Newsletter 38

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


Some of the feedback we have received about our latest book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (Jane Austen’s England in the USA), has expressed surprise that we have also written naval and archaeological books. All our books are described on this website, but we have decided to look back over some earlier books in the next few newsletters. So as to commemorate the significant events of 1814 that occurred in America during the War of 1812 (which actually lasted from 1812 to 1815), we are starting with The War for All the Oceans.

UK and US Cover

Paperback jackets – UK (left) and US (right)

A trilogy

This book is the second of our trilogy of naval books – the other two are Trafalgar and Jack Tar. Although we refer to them as a trilogy, that doesn’t rule out future naval titles! After concentrating on the single battle of Trafalgar, we wanted to research what the Royal Navy was doing throughout the entire period of worldwide warfare from 1798 to 1815. The result was The War for All the Oceans, which relates the true and extraordinary story of the Royal Navy’s epic struggle against Napoleon. It is the first narrative account of the war at sea to include many neglected but fascinating episodes, alongside the more obvious events. We cover gallant duels between single ships, bloody large-scale battles, daring coastal raids and amphibious assaults.

There are also dramatic but little-known disasters, such as the massive Walcheren expedition against French naval bases in 1809, when the British were overwhelmed by malaria, not by Napoleon’s troops. Other stories include the capture and loss of HMS Diamond Rock, which was not a warship but a rock just off Martinique that the British took in order to command the approach to the French bases on that island; the controversial bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807; the capture of Banda Neira in 1810; and of course the War of 1812 against America, an often overlooked episode of history. As well as pitched battles and dashing naval actions, we focused on the experiences of the seamen and the harsh realities of life under sail and on land – from press-gangs to prostitutes and prisoners-of-war. These were arguably the most action-packed years of British naval history.

200 years ago

In the account of the 1812 War, we describe some of the events that occurred in 1814 and are being commemorated this year. In August 1814, the British army along with a naval contingent reached Washington, where they inflicted much (often unnecessary) damage and even burned the White House down. In September Baltimore was attacked, but the plan was ill conceived, and eventually the British withdrew. This bombardment of Baltimore turned out to be more eventful than was realised at the time, because one eyewitness, Francis Scott Key, jotted down a poem. It was printed and circulated under the title ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’ and was sung to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’, a British drinking song. Over a century later it was adopted as the national anthem of the United States. For further details, see newsletter 20.

Publication details

The War for All the Oceans was published in the UK in hardback by Little, Brown and then in paperback by Abacus (ISBN 9780349119168). In the US it was published in hardback by Viking and then in paperback by Penguin (ISBN 9780143113928). It has also been translated into Polish (ISBN 9788375100853) and was produced as an audiobook by Tantor (ISBN 9781400104833), read by Patrick Lawlor, an award-winning professional audiobook narrator. The War for All the Oceans is also available worldwide in all e-book formats.


We have three signed copies of The War for All the Oceans to give away to the winners of this competition. Several weeks before the events at Washington and Baltimore, Napoleon was cornered and forced to abdicate. After negotiations with the allied European powers ranged against him, led by Tsar Alexander of Russia, Napoleon was allowed to go into exile on a small island (from which he later escaped). For the competition, please tell us the name of the island. Was it:

A. Elbe
B. Elba
C. Elbo

[This competition has now closed, and the answer and explanation are in the December 2014 newsletter].


Tourist crafts

Probably due to the mechanisation of harvesting cereal crops, the tradition of making straw shapes and figures (‘corn dollies’) largely died out by the early years of the 20th century in Britain. From about the 1960s, the craft was revived, particularly for tourist souvenirs. The term ‘corn’ referred to cereal crops such as wheat, though nowadays corn can also mean ‘corn on the cob’ or maize. Many of the traditional and revived ‘corn dollies’ bore no resemblance to dolls or figures.

A simple corn dolly, made in the 1960s
A simple corn dolly, made in the 1960s

The last straw standing

Before the 20th century, local harvest customs were widespread throughout Britain, and although they differed from place to place, various elements were common to most. When the final patch of corn was cut, some straw with the ears of grain still attached (as in the picture above) was saved. Usually by plaiting or weaving, a figure or shape was made from this straw. It was then hung up in a building, often a farmhouse, barn or church, and was kept until the following year. Gathering the last stalks of straw was straightforward when cereal crops were cut by a scythe or sickle, but more difficult with a horse-drawn harvesting machine or huge modern combine harvester, so it easy to see why such traditions faded away.

Harvesting with sickles depicted in a 19th-century print
Harvesting with sickles depicted in a 19th-century print

Killing the king

Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941) was an anthropologist best known for his work called The Golden Bough. The third edition (the largest and most complete) was published in 12 volumes and contained a mass of data from archaeological, anthropological and folklore sources. Frazer used this information to support his contention that all societies across the world had experienced similar stages of magical and/or religious beliefs during their evolution. Such cross-cultural studies were much in vogue during the late 19th century, but tended to ignore or play down the historical changes within different societies. His research is therefore often overlooked and his conclusions treated as invalid.

One of his main ideas was that the annual cycle of vegetational growth and decay was represented as a sacred king who had to be killed and replaced when he grew old, because his strength was linked to the life-force of crops. Some customs of the cutting of the last standing corn could certainly be interpreted in this way. In 1938 one ritual observed in Lancashire was reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper as being one of the few remaining harvest customs:

‘The reapers leave an uncut patch in the centre of the last cornfield to be cut … Then a sickle is thrown at the patch in an endeavour to cut it in this way. The corn is bound into an image, which is wrapped in white linen and tied with coloured ribbons and called a “doll”. This “doll” is carried into the farmer’s house where it is kept for luck till the following year.’

These images were interpreted by Frazer as representations of a ‘corn spirit’, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, the reason for keeping a corn dolly was generally said to be ‘for luck’. Any deeper significance was long forgotten. A ‘doll’ or ‘dolly’ is usually a child’s toy that represents a baby, young child or adolescent, but corn dollies were not always doll-like or small, and some were so large that they were carried on top of a pole as an emblem or used to adorn the last load of the harvest. Even if Frazer’s theories have any validity, these corn dollies and their associated customs undoubtedly had more than one meaning over time.

An elaborate corn dolly in Dodington church, Somerset, in 2013
An elaborate corn dolly in Dodington church, Somerset, in 2013

Ancient myths

Frazer discovered that similar harvest customs took place in many other countries, not just Britain. He attempted to reconcile his theories with ancient Greek myths, and The Golden Bough actually referred to one myth, but with the Greek goddesses Persephone and Demeter, he was faced with a problem. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, who was chief of all the gods. When Persephone was snatched by Hades, the god of the underworld, to be his queen, her mother Demeter searched the world in vain. Eventually Zeus released her, but not fully. Bizarrely, because Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she could spend only eight (in some versions six) months of the year above ground. The remaining time had to be spent with Hades.

This myth was understood as an allegory of the cycle of seed corn being planted in the soil and its emergence, growth and harvest, but it contradicted Frazer’s idea of a male corn spirit that needed to be ritually killed each year, especially as Demeter was also the central goddess of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Frazer’s convoluted explanation was less than convincing, but he was scrupulously honest when he ended his argument with the words: ‘It must not, however, be forgotten that this proposed explanation of such pairs of deities as Demeter and Persephone or Isis and Osiris is purely conjectural, and is only given for what it is worth.’ Although some of Frazer’s arguments are flimsy, his research remains an invaluable resource.

From Egypt to Santorini

Corn dollies are not especially durable, nor were they common, because only one figure was made each year in a small community. No really old ones are known, but there are possible representations in ancient art, such as in wall paintings within the Tomb of Nakht at Luxor in Egypt (Tomb 38).

Another possible representation of a corn dolly has been noted on a pottery jar from the excavations of Akrotiri on the Aegean Greek island of Santorini, also known as Thera or Thira. This island, 120 miles south-east of mainland Greece, is the fragmentary remains of a volcano that blew up about 3,600 years ago. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, leaving behind deep deposits of ash. It possibly triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation through the devastating tsunami and may well have given rise to the legend of the submergence of Atlantis.

The island today has three main parts: the eastern half of the rim of the volcanic crater (the mainland of Santorini), a small central island formed by the remains of the volcanic vent, which is still active, and a fragment of the western rim. The importance for Greek archaeology is that the fall of ash covered ancient settlements, and a Bronze Age settlement was discovered beneath the ash in the south of the mainland. Large-scale excavations began in 1967, taking the name of Akrotiri, the nearest modern village. Extensive remains of buildings and their contents have been uncovered, leading to comparisons with Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, but it seems as if the inhabitants escaped before everything was engulfed.

The excavations at Akrotiri, on Santorini, in 1977
The excavations at Akrotiri, on Santorini, in 1977

A large roof structure was built to protect the uncovered ruins, but it collapsed in 2005, and the site was closed for many years. The finds continued to be studied, and in 2009 Anaya Sarpaki published a paper called ‘Harvest Rites and Corn Dollies in the Bronze Age Aegean’ (pages 59–67 in Hesperia Supplements vol. 42, published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens). Sarpaki draws attention to two designs on a pot that portray an object made of straw in the form of a circular wreath with a central cross and projecting ears of grain around the periphery. It looks something like a modern catherine-wheel firework. Sarpaki interprets these designs as representations of corn dollies and evidence of ancient beliefs related to the annual cycle of agriculture. If correct, corn dollies have a very long history indeed.


We’ve never liked using obscure jargon, preferring an uncomplicated, accessible style. There is an art to writing in plain English. It might be plain, but it needs to flow and allow the reader to concentrate on the story, rather than being tripped up by ungainly sentences. It was therefore pleasing to receive two reviews in the same week that were from opposite ends of the earth but conveyed a similar message.

The first review was of our most recent book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (Jane Austen’s England in the US), that appeared in the Australian blog ‘Reviews on all things Austen’. The reviewer included the comment: ‘I found this book fascinating. It was easy to read (none of that academic jargon)’.

The other review was for our previous book, Jack Tar, and was written by Tony Gerard on ‘HMS Acasta’, a blog that belongs to a wonderful American re-enactment group of the Royal Navy. ‘Were I an officer,’ he writes, ‘I’d make it required reading for all Acastas … it’s written in a nonacademic style that’s easy to read.’ Tony plays the role of surgeon’s mate – we hope he gets promotion soon!


Smoking chimneys

From about the mid-18th century, right through the 19th and into the start of the 20th century, chimney doctors advertised their services in local newspapers. The reason why they were needed was a side-effect of the industrial revolution, and some chimney sweeps also began to offer their services as chimney doctors. Even though there was plenty of work to keep professional chimney doctors in business, William Fowler placed a misleading advertisement in the Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette in March 1785:

His MAJESTY’s Royal Letters Patent,
WHO undertakes to prevent any Chimney
from Smoking, either in parlour or kitchen,
up-stairs or down-stairs, generally upon the same
principles with the late famous CORDERY, of
READING, under whom he learnt the business.
The Advertiser’s usual method is, upon viewing
the chimney to agree upon the terms on which he
undertakes the cure; but he does not require to be
paid until his employer is satisfied the business is
effectually done.
He has cured Smokey Chimnies for the following
persons, of whom enquiries may be made, and he
trusts, will recommend him!
Mr. Trone, Maidenhead. Mr. Bolt, Paley-Street.
Mr. Langton, Ditto. Mr. Lee, Pinkney’s-Green.
Mr. Searle, North-Town. Mr. Fowler, Ditto.
Mr. Crop, Taplow. Mr. Hamblet, Ditto.
Mr. Harding, Taplow-Mill. Mr. Harding, Ditto.
Colonel Freke, Paley-Street. Mr. Sewell, Holyport.’

Fowler tried to deceive the reader by the statement that he was ‘without’ letters patent from the monarch, hoping that the word ‘without’ would be missed, as it was printed so small. The regulation of advertising standards was not introduced in Britain until the mid-20th century.

Smoke-filled rooms

The profession of chimney doctor was a fairly new one, because many early houses had no chimneys. Especially in poorer homes, smoke from fires filtered through the thatched roof. This was certainly the situation with prehistoric houses, but wealthier homes in the Roman period had flues and small chimneys to take the smoke and hot air from furnaces and to convey heat to the walls and floors of the building. This Roman technology was then lost, and well into the medieval period, houses had central hearths and no chimneys. Rooms would have been filled with smoke, even if there was a hole in the highest part of the roof to help draw the smoke upwards. Everyone would have breathed in smoke and smelled of smoke.

Introducing chimneys

In the medieval period chimneys started to become fashionable in the houses of the wealthy, with stone chimneys being included in new buildings and added to houses that already had a central hearth. These early chimneys generally had large ‘smoke hoods’ or canopies to accommodate the hearth that comprised a large fireproof platform of stone or brick. The resulting fireplace was not very efficient for reflecting the heat out into the room, but it did allow people to congregate around the fire to warm themselves, and much of the smoke was drawn up the chimney flue.

Gathering round the fire inside the fireplace
Gathering round the fire inside the fireplace

The installation of chimneys had other benefits. As well as dividing up large rooms, chimneys also provided a solid structure that allowed upper floors to be more easily constructed across the entire house, and these upper rooms were no longer plagued by the smoke from an open hearth below. The chimneys could smoke (as in the picture below), but they were far better than open hearths.

A 19th-century print of the interior of a 16th-century cottage, with a fireplace and an oven on the left and a staircase leading to an upper floor
A 19th-century print of the interior of a 16th-century cottage,

with a fireplace and an oven on the left

and a staircase leading to an upper floor

The coal revolution

From the 18th century, canals made it far cheaper to transport coal, which became a major source of fuel for domestic fires, just as wood supplies were dwindling. For thousands of years wood had been the main source of fuel, along with peat and dried dung, but coal led to huge changes. Fireplaces had to be altered, because coal required double the air supply to start it burning. This was usually achieved by setting wood alight beneath the coal, and raised iron fire baskets also enabled more air to pass through the fire. Within living memory it was common practice to increase the draught to a freshly lit coal fire (‘making the fire draw’) by holding sheets of newspaper across the fireplace. This sucked in more air through the fire from underneath and cut down the amount of air flowing over the top of the fire. It also tended to pull the newspaper in over the flames and set it alight.

The fire baskets or ‘grates’ contained the fire in a much smaller space than that usually occupied by a wood fire, which led to smaller fireplaces. When smaller, often terraced houses became the norm, chimney flues became narrower, which also increased the draught and therefore the efficiency of a coal fire. Eventually this led to houses having a small fireplace in every room, with the smoke carried though a set of narrow flues to a row of ceramic chimney pots above the roof.

A coal fire in a raised fire basket, set in a much earlier fireplace
A coal fire in a raised fire basket,

set in a much earlier fireplace

Call the doctor

It was largely the transition from wood to coal fires that gave rise to the profession of chimney doctors. When a wood fire smoked, particularly in a large airy room, the fumes could be tolerated, but when a coal fire smoked the fumes were choking. At Alfoxton House, in the Quantock Hills of Somerset, Dorothy Wordsworth noted in her journal for 2nd February 1798: ‘The room smoked so that we were obliged to quit it’. Across the other side of the country, near Norwich in Norfolk, Parson James Woodforde had similar trouble that winter, writing in his diary: ‘Very windy all the day, obliged to be in the parlour as our study smoaked so very much. Wind W.N.W.’ He had fought a long-running battle with this particular fire¬place, commenting nearly two decades earlier: ‘Had my study chimney-piece altered to day by Mr Hardy and to prevent its smoking, but am still afraid of it. This is, I believe the 4th time of altering it.’ Continuing problems like these kept the chimney doctors in work.


In our previous newsletter, we wrote about the Holy Rood Church in the centre of the city of Southampton. This time we are looking at the very different St Breaca’s Church at Breage in rural Cornwall. This is a fascinating, curious church, well worth a visit – and unlike some churches, it has an excellent 30-page guidebook (researched and written by Patrick Thorne).

Obscure saint or pagan goddess?

The village of Breage (pronounced to rhyme with vague) lies to the west of Helston, less than 2 miles from the south coast of Cornwall. Both the village and church are named after St Breaca (or Breage), supposedly a female missionary who arrived from Ireland in the 5th or 6th century. What little is known about her comes from notes compiled by the antiquary John Leland when visiting Cornwall in the mid-16th century. He had access to several biographies of saints that have since been lost, probably dating back a century or so, including one of St Breaca. Such biographies were based more on legend than fact, but it is possible that Breaca was a pagan goddess ‘converted’ by early Christians and later given respectability by a biography that explained her origins. An old Cornish saying ‘Germow Mahtearn; Breage Lavethas’ suggests that she did have pagan origins. It was recorded in the early 19th century, but is probably much older, and translates as: ‘Germoe was a king; Breage was a midwife’. Germoe is the patron saint of the church in the nearby village of Germoe. There is no obvious explanation of this saying or its origin, but female pagan deities were often called upon to protect and help women in childbirth. This might later be transformed into the idea that St Breaca was a midwife – but this is pure speculation.

A Roman road?

In the north-west corner of the nave of the church is a rough pillar of granite, 67 inches high, with an equally rough inscription, now highlighted in white. The stone was being used as a gate post near the church when the inscription was first noticed in 1920.

Roman marker stone in Breage church
Roman marker stone in Breage church

The inscription reads IMP / DONO / MARC / CASSI / ANIO – Latin shorthand for ‘Imperatori Caesari Domino Nostro Marco Cassianio’, which translates as: ‘For the Emperor Caesar, our Lord, Marcus Cassianius’. The last two names of this man are missing from the damaged stone, but he was the Roman emperor Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus, usually known as Postumus, who reigned from AD 260 until 268, when he was murdered by his troops.

Such stones are generally called milestones, although this is something of a misnomer since they did not record distances, but just the emperor’s name. They were obviously marker stones, possibly boundary markers for an imperial estate or an industrial zone, though evidence can be difficult to find where later redevelopment has taken place. Roman finds of any kind are rare in Cornwall, so this stone and another one found a few miles to the west at St Hilary (mentioning the emperor Constantine I and dating to AD 306 or 307) are significant. On archaeological excavations, there is a saying that ‘two stones do not make a wall’, but in this case do two marker stones make a Roman road along the south coast, near the line of the modern A394?

A painted board of the Civil War – or of the Restoration?

During the first part of the First English Civil War (1642 to 1646) between the Royalist forces of King Charles I and those led by Parliament, the county of Cornwall favoured the monarch. Cornishmen were involved in several major battles in the West Country and distinguished themselves in particular at the Battle of Lansdown near Bath on 5th July 1643 and at Bristol three weeks later.

Painted board in Breage church (with modern red hymn books below)
Painted board in Breage church (with modern red hymn books below)

In recognition of their loyal support, King Charles wrote a letter of thanks to the people of Cornwall, and copies of this letter, painted on boards, survive in some churches, including St Breaca’s (see picture above):

‘Carolus Rex. To the Inhabitants of the County of Cornwall. We are so highly sensible of the extraordinary Merits of Our County of Cornwall, of their zeal for the Defence of our Person & the Just Rights of Our Crown, in a time when We could contribute so little to Our own Defence or to their Assistance (in a time when not only no Reward appeard, but great & probable Dangers were threatned to Obedience & Loyalty) of their Great & Eminent courage & patience In their indefatigable prosecution of their great work against so Potent an Enemy backt with so Strong, Rich, and Populous Cities & so plentifully furnished with Men Arms Money, Ammunition and Provisions of all kinds, and of the wonderful success with which it hath pleased Almighty God (though with the loss of some Eminent persons who shall never be forgotten by Us to reward their Loyalty and Patience) by many strange Victories over their and Our Enemies, in despite of all humane probabilities and all imaginable disadvantages, that as We cannot be forgetful of so great Deserts, so We cannot but desire to publish to all the world, and perpetuate to all time the memory of their Merits, and of Our Acceptance of the same. And to that end We do hereby render Our Royal thanks to that Our County in the most publick and lasting manner We can devise, Commanding Copies hereof to be Printed and published and one of them to be read in every Church and Chapel therein and to be Kept for ever as a Record in the same that as long as the History of these Times, and of this Nation shall continue, the Memory of how much that County hath merited from Us and Our Crown may be derived with it to Posterity. Given at Our Camp at Sudly Castle the tenth day of September Ano Dom 1643.’

In some respects, the assault of Bristol was the high point of the Royalist campaign. During the battles and skirmishes of the next two years, the Royalist forces were gradually worn down until they were decisively beaten on 14th June 1645 at Naseby in Northamptonshire. The subsequent battle of Langport in Somerset on 10th July effectively destroyed the remnants of the Royalist army. King Charles retreated northwards, eventually taking refuge with a Presbyterian Scottish army at Southwell in Nottinghamshire. He was later handed over to the English Parliament and was imprisoned, bringing an end to the First English Civil War.

Civil warfare continued, and eventually King Charles I was tried for treason, found guilty and beheaded on 30th January 1649. This did not stop the bloodshed, and Royalist forces regrouped with the intention of restoring the son of Charles I (later Charles II) to the throne. Parliamentary forces did not gain full control until after the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Worcester on 3rd September 1651. For nearly a decade afterwards, the country was ruled by a republican government dominated by Oliver Cromwell and then for a few months by his son Richard, before he was removed from power by the army. Various attempts at governing England were tried, but in 1660 Charles II was invited back. He was crowned king on 23rd April 1661.

Nearly eighteen years had passed since Charles I had written his letter at Sudeley Castle, which raises the question of what happened to the painted boards in Cornish churches during the time that Puritans held sway in Parliament? A certain amount of destruction of images and sculptures took place in those churches considered to be tending towards Catholicism. Painted boards with the deposed king’s letter would have been an obvious target. It is possible that the board at Breage was hidden and later restored, or that the present board was actually set up after the Restoration of Charles II. Even the most modern scientific dating methods are not able to date the board with sufficient accuracy to decide the point, and without any historical records, it remains an open question.