

E) Mary Shelley?

Two winners will each receive a signed copy of The Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

In the Next Issue

Traditional songs to welcome spring and summer, regulars like Monument of the Month, and all our latest news.