Newsletter 47

Welcome to the December 2016 issue of our occasional newsletters.


We are continuing to work on our new book about the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Generally, publishers specify a word length based on what is felt to be commercially viable and what the authors feel is appropriate. When doing research, we tend to find enough material to fill many volumes, but the trick is to cut it all down to produce something readable. For our Gibraltar siege book, we could easily wander off into countless digressions, leaving no space for the main story, but our newsletters do allow us to indulge in digressions galore – such as Coxheath Camp here.

Gibraltar’s Great Siege was rooted in the American War of Independence. In early 1778 France sided with the rebel colonies and then in July declared war on Britain. The French tried to persuade Spain to unite with them against Britain and even offered to help capture Gibraltar. Eventually, in June 1779, Spain also declared war on Britain, and the Great Siege of Gibraltar began. While all this was going on, Coxheath was turning into an enormous military camp.

Coxheath map

Coxheath (marked ‘Cocksheath’) in the centre of this 1783 map of Kent

Early days

Coxheath – sometimes spelled ‘Cocksheath’ – was located just south of the town of Maidstone in Kent, some 30 miles south-east of the City of London. It comprised a stretch of wild heath land about 3 miles long and a mile wide that was used for a military camp at the start of the Seven Years’ War in 1756. From 1778, with the threat posed by France, Coxheath became well known as a massive military camp, established primarily to train raw militia conscripts in the use of weapons, so as to repulse enemy invaders who were so greatly feared. The camp was also intended to protect London, and a similar camp was located north-east of the city, at Warley Common near Brentwood in Essex.

Accommodation was in canvas tents, laid out in streets, with tents for women at the rear – who were allowed the old straw for their bedding. In June 1778 the Kentish Gazette newspaper published an ‘extract of a letter from a Field Officer dated Coxheath Camp, June 10’:

‘Our camp is nearly formed, and will be the compleatest that ever was seen in Britain. The line from right to left will extend full three miles, and be composed of fifteen thousand men, and 50 pieces of artillery. We shall be immediately joined, I find, by the flower of our nobility.’

A famous or infamous camp

Being so close to London, Coxheath Camp attracted a substantial crowd of traders and prostitutes from the city, as well as from nearby towns such as Maidstone. The camp was also a magnet for tourists from the aristocracy and gentry. The Duke of Devonshire (the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire) was involved in organising militia forces, and he was accompanied by his famous wife, the 21-year-old Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Not long passed before she and her aristocratic friends were bored with watching the military manoeuvres and antics of the soldiers. Instead, the Duchess occupied her time by designing a female version of the military uniform, as was reported in the newspapers in mid-July 1778:

‘From the camp at Cox-heath we are told, that the Duchess of D––––––– hath made herself a pattern of imitation to the oldest veteran in the camp. She sleeps in the Duke’s tent every night on a truss of straw and a mattress, and has been, on several occasions, drenched to the skin with rain.’

The newspapers were always on the lookout for other stories besides the constant reports of the war in America, and so two weeks later another story about the Duchess was published:

‘The Duchess of Devonshire appears every day at the head of the beauteous Amazons on Coxheath, who are all dressed en militaire, in the regimentals that distinguish the several corps in which their Lords, &c. serve, and charm every beholder with their beauty and affability.’

Having set the fashion for all the aristocratic women at the camp, who quickly had garments made that echoed army uniforms, the Duchess also organised them into a female militia. Apart from its propaganda value, the exercise did at least raise morale and amused the men in the camp.

Throughout the summer of 1778, the newspapers regarded any occurrence at the camp as a potential news item. Several reviews of the troops were held, culminating in one in November that took place in pouring rain before King George III and Queen Charlotte. The soldiers were then gradually dispersed to winter quarters until the camp was re-established the following summer, a pattern that continued for many years.

Coxheath camp review

A grand review of the army at Coxheath Camp
(a print published in the ‘Westminster Magazine’, September 1778)

The fictional camp

The camp acquired a reputation for bad conduct, indiscipline and scandal, all of which was avidly reported in the newspapers. Life in and around these camps was satirised in a play called ‘The Camp: A Musical Entertainment’, based on the Coxheath Camp and written by Richard Brinley Sheridan and Richard Tickell. It was first performed at Drury Lane in London in 1778 and proved so successful that it was staged in theatres across the country.

Charlotte Walpole

The actress Charlotte Walpole dressed as
‘Nancy’ from the play ‘The Camp’

The characters included Nancy Granger who dresses as a soldier to be with her lover William, and a painter called O’Daub who is mistaken for a spy. The plot, which is essentially a farce involving disguises and mistaken identities, was probably a rather mild version of life at Coxheath Camp, as was a novel published in 1779, by an anonymous author, called Coxheath Camp: A Novel. In a series of Letters. By a Lady. It was sold in two volumes, price two shillings and sixpence. A brief review of the novel appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, including the comment that ‘Letters to and from Miss Ella Rivers, Miss Caroline Fletcher, &c. abound with the pretty light skirmishing of amours and distresses, fit for the masters and mistresses who frequent such watering-places as Margate, or such dusting-places as Coxheath.’

A camp of some kind continued at Coxheath until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after which the heath was enclosed by local landowners for agriculture. Nowadays the reputation of Coxheath is less scandalous, being the home of the World Custard Pie Championships.


Roman archaeology has been one of our long-abiding passions, even an obsession, and as field archaeologists for some three decades, we worked on excavations of several Roman sites in Britain, from rural hovels to villas, towns and fortresses. We even spent our honeymoon on Hadrian’s Wall, and have visited countless other sites throughout the Roman Empire, pored over exhibits in museums and written papers and books on Roman themes. Recently, we were very pleased to be sent a newly published book called Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome by Paul N Pearson (Pen & Sword Military hardback, 2016, ISBN 9781473847033, xxiv prelims, 296 pages, illustrations, maps, appendices, endnotes, bibliography and index).

Maximinus Thrax jacket

Before saying anything more, we must declare an interest. In the dim and distant past, we were involved in an excavation of Beddington Roman villa to the south of London in the days when many unpaid volunteers took part, including several very talented students. One of these is the author of this book – Paul Pearson, who is now Professor of Geology at Cardiff University, and he very kindly thanks us in his acknowledgements for fostering his interest in archaeology and ancient history on this excavation.

Paul’s book is the first full-length biography of Maximinus, known as Maximinus Thrax, because he was born in Thrace – probably in what is today Bulgaria. He became emperor of Rome in the year 235 and was murdered in 238. A giant of a man, supposedly over 8 feet tall, he was one of Rome’s most extraordinary emperors. This is not a straightforward biography, but delves deep into the much-neglected history of the early 3rd century AD, drawing on all available sources of evidence and assessing their reliability. The book covers a wealth of topics and is extremely well researched and referenced. It is one of those books where you are not irritated by the clunkiness of the prose or the affectation of the author – instead, the text flows beautifully, making it a joy to read. This is potentially a prize-winning book that deserves to have an extensive readership and to be translated widely. If you are still looking for a Christmas present for someone interested in history, here it is.


Our latest magazine article to be published is in Folklife Quarterly 51 for October 2016. It is called ‘I trudge the morning dew…’ and talks about how songs refer to the weather, especially where the labouring classes were affected. When conditions were freezing, market gardeners would often tour the streets begging for money. The FQ website is here.


We are giving virtually no talks at the moment because we are too intent on writing our next book, but we do have a talk lined up that will be based partly on our Jack Tar book, called ‘All at Sea in the Time of the Austens’, for the January 2017 meeting of the Jane Austen Society South-West (on the 28th). Two of Jane Austen’s brothers served in the Royal Navy, and her knowledge about the navy is well displayed in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. We are giving our talk in the morning, and after lunch, there will be another talk by Karin Fernald called ‘Fainting Alternately on the Sofa’. This is a very active branch of the Jane Austen Society, and it holds four conferences a year, each one lasting from 10.30am to 3.30pm, with morning coffee, buffet lunch and two talks. The venue is in central Exeter (at Southernhay Hall, Dix’s Field, EX1 1QA, very close to the historic centre). For further details, see here. You do not have to be a member of the main Jane Austen Society to join.

Our book Jack Tar plays a role in a blog post called ‘Nelson’s Floating Menagerie’ (for November 14, 2016). This is a wonderful blog called ‘Seafurrers: True Tales of the Ships’ Cats that Lapped and Mapped the World’, which you can enjoy here. It is hosted by Bart the Cat, though we suspect some human participation as well. It’s very amusing and informative, with lovely illustrations, of interest to cat worshippers and to those (sorry, Bart) who are indifferent to the species.

Seafurrers blog

Picture credit: “Illustration cobbled together by Ad Long”


Decimal coinage has been the legal currency in Britain for 45 years, since 1971, based on pounds and pennies (with 100 pennies equivalent to one pound), so that a price of £1.05P means one pound and five pennies. There are still plenty of people who remember a pre-decimalisation time when £.s.d. was the abbreviation for money – pounds, shillings and pence. Of those three letters, only the £ sign (an embellished form of ‘L’) remains in use.

Roman roots

The letters L.s.d. developed from Roman times when gold was the basis of coinage, along with silver. The ‘L’ or ‘£’ originated from the Latin word libra (plural librae), meaning a pound in weight (not librum as it is at times incorrectly written). The ‘s’ came from the Latin word solidus (plural solidi), which was a type of late Roman gold coin. The ‘d’ came from the Latin word denarius (plural denarii), which was a Roman silver coin (see the picture). The value of these Roman coins depended on the amount of gold and silver they contained, and when coins were debased, their relative values changed.

Denarius of Hadrian

A denarius of Hadrian who was Roman emperor AD 117–138

With the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, the use and minting of coins were disrupted. With gold in short supply, most coinage systems in medieval Europe turned to silver, and the penny was the main coin, with 12 pennies (or denarii) being worth one solidus (or shilling), while 20 solidi were equal to one libra (a pound of silver). For centuries throughout Europe, one of the biggest complaints was the lack of ‘small change’, which gave rise to low-denomination tokens being issued by private traders, although base-metal coins eventually came to be minted.

Pounds shillings and pence were used in Britain until 1971, but the coins underwent many changes over the centuries, including both gold coins and base-metal coins, as well as the introduction of banknotes. When people saw ‘£.s.d’, they did not equate them with alphabetical letters, but automatically thought ‘pounds, shillings and pence’, or simply ‘money’.

The value of money

The chromed tin coin holder in this picture was intended to keep coins safe. Dating to about the 1920s, it tells a fascinating story. In the decades before decimalisation, coins were worth substantially more than today, with beer between one and two shillings a pint, and a loaf of bread costing under a shilling. Nowadays, real money means banknotes, but for much of history, coins were not just ‘small change’ but represented significant value and were treated with respect.

Coin holder

A metal coin holder for five different types of coin

The holder has five spring-loaded compartments into each of which two or three coins can be fitted. They are marked 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence), 2/- (two shillings), 1/- (one shilling), -/6 (sixpence) and -/3 (threepence). The abbreviation ‘/’ is a symbol for ‘shilling’, which is said to be derived from the long ‘s’ (the one that looks like an ‘f’ in old manuscripts and books). The dash is a symbol for ‘nothing’, so that -/3 actually reads ‘no shillings and three pence’. The holder is intended for silver (or debased silver) coins – there are no compartments for the lower-denomination copper penny, halfpenny and farthing. In the late 1930s, silver threepenny coins were gradually withdrawn after the introduction of larger nickel-brass threepenny coins with 12 sides.

Names and aliases

When decimalisation was introduced, nobody quite knew how to pronounce the coinage. In the old coinage, the word ‘pence’ was generally used as the plural of penny, but the pronunciation ‘pee’ began to be used for the decimal penny, so that the two pence coin was called the ‘two pee coin’, and something priced at five pence was ‘five pee’.

With the old currency, half a shilling was a sixpence and half a sixpence was threepence. The pronunciation depended on a person’s dialect, so ‘threepence’ might sound like ‘thruppence’, ‘threppence’ or ‘throopence’, and the coin itself was a ‘thruppenny bit’ or a ‘threppenny bit’ (but might be pronounced ‘throopnee’). Twopence became ‘tuppence’ and a halfpenny was a ‘ha’penny’, pronounced ‘haypnee’. A penny with a halfpenny (1½d) were ‘three ha’pence’. A farthing was a quarter of a penny.

Coins also had various nicknames, so that a shilling was a ‘bob’, 2 shillings were 2 bob, and so on. Banknotes were sometimes colloquially called ‘folding money’ to distinguish them from coins, and the lowest-denomination banknote was the ‘ten bob note’ – 10 shillings (half of one pound). Two shillings and sixpence (2/6 or 2s 6d) was called ‘half a dollar’ or more commonly ‘half a crown’ or a ‘half crown’, because the old crown coin had a face value of five shillings. Now crowns are only minted to commemorate special occasions, and they have a value of £5. Five shillings was also called ‘five bob’ or a ‘dollar’, a nickname that supposedly harked back to the days when one US dollar was valued at 5 shillings sterling. Two shillings was ‘two bob’ or a ‘florin’ (a name that had once been used for a medieval gold coin of much higher value) and sixpence was a ‘tanner’. Coins below the value of threepence were made from a copper alloy and were often referred to as ‘coppers’.

Losses and gains

On top of all the names of the coins and a range of nicknames was the added complication of a non-decimal system, because there were 240 pennies to the pound – or 20 shillings or 10 florins or 8 half crowns. There were 12 pennies to the shilling and 30 pennies to the half crown and many more complexities. Many prices were in guineas – for example, one guinea was £1 1s and two guineas were £2 2s. All this made ‘knowing your pounds, shillings and pence’ almost a separate branch of mathematics, while attempts to calculate or compare prices in shops was often a trial of mental agility. From their earliest schooldays, children were taught ‘their pounds, shillings and pence’. Decimal calculators, when they became available, were of little use. Schoolchildren today may well be relieved in mathematics that they are working with a decimal currency – but only if their history lessons have taught them the rich and complicated diversity of the currency that preceded it.


Images and customs

One of the perennial symbols of Christmas and New Year are church bells. Images of bells appear in Christmas card designs and as Christmas decorations, and the sound of bells forms part of many television and radio programmes (and, of course, advertising). For centuries, bells were sounded to welcome in Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and in 1824 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported the ringing of Christmas bells in Yorkshire:

‘Christmas-eve is, in Yorkshire, celebrated in a peculiar manner. At eight o’clock in the evening, the bells greet “old father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the Yule candle is lighted.’

Voice of the bells

This custom was probably thought worth noting because it was different to the practice of ringing-in Christmas Day and the New Year. Welcoming these particular days with bells was, and still is, so common that it is seldom reported, although three years after the Gentleman’s Magazine article, at Camerton in Somerset, John Skinner complained that he was woken in the early hours of Christmas Day – though as he was rector of the parish, you might have thought he would have expressed his pleasure at the enthusiasm of his parishioners:

‘I was awakened early by the ringing of the bells, and could not help thinking how much sound overpowers common sense in all we have to do in the present day. I lay awake last night thinking of these things, and soon after I had closed my eyes they were again opened by the loud peals these thoughtless people among whom I dwell chose to ring, as they suppose, in honour of the day.’

Changing from tolls

Early bells were hung from an axle or spindle to which a rope was attached, allowing the bell to toll, but giving no control for anything else. To make the task easier, a quarter-wheel and then a half-wheel were attached to the spindle, so that the rope could be passed round a groove, making it easier to pull. This still gave no great control of the bell, not until the introduction of the whole wheel and stay (as in the picture).

Model of bell

Model of a bell hanging downwards in a metal bell frame,
with a wheel at one end and an upright wooden stay at the other

This new method of hanging developed from the 15th century, and it allowed the bell to swing through a complete circle and back again. From the resting position, with the bell hanging downwards, successively stronger pulls on the rope made the bell swing higher and higher each time. With the bell swinging through a wide circle, a pull on the rope with the right amount of force caused the bell to turn upside down. As the bell went just past the vertical, the wooden stay hit a sliding piece of wood (obscured by the bell in the picture), bringing the bell to rest. From this resting point, a pull on the rope would bring the bell down, causing it to swing almost up to the vertical in the opposite direction. Each time the bell swung, it would sound, but once it came to a stop, upside down, it was silent. With this innovation, a bell could be slowed down or speeded up by the bellringer’s force and timing in pulling the rope, and the bell could be easily stopped and started again.

Stedman and change ringing

This new ability to control a bell allowed the introduction of change ringing with a set of bells. Instead of ringing one bell after another in a constant round, the order in which the bells were rung could be changed and changed again during the ringing, to produce a distinctive musical effect. This became popular from the beginning of the 17th century, and it was not long before a Cambridge printer, Fabian Stedman, saw the great possibilities of the new method. Using mathematics to work out the possible combinations of bells, he realised that six bells (a number that many churches had) could be rung in 720 different combinations before a repetition was necessary. With more bells, the number of combinations (or ‘changes’) rose dramatically. In 1668 Stedman published Tintinnalogia and in 1677 Campanalogia, which set out his new system. From that point, change ringing developed.

Bell ringing cards

Orders of ringing for different series of changes

The appeal of a peal

As well as Stedman’s system, other new systems were also developed from the 17th century, providing the uniquely English form of change ringing that is so familiar today. These systems produced various series of changes that are known as ‘methods’, and along with this terminology it was decided that a series of 5,000 changes or more would be called a ‘peal’ and anything less would be called a ‘touch’, while the number of bells in a belfry is called a ‘ring’. Most churches in England have a ring of six or eight bells. These are the technicalities, but the end result is a rich and magical sound well suited to the occasions it is used to mark. Two centuries ago, the Lancaster Gazette reported on the Christmas celebrations in Preston, Lancashire:

‘CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES. – Judging from the numerous festivities and parties with which Christmas is being celebrated in Preston, we are led to hope that affairs are brightening, and that “a good time is coming”. These parties – the socialities of a happy time – have been held with little interruption during most of the week, and several are announced to take place in the ensuing week. Christmas Day arrived, and no sooner had midnight passed, than its advent was heralded by bands of music, and companies of singers, who perambulated the town, and played and sung under the windows and in the streets, with joyful and soul-stirring melody. Nor were the Parish Church bells silent, but appeared to ring with louder and more sonorous peals.’

Merry Xmas