Newsletter 42

Welcome to the September 2015 issue of our occasional newsletters.


Raw beginnings

Cyprus, a beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean, is now mainly known as a popular holiday destination. With its pleasant beaches, beautiful mountains and bright sunshine, it is difficult to imagine that this island was once the heart of the sugar industry that supplied western Europe. Before the medieval period, honey was the source of sweet flavouring. The cultivation of sugar cane probably originated on the islands of the south Pacific, gradually spreading to India and China. It slowly expanded westwards, to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and by the 10th century there is evidence of a sugar industry in Cyprus.

Sugar cane in Egypt

Sugar cane growing in Egypt (left) and before processing

When western armies went on crusade to the Holy Land, they encountered sugar cane for the first time. Gradually, sugar became known in Europe, initially as a medicine. Honey continued as a sweetener for most people, because sugar was a very expensive luxury import, but a taste was acquired for this strange new substance. In England in 1226, King Henry III asked the Mayor of Winchester to obtain 3 pounds of Egyptian sugar, ‘if so much is to be had at one time’, at Winchester’s huge fair on St Giles’s Down, which was one of the largest in Europe. Sugar also appears in the 13th-century household accounts of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester.

Crusader Cyprus

When the Crusaders lost control of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 13th century, some of them moved to Cyprus and set up sugar-cane plantations and factories. The island became a major exporter of sugar, and in 1494 Pietro Casola, an Italian traveller on his way to Jerusalem, wrote: ‘The abundance of sugar-cane and its magnificence in Cyprus are beyond description. The patrician, Francisco Cornaro of Venice, has at Limassol a great estate, Episcopia, where so much sugar is made that I believe there must be enough for the whole world.’ The port town of Limassol is on the south coast of Cyprus, and the Venetian Cornaro family had extensive sugar plantations a short distance to the west of the town, at Episkopi, while the Knights of St John had plantations around their castle at Kolossi, which was closer to Limassol.

Kolossi Castle
The keep of Kolossi castle, near Limassol, Cyprus

Sugar factory

As the medieval sugar industry in Cyprus grew in importance, a factory and watermill were built in the grounds of Kolossi castle. This castle was originally built in the 13th century, though the structures seen by tourists today are of mid-15th century date. After harvesting, the ripe sugar cane was stripped of its leaves and chopped into pieces, which were crushed between two millstones in a watermill powered by a massive aqueduct carrying water from the Kouris river. A thick sweet black liquid was released, which was boiled in the nearby factory to produce a black syrup, and repeated boiling then refined the syrup so that it became increasingly white in colour.

Kolossi sugar mill

Ruins of the sugar mill (foreground) at Kolossi castle, Cyprus, with the factory behind

The boiled sugar was next poured into conical clay moulds that had a wide mouth and narrow perforated base, and these were set up over clay syrup jars. This allowed any liquid to drain slowly into the jars, leaving solid cones of sugar in the moulds, known as a sugar loaves or sugar cakes – the form in which sugar was sold. The liquid in the jars might be boiled yet again and the process repeated. The jars and moulds were washed clean in basins of water, though many moulds broke, so that thousands of pottery sherds have been found in archaeological excavations of sugar factories. The produce of Cyprus reached all parts of Europe via the Venetian trade networks, making the island the heart of the sugar industry.

Kolossi sugar factory
The sugar factory viewed from Kolossi castle, Cyprus

In 1488, the Knights of St John lost control of the area to the Cornaro family, and the following year the Venetians took control of Cyprus. This lasted until 1571 when the Ottoman Turks seized the island. The sugar industry then began to decline in the face of cheaper sugar from South America and subsequently the Caribbean. Nowadays, the remains of the early settlements, castles like Kolossi and the ruins of sugar factories are of historical interest, and Cyprus is a honey-pot for tourists.


We were pleased to receive many compliments about our last newsletter 41, far more than normal. The can-openers and gruesome murder of Fanny Adams (‘Sweet FA’) proved popular, but most praise was for Ivy Clarke and the miniature woollen socks that she knitted as war work to raise money. This was a small story that highlighted how, in history, the lives of ordinary people are just as relevant and interesting as celebrity characters. One American reader sent us a picture of a pair of socks that she herself was inspired to knit – and now intends to knit more for her friends.


The popularity of historical fiction is riding high – novels as well as television, radio and cinema adaptations. As historians, it is difficult to switch off, because we need to know what is true and what is invention, but some readers treat fiction as a way of getting inside historical periods. This can be hazardous, since the priority of a novelist is to produce a convincing story with an authentic atmosphere, even if it means subverting facts. One of the joys of writing history books is that they are based on evidence, and everything is true, however strange.

Having been immersed in Jane Austen for ages, we have spotted numerous spin-off novels, from vampires to prequels and sequels. With two exceptions, we have resisted them – to avoid mixing fact and fiction in our own minds. One exception was Death Comes to Pemberley by the late P.D. James, which is a Pride and Prejudice sequel with a mystery plot – but it was a disappointing novel full of errors. At our talks, everyone agreed and also asked: ‘Is Longbourn accurate?’ This novel by Jo Baker is a version of Pride and Prejudice told from the servants’ quarters. Try as we might, it is impossible to find fault with Longbourn. It is exquisitely written, and Jane Austen would surely have loved it. We are now looking forward to the film. If you have read our book first (Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s EnglandJane Austen’s England in the US), you will appreciate Longbourn so much more.


This might sound like the title of a mystery in an old detective novel, but it is actually a real-life (and death) story relating to William Jones, who was born in 1755 at Abergavenny in Wales. In 1781, he became the curate of the parish of Broxbourne, then a small village just north of London.

Sick to death of London

Although he wrote copious notebooks and journals, only his diary has survived, which was published in 1929 as The Diary of the Revd. William Jones, edited by his great-grandson, Octavius Francis Christie. It starts in 1777 and continues to 1821, when William died. We used a few quotes from his diary in Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, because he gives revealing and amusing comments on finances, tithes, housing for the clergy and the poor, taking in lodgers, taxes on wine, marriage, snuff, writing materials and the gruesome murder at Hoddesdon in 1807. He also loathed London, as seen in one diary entry for November 1803:

‘Returned from Town last night, where I had been since Wedny., & I never came home with more pleasure. Nothing, I think, could tempt me to live in London; indeed, its bustle, & dissipation, (without taking its fog & variety of stench into account), would soon destroy me.’

Deathly elm

There is one long gap in the diary from 1809 to 1814 when he was ill, and later on his newspaper obituaries related that he ordered a coffin then:

‘Died, at Broxbourn, Herts … the Rev. Wm. Jones, curate and vicar of that parish for the last forty years.––Twelve years ago, being very ill, he had his coffin made, but not dying so soon as he expected, he had shelves fixed in it, and converting it into a bookcase, placed it in his study.’

In an era before refrigeration, most funerals had to take place soon after death, and William obviously wanted to make the process less stressful for his family. A few years later, in 1816, he wrote in his diary that Cheffins the undertaker told everyone about the coffin. It sounds as if it was planned as a bookcase from the outset:

‘As soon as I had bespoken an article of useful furniture for my Cell [his study], in the form of a coffin, a “hue and cry” was instantly raised, & very rude & impertinent remarks were made. Cheffins buzzed the matter about, long before he brought home the very plain elm case; & I suppose that he felt somewhat alarmed, lest I might hurt his “craft” as an undertaker, by my lectures in favour of plain inexpensive funerals.’

Elm timber was valued for floorboards, furniture and – as here – coffins. Before iron pipes, it was also used for water pipes by boring out the centre of elm branches and trunks, because elm is resistant to rot when permanently wet. Elm trees were an intrinsic part of the British landscape, growing mostly in hedgerows, and they were often depicted in landscape paintings, most notably by Constable. All that has gone. From the 1920s, elms were affected by Dutch elm disease, a fungus that is spread by elm bark beetles, and in the 1970s a more aggressive epidemic led to the loss of over 60 million elms.

Felled elm tree

A felled diseased elm tree in the 1980s

Close to death

All the carpenters shared in the manufacture of William’s coffin, and he adds the acerbic comment that many of them looked closer to death than himself:

‘Old Farrington told me, yesterday, that he & all Cheffin’s journeymen “had a hand” in the job, that they might have it to say that they had had that “honour”! I could not help observing that he & many of his shop-mates might, perhaps, occupy a case [coffin] of that description, before I should take corporeal possession of mine.’

Octavius Christie, the diary’s editor, commented in 1929 that ‘the coffin stood upright, was fitted with shelves, & used as a cupboard. Not so many years ago there were still old folk in the parish, who remembered having been refreshed from its contents.’ He presumably meant that wine and brandy were stored in it, alongside the books. Twelve years after it was made, William knew he was about to die, as one newspaper related:

‘A most Eccentric Character.–– Two days before he died, he desired a young man, who stood by his bedside, to take out the books and shelves and get the coffin ready, as he should soon want it, which was done; he further desired the church-bell might not toll, and that he might be buried as soon as possible after he was dead.’

All his planning then went awry, because the coffin was not big enough:

‘when they came to deposit his remains in the ready-made coffin, it was found too small, it was therefore given to a carpenter to enlarge, which being done, this singular man was buried on Monday last, in the plain boards, without plate, name, date or nails, the Rev. W. Tomlin performing the funeral service.’

William Jones died on 12th October 1821 and was buried ten days later, with the simplest of elm coffins and ceremonies – the sort of burial that is least helpful to archaeologists, because no evidence survives apart from the skeleton.


London has always been a city through which to travel to other places, as well as a destination in its own right. Nowadays, the airports, railway stations and coach stations are the transport hubs, but when travel relied on horses, coaching inns performed this function. These inns stabled teams of horses so that stagecoaches and mail coaches were provided with fresh animals along their route after travelling around 7–10 miles. They also offered food and drink to travellers. Some visitors used coaching inns as hotels, renting a room for the duration of their stay and taking some meals there. One of the most famous was the Belle Sauvage, also known as the Bell Savage, on Ludgate Hill.

An American in London

In 1805 Benjamin Silliman, a 25-year-old American, arrived in England to further his science studies. He had read law at Yale College and then studied chemistry and natural philosophy, and he was destined to become a foremost figure in science. On returning to America, he published three volumes of his experiences, including his initial arrival in London:

‘Hyde Park, with its extended fields, fine forest trees, and promiscuous assemblage of pedestrians, coaches and horsemen, soon came into view on our left;– we whirled rapidly by it, and, at Hyde Park corner, abruptly entered the Metropolis of the commercial word. We drove through Piccadilly, and were instantly involved in the noise and tumult of London. We were obliged to hold fast as we were driven furiously over rough pavements, while the clattering of the wheels, the sounding of the coachman’s horn, and the sharp reverberations of his whip, had there been no other noises, would have drowned conversation, and left us to admire and wonder in silence, at the splendor of the English capital.’

Silliman’s first impressions did not meet his expectations:

‘I had long been anticipating the emotions which I should experience on entering London. But, I was not a little disappointed at finding myself perfectly unmoved, and was disposed to conclude that one great city is very much like another, and does not impress a stranger with an idea of its magnitude, since only a small portion can be seen at once.’

The coach headed for the Belle Sauvage, where he stayed one night before moving into lodgings more suitable for a longer stay in London:

‘We were driven through the Strand, Temple Bar, which is one of the ancient gates of the city, and Fleet-street. The coach stopped at the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill. The coachman, by a short turn, drove us, with astonishing swiftness, through a narrow opening, where the least deviation would have overturned the coach, and we were set down in a large back yard, full of coaches, horses, servants, and baggage.’

Belle Sauvage courtyard

Inner courtyard of the Belle Sauvage

Bitten by bugs

Parson James Woodforde, whose parish was at Weston Longville near Norwich in Norfolk, always stayed at the Belle Sauvage when visiting London, though he did not always enjoy the experience. On 24th June 1786 he arrived with his niece, Nancy, and the next day he wrote in his diary: ‘We breakfasted, supped & slept again at the Bell Savage. Very much pestered & bit by buggs in the night.’ The next night was worse: ‘We breakfasted, supped & slept again at the Bell Savage – I was bit so terribly with buggs again this night, that I got up at 4. o’clock this morning and took a long walk by myself about the City till breakfast time.’ For the final two nights, he found an uncomfortable solution: ‘I did not pull off my cloaths last night but sat up in a great chair all night with my feet on the bed and slept very well & not pestered with buggs.’ Woodforde’s extensive diaries are published by the Parson Woodforde Society, and this one is edited by R. Winstanley and P. Jameson (1999) as The Diary of James Woodforde. Volume 11 1785–1787.

Belle Sauvage or Bell Savage?

This particular coaching inn dated to the early 15th century, possibly even the 14th, and over time its name altered. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was discussion over the name’s origin, as Benjamin Silliman noted:

‘This was a public-house a century ago, and gave occasion for the wit of Addison to investigate the derivation of its name. He informs us that it alludes to a French story of a very beautiful woman found in the wilderness, whence the romance, built on this incident, is entitled La Belle Sauvage. This was probably at first the sign of the house, but the allusion has been so long forgotten that even the orthography is changed, and we find it no longer La Belle Sauvage, but the Bell Savage.’

Belle Sauvage entrance

Entrance to the Belle Sauvage inn

By ‘Addison’, Silliman meant Joseph Addison, co-founder of The Spectator, which was published daily in London in 1711 and 1712. In April 1711 it published a satirical piece about the ‘absurdities hung out upon sign-post in this city’, including the Belle Sauvage:

‘As for the bell-savage, which is the sign of a savage man standing by a bell, I was formerly very much puzzled upon the conceit of it, until I accidentally fell into the reading of an old romance translated out of the French, which gives an account of a very beautiful woman who was found in a wilderness, and is called in the French La belle Sauvage; and is every-where translated by our countrymen the Bell-savage.’

His conjectured derivation gave rise to even more guesswork, with famous women such as Pocahontas being put forward to account for the name.

Or maybe the Bell on the Hoop?

The dispute over the origin of the name continued, and in 1815 a letter from the antiquarian Samuel Lysons was read to the Society of Antiquaries of London, suggesting a less romantic origin:

‘The enclosed copy of a deed … serves to ascertain the true description of one of the oldest Inns in London, the Bell-savage on Ludgate Hill, in the parish of St. Bride Fleet Street, which has for more than a century … occasioned a great variety of conjectures. It appears from this record [the deed] that they have all been unfounded, as the Inn took the adjunct to its name, from the circumstance of its having belonged to, or been kept by a person of the name of Savage. The sign appears to have been a bell hung within a hoop.’

Dating to 1453, the deed was written in Latin and recorded the grant by John French to his widowed mother Joan French giving possession of ‘all that Tenement or Inn, with its appurtenances, called Savage’s Inn, otherwise called the Bell on the Hoop, in the parish of St. Bridget in Fleet Street, London.’ Lysons had discovered that the famous Belle Sauvage was actually the Bell on the Hoop, and in his letter he pointed out that there were other inn names with a hoop, such as George on the Hoop, Hart on the Hoop and Swan on the Hoop – but he never thought to explain the significance of the hoop.

The formula ‘on the hoop’ was a feature of many early inn signs, but its precise origin is unknown. It may been a reference to a hoop from a wooden beer barrel, signifying an alcoholic drink, such as in the modern ‘Frog and Firkin’. Or it might simply have been a circular metal hoop in which to suspend the emblem of, say, a bell or a swan, leading to one inn being referred to as the Bell on the Hoop to distinguish it from another inn called The Bell where the sign was fixed on the wall. Alternatively, there may be a totally different meaning. The famous Belle Sauvage inn was demolished in 1873, but the mystery surrounding its name still stands.


The latest magazine article we have had published is ‘A Propaganda Lullaby’ in Folklife Quarterly for July 2015 (pp. 46–7), which is about the song known as ‘Naughty Baby’ that terrified young children into sleep with the threat of Napoleon’s invasion of Britain. It actually has much earlier origins, as we explain. Check out the FQ website here.


The London Library was founded in 1841 and is now the largest independent lending library in the world. In 1845, it moved to its present location in St James’s Square and has over a million titles, mostly on open access and available for loan. The library’s website is full of fascinating information, and there are details about membership. A display in an external window in Mason’s Yard is being used to mark the contribution of its members to the literary and creative life of the nation and to promote the Library as it moves into its 175th year. We are very pleased that the jacket of our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England is currently on display with six other titles. The shelf marks are also displayed, which are a unique feature of this library:

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor Roper to Bernard Berenson ed. Richard Davenport-Hines, shelf mark Biog. Trevor-Roper (the Trevor-Roper section of ‘Biography’)

The Lodger by Louisa Treger, shelf mark Fiction

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy & Lesley Adkins, shelf mark H. England, Social &c (the social history part of the ‘History of England’ section)

The Meaning of the Library: a cultural history ed. Alice Crawford, shelf mark Bibliog. Libraries (the bibliography part of the ‘Libraries’ section)

Magna Carta: the making and legacy of the great charter by Dan Jones, shelf mark H. England, Constitut (the constitutional history section of ‘History of England’)

The Scrivener: a Cragg and Fidelis mystery by Robin Blake, shelf mark Fiction, 4to (the quarto shelves of Fiction)

The Soul of the Marionette: A short enquiry into human freedom by John Gray, shelf mark Philosophy

London Library display

London Library display

In 1893 Charles Hagberg Wright was appointed Librarian and served until his death in 1940. He developed the unique classification system, dealing first with books on the arts and humanities, and then classifying thousands of others under various topics within a wonderful ‘Science & Miscellaneous’ section. If only this system was copied elsewhere, as it would breathe life into books, instead of, for example, the Dewey Decimal system. In the London Library, our own book is classified as H. England, Social &c, whereas in our local public library it is 942.073. You can download a complete classification list from the London Library website, and for further information see a blog piece written by Amanda Stebbings of the London Library.


We have three or four talks under discussion for ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’. Two that have been agreed for 2016 are in Exeter. One is for the ‘Pinhoe Angels’ at the church hall in Main Road, Pinhoe, on Tuesday 1st March at 7.30pm. The other one is for the U3A on Thursday 27th October at the Mint Methodist Church, Fore Street, Exeter at 10am (the talk starts at 11am). You will need to be part of these organisations to attend, but this gives you plenty of notice to do so!


Begging for money

In Sussex in the closing years of the 19th century it was customary for children to carry round an effigy of Guy Fawkes chanting the rhyme:

‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.’

As late as the 1960s, the same chant was still being used in Berkshire and elsewhere. School half-term once coincided with ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or ‘Bonfire Night’ on 5th November, and children spent their holiday making an effigy of Guy Fawkes, dressed in old clothes, which was paraded round the streets, while passers-by were accosted with ‘Penny for the Guy?’. The money that was collected was spent on fireworks and the ‘guy’ was burned on a bonfire, accompanied by fireworks, but concerns about accidents have killed off the custom.

Guy Fawkes

Penny for the Guy? (from a print published in 1805)


The rituals around Guy Fawkes Night each year on 5th November are among the few traditions that have a known origin, starting as a commemoration of the failure by the Catholic Guy (or Guido) Fawkes to blow up King James I and Parliament in London on 5th November 1605. Guy Fawkes was caught the night before with the gunpowder in the cellars beneath Parliament. Under torture he revealed the names of his Gunpowder Plot accomplices and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament decreed that special thanksgiving church services should be held each year on 5th November, along with bonfires and the ringing of church bells – traditional forms of celebrating.

In many places the new custom seems to have been slow to take hold, but was then enthusiastically adopted. Initially, no effigies were burned on the bonfires, and for some years folklorists thought that the tradition of bonfires had actually been transferred from Halloween on 31st October to Bonfire Night. This may have some truth in areas defined as ‘Celtic’, but in England there is very little evidence for Halloween bonfires.


Although Bonfire Night was initially an anti-Catholic celebration, it was soon subverted for other purposes and often led to unrest. In the early 19th century much of the English countryside was in turmoil because of the desperate poverty of agricultural workers. Threshing machines were targets because they were regarded as symbols of oppression, taking work from agricultural labourers in the winter when they desperately needed the money, but ricks, farms and even workhouses were also burned down. The men claimed to be under the command of a fictitious ‘Captain Swing’, and in 1830 and 1831 the ‘Swing Riots’ spread from Kent across southern Britain and into the Midlands before being ruthlessly suppressed. Even so, in Dorchester in Dorset on 5th November 1831, the diarist Mary Frampton feared that Bonfire Night would erupt in more violence:

‘Various rumours spread of intended mischief on this night, but all passed quietly … The only difference was that no stuffed Guy Fawkes were brought to our door, as was the common custom of the day, and that the fireworks were more prolonged, lasting from dark until near midnight. Apprehensions had been entertained of riots, and the guard at the gaol was increased, and a day or two previously special constables had been sworn in and organized for the town, ready to be called upon if required … all, however, passed off quietly.’

Changing customs

Although Bonfire Night is unlikely to have any roots in Halloween, after four centuries it is now being eclipsed by Halloween. Health and safety concerns have meant that families rarely hold their own events on 5th November. Instead, bonfires and firework displays have become closely controlled commercial events, quite often on the nearest weekend, not even on the 5th. In a few places it still continues in a traditional form, as at Ottery St Mary in Devon where blazing tar barrels are the focus of the celebrations, while Lewes in East Sussex has the biggest bonfire celebrations in Britain, including torchlit processions with effigies of current figures of hatred.

Bonfire Night was once the sole day of the year when fireworks were seen in Britain, but firework displays are now commonplace at mass celebrations such as New Year and for personal celebrations such as birthdays. The significance of fireworks has been lost, and instead Halloween has become a bigger event, with traditions imported from America, such as ‘trick or treat’. Supermarkets in Britain get into a frenzy over Halloween, desperate to sell all things ghoulish. And a final note – it was once traditional for the shops to wait until 5th November had passed before filling their shelves with Christmas goods, but this year we have spotted Christmas cards and other gifts on sale at the beginning of September!