Newsletter 34

Welcome to the December issue of our occasional newsletter for 2013.


Commemoration and celebration

At Christmas time, Trafalgar Square in London with its huge tree donated by Norway is often crowded, and on New Year’s Eve it is the traditional place for revellers to congregate to celebrate the first minutes and hours of the New Year. But even on a summer’s day the square is busy. At all seasons thousands of people are constantly passing through, and many of them are tourists and sightseers. Probably the main attraction is Nelson’s Column, which was largely completed in 1849. The column and the entire square were intended to commemorate Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish navy at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, when Nelson was killed in the action. The design and construction of the column saw lengthy delays, and part of the original plan for the monument, including the four bronze lions designed by the artist Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–73), was not put in place until 1867.

Other attractions in Trafalgar Square include the fountains that were originally installed in 1845 but remodelled in 1939 by the architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869–1944). This confusion of similar names is because the architect Lutyens was named after the artist Landseer, who had been a friend of his father’s.

Trafalgar Square on a hot summer’s day
Trafalgar Square on a hot summer’s day

First steps in measurement

The north side of Trafalgar Square is dominated by the façade of the National Gallery, but as people gaze up at this building, they usually miss the brass plaques set in the steps directly in front of them. These plaques are standards of linear measurement as set out in the Weights and Measures Act of 1824, which defined the system of weights and measures that became known as the Imperial System.

Some of the standard measurements in Trafalgar Square
Some of the standard measurements in Trafalgar Square

The explanatory plaque (dating to 1876, in Queen Victoria’s reign) has the inscription: “Imperial Standards of Length placed on this site by the Standards Department of the Board of Trade by the permission of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings MDCCCLXXVI”. The measurements range from one inch right up to a standard chain of 66 feet, which is marked at intervals along one of the Trafalgar Square steps. When this system was adopted, it replaced local measurements, which differed from place to place and had often led to confusion or fraud.

Although the Metric System was adopted in Britain in 1965, the Imperial System continues to be used, creating a new source of confusion. Road distances are, for instance, still measured in miles, but the petrol or diesel for vehicles using those roads is measured in litres.


Chains, rods and furlongs

A chain was an old unit of measurement, and if you visit Trafalgar Square, be sure to walk the length of the chain that is marked out along one step. Now walk it again, and again, until you have paced it out ten times! This is the distance of a furlong, a word that derives from the Old English furh for (furrow) and lang (long). A furlong was the length of a medieval strip field. Many villages of that era had open fields that were divided into strips shared out between the inhabitants. One chain was equivalent to 4 rods, and so a furlong was 40 rods long. One theory is that a rod was the length of an ox goad – a long wooden pole tipped with a pointed piece of iron, with which the oxen pulling the plough were prodded (‘goaded’) to urge them on.

An acre was the area of land that could be ploughed in one day. Traditional fields were long and narrow because of the difficulty of turning a plough driven by a team of oxen, and so in the strip-field system, an acre was 40 rods (one furlong) long and only 4 rods wide (220 yards by 22 yards – 4,840 square yards).

The medieval system of open fields was not universal throughout England, because in some places, the landscape was better suited to enclosed fields – such as the county of Devon in south-west England. Here, open fields were used in only a few places, and enclosure of those fields began during the medieval period itself, whereas elsewhere in England such fields persisted for several centuries. It is therefore strange that from the car park in Great Torrington in north-west Devon, the view of the landscape in the valley below contains the unmistakeable outline of two medieval strip fields.

The Leper Fields

The Leper Fields, Taddiport, with the two strip fields. In the black-and-white view (right), they are outlined in red
The Leper Fields, Taddiport, with the two strip fields.

In the black-and-white view (right), they are outlined in red


At Taddiport on the River Torridge, in the valley below Great Torrington, a medieval endowment provided for a small hospital for lepers. Seven strip fields formed part of that endowment, two of which have survived until the present day. The other five strips once occupied the larger field to the right, but their boundaries have been removed and ploughed over – though they were still visible and recorded on the Tithe Map of 1838.

The remaining two strips are now owned by the Great Torrington Town Lands Charity. Their field boundaries comprise traditional Devon Banks (also called Devon Hedges), which are made from wide earthen banks with a hedge planted on top, providing not only a strong boundary, but also shelter for animals. In recent years these banks have been restored and maintained, making the fields a striking feature of the local landscape.


Workhouse to Paradise

We photographed the Leper Fields, described above, a few weeks ago on our way to the Appledore Book Festival on the north Devon coast. Since then, we have also given talks at the Devon and Exeter Institution, the wonderful Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford, and at two other festivals. One was the Bridport Literary Festival near the south coast of Dorset. Bridport is a thriving market town whose High Street has just been shortlisted by the Telegraph for the ‘High Street of the Year’ award – its prestigious literary festival surely helps, and our own talk was sold out.

The other festival was the city of Sheffield’s ‘Off the Shelf Festival of Words’, which gave us an opportunity to explore the city centre. In Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, we mention the copper tokens that were issued as small change by businesses and even by workhouses, including the workhouse at Sheffield. We wanted to see its original location, even though we knew that nothing survives apart from a street name. What does survive is Paradise Square, a short walk uphill from the workhouse site.


The very name of Sheffield in South Yorkshire immediately evokes the metal industries, particularly steel manufacture and the production of cutlery, for which Sheffield has been long renowned. Cutlery was made here from the medieval period, and by the 17th century Sheffield had become a small industrialised town (though not yet a city) within a rural setting, where the majority of working men had some part in the cutlery trade. Improvements in production methods during the 18th century led to greater prosperity, that was reflected in the town’s expansion, with new buildings in the latest style – which today we call ‘Georgian’. Paradise Square was built from the 1730s on a sloping meadow where a pot market took place.

Paradise Square, Sheffield, from the south-east corner
Paradise Square, Sheffield, from the south-east corner

Selling wives

Paradise Square was not completed until the early 1770s, and it has some fine examples of Georgian architecture. The square continued as a market place for several decades, and it was probably here that John Lees sold his wife in 1796, as reported by the Staffordshire Advertiser:

“On Saturday evening last [26th March], John Lees, steel-burner, sold his wife for the small sum of six-pence to Samuel Hall, a fellmonger [dealer in animal hides], both of Sheffield. Lees gave Hall a guinea immediately to have her taken off to Manchester the day following by the coach. She was delivered up with an halter round her neck, and the clerk of the market received fourpence for toll.”

As we say in our book, wife selling was regarded as the poor man’s divorce, far removed from the romance of Jane Austen’s fiction. There was no divorce law until 1857. Before then, couples could obtain an annulment or separation through the ecclesiastical courts and then a divorce by a private Act of Parliament. This was a lengthy, costly process and impossible for most people. Instead, a man might resort to selling his wife. Although it had no legal force, such an action was widely believed to be legally binding if the proper procedures were carried out – the woman had to be led to a market place with a halter round her neck, the sale had to be a public one, and in some cases market tolls had to be paid. John Brand, who lived from 1744 to 1806, commented in his book Observations on Popular Antiquities:

“A remarkable superstition still prevails among the lowest of our Vulgar, that a man may lawfully sell his wife to another, provided he deliver her over with a halter about her neck. It is painful to observe that instances of this occur frequently in our newspapers.”

While some sales were by the consent of all parties, recognising an existing situation, in other cases the wife was sold against her will. It is usually impossible to discover the exact circumstances, but newspapers continued to report wife selling throughout the 19th century.

A meeting place

Paradise Square also became the scene of many political meetings, with the slope acting like an amphitheatre. Speakers at the lower side of the square could be seen relatively easily and for much of the day were highlighted by the sunshine on that side. The square also saw religious rallies and sermons, including one in 1779 by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who himself noted: “Thursday, 15 [July]. I preached in Paradise-Square, in Sheffield, to the largest congregation I ever saw on a week-day.” A plaque on the upper (south) side of the square commemorates the event.

Despite all this public activity, the houses around the square were expensive homes for the well-to-do. They numbered Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781–1841), a sculptor whose work was famous in the first half of the 19th century when he created statues, busts and monuments, including three in St Pauls’ Cathedral, London. The physician David Daniel Davis (1777–1841) lived in the square for a while – after moving to London, he became a professor of midwifery and was one of the doctors who attended at the birth of Queen Victoria in 1819.

When Paradise Square was fully established, its Georgian buildings were set against a growing panorama of industrial chimneys venting clouds of sooty smoke. After more than two centuries of change, that smoky aspect of industry has been swept away. The backdrop is today one of high-rise blocks of flats and offices, though the square itself looks much the same.


There have been many more features and reviews of our new book, including one by Jenna in a new and lively website called ‘Historical Honey: A hive of historical content’. The website’s mission is ‘to make history more accessible for all’, and it certainly succeeds with its vibrant and enthusiastic approach to all things historical and archaeological. We were recently invited to contribute a piece called ‘Stuff from Jane Austen’s England you won’t find in her novels’which you can read here. You can find the review of our book on their website here, where Jenna writes:

“The title is spot on, you really feel as though you are eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s world! Although I love learning about the fashions of days gone by, I am also interested in the ordinary lives of, well, ordinary people. Having traced parts of my family tree … I was captivated by the way this book details the ordinariness of the lives of servants, cooks, chimney sweeps, milliners and, most interestingly for me, coal workers.”

Most people’s ancestors are ordinary, and a review by Stephanie Turner that has just appeared on the website of the Federation of Family History Societies says:

“I found this book an excellent read … For those students who are studying Austen either in English Literature seminars or for sheer pleasure, reading the Adkins’ book will make a compelling addition to their own understanding of the era, enabling them to gain a more rounded point of view to life as it was in Austen’s England. For those social historians who wish to expand on their knowledge of the experiences of the everyday in Georgian and Regency England, I could not recommend a better read.”

We hope that our new book (Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England in the UK, or Jane Austen’s England in the US) will continue to be appreciated by lovers of Jane Austen, as well as those who enjoy Georgian history, social history, family history or simply fascinating tales of history (like wife selling). We’ve even been told that we have made some Jane Austen converts. If you are hoping to receive a copy, or are planning to give a copy, don’t forget that the UK and US hardcovers are on sale this Christmas in good bookstores (or can be ordered) and that the hardcovers will be ousted by paperbacks before too long.



If you need further stocking fillers, here are three paperbacks to consider that we ourselves were recently given. As the momentous 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice draws to a close, Mr Darcy’s Guide to Courtship by Fitzwilliam Darcy ‘As dictated to Miss Emily Brand’ is very fitting. It is a wryly humorous guide written from the upper-class male’s point of view, in language that Darcy himself might have used and backed by a sound knowledge of the period’s social history to give it authenticity (ISBN 9781908402592).

For friends and relatives who are involved (or thinking of becoming involved) in family history research, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood: A Guide for Family Historians by Sue Wilkes will be welcome. Focusing primarily on the two centuries between 1750 and 1950, this book covers all the useful records for England and Wales needed to trace children in the past, from education and work to their wartime experiences (ISBN 1781591661).

Smuggling has long been a favourite topic of ours, and Alaric Bond’s latest fiction title is Turn a Blind Eye, set in the murky world of smuggling in 1801. It is an unusual tale about the struggle between the navy (whose task of combating smugglers often took a poor second in wartime) and the smuggling gangs operating along England’s south coast. Interwoven with the action is the dilemma of divided loyalties and intrigue ashore, since many saw the smugglers as a lesser evil than the navy (ISBN 9780988236035).

Mr Darcy's
Tracing Your Ancestors' Childhood
Turn a Blind Eye


A country at war

Christmas as celebrated today would be barely recognisable in Jane Austen’s lifetime. It was then a period of war, winters were more severe, and festivities were generally low key. Taking one single Christmas, of December 1799, there was a certain calm in Britain as the 18th century came to an end. Even though the war with France continued, the Spanish fleet had been defeated at the Battle of St Vincent in 1797, the Dutch fleet had been defeated at Camperdown the same year, and the upheaval of the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore had settled down and been forgotten.

Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 was also still being discussed. Although Napoleon had managed to get back to France from Egypt, as yet he was nothing more than a brilliant general. He would not be emperor for some years. There was no threat of invasion, the war was distant and easily ignored, and people were more concerned about the harsh weather and the price of food than what was happening on the Continent. The main enemy was the weather.

17th December

On Monday 17th December 1799, the clergyman William Holland, vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset, sat in his study and wrote in his diary:

“A fierce black frost. Very cold, yet notwithstanding the weather I hear my little boy’s voice as cheerful as if it were the month of May, but it is too cold for writing … My little boy this day was measured for a suit of jacket and trousers which he is to put on Christmas day next and to sing God Save the King … A dark night, cold and frosty.”

The other side of the country, at Weston Longville in Norfolk, the clergyman James Woodforde, rector of the parish, was feeling the cold even more and writing in his diary: “very poorly to day owing to the cold. Morn’ dark & very cold & a frost. Afternoon ditto.”

19th December

Two days later, the weather had worsened, as William Holland noted:

“A sharp frost last night hard, clear and dry, and very cold … I went down to Stowey, and bought me some small shot and flints for shooting this very hard weather. The Clerk has cut down some ashen faggots against Christmas … The weather is uncommonly keen.”

An ashen faggot was the West Country equivalent of the Yule Log. A bundle of ash sticks was bound into a faggot with strips of willow, hazel or bramble. Because the strips were green, each made a noise when it burned through and broke. One custom attached to the ashen faggot was for each of the children in the family to choose a binding strip, and whoever chose the strip that burned through first would be the first to marry. A more common custom was for everyone to have a drink each time a strip burned through, and in some cases the drink had to be supplied by the host. The custom still continues in some families and in some pubs in the West Country.

In Norfolk, the weather deteriorated dramatically, as Woodforde observed:

“Very cold indeed with much snow this morn’ and so severe a frost as to freeze within doors and above stairs in a very little time … I was very poorly indeed towards bed-time, spirits low, and the cold almost too much for me at going to bed, my bed not warmed or fire in my room.”

With temperatures indoors being below freezing and with no heating in his bedroom, it is hardly surprising that he was in low spirits.

20th December

The harsh weather was affecting eastern England badly, and the next day, the 20th, Woodforde wrote:

“Very severe frost with much snow again. It froze again very sharp within doors … I thank God! the cold weather did not affect me so much today as yesterday, tho’ as severe, freezing within doors rather severer – water freezing within doors almost instantly. Morn’ hard frost with snow again. Afternoon ditto.”

23rd December

Despite the cold and treacherous conditions, the poor people of the parish called on Woodforde for their traditional Christmas gift. Normally they would call on St Thomas Day (21st December), but this year the custom was postponed to the 23rd, as he explained: “The poor of Weston [Longville parish] went about today for their Christmas gifts, instead of St. Thos. Day on Saturday last, it being more convenient for them. I gave to 51 of them at my house this morn’ at 6d. each.” In Somerset, the poor also collected their charitable gifts on the 23rd, but William Holland was in a bad mood:

“A cold frosty morning … Butter very scarce, and Robert [his servant] went out to seek some, tho it froze so hard that scarce any creature could stand, yet he forsooth took the great horse and against my will too. He will rot with laziness by and by! The poor came for meat and corn this cold weather and Christmas season, some very thankful and some almost saucy. If a man had not some object beyond the gratitude of his fellow creatures, he would never do a charitable act as long as he lived.”

Christmas Day (25th)

For clergymen, Christmas Day was also a time for charity towards the poor, as well as church services, and this time Holland was feeling less irritable:

“Cold clear and frosty Christmas day. Sacrament day at my church. Went to Aisholt in the afternoon … Returned to a late dinner by myself on sprats and a fine woodcock. Mr. Barbey [a refugee from France who taught French] was here, but they [Holland’s family] had all dined. So had the good folks in the kitchen this day, which was tolerably well lined with my poor neighbours, workmen &c. … Many of them stayed till past ten o’clock, and sang very melodiously. Sent half-a-crown to our church musicians, who had serenaded the family this cold morning at five o’ clock.”

In Norfolk, Woodforde was more specific about his Christmas:

“Mr. Dade read prayers this morning at Weston Church, being Christmas Day. Hard frost again with some snow. Dinner today rost beef, plumb pudding and mince pies. The following poor people dined at my house or had their dinner sent them – Widow Case, Thos. Atterton Senr., Mary Heavers Senr., Robt. Downing, Roger Sherwood, and my Clerk, Willm. Large. To each of them I gave or sent them s1/0d [a shilling] each. I was pretty well today, blessed be God for it, considering also the present cold weather … Morn’ frost with snow at times, afternoon very cold with some snow.”

The New Year 1800

Although for the clergy Christmas was the highlight of the season, for most people the New Year had more significance, but on this occasion the severe weather curtailed the celebrations. Under a coating of severe frost and snow, the country passed from the 18th to the 19th century with the hope of an end to the war and, more immediately, an end to the cold weather. A thaw came in early January, and although there was more snow to come, the worst of the winter was over – but the wars would continue for another 15 years.


The Great War

The Great War was a term applied to the Napoleonic Wars, which were fought during the lives of people like William Holland, James Woodforde and Jane Austen. This same term came to be applied a century later to the conflict that we know better as the First World War, World War I or World War One. At the time it was simply called ‘the war’ – nobody could believe a second world war was coming.

World War I lasted, of course, from 1914 to 1918, but already television programmes and books are jostling for position and attention, well ahead of the actual 100th anniversary of the various terrible events. It is curious to think that we are today as far removed in time from that conflict as they were then from the Napoleonic Wars and the so-called 1812 War with America, both of which ended in 1815.

Looking through some newspapers and magazines of that era recently, we became immersed in a copy of The Illustrated London News for December 4th, 1915. The war pervades most of its 32 pages, with numerous photographs and other illustrations, and is referred to simply as ‘this war’, ‘the present war’ or ‘the war’. The last few pages are devoted to advertisements, which are always so fascinating, casting light on many aspects of social history. Several suggest gifts for Christmas, but not all reflect the relatively modest type of gifts that were exchanged then, or the wartime era of austerity.

Smoking gifts

Several columns are headed ‘Christmas in the Shops’ and include advice on the suitability of cigarettes as a gift for men:

“Eighteen months of war have served to show what is, perhaps, the most welcome of all presents to men at the front or on the sea, whether officers or men, and that is tobacco. In times of peace there is an endless variety of articles suitable as gifts for men; but today there is no doubt that the majority of those serving their country would prefer what is the best and most acceptable gift for any man at any time – a box of really good cigarettes. With this in view, it would be well to buy some ‘De Reszke’ cigarettes for men friends –– ‘De Reszkes,’ because they are acknowledged to be a superlatively excellent brand. A hundred ‘De Reszkes’ mean a hundred thoughts of you, and the giving of a hundred pleasant times to the brave fellows who are fighting for their country – and for you.”

Named after a Polish opera singer, De Reszke cigarettes were rated as the ‘aristocrat of cigarettes’.

According to The Illustrated London News, luxury West End jewellers in London were also offering gifts that they regarded as suitable for the men (by which they meant officers!) in the trenches, such as a luminous wristwatch or a solid silver match case with a lid that formed a miniature windscreen for lighting cigarettes. One retailer, Elkington and Co. Ltd of Regent Street, was selling silver cigarette-boxes:

“a very practical present in these days of universal cigarette-smoking: a round silver cigarette-box to hold a tin of fifty cigarettes – a capital idea for officers at the front. Another sensible present for men in the trenches is a silver match-box to take safety matches, the striking portion being easily renewable.”

Sweetheart brooches

For the ladies, regimental badge brooches were recommended:

“Of military badge brooches, which form ideal Christmas boxes for ladies, Messrs. Packer make a speciality, supplying the badge of any regiment set as a brooch and made in fine gold and enamels, correct in every detail, for two guineas each.”

Charles Packer & Co was a goldsmiths and silversmiths in Regent Street, but other firms also sold regimental badge brooches, including The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company Ltd of Regent Street, who advertised various military badges of platinum, silver and gold, decorated with enamels and diamonds. These brooches would have been worn mainly by wives and girlfriends and are known today as sweetheart brooches. Most of them were not made of precious metals, but of brass and enamel.


Souvenir caskets

‘Christmas in the Shops’ then described a more unusual gift – a souvenir of the war. This was a silver-plated casket, rectangular in shape with a lid, decorated with embossed battle scenes by Richard Caton Woodville and with an inscribed line by Rudyard Kipling:

“a specially interesting present – a souvenir of the war – takes the form of a casket, suitable for various purposes, after an original design by Caton Woodville, full of vigorous action, illustrative of Kipling’s memorable line: ‘Who stands if Freedom fall? Who dies if England live?’ This beautiful and useful War Souvenir Casket costs only £1 5s. in electro-plate, lined with velvet or cedar, or £10 10s. in solid silver.”

Rudyard Kipling first published his poem ‘For All We Have’ in The Times of 2nd September 1914, and these were his final two lines. A year later, on 27th September 1915, his only son John was reported missing, presumed dead, at the Battle of Loos.

Poignantly, The Illustrated London News piece goes on to say: “On each casket sold, 3s. is to be divided between the Prince of Wales’s Relief Fund and the British Red Cross Society, until the end of the war.” Little did anyone realise that the end of the war was nowhere in sight.

COMPETITION [now closed]

To round off this year, which has been dominated by the life and works of Jane Austen, we have a competition. This year, 2013, was the bicentenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, but not all her work was published during her lifetime (1775–1817). For example, Northanger Abbey was published a few months after she died, in 1817. For the competition, we want to know when the novel Mansfield Park was published. Was it:

A. 1814
B. 1816
C. 1819

The winners will be the first two correct entries drawn out of the hat after 21st February 2014. The first prize is a hardcover copy of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, and the runner-up will receive this unique ‘Eavesdropping’ coffee mug.

Eavesdropping coffee mug


We’ll be back with another newsletter next year, probably in March. This festive message is from the Boy’s Own Paper of Saturday 2nd December 1883:

Festive Message