Newsletter 41

Welcome to the June 2015 issue of our occasional newsletters. We confess that we have been neglecting our website and blog. After living in our ramshackle house for a decade and a half, we decided to embark on renovation and redecoration, an extremely disruptive process. Thankfully, the worst is over.


As we have said in previous newsletters, history has not organised itself very well for 2015, with its surfeit of anniversaries. Amongst them will be the 100th anniversary of the first successful transatlantic wireless telephone call, which took place during World War One – in October 1915 – between the wireless towers at Arlington, Virginia, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Arlington Towers

The wireless towers at Arlington, Virginia, in 1916 or 1917 (Library of Congress)

London calling

In 1932, the London writer and journalist Albert Gravely Linney commented that ‘the abodes of the wealthy’ in Chelsea had ‘electric lights, frigidaires, radio gramophones, vacuum cleaners, telephones, and all the modern adjuncts of our involved civilisation!’ Electrical telegraphs (literally, ‘far-off writing’) had existed from the 1830s, transmitting written messages across wires via an electrical current. Morse code (invented in the United States) became the standard method of telegraphy,while underwater cables allowed messages to be transmitted to other continents. The first ‘speaking telegraph’ or electrical telephone was patented in 1876, and by 1915 the United States had more telephones per household than any other country. In Britain, though, most people would not have a telephone for decades to come.

Arlington calling

Experiments in the long-distance transmission of speech (rather than writing) by radio waves, with no need for wires or cables (‘wireless’), led to the experiment in October 1915 between the United States and France. Words spoken in Arlington, Virginia, were transmitted by wireless and picked up by a receiver in the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A telegram was sent to the United States to confirm that the words had been heard. It was the first time that a voice message had been transmitted by radio telephone across the Atlantic, a distance of almost 4,000 miles. This experiment was done on three separate days and was also heard at Honolulu. In Britain, The Times newspaper reported the event:

‘The Navy Department [of the USA] has successfully talked to the Eiffel Tower on the wireless telephone. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company received a telegram to that effect. The voice of the official at the Arlington (Virginia) wireless station was heard, but the Eiffel Tower was not equipped with a transmitting apparatus, and could not reply telephonically.’

The Eiffel Tower was only available for the experiment for a brief period, because France was at war with Germany and the tower was in constant use for military communications and attempts at jamming enemy radio messages. The US Navy’s wireless transmitting station towers at Arlington, erected in 1913, were similar in appearance to the Eiffel Tower, and the nation set its clocks by the Arlington Radio time signal. Although the US military was interested in the work and had allowed the station to be used for the experiment, it was actually conducted by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The Times reported the few details it had gleaned:

‘It is stated that the standard office telephone instruments were sufficient for sending and receiving, but details of other parts of the apparatus are being withheld on account of a “complicated patent situation”.’

Tower of Babel

The Eiffel Tower was originally designed and built between 1887 and 1889 as part of the Paris International Exposition (Exposition Universelle) of 1889. It was the work of three engineers – Maurice Koechlin (also involved in building the Statue of Liberty in New York), Emile Nouguier (a successful bridge engineer) and Stephen Sauvestre (head of the architectural division of the Eiffel Company). The Eiffel Company was headed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose name was linked to the tower from the outset.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

Objections were raised as soon as work began, primarily on artistic grounds. A letter from prominent French artists and authors was published in Le Temps newspaper in Paris on 14th February 1887, and the following day The Times in Britain published its view:

‘The famous Eiffel tower, nicknamed the Tower of Babel, as being likely to cause a confusion of tongues, has already produced a confusion of opinions. The most distinguished literary men and artists of France, the engineer who designed the tower [meaning Eiffel], and the Minister of Commerce [Edouard Lockroy], who presides over the Exhibition, have in turn indulged in the strangest and most fantastic reasoning.’

The Times then gave a translation of the French protest letter:

‘We come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the hitherto intact beauty of Paris, and protest with all our might and all our indignation in the name of disregarded French taste, and menaced French art and history, against the erection in the very heart of our capital of the useless and monstrous Eiffel tower which public sarcasm, so often marked by common sense and a spirit of justice, has already christened Tower of Babel. Without falling into the fanaticism of Chauvinism, we have a right to proclaim aloud that Paris is a city without a rival in the world.’

The letter went on to extol the architecture of Paris, before turning to what visitors might think:

‘Lastly, when foreigners come and visit our Exhibition they will exclaim with astonishment, “What! is this hideous thing that the French have devised in order to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?” … Imagine for a moment a dizzily ridiculous tower, overlooking Paris like a gigantic black factory chimney, overpowering with its barbarous mass Notre Dame, La Sainte Chapelle, the tower of St, Jacques, the Louvre, the Invalides Dome, and the Arc de Triomphe – all our monuments humiliated, all our architecture dwarfed, and fated to disappear in this stupefying dream. For twenty years we shall see tapering like a spot of ink over the entire city, still thrilling with the genius of so many centuries, the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet-iron.’

The legacy

Both Eiffel and Lockroy published replies to these criticisms, and nothing stopped the construction of the Eiffel Tower. At a height of 324 metres (1,063 feet), it became the tallest structure in Paris. From 1898 it became involved with radio transmissions, a function that initially saved it from demolition, having been originally designed to last for only 20 years. The Arlington towers were dismantled in 1941 as they were a hazard to aviation.

Today, a century after the landmark experiment, communications across the Atlantic are commonplace, using in particular the internet and satellites. The Eiffel Tower even has its own website and attracts 6–7 million visitors each year. Ultimately, it was Alexandre Gustave Eiffel who was proved right in his assertion that the tower would not be acclaimed for its artistic merit, but as an outstanding feat of engineering.



The expression ‘Sweet F.A.’ has been used since late Victorian times, though the meaning has altered over the years. It originated in the brutal murder of Fanny Adams by Frederick Baker in 1867 in the normally quiet town of Alton in Hampshire. A few decades earlier, Jane Austen wrote some of her best-loved novels in the nearby village of Chawton, and she frequently walked to and from Alton to do shopping.

The abduction

In the early afternoon of Saturday 24th August 1867, 8-year-old Fanny Adams was with her friend Minnie Warner and her sister Elizabeth Adams, who was a year younger. The three girls, according to the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper, were ‘of respectable parents, residing in Tan House-lane, Alton, [and] were playing in Flood Meadow, at the back of Mr. Jefferie’s tan yard, distance from their residences about 400 yards’. At the inquest and subsequent trial, many witnesses gave sometimes contradictory statements. What seems to have happened is that Frederick Baker went up to the girls and gave Minnie some coins to take Elizabeth away. At the same time he offered Fanny ‘a halfpenny to go with him up a hollow, or old road, leading to the village of Shalden, by the side of a hop-garden’. Fanny became upset and refused, but Baker ‘laid hold of her hand and took her away crying’.

Instead of seeking help, the other two girls wandered about the fields, returning home three or four hours later, when they met a neighbour, Mrs Gardener, who asked where Fanny had gone. She immediately told their story to Mrs Adams, and both women set out to look for the missing girl:

‘After going a short distance, they met Baker returning to the town, close by a gate which separates the hop-garden from the meadow. Mrs. Gardener asked, “What have you done with the child?” and he replied, “Nothing.” She then said, “Did you not give Warner three halfpence to return, and leave you with Fanny? – at least she has told us so.” Baker said, “No, I did not, I gave her 1½d. to buy some sweets, which I often do to children.” Mrs. Gardener then observed, “I have a great mind to give you in charge of the police.” Baker rejoined she might do as she liked.’

The murder

Baker was a solicitor’s clerk in Alton, working for the firm of Messrs Clement & Son (one son had been the Trafalgar hero Benjamin Clement, who lived in Chawton, knew Jane Austen and died in 1835 – see our blog post here and Roy’s Trafalgar book, p. 188). Because Baker held a respectable position and because he spoke quietly to both women, they ‘went home under the impression that [Fanny] was playing about some of the neighbouring fields, and would return before long’.

By eight o’clock Fanny had still not returned, and so a party was assembled from the neighbourhood to search for her. On entering the hop garden, her severed and mutilated head was found. She had been hacked to pieces and the body parts were scattered. The awful news quickly spread:

‘The mother on learning what had occurred, became nearly frantic, and rushed off to communicate the sad intelligence to her husband, who was engaged at a cricket match on the butts, but before she got far she fell from the excitement, and had to be conveyed home. Messengers were immediately despatched to the father, who instantly returned home, and as soon as he realised the melancholy affair, and on being told that Baker was the guilty party, seized a loaded gun, and hastened to the hop-garden with the intention of shooting him. Not seeing him there, he returned home, when the gun was taken from him and two persons sat up with him the night.’


All evidence pointed towards Frederick Baker being guilty, and he was arrested at the solicitor’s office. Some of his clothing was damp or wet and the cuffs of his shirt had been recently washed, though they still had spots of blood. A partially hidden diary was discovered with the entry: ‘Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.’ Baker admitted the crime, but claimed he had not meant to do it but had been intoxicated. At his trial, his defence was one of insanity, but the jury ignored his plea and found him guilty of murder.

Such was the notoriety of the case that it received extensive coverage in local and national newspapers. A crowd of several thousand people attended his execution by hanging outside Winchester gaol on Christmas Eve 1867, and an effigy of Frederick Baker was added to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s waxworks exhibition in London.


Residents of Alton started a subscription to provide a memorial for the young girl, and in April the following year, 1868, the Hampshire Chronicle was able to report:

‘THE ALTON MURDER – The inhabitants of this town, having completed the subscription list for raising a memorial to Fanny Adams, who was so brutally murdered by Frederick Baker, have erected a neat head-stone over her grave. The stone was placed in the cemetery on Saturday last, and bears the following inscription:–
“Sacred to the memory of FANNY ADAMS, aged eight years and four months, who was cruelly murdered on August the 24th 1867. ‘Fear not them which kill the body, but rather fear him who is able to kill both soul and body in hell.’”’

Fanny Adams grave at Altonlog

The grave of Fanny Adams at Alton in Hampshire

Tasteless humour

Men serving in the military forces have always used derogatory names and black humour for the food supplied to them, including ‘salt horse’ or ‘salt junk’ for the salt beef or pork that the Royal Navy provided – ‘junk’ was a term for worn-out lengths of old rope (see our book Jack Tar). By the time of the murder of Fanny Adams, canned mutton and beef were being imported from Australia, and the seamen joked that the dubious-looking contents might be the remains of the murdered girl Fanny Adams and adopted her name as slang for canned meat. One rumour even spread that a button had been found in one can.

A few years later, in 1874, another sensational murder took place, in Whitechapel, London, this time of Harriet Lane, whose decomposing body was dug up the following year, cut into pieces and wrapped up for disposal. Her murderer (Henry Wainwright) was caught trying to dispose of the packages, and the horror that this crime caused meant that her name was also used for cans of chopped-up meat. All too often naval slang passed into everyday usage, and ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ or ‘Sweet F.A.’ became a widely used expression, meaning ‘something useless’, ‘worse than useless’ or ‘nothing at all’.



The quest for preservation

There was a constant search for a successful method of preserving food for those who did not have easy access to fresh supplies, such as on long sea voyages when the diet for most seamen was hard biscuit and salted meat (pork and beef) kept in wooden casks. By the end of the 18th century a method of preserving food in airtight glass bottles had been perfected by the Frenchman Nicolas Appert, and ‘bottling’ fruit is still popular for preserving home-grown produce. Glass was fragile and heavily taxed, and so the search went on for better methods. In the early 19th century, canning was developed as a means of preserving food, but it only became cost-effective after the Napoleonic Wars, using thick tin-plated iron canisters, referred to now as tins or cans – the tinning prevented corrosion (nowadays, cans and canned food tend to be called tins and tinned food in Britain). These were bulk containers, not intended for household use. By the 1840s, the Royal Navy was ever more reliant on canned meat, and the size of cans increased to around 10 pounds in weight.

Food scandal

At the end of 1851 the Admiralty ordered supplies at the Gosport victualling yard to be examined, since it was suspected that the contractor (Stefan Goldner) was supplying sub-standard food. A truly shocking picture emerged. On 3rd January 1852, The Times revealed that 2,707 canisters (of the 10-lb size) had so far been opened, of which only 197 were edible. The problem with such large cans was that heat could not penetrate to the centre and so the meat went bad. Most of the cans were found not only to contain decaying meat, but also detritus that was not fit for human food. Much of it originated in Goldner’s canning factory in what is now eastern Romania. ‘The few cannisters containing meat fit for human beings to eat,’ The Times related, ‘have been distributed … to the deserving poor of the neighbourhood, and those containing the putrid stock have been conveyed to Spithead in lighters and thrown overboard.’ This was a huge food scandal, and seamen were highly suspicious of canned meat. From the mid-1860s vast quantities of canned mutton and beef were imported from Australia, as it was far cheaper than what could be produced in Britain, where livestock farmers were struggling to meet demand because of outbreaks of various animal diseases such as foot and mouth, bovine pleuro-pneumonia and rinderpest.

Bull’s head can openers

The early cans were so substantial that they had to be opened with a hammer and chisel, and even knives and bayonets were used. Once the market expanded, with smaller and thinner cans, attention turned to the mechanics of opening them at home. In the 1850s, tools designed as can openers were patented in the United States and Britain. The first ones were not much better than short blades on handles that hacked open the cans, but in the 1860s a slightly better opener (the ‘bull’s head’) became popular and continued to be made into the 1930s. It was designed as a stylised bull, with the head holding the blade while the ‘body’ and tail formed the handle. The blade was of steel and the head and handle of cast iron, making it heavy for its size. The one pictured here weighs 220 grams (nearly ½ lb) and is 15 centimetres (6 inches) long.

Bull's head can opener

Bull’s head can opener

Although better than hacking a can open with a hammer and chisel, early can openers were not particularly safe. The bull’s head can opener had a short spike on the back of the head, so as to create a hole close to the edge of the top (‘lid’) of the can. This was done either with a strong, accurate blow, or else by hammering the spike into the can. Many users dispensed with the spike and instead forced the cutting blade into the can, usually by hitting the end of the handle, a manoeuvre that was less painful with wooden-handled can openers. However, it was essential to hold the can firm by pressing it down on a flat surface with the heel of the hand, as in the first picture. Otherwise the can tended to tip sideways and the blade slipped, with the risk of an injury.

Preparing to open a can

Preparing to pierce a modern can

Opening a can

Opening the can

Once the can was pierced, the ‘nose’ of the bull was used as a fulcrum against which to lever the blade upwards again and again (as in the next picture), ripping open the lid until it could be folded back. Care was needed in removing the food, as the cutting technique produced lethal, ragged metal edges (as in the third picture).

Opened can

The ragged edge left by the can opener

Despite design improvements and the manufacture of cans of thinner metal, accidents still occurred, and as late as 1950 the Burnley Express carried one report:

Mrs. Ivy M. Hall, of 12, Plover-street, Burnley, was opening a can on Sunday afternoon when the tin opener slipped and she sustained a deep cut in her left hand. She was taken to Victoria Hospital by ambulance and allowed to leave after treatment.’

Cutting-edge developments

After the very robust and heavy design of the bull’s head can opener, later can openers were lighter and easier to use (often with a wooden handle) although they still followed the same basic pattern and method of use.

Wooden-handled can opener

An early wooden-handled can opener

The introduction of rotary can openers meant that the tops of cans could be removed more neatly and safely, and electric can openers were developed in the 1950s from the rotary designs. Ring-pulls or levers built into the lids now mean that can openers are increasingly redundant.



A few weeks ago, on 8th May 2015, Britain commemorated the 70th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). This was not the end of World War Two, which continued in the Pacific, but the end of hostilities in Europe. In World War One, Britain had experienced a few raids by air and sea, but in World War Two the conflict was brought right into the British Isles with the bombing, the shortages caused by the war at sea disrupting supplies, and the constant threat of spies, raids and invasion. VE Day was therefore particularly significant for everyone.

War work

Very few people in Britain had an easy life during World War Two, but it could be particularly gruelling for those in the munitions factories, as one young woman found. Ivy Clarke was a teenager who had not long left school when the war broke out. She took a job at a munitions factory in Maidenhead, working on machine lathes that cut and shaped metal castings, eventually being promoted to supervisor in charge of four machines. It was work that she came to enjoy, but it was hard, with shifts of 12 hours at a time, 7 days a week, with one month of night shifts, then a month on days.

The only time off was at the changeover from nights to days (or back again), when the shift workers had a weekend to themselves. Ivy was also part of the Local Defence Volunteers, better known by the initials LDV – which cynics said was an abbreviation of ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’. She was given training in fire-fighting and had a specific area to patrol when the air-raid siren sounded.

On shift work and in the LDV, Ivy had little spare time but managed to teach herself to play the accordion, performing in local concerts. She also made little ‘mascots’ that were regarded by some as good-luck charms, which she sold in aid of the war effort, as she herself wrote:

‘In my spare time, which was not much, I knitted very small socks in khaki, navy blue and Air Force blue, on needles the size of darning needles. I then sewed a small safety pin on back, and a bow of red white and blue ribbon, and sold this for 2/6 a time at social dances, to give to Battle of Britain weeks. I think that over a period of time, I must have collected £25 – a lot of money.’

WW2 sock mascot

One of Ivy’s ‘sock mascots’

Receipt for WW2 knitting

Receipt for money collected by selling ‘sock mascots’

VE Day

Ivy Clarke’s experiences during World War Two is just one person’s part of the hard work and hardship that the people on the ‘Home Front’ in Britain had to endure, so it is not surprising that when peace in Europe finally came on 8th May 1945, there were widespread celebrations. Mindful that the war with Japan was not over, Winston Churchill may have cautiously said ‘We can allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing’, but everything had changed for the people in the streets. They were looking forward to an end to war work, an end to rationing and the prospect of their loved ones returning home.

With Austerity following on from the war and with rationing set to continue for nearly a decade, until 1954, the brighter future everyone looked forward to in May 1945 was actually a very long time coming.


Two lots of 200 years

The year 2014 saw the 200th anniversary of the ending of the long wars with Napoleon. Like VE Day in 1945, the celebrations in 1814 were especially joyful after more than a decade of war. As we mentioned in our newsletter 39 (under ‘The Start of the Hundred Days’), Napoleon escaped from exile and returned to France in early 1815, only to be defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium in June 1815, giving us yet another 200th anniversary.


The French dead and wounded amounted to around 30,000, while the British suffered around 17,000 casualties and their Prussian allies about 7,000 – a total of approximately 54,000 dead and wounded. Major Harry Smith of the 95th Rifles wrote: ‘I had been over many a field of battle, but with the exception of one spot at New Orleans [United States] and the breach at Badajos [Spain], I had never seen anything to be compared with what I saw. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies.’

In our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, we include descriptions of the state of people’s teeth, as well as dental hygiene and treatment. It was common for all ranks to lose their teeth at an early age, particularly as sugar was so popular, but the wealthy could afford to purchase dentures. These were crafted from human teeth set on an ivory or animal bone base. The teeth came from corpses, quite often removed by graverobbers.

Graverobbing was a risky business, and entrepreneurs chose to follow the army as official sutlers, which gave them the opportunity to strip dead or dying soldiers of anything useful after a battle, including their teeth. This happened on such a large scale at Waterloo that, for years to come, dentures were known as Waterloo teeth or Waterloo ivory. Nearly two decades later, the magazine The Mirror reckoned that crops grew luxuriantly over the old battlefield, although yields might have been higher:

‘if the top-dressing which the plain received during the three days of June, 1815, had not been robbed of its stamina by London dentists, who carried off the soldiers’ teeth in hogsheads [large wooden casks]; and by Yorkshire bone-grubbers, who freighted several transports [ships] with the skeletons of regiments of troopers, as well as troop-horses, to be ground to dust in Kingston-upon-Hull, and drilled with turnip seed in the chalky districts of the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire. The corn of Waterloo is thus cheated of its phosphate of lime.’

Waterloo print

Engraving of the monuments at the Waterloo battlefield,
including the huge Lion Mound of 1826 (right), dedicated to
the Prince of Orange who was wounded nearby

Trafalgar versus Waterloo

In Jane Austen’s novel Sanditon, Mr Parker is building a new resort on the south coast. He has let out his old home to a tenant and is living in a new mansion that was named after the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805:

‘You will not think I have made a bad exchange,’ he said, ‘when we reach Trafalgar House – which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar – for Waterloo is more the thing now. However, Waterloo is in reserve – and if we have encouragement enough this year for a little Crescent to be ventured on – (as I trust we shall) then, we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent.’

Alas, we will never know what was planned for this crescent, because Jane Austen died in 1817 before completing the novel. Being fond of the Royal Navy and her two naval brothers Frank and Charles, Jane would most likely have preferred the name ‘Trafalgar’, and we have the feeling that for people today, the allure of the sea and the Age of Sail will ensure that Trafalgar always wins the popularity stakes.



We keep talking about the number of anniversaries in 2015, so perhaps we can squeeze in one more. The 210th anniversary of Trafalgar will fall on 21st October 2015, highlighting that it took a decade after this famous sea battle for Napoleon to be defeated on land at Waterloo.

In September 2001, we were travelling through Spain, a trip that we remember vividly because of the terrible events in New York on the 11th, which we barely understood as it was difficult to get hold of news. A few days later, we reached Gibraltar and visited the Trafalgar cemetery. We were then anxious for the holiday to finish, as we wanted to find out what books were available on Trafalgar and if it was a viable subject for us to tackle for our next book. As it happened, we both embarked on different projects, and it was Roy who wrote the Trafalgar book. Since then, we have resumed writing our books as joint authors.

Trafalgar jackets

Like all our books, it was not written for a specialist reader who wanted a blow-by-blow account of every single ship’s manoeuvres. Instead, it deals with the build-up to Trafalgar, the battle itself, the subsequent hurricane and the aftermath of the war, with an emphasis on the experiences of the men, women and children.

After Waterloo, many seamen and soldiers were out of work, and the final page of Trafalgar has a poem that describes one seamen who has been reduced to begging:

‘At Trafalgar, I play’d a Briton’s part;
Strength in my limbs, and courage in my heart:
But now a-drift, distress has brought me low,
As this poor wasted form will plainly shew.
I little thought, the day great Nelson fell,
That I should live so sad a tale to tell’

The soldiers of Waterloo fared no better, and yet anyone researching their family history today finds it quite a thrill to find that they have Trafalgar and Waterloo ancestors. The book is available as a paperback published by Abacus, called Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle. In the United States, it is published by Penguin and is called Nelson’s Trafalgar. Both publishers have also produced e-books.