Newsletter 33

Welcome to the autumn (October) issue of our occasional newsletter for 2013.


Ideal Christmas gifts (the books, not the bears...)
Ideal Christmas gifts (the books, not the bears…)

Since our last newsletter (in August), we have been overwhelmed by the very kind reviews, blogs, interviews and wonderful events for our latest book. We’ll mention a few details further on in this newsletter.

The UK and US versions (above) are currently on sale as hardcovers (also termed ‘hardbacks’) and as e-books (Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England in the UK and Jane Austen’s England in the US). If you are thinking of buying the book as a gift for yourself or somebody else, perhaps for Christmas, please note that the hardcover version will not remain in print for too much longer. In the UK, the paperback will be published in May 2014, and in the US the paperback will be in July 2014. By the paperback stage, publishers generally stop printing the hardcovers, making them scarce and expensive.


Our new book includes descriptions of how people kept in touch in Georgian times. Essential ingredients were literacy, letters and horses, and below are a few more thoughts on this subject.


Many people were prolific letter writers – if they could read and write. Both Jane Austen and Nelson constantly wrote letters, but there is a great contrast between them. Fewer than 200 of Jane Austen’s letters are known (yet she would have written more than this in a single year), whereas several thousand of Nelson’s letters survive. This is partly because a proportion of Nelson’s letters were official communications or dispatches, but the real reason is that he was famous during his lifetime and died a national hero at the height of his fame in 1805. Consequently, his letters were carefully collected and preserved.

Although Jane Austen’s novels were becoming well known by the time she died in 1817, she herself was not famous because her books were published anonymously. In subsequent years, members of her family took the conscious decision to destroy most of her letters, while some were inevitably lost. The surviving ones give glimpses of her daily life, but this is a fragmentary view, with numerous gaps in the sequence of letters.

The post

When working properly, email can deliver the longest of letters almost instantaneously, but 200 years ago nothing travelled faster than a galloping horse – and horses cannot gallop indefinitely. The solution was to have messengers riding a series of horses, a system with a long history (such as the cursus publicus established by the Roman emperor Augustus), with horses being changed at successive stations or ‘posts’. This was how letters were carried in the England known to Jane Austen and to Nelson.

Although they rode fast, the post-boys (who tended to be men, not boys) were generally unarmed, and towards the end of the 18th century they were being regularly stopped by highwaymen who stole the letters, hoping they contained money and other valuables. In order to prevent loss, the Post Office in 1782 advised sending banknotes in two separate halves at different times, since both halves were needed to cash them. This led to serial numbers being duplicated on banknotes, one at each end, so that they could be easily matched. This was the origin of the duplicate serial numbers on banknotes today.

For increased security and to cope with an increasing number of letters, it became necessary to carry the mail in coaches with armed guards. By 1800 the vast majority of letters were carried for most or all of their journey in mail coaches, while individual post-boys riding a relay of horses delivered letters on the more remote routes or as a local service.

Post Offices

There were no ‘pillar boxes’ or ‘post boxes’ at this time. Instead, letters had to be taken to (and collected from) a post office. Often these were coaching inns that also served as posting stations for mail coaches.

The Wheatsheaf Inn at North Waltham in Hampshire
The Wheatsheaf Inn at North Waltham in Hampshire

The Wheatsheaf Inn at North Waltham in Hampshire is one of two coaching inns close to Steventon, where Jane Austen was born in 1775 and spent half her life. The inn was on the busy Winchester to Basingstoke turnpike road – a major route in north Hampshire that is now bypassed by the M3 motorway. The Austen family is known to have used this inn, and Jane Austen most likely posted some of her letters here. We ourselves used the inn this summer, while staying in the modern motel next door. At a glance, the Wheatsheaf Inn looks similar to the cottage at Chawton a few miles away, where Jane Austen spent her final years.

Another Hampshire inn where she probably posted letters is the George and Dragon at Hurstbourne Tarrant, close to Ibthorpe where she sometimes stayed. This old inn has new owners and is being renovated. We were kindly allowed inside to see the Georgian letter-sorting rack over the fireplace that may have been used by the Austens. Such racks rarely survive but would once have been common in coaching inns.

The letter-sorting rack over the fireplace in the George and Dragon Inn at Hurstbourne Tarrant in Hampshire
The letter-sorting rack over the fireplace in the George and Dragon Inn at Hurstbourne Tarrant in Hampshire

Most people who regularly wrote and received letters seem to have had both formal and informal means of dealing with their local post office. On one occasion in 1799, William Holland, the vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset, rushed to complete his letter:

“That horrible faced man Briffet is come to cut up the sow pig. I must now finish my letter to the Duke of Somerset to send it off by Mr. Briffet, who is likewise a postman as well as hog killer.”

Briffet regularly delivered newspapers and letters to William Holland and was probably paid for providing that service.

Receiving letters

The mail coach took letters to the post office that was closest to the intended recipient, who either collected them or had a private arrangement for them to be delivered. When Dorothy Wordsworth was living at Grasmere in the Lake District with her brother (the poet William Wordsworth), she often wrote in her diary about collecting letters from Rydale. In February 1802 she noted: “A rainy morning. William returned from Rydale very wet, with letters. He brought a short one from C., a very long one from Mary. Wm. wrote to Annette, to Coleridge … I wrote a little bit to Coleridge. We sent off these letters by Fletcher.” Fletcher was the local carrier, though different people brought and collected their letters at other times.

Jane Austen wrote letters nearly every day and was well aware of the lack of privacy involved if someone collected letters, using it as a device in her novel Emma. One character, Jane Fairfax, is trying to keep her correspondence private and is collecting her own letters from the post office, but Mrs Elton objects, believing the daily walk to be unhealthy:

“There must be some arrangement made, there must indeed. I shall speak to Mr E. The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall inquire for yours too and bring them to you. That will obviate all difficulties you know; and from us I really think, my dear Jane, you can have no scruple to accept such an accommodation.”
“You are extremely kind,” said Jane, “but I cannot give up my early walk. I am advised to be out of doors as much as I can, I must walk somewhere, and the post-office is an object; and upon my word, I have scarcely ever had a bad morning before.”

Postal costs

The cost of letters was relatively high. Within London, a Penny Post pre-paid system operated, which was increased to twopence in 1801. Everywhere else, it was usual for the recipient of the letter to pay the cost, which was charged according to the distance travelled and the number of ‘enclosures’, such as if more than one sheet of paper was used. To minimise postal costs, writers needed to plan the length of letters carefully, which did not always happen, as Nelly Weeton, a governess working in the Lake District, admitted to her brother Tom:

“I feel myself in a writing humour, and as I have entirely filled one large half sheet, I will, for once, put thee to the expence of a double letter; had I thought, when I begun, that I should have scribbled so much, I would not have cut the sheet, and then I might, with a safe conscience, have informed the Post-master that it was only a ‘single sheet’.”

Wrappers – the early ‘envelopes’

Most letters comprised a single sheet of paper folded in on itself – there were no envelopes. A rectangle in the middle of the outer side of the sheet was left blank for the address, and the last fold was tucked in and sealed with red-coloured beeswax, or black beeswax for funerary correspondence. Alternatively, a piece of glued paper called a ‘wafer’ was used. If costs were not a worry, then a letter or document might be enclosed within a postal wrapper. This was a sheet of paper that was folded around the letter and then sealed with wax. The kind of envelopes used today began to be manufactured and sold in large quantities only when standard (and lower) postal charges, irrespective of the number of enclosures, were introduced in 1840.

A postal wrapper postmarked 20th July 1801. Left: the front of the folded wrapper. Middle: the wrapper opened out with a surviving fragment of the seal visible. Right: the back of the folded wrapper
A postal wrapper postmarked 20th July 1801. Left: the front of the folded wrapper.

Middle: the wrapper opened out with a surviving fragment of the seal visible.

Right: the back of the folded wrapper

The picture above is of a wrapper that was sent in July 1801 to an inn intended for two guests from Wisbech: “Messrs Bellamy & Girdlestone, Black Bull Inn, Trumpington Street, Cambridge”. A decade earlier, John Byng stayed at this inn, which he found horrible: “I never was in a worse or a dirtier inn … This wretched inn, with most of this wretched town, ought to be burnt down.” This was a 15th-century inn that was rebuilt in 1828 and is now part of St Catherine’s College at 68 Trumpington Street.


When someone was desperate to restrict their letter to a single sheet, cross-writing was a solution. Once the sheet was covered with writing, it was turned 90 degrees. The writing then continued at right-angles over what was already written. This allowed double the number of lines of writing, but the resulting letter was difficult to read, as Nelly Weeton warned a friend: “I am afraid you will scarcely be able to read this cross writing – a little more and I will have done.”

This method was often used by those far from home, perhaps on sea voyages, when they might compose a letter in odd moments over several days, adding more and more until there was an opportunity to post it. Along with unfamiliar words and expressions, hasty handwriting and a jumble of lines, the decipherment of such letters can be a nightmare for modern researchers. Cross-writing makes cross readers.


And now for something unconnected with the Austens, though undoubtedly familiar to them, since most of the family would have received a classical education. The Roman Empire was created by the Roman army, with the infantry troops (legionaries) forming the core. They were aided by specialist troops, such as cavalry, archers and slingers, who were drawn from various conquered territories. In the empire’s heyday, the army safeguarded and occasionally expanded the borders, and there was also a navy whose role was largely one of military transport combined with coastguard and policing duties. Only when the empire started to collapse and was threatened by seaborne raiders did the Roman navy face any serious challenges.

Most warships were long and narrow galleys, and although sails were used, windpower was not essential as they were also propelled by two or three banks of oars. Different fleets were named according to their base, such as the Classis Britannica (British fleet). The Classis Misenensis was at Misenum near Naples, and one detachment from that fleet was based in the praetorian camp at Rome, with some of the seamen being responsible for looking after the awnings of the Colosseum at Rome, an obscure way of helping to keep the civilian population under control.

Bread and circuses

The satirical Roman poet Juvenal remarked that the city mob at Rome was interested only in ‘panem et circenses’ – a Latin phrase usually given the literal translation of ‘bread and circuses’. While such a short, pithy translation might be memorable, the meaning of ‘circuses’ has changed over the centuries. To the Romans, circuses were race-tracks where the immensely popular sport of chariot racing took place. Successful charioteers were the rich and famous sporting superstars of their day. There were four racing factions in Rome, distinguished by the colours blue, green, white and red. As well as following their chosen faction, the fans also followed particular charioteers, and gambling ensured that fortunes were won and lost on the outcome of races.

Amphitheatres were also highly popular places for entertainment. They staged various spectacles, mostly bloodthirsty, such as gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts (the more exotic the animals, the better) and public executions. Such shows, usually called ‘the games’, originally had a ritual or commemorative function, but this aspect was lost by the end of the 1st century BC. By then, the games were solely for entertainment and were often heavily subsidised by politicians and emperors. Anyone in power who wanted to maintain their position tried to pacify the restive Roman mob with free festivities.

Anyone in power also needed to ensure a continuous supply of cheap food, or else riots could occur in times of food shortages. Juvenal’s ‘panem’ was shorthand for sufficient food, with the implication that it was ready-to-eat rather than raw ingredients. The phrase ‘panem et circenses’ is more accurately translated as ‘fast food, free entertainment and gambling’ – the comfort of not being hungry, the diversion of something interesting to watch and the dream of becoming rich.

Rigging and riots

The largest amphitheatre in Rome was the Colosseum, though its size was not the name’s origin. It was actually called ‘the amphitheatre’, but gained the nickname Colosseum from a nearby colossal statue of the emperor Nero, portrayed as the sun god Sol. Nowadays, its technical name is the Flavian Amphitheatre, since it was begun in AD 70 by Vespasian, the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty, and completed by his son Titus.

The western side of the Colosseum at Rome. A colossal statue of Nero once stood just beyond the Arch of Constantine and the lamp-post (on the left of the picture)
The western side of the Colosseum at Rome. A colossal statue of Nero once stood

just beyond the Arch of Constantine and the lamp-post (on the left of the picture)

The spectacles at the Colosseum took place in daylight, since there was no way of adequately illuminating the arena and seating after dark. Sheltered from even the smallest breath of wind, the audience could suffer from the intense summer heat, especially on the northern side in the full glare of the sun. In order to provide shade, a huge awning called a velum or velarium was rigged on the northern side, and sailors handled the mass of sailcloth and rigging. Nowadays, tourists pass by a row of bollards on the north-east side of the structure without giving them a second thought, but they are the only surviving evidence for the awning. Holes drilled through the bollards once took ropes to anchor the rigging that held the awning in place.

Rigging an awning to keep spectators cool enough to enjoy their free entertainment might not seem an important role for the navy, but it possibly prevented riots amongst the volatile Romans – and any riot had the potential for developing into a rebellion and a change of emperor. Such awnings may have been commonplace. A wall painting from Pompeii (now in the museum at Naples) shows a bird’s eye view of its amphitheatre with an awning. It also depicts a riot that is known to have occurred in AD 59, just two decades before Pompeii was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius.

The bollards for anchoring the rigging on the north-east side of the Colosseum
The bollards for anchoring the rigging on the north-east side of the Colosseum


Moving forwards several centuries to the Royal Navy, the latest book by Jonathan Coad, Support for the Fleet, is a comprehensive survey of the bases used in Britain and overseas from 1700 to the First World War. It covers all aspects of these naval bases, from the planning and building of the dockyards to the provision of supplies for the ships, dockyard housing, offices, chapels and much more. It is 450 pages long, including notes, bibliography and index, and is beautifully illustrated with high-quality colour and monochrome pictures, averaging roughly two per page. We were involved with preparing the text and pictures for publication and so read the book thoroughly. Although not cheap, it must already be the standard work for anyone interested in (or needing to know about) the history of the bases used by the Royal Navy. (Published by English Heritage, ISBN 978-1848020559).

Support For The Fleet Book Cover


Landscape features, particularly prehistoric monuments in Britain, have often acquired strange names over the succeeding centuries. The countryside is littered with Devil’s Ditches and Giant’s Graves, but in the Quantock Hills of north-east Somerset, an Iron Age ditch and bank (probably a boundary linked to the nearby hillfort of Dowsborough) has the unusual name of Dead Woman’s Ditch and has become connected to a nearby murder.

Dead Woman’s Ditch
Dead Woman’s Ditch

The murder

On 5th July 1789, John Walford – a local charcoal burner – murdered his wife. After confessing, he was tried and hanged for the crime. It was a sensational story, and the poet Wordsworth, who came to live in the area a few years later, planned to write a poem about it called ‘A Somersetshire Tragedy’. It was never completed, and only a few lines survive. The story of the murder has been recounted many times over the decades, but the best modern account is A Quantock Tragedy: The Walford Murder of 1789, published by David Worthy (2004).

In 1785 Walford was in a relationship with Jane Shorney, who gave birth to his child. Variously reported as an alcoholic or mentally deranged, she was brought before the Justice of the Peace and swore that Walford was the father. He was arrested and given the customary choice of marrying, paying for the upkeep of the child or a spell in prison. Because his mother agreed to pay the cost, Walford was released. Jane next had a child by John’s brother William, but their father paid to keep William out of prison.

By 1787 Walford had fallen in love with Anne Rice, the local miller’s daughter, but was prevented from marrying her, and their engagement fell through. Instead, he renewed his relationship with Jane Shorney, and in 1789 she was pregnant again. Once more, Walford was arrested and taken before the magistrate, and this time he agreed to marry her. The wedding took place on 10th June, but by 5th July she was dead. The Bath Chronicle newspaper carried the story on 23rd July:

“Friday se’night [week] John Walford was committed to Ivelchester [Ilchester] gaol for the wilful murder of his wife, to whom he had not long been married, and who was supposed to be within a few weeks of having a child. Walford’s habitation was near Nether-Stowey. In the evening of the 4th July, Walford sent his wife to a publick-house after some cyder, which she longed for. Soon after the deceased left his house, he followed her, and overtaking her before she had got the cyder, with a large stick which he pulled out of a hedge, he inhumanly knocked her down; then he drew a large knife, which the day before he had been seen grinding, and cut her throat from ear to ear, and almost divided the bone of her neck; he then left her, and went home to bed. Two children came by the next morning, and seeing some blood under a gate, they ran and alarmed the neighbours, who found her quite dead and cold. The husband was immediately apprehended and kept in custody ‘till the Thursday, when the coroner’s jury found him guilty of wilful murder. He is to be tried at the ensuing Bridgwater assize.”

Trial and punishment

John Walford was tried at Bridgwater Assizes on 18th August, when he was found guilty and hanged two days later. The Bath Chronicle reported:

Before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon, and Mr. Justice Buller.
At the above assize, which ended on Tuesday last, seven prisoners received sentence of death, viz. John Walford, a labourer of Over-Stowey, aged about 21 years, for the wilful murder of his wife; he was executed upon Doddington-Green, near the place where he committed the murder, on Thursday last, and his body hung in chains on the adjoining hill.”

The body, in an iron cage, hung on the gibbet until exactly a year after the murder, when the constant turning in the wind finally unscrewed the cage from the suspension bar. His body was buried where it fell.

Names and places

The name Dodington (or Doddington) Green, where John Walford was executed and his body hung in chains, no longer appears on modern maps but has been replaced by ‘Walford’s Gibbet’, now a heavily wooded area. The spot is marked by a sign located alongside the narrow lane that leads from the old turnpike road (between Nether Stowey and Holford), past Dead Woman’s Ditch, to Crowcombe.

The body of Jane Walford was found near the turnpike road, along the route from the house where they lived to the Castle of Comfort Inn, where she was heading for cider. After having beaten his wife unconscious with a wooden stake, Walford said that he tried to drag her downhill to the Dodington copper mine, intending to throw her body down a mine shaft. Because she was too heavy to drag, he cut her throat instead. He could not actually have dragged her over a mile uphill to Dead Woman’s Ditch, and there is no evidence that her body was found there. The name of this ditch is a local coincidence, and it is actually marked on a map published in 1782, seven years before the murder. Although the place-name ‘Walford’s Gibbet’ undoubtedly arose from the murder, the origin of the name Dead Woman’s Ditch remains a mystery.


A new edition of The Keys of Egypt, translated into Chinese and transliterated into traditional Chinese characters, has just been published in Taiwan by Owl Publishing. It is a paperback of 352 pages, with the ISBN 978-986-262-157-8. It looks as if there are some good review quotes on the front of the jacket, but we have no idea what they say!

The front cover of ‘Keys Of Eygpt’

Our books are now translated into 17 languages, as we recently discovered that two of our books are published in Czech by Slovart. One is the updated version of our Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, published as Antický Řím, translated by Petr Kitzler, 504 pages, ISBN 978-80-7391-579-7. The other book is the updated version of our Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, published as Starověké Řecko, translated by Dana Adámková, 464 pages, ISBN 978-80-7391-580-3.


We have had a few magazine articles published recently, including ‘The Perils of Travel in Jane Austen’s England’, pages 18–21 of Discover Your History, a new and accessible magazine dealing with all aspects of family and social history, as well as Britain’s local and national heritage.

Another article was in Jane Austen’s Regency World for September/October 2013, issue 65, called ‘Day-to-day life in Jane Austen’s England’, pages 25–30. This bi-monthly magazine is the official magazine of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and is essential for all Janeites (and others). It is published by Lansdown Media.

We have mentioned Folklife Quarterly before, and the October 2013 issue (no. 39) has a piece by us on page 43 called ‘The Death of Saint Monday’. This magazine is essential for keeping up-to-date with with folklife and the thriving folk music scene.

Not an article, but a photograph of us with Julian Stockwin and his wife Kathy appeared in the latest Quarterdeck (along with a cream tea!), for October 2013. It was a real pleasure to meet Julian and Kathy for the first time, along with George Jepson over from the US – not only the man behind the camera, but the editor of Quarterdeck. The online magazine is distributed free-of-charge by McBooks Press [now changed], and you can sign up for it at


Since our last newsletter, we have been involved with various other media worldwide, both on the receiving end (such as reviews) or participating (such as interviews and talks). Such a lot has happened since our last newsletter that we are (happily) having trouble keeping up – but please don’t stop your reviews, blogs and so on! Apart from very few exceptions, the response has been overwhelmingly favourable. Quotes from some of them are on our Jane Austen website page: but we will give a flavour of them below.

Blogs and reviews

We are really grateful to the numerous bloggers who have reviewed or mentioned our book, along with the additional magazine and newspaper reviews. New guest blogs include one for the website of Helen Hollick, author of historical fiction and pirate-based adventure fantasy:, while another was a virtual launch party of our book on the lively Austenprose blog:

The reviews have included:

‘full of fascinating and intimate details, especially about the quality of life’ (Susan Kurosawa, The Australian)

‘an incisive flavour of Regency England in every hue emerges’ (Good Book Guide)

‘An excellent resource for Austen devotees interested in rich details of late 18th- and early 19th-century English life’ (Kathryn Bartelt, Library Journal)

‘This book was absolutely beyond fascinating … It’s intelligent, often funny, always insightful. Reading this completely enriched my understanding of Austen-era novels but also provided insight into society of the time’ (Venus Smurf, Goodreads)

Jane Austen’s England is some of the most readable nonfiction that I have encountered. Lacking that textbook feel so common in nonfiction, this book draws the reader in, educating and entertaining at the same time’ (for us, this review summarises perfectly what we set out to do. The rest of the review, posted on 13th September, can be seen on this blog:

‘As a portrait of the England in which Jane Austen and her contemporaries moved, this well-written and engaging book is greatly to be recommended.’ (Martin Brayne, Parson Woodforde Society Quarterly Journal)

Having had a ‘virtual launch party’ on Austenprose, we never expected a review as well, but a very entertaining one by Shelley DeWees was posted there: We especially like this sentence: ‘While this beautiful, impeccably-researched volume will rob you of your fancies, it leaves in their place a much more interesting and dynamic picture of Austen’s life and times.’

Radio interviews

With the publication of a new book, we usually do loads of radio interviews, but this time it’s been a bit quiet on that front. One interview was very enjoyable – on Radio New Zealand with Jim Mora (for his ‘Afternoons with Jim Mora’ show). You can listen to the interview (about 20 minutes) here:


We have given several more talks over the last few weeks, which have attracted glorious weather (mostly) and enthusiastic audiences (always). One was to the thriving Ugborough History Society (which we were very pleased that several students from Plymouth High School for Girls were able to attend) and another to the nearby Salcombe Yacht Club.

In September we gave a talk at the historic Theatre Royal at Bath, as part of the Jane Austen Festival, where books were sold by Mr B’s. A few days before our talk, we also signed books at Toppings and Waterstones bookstores and watched the famous Regency Parade, when hundreds of people from all over the world processed through the streets of Bath in beautiful Regency costume. The weather was perfect, as was the spectacle. On the day of our talk, we were very fortunate in seeing a one-woman show at the theatre, ‘Courtship’ by the actress Kim Hicks, who performed unabridged extracts from Jane Austen’s novels. Brilliant and unmissable. See her website at

We next headed for three highly respected and very friendly festivals, the first of which was the Henley Literature Festival (where books were sold by the Bell Bookshop). One of its supporters is the Daily Mail, and our event was introduced and chaired by Karina Honan who not only works for the literary pages of this newspaper but (we were thrilled to discover) is the daughter of Park Honan who wrote the acclaimed Jane Austen: Her Life, first published in 1987.

The Appledore Book Festival was next, held in the beautiful maritime village of Appledore (near Bideford) on the north Devon coast, situated on the west bank of the tidal River Torridge at its confluence with the River Taw. When we were there, the tide was receding, and it was exquisitely beautiful in the late summer sunshine, but we tore ourselves away to do our talk, another packed-out event! Waterstones was selling books, and it was good to meet up with some familiar faces from earlier events.

The last talk we gave was the furthest north we have been so far this year for an event – to the Ilkley Literature Festival, near Leeds and Bradford in Yorkshire, where the Grove Bookshop sold books. This year was the 40th anniversary of the festival, which first began in 1973 with W.H. Auden. The town of Ilkley is situated on a Roman fort, but there are earlier prehistoric remains as well. From the valley of the River Wharfe, it rises up to the famous Ilkley Moor that is the subject of the Yorkshire dialect folk song, ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’ ’at’ – ‘on Ilkley Moor without a hat’. We could get carried away with all sorts of digressions about Ilkley, but will save those for a future newsletter. We were very pleased to receive a highly favourable review of our talk by Sarah Whitehouse at ‘The Pickled Egg’, the official blogger of the Ilkley Literature Festival [this blog doesn’t seem to be available now].