Newsletter 36

Welcome to the May issue of our occasional newsletter for 2014.


The UK edition of our latest book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, has just been published in paperback by Abacus. It has a brand-new jacket design, adapted from the very popular American hardback jacket that was based on an actual embroidery by artist Sarah Cline. The ISBN is 978-0349138602.

Jane Austen Cover

In the US, where the title is Jane Austen’s England, the paperback will be published in July by Penguin, though you can still buy it in hardback. We’ll come back to Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Mr Darcy’s wet shirt and some forthcoming talks a little later in this newsletter.


At the moment there is a great deal of interest in the First World War because the summer of 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. We were recently given a folded sheet of paper dating from that time, and on it an unknown serviceman had copied down a wry version of a soldier’s daily routine.

Part of the ‘soldier’s daily routine’
Part of the ‘soldier’s daily routine’

The original author of this humorous piece is unknown, but it was in widespread circulation by the spring of 1916, when it was being included in entertainments for the troops on the Western Front. It was also printed in magazines produced by the soldiers themselves and in those produced by the staff of the hospitals for wounded servicemen. From these sources, it was soon picked up and reprinted in various local newspapers in Britain. Surprisingly, there is little variation in the different published versions, probably because it circulated via carefully handwritten copies, not by word of mouth. It gives a satirical, if not cynical, view of military life:

A Soldier’s Life. Daily Routine told in Hymns.

6.30a.m. Reveille – “Christians Awake”
6.45. Hut Parade – “Art Thou Weary”
7.0. Breakfast – “Meekly wait and murmur not”
8.15. Company Officers Parade – “When He Cometh”
8.45. Manoeuvres – “Fight the Good Fight”
9.30. Company Orders – “Oft in Danger, Oft in Woe”
10.30. Kit Inspection – “All things bright and beautiful”
11.15. Swedish Drill – “Here we suffer grief and pain”
1.0p.m. Dinner – “Come, ye thankful people, come”
2.15. Rifle Drill – “Go, labour on”
3.15. Lecture by Officer – “Tell me the old, old story”
4.50. Dismiss – “Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow”
5.0. Tea – “What means this eager anxious throng?”
6.0. Free for the night – “O Lord, how happy we shall be”
6.30. Out of bounds – “We may not know, we cannot tell”
7.0. Route march – “Onward Christian soldiers”
8.45. Zeppelin Raid Drill – “We plough the fields and scatter”
10.0. The Last Post – “Peace, perfect peace”
10.15. Lights out – “All are safely gathered in”
10.30. Guard inspection – “Sleep on, beloved, sleep”


In the dim-and-distant days before computer games, children made their own entertainment – and sometimes their own toys too. An old favourite was the cotton reel tank, made from cheap materials that were then readily available – a wooden cotton reel, an elastic [or rubber] band, a piece of wax candle and a couple of matchsticks.

wooden cotton reel, an elastic [or rubber] band, a piece of wax candle and a couple of matchsticks

Technical stuff

A disc of wax was sliced off the candle and a hole carefully made in the centre, where the wick was. Through this hole was threaded an elastic band, one end of which was held in place by a wooden matchstick. The protruding loop of elastic was threaded through the hole down the centre of the cotton reel and secured in place at the other end by half a matchstick. When the longer matchstick was ‘wound up’, the so-called tank would crawl along until the elastic band unwound.

A cotton reel tank
A cotton reel tank

Design upgrades

All kinds of refinements were added. The ‘wheels’ (the rims of the cotton reel) were frequently notched to give the tank extra grip and stop it skidding, and the matchstick that made contact with the surface could be replaced with a slightly longer stick. The half-matchstick that anchored the elastic band at the other end of the cotton reel had a tendency to slip and reduce the tension, making the tank stop prematurely, but this was cured with glue or a tiny nail or pin hammered in to stop it moving. The final touch for a really successful and very mobile tank was a coat of paint or painted design.


Even a single cotton reel tank was a fascinating toy, since it was self-propelled. Particularly if notched, it would crawl over small obstacles, and with several tanks races could be run, ‘trials’ held over obstacle courses, and even battles fought. Like most simple toys, it was limited only by a child’s imagination. Although sometimes called ‘tractors’, they were generally referred to as ‘tanks’. But when was the cotton reel tank invented? Did such toys emulate the battlefield tanks of the First World War? Children certainly played with them during the Second World War and the immediate post-war period, but by the 1960s, growing affluence and the increasingly sophisticated toys available in shops, along with other distractions such as television, made them an old-fashioned novelty.

Changes in cotton reels

Another factor that led to the demise of the cotton reel tank was that the reels themselves were evolving. With the arrival of cheap plastics, cotton reels were no longer made from wood. Initially, these plastic reels were skeuomorphs – imitations of an object in a totally different material. The first plastic reels look just like wooden ones, both in shape and colour, so that it is difficult to tell them apart at a quick glance. Once the transition to plastic was made, reels of different shapes were introduced. In the picture below, the group of seven reels on the left are late 19th- and early 20th-century wooden reels, the two in the centre are early plastic reels, and the three on the right are more modern plastic forms.

The evolving form of the cotton reel, from earliest (left) and latest (right)
The evolving form of the cotton reel, from earliest (left) and latest (right)

Cotton reels at home

Cotton reels for use in the home seem to have been invented in the mid-19th century. Before then, cotton thread for sewing was sold in hanks or skeins and was wound on to a winder or into a ball before use. Large wooden reels – called bobbins or spools – were used only in textile factories. An industry grew up supplying bobbins for the textile factories, and Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Lake Windermere in Cumbria is now preserved as an English Heritage property, with displays showing the history and processes of bobbin making. Stott Park Mill was built in 1835, initially to supply bobbins for textile factories, but later it produced domestic cotton reels and wooden spools for other materials, such as wire. The mill, which continued in production until 1971, now provides a fascinating glimpse of Victorian factory life and is well worth a visit.


Moving back a few thousand years, we recently had an article published in Folklife Quarterly (for April 2014, pages 42–3) on the only folk song that is (as far as we know) associated with a prehistoric stone circle – the Stones of Stenness, near Stromness in Orkney, Scotland. The Standing Stones Ballad was first published in 1883, but the folk traditions are much earlier. One solitary standing stone, the Stone of Odin, had a perforation that was used for making marriage vows or curing sickness. Offerings were frequently left, such as food, a rag or a small stone. In the early 19th century a farmer removed and destroyed this stone, much to the fury of the local people, who took revenge by arson attacks on his house.


A rival to Pompeii

First-time visitors to Rome in Italy inevitably head to the famous ancient landmarks, dating back 2,000 years or so – the Forum, Trajan’s Market, Pantheon, Arch of Constantine and, of course, the Colosseum. Rome is overflowing with so many visitor attractions that some fascinating sites are never in the spotlight.

Ostia Antica (‘Old Ostia’, usually just called ‘Ostia’) is also frequently overlooked – a ruined Roman town that is as impressive as Pompeii. Less than 20 miles away, Ostia was Rome’s principal port for several centuries. The harbour has long silted up, and Ostia is now nearly 3 miles inland, but it was once right by the sea at the mouth of the River Tiber. It probably began as a military outpost in the 4th century BC to prevent attacks on Rome and expanded into a commercial port, importing a vast quantity of goods that were carried up the Tiber to Rome, such as amphorae of olive oil and the grain supplies that were needed for the ‘bread and circuses’ (see ‘The Navy in Ancient Rome’ in our October 2013 newsletter).


In the 1st century BC, piracy in the Mediterranean increased, but there was reluctance among the Roman elite to combat this menace, because the pirates were one way of obtaining slaves. In 68 BC the pirates went too far, as they sailed into the mouth of the Tiber, destroyed a Roman fleet and raided and looted Ostia. This was too close for comfort at Rome, and the following year a law was passed giving wide-ranging powers to the general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known as Pompey, the confederate of Julius Caesar). Within three months, the strength of the pirates was broken.

From port to Portus

Ostia quickly recovered, and the port prospered as the Roman Empire grew ever larger. Yet the harbour itself was prone to silting and never satisfactory, forcing large ships to unload offshore. In the early 1st century AD, the emperor Claudius ordered a new harbour to be built 3 miles to the north, but many ships sank in storms as it was too exposed to the open sea. In the 2nd century, under the emperor Trajan, yet another harbour was built. Portus was actually a sheltered, landlocked harbour that was linked to the Tiber by a canal. The willingness to devote such huge resources to this harbour is powerful proof of the importance of seaborne imports to ancient Rome.

The bottom two storeys of apartment blocks in Ostia
The bottom two storeys of apartment blocks in Ostia

Decline and fall

Portus was a success and eventually eclipsed the port of Ostia, which, with the continued silting problems, declined from the 3rd century, though the town became a fashionable residential area and flourished for a further 200 years. What finally finished Ostia was the rise in malaria. This disease had always been present because the port was located by marshland near the Tiber estuary, but malarial swamps formed as the harbour silted up and irrigation of the surrounding farmland ceased. Ostia was gradually abandoned, and in 830 Pope Gregory IV founded a fortified village nearby to try to revive the area. By 1756 fewer than 200 people were left. The area was soon desolate, and the ruins of Ostia became overgrown. It was not until the marshes were drained and reclaimed in the 19th century that the ancient city began to be revealed.


During the centuries of prosperity, many impressive buildings were constructed, with some luxury houses as spectacular as those at Pompeii, while apartment blocks of brick stood four or five storeys high. Just like the British Empire in the 19th century, the Roman Empire was maintained by military might but underpinned by commerce, and Ostia had huge warehouses and granaries, as well as hundreds of shops and offices. Over 60 mercantile offices were grouped round a square, representing commercial organisations from all parts of the ancient world – their black-and-white mosaic entrances indicate the nature of their trade, such as grain imports or shipping. This type of mosaic was also used to advertise other businesses. The entrance to the Tavern of Fortunatus depicts a cantharus (a two-handled drinking cup sacred to Bacchus, god of wine), with an order to drink – ‘Bibe’. The inscription means something like ‘Fortunatus says drink wine from the bowl to quench your thirst’.

Mosaic floor at the entrance to the Tavern of Fortunatus at Ostia

Today, we are bombarded with advertising from all directions, but it is only with the rise of television and the internet that such methods have become old-fashioned. In towns across Britain, similar mosaic entrances to shops can still be found, poignant vestiges of decades past, like this one below in a former Co-op store at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. A co-operative society was founded in 1861 in this town (and you can see further information at

Mosaic entrance to a Co-op at Bradford on Avon
Mosaic entrance to a Co-op at Bradford on Avon


And now back to Jane Austen, with a piece to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park in May 1814. This was one of two naval novels that she wrote – both Mansfield Park and Persuasion have significant naval themes and characters. Jane Austen’s inspiration and knowledge came from two of her brothers, Frank and Charles, who were in the Royal Navy, and also from those officers who were her neighbours or within her social circle. One of those neighbours was Benjamin Clement.

The Clement memorial

The chancel of the church of St Nicholas in the village of Chawton in Hampshire has a stained glass window commemorating Benjamin Clement and his wife. The dedication within the glass at the bottom of the window reads: ‘In memory of Benjamin Clement, Captain RN. Born March 29th 1785. Died Nov. 5th 1835. Also of Ann Mary his wife. Born Septr. 22nd 1787. Died Aug. 30th 1858.’

Memorial window of Benjamin Clement in Chawton church, Hampshire
Memorial window of Benjamin Clement in Chawton church, Hampshire

It is thought that this couple, along with Ann-Mary’s sister, Catherine-Ann Prowting, are referred to in perhaps the very last letter written at Winchester by Jane Austen. Only fragments of this letter are known, which were included in a biographical note added to the first edition of her novel Northanger Abbey. This was published soon after Jane’s death in 1817, by her brother Henry, and he chose to omit names. The relevant fragment reads: ‘You will find Captain ––– a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.’

The Austen connection

Jane Austen, with her mother and sister, moved to Chawton in July 1809, into a cottage (now a museum) that was part of her brother Edward’s estate. The Prowtings, an old Chawton family, lived close by, and the Austens came to know them well. In October 1811 Ann-Mary Prowting married Benjamin Clement, who was born in the nearby Hampshire town of Alton in 1785, the son of a solicitor, Thomas Clement.

After their marriage, Captain and Mrs Clement moved into another Chawton cottage, and Jane Austen socialised with them. Ann-Mary became the ‘Mrs Clement’ who appears in some of her letters, and we even have a description of Ann-Mary’s dress from a letter that Jane wrote in November 1814: ‘Mrs Clement walks about in a new black velvet pelisse lined with yellow, and a white bobbin net veil, and looks remarkably well in them.’ There are only a few brief mentions of Benjamin Clement in her surviving letters, apart from the probable description of him as ‘a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner’.

The Trafalgar hero

Benjamin Clement did not follow his father into the law, but in 1794, at just 9 years of age, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, the lowest commissioned officer rank. In 1801 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, having already been wounded in action several times. In 1803 he was posted to HMS Tonnant and was still on board at the Battle of Trafalgar, off the Spanish coast, on 21st October 1805.

At the height of the battle, in the confused mass of manoeuvring ships, the Tonnant came across the Spanish ship San Juan Nepomuceno, which had already been damaged by broadsides from HMS Dreadnought. After a short exchange of fire, the Spanish ship surrendered, and Lieutenant Clement described what happened next in a letter to his father: ‘I came aft and informed the first Lieutenant. When he ordered me to board her, we had no boat but what was shot, but he told me I must try; so I went away in the jolly boat with two men, and had not got above a quarter of the way, when the boat swampt.’ Like many seamen, he was unable to swim, as he told his father:

‘the two men that were with me could, one a black man, the other a quarter-master: He was the last man in her, when a shot struck her and knocked her quarter off, and she was turned bottom up. Macnamara, the black man, staid by me on one side, and Maclay the quarter-master on the other, until I got hold of the jolly boat’s fall [rigging to raise and lower the boat between the deck and the water] that was hanging overboard. I got my leg between the fall, and as the ship lifted by the sea so was I, and as she descended I was ducked. I found myself weak, and thought I was not long for this world. Macnamara swam to the ship, and got a rope and [swam] to me again, and made it fast under my arms, when I swung off, and was hauled into the stern port.’

The legacy

Shortly afterwards the Dreadnought sent a boat and took possession of the Spanish ship, and Lieutenant Clement soon recovered. Lieutenant Hoffman had witnessed the rescue and thought that Clement ‘was nearly drowned, and had it not been for a black man, who took him on his back, he must have sunk. This man he never lost sight of, and left him a handsome legacy when he died.’ Charles Macnamara was a seaman originally from Barbados who had joined the Tonnant from an East Indiaman merchant ship. No legacy to him was mentioned in Clement’s will, though one of the executors was John Chippendale, Clement’s navy agent, who may have had separate instructions.

Missing Trafalgar

Benjamin Clement went on to a distinguished but hardly famous career as a naval captain. It was six years after Trafalgar that he married Ann-Mary Prowting, and the couple raised two sons and a daughter at Chawton. Some commentators have thought that the references to the Clement family in her letters show that Jane Austen was rather cool towards them. This may be true, though very few of her letters actually survive to be certain. She must have been well aware of the strange twist of fate whereby the young captain living nearby was known as a ‘hero of Trafalgar’, whereas her own brother Frank had narrowly missed the battle. He had been a flag captain in Nelson’s fleet, but before the battle Nelson ordered his ship to fetch water and supplies. To his dismay, the battle was fought before they returned. Frank did rise further through the ranks and eventually gained the highest rank in the navy, Admiral of the Fleet, but could never claim the distinction of being a Trafalgar hero.

A small world

With the hindsight afforded by history, there is one more link that demonstrates just how closely the people of Jane Austen’s world were connected with each other – Benjamin Clement was the great-nephew of Gilbert White who is now famous for his Natural History of Selborne. Jane Austen was originally from Steventon, Benjamin Clement from Alton, his wife Ann-Mary from Chawton, and of course Gilbert White came to live at Selborne – all places within a small area of north Hampshire. At a time of moderate population size, where there was a great deal of interaction between the members of the upper classes and gentry, such connections were the norm rather than the exception.


It is tempting to imagine that Jane Austen may have made use of some of the tales that she heard Benjamin Clement recounting at dinners and other social events, making us grateful that he was rescued from drowning. Many people in England were unable to swim, and it was certainly not encouraged in the navy for fear of unhappy seamen swimming off to freedom. And yet the most famous scene in the 1995 BBC TV series of Pride and Prejudice is where Elizabeth Bennet suddenly encounters Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, emerging from a swim in the lake, his shirt clinging to his body. Jane Austen does not actually mention swimming. Instead, Elizabeth, her aunt and her uncle have just had a guided tour of Mr Darcy’s house, Pemberley, believing him to be away. It was acceptable for visitors of the right class to be shown round properties. At the hall door, they are met by the gardener:

As they walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look again; her uncle and aunt stopped also, and while the former was conjecturing as to the date of the building, the owner of it himself suddenly came forward from the road, which led behind it to the stables.

If Elizabeth had not looked back, they would have missed seeing Darcy, who had just arrived at Pemberley and was walking from the stables – not swimming. Even so, it has become an iconic Austen scene, and in the most recent review of our book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, under ‘paperback must reads’, the Daily Mail reviewer praised it as a ‘scholarly but accessible history of Georgian England … A must for anyone who wants a peek under Mr Darcy’s wet shirt…’!


Historical Honey ( isn’t afraid to delve into wet shirts and other racy topics, and this lively website has just celebrated its first year online. Congratulations! Whether you like history, archaeology or fiction based on those subjects, this website has expanded and developed dramatically, with something for everybody. Until 11th May, they are running a competition to win a copy of our new paperback – with four prizes up for grabs.


We were pleased to receive a generous review that was published in the Jane Austen Society Newsletter 42 for March 2014. The writer of the review, Stephen Mahony, said: ‘This substantial and wide-ranging book sets out to show how people lived in England in Jane Austen’s lifetime … There is an impressive depth of information and detail … a pleasure to dip into as well as to read through.’ This is the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom, which was originally founded in 1940 to raise funds to preserve the cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, now a wonderful museum. The society’s website is We will be giving a talk to the south-west branch in January 2015 (see below).


We are looking forward to giving talks at the following events. We will add further details and new talks on the ‘Latest News’ page of our website. Please check dates and times with the organisers before you come to a talk, as these can change! Other talks are being planned, so keep checking our website for details.

Fowey, Cornwall: A talk on ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ at the Fowey Festival of Words and Music on Monday 12th May 2014 at 2pm in the Town Hall. This festival takes place from 10th to 17th May in Fowey, a town on the west side of the Fowey estuary. See This talk is SOLD OUT!

Wokingham, Berkshire: This is also an afternoon talk on ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ at 2pm on Wednesday 14th May 2014 at the library in Denmark Street, Wokingham, Berkshire, RG40 2BB. Tel (0118) 978 1368. Tickets £3, available from the library. This talk is SOLD OUT!

Dartington, Devon: We are pleased to be returning to the Ways With Words festival at Dartington. Our talk is ‘Why Jane Austen Loves a Sailor’, concentrating on the themes of Mansfield Park, in particular the Royal Navy. This will be part of a ‘Writers and Their World’ day on Monday 7th July 2014, 10am, in the Barn. See

Penzance, Cornwall: We will be talking at the Penzance Literary Festival on Thursday 17th July, in the Morrab Library, at 2.30pm. The festival is held from 16th to 20th July. Our talk will be in the wonderful Morrab Library, Morrab Gardens, Penzance, TR18 4DA. This festival has really cheap tickets for its events, and our event costs £3, and £1 for concessions! Tickets can be booked here:

Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire: We are also returning to the huge English Heritage ‘History Live!’ festival, which takes place on the weekend of 19th and 20th July. Early-bird tickets are available until 3rd June at – over 2,000 re-enactors and performers will bring the story of England to life, including battles, talks, live music, a historic market and a real-ale bar. Our talk this year will be ‘Why Jane Austen Loves a Sailor’, at 10.30am on Saturday 19th.

And an advance notice for Exeter, Devon: As mentioned above, we have been invited to give a talk to the south-west branch of the Jane Austen Society on 31st January 2015. This is an all-day event for members of the south-west branch – see their website for details on how to join.