Newsletter 48

Welcome to the March 2017 issue of our occasional newsletters.


Cape Trafalgar

Over the centuries, many ships have foundered in bad weather off Cape Trafalgar on the rocky southern coast of Spain, where in 1805 the Battle of Trafalgar was fought. In this same area during World War One, HMS Britannia was hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine.

Cape Trafalgar


Built in Portsmouth, HMS Britannia was launched in December 1904 as a battleship of over 16,000 tons, with four 12-inch guns, four 9.2-inch guns and ten 6-inch guns, and was completed in 1906. That same year saw HMS Dreadnought enter service, a new type of battleship armed only with 12-inch guns and capable of greater sailing speed, making previous battleships obsolete – including HMS Britannia. Even so, the Britannia was still very powerful and continued to be a useful part of the navy.
On the morning of 9th November 1918, the Britannia was sailing off Cape Trafalgar, accompanied by two other warships, only to be hit by a torpedo fired from the German submarine UB-50. A fire spread to the magazine, and it proved impossible to flood the area to put the fire out. It was obvious that the vessel could not be saved, and many of the crew were taken off. Just over three hours after being struck by the torpedo, the Britannia sank.


The men rescued from the Britannia were taken initially to Gibraltar, from where many of them were transported back to Britain, arriving at Portsmouth on 21st November. They were then released on leave, and from their stories, newspapers pieced together what had happened. ‘Interviews with some of the survivors show that nothing was seen of the submarine,’ the Western Morning News recounted, ‘although a close watch had been kept all night. About 7 a.m. on the 9th inst. there was a dull explosion well aft on the port side, but although it was realised that the ship had either struck a mine or had been torpedoed, it was not regarded as a serious matter.’
The initial damage was not particularly great, but the same newspaper described how the resulting fire spread:

‘Immediately afterwards there was another explosion, the force of which was terrific, and the ship was shaken from stem to stern. She at once heeled over badly to the port side. The force of the explosion had shattered all the dynamos. There were two destroyers in company, one British and the other American. The former at once sent a wireless message to Gibraltar for help, which was at once sent. Meantime, efforts were made to launch the boats by hand power, but that proved impossible. The British destroyer accordingly drew alongside, and 350 of the petty officers and men were put on board, the others being kept in the Britannia. The destroyer then cast off, but kept company. About an hour and a half after the explosions the periscope of the German submarine appeared on the surface. The Britannia’s gunners promptly opened fire on it, and the two destroyers hurrying to the spot, dropped several depth charges.’

The UB-50 escaped the depth charges, and by now the Britannia was close to sinking, which the Western Morning News described: ‘As the Britannia was still heeling over, the remainder of the officers and crew were put on board other vessels that had arrived from Gibraltar. Soon afterwards the ship turned turtle and went down in deep water.’ Fifty men were killed, most of whom went down with the ship. This was the last Royal Navy ship to be sunk in World War One, just two days before Armistice Day, and this was the last ship sunk by the submarine UB-50, which surrendered in January 1919.

John Jones

Several wounded men from HMS Britannia were left at Gibraltar, where they could be treated, including John Jones, a stoker. Born in January 1892, he was twenty-six years old, described as being five feet seven inches tall, with black hair and grey eyes. He came from Irlam, near Manchester in Lancashire, and before he joined the navy, he was probably still living at home with his parents, Charles and Bridget Jones, as well as his two brothers and four sisters, and he worked as a labourer in a soap works. On joining the navy in November 1915, he stated his religion as Roman Catholic and named his mother as next-of-kin. After four months of service, he was rated able seaman, and by November 1918 he had become a stoker first class.



Gravestone of John Jones in the North Front Cemetery, Gibraltar

Jones was badly wounded and died two days after the Britannia sank. The date of his death was 11th November, which, poignantly, was Armistice Day. He was one of the last servicemen to die during World War One, and he was buried in the North Front Cemetery, in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, where his grave can still be seen.



Jacket design for our forthcoming book


Our next book is Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History. For over three-and-a-half years, from 1779 to 1783, the tiny but awe-inspiring fortress of Gibraltar, between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, was besieged and blockaded by overwhelming Spanish and French forces. A place of varied nationalities, languages and religions, Gibraltar’s civilian and military population endured terrifying bombardment, starvation and disease. Ordinary people lived through extraordinary events, from shipwrecks, naval battles and an attempted invasion of England to deadly innovations of shrapnel shells, red-hot shot and floating batteries. The longest siege in British history, it was blamed for the loss of America.

Our book will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on 7th September 2017 (ISBN 978-1408708675), and in the USA by Viking Penguin in 2018. We will keep you informed once more details are available.



Because we have been so immersed in writing our new book, there has been little time recently to write magazine articles or do talks and other events, with two exceptions. We very much enjoyed giving a talk to the Jane Austen Society’s South-West branch in Exeter on ‘All at Sea with the Austens’, in their first event of 2017, in what is a momentous year – the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen in July 1817.

We have also had a two-page article published in the BBC History Magazine (February 2017 issue), on pages 86–7. It was within their regular feature called ‘My Favourite Place’, and we described visiting military history locations on Gibraltar, from the Moorish Castle to World War Two gun batteries.

Our next talk is for the Jane Austen Society Kent Branch on Saturday 3 June 2017. Jane Austen had very important connections to the county of Kent and often visited family members there. Our talk will be part of the Kent branch summer event, and the venue is Court Lodge, Lamberhurst, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. It will include an organ recital of music from Jane Austen’s period, a talk by Dr Heather Dyke, owner of Court Lodge, about her family’s connections to the Austens, our own talk (‘All at Sea in the Time of the Austens’) and an Austen-related exhibition by the Horsmonden Historical Society. For more information about this event and how to join the Kent branch, see their website.



Simnel cakes have a long history. The 1799 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary gives the simple definition of ‘simnel’ as ‘A kind of sweet bread or cake’, but one of the earliest mentions is in the short poem by Robert Herrick, first published in 1648:


To Dianeme.

        A Ceremonie in Glocester

I’le to thee a Simnel bring,

‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering:

So that when she blesseth thee,

Half that blessing thou‘lt give me.


The reference is to Mothering Sunday, which is traditionally the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Mid-Lent Sunday, and for Herrick to refer to it in this way shows that the custom of making simnel cakes was well established in the early 17th century.

Spurious origins

Like most customs, those surrounding simnel cakes have evolved over the years, and their origin is obscure. William Hone’s The Every-Day Book of 1825 suggested: ‘Going a mothering is from the Roman Catholic custom of going to the mother-church on Mid-Lent Sunday, to make offerings at the high altar, and that custom of the Romish Church is derived from the Hilaria, a heathen festival celebrated by the ancient Romans, in honour of the Mother of the Gods on the ides of March.’


The Ides of March in the Roman calendar was the 15th, but this connection with Roman customs is far too tenuous. The Hilaria was actually a festival of the Anatolian god Attis and was not an annual holiday in Rome, unlike the feast days of his consort Cybele, who was also known as Magna Mater (‘Great Mother’) and was considered to be the mother of all living things. Nevertheless, the custom probably does have a pre-Christian origin that was appropriated by the early church, though there is no precise evidence. By the late 18th century the custom was accepted as Christian, which the antiquarian William Brand outlined: ‘In the former days of superstition, while that of the Roman Catholics was the established religion, it was the custom for people to visit their Mother-Church on Mid-Lent Sunday, and to make offerings at the high altar. Cowel, in his Law Dictionary, observes that the now remaining practice of Mothering, or going to visit parents upon Midlent Sunday, is really owing to that good old custom.’

A simnel cake (created by Miriam Smith)


Evolving traditions

Whatever the theoretical origins, in many areas one custom prevailed: children, often working away from home as apprentices or servants, visited their parents on Mothering Sunday, while children at home or away would give a simnel cake to their mothers. Gradually the custom concerning simnel cake changed, becoming more of a secular seasonal treat like Christmas cake. On 10th March 1803, William Holland, the vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset, received a parcel addressed to his daughter Margaret: ‘a fine Cymnel [simnel] cake with a box of the well known Shrewsbury cakes either from Mrs or Miss Kinaston [his relatives at Ruyton near Shrewsbury in Shropshire] … after dinner Margaret carried a large piece of Cymnel and some cakes to [their friends] the Miss Pooles.’ The following year, Holland received another simnel cake which he thought was ‘peculiar to the Town of Shrewsbury: large and deep, a thick crust with saffron in it and hard, and filled the inside with sweetmeat.’ This type of cake was a speciality of Shropshire, and there were several other regional recipes. Most were variations of a rich fruit cake that had plenty of marzipan in the mix and on top of the cake. Some cakes had eleven balls of marzipan on top, said to represent eleven apostles of Jesus, excluding the twelfth – Judas.


In 1907 Anna Jarvis, who was a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, USA, suggested a special Mother’s Day. After successful lobbying of Congress, it was officially recognised in 1913 and was set as the second Sunday in May, breaking the connection with Lent and Easter. In Britain and Ireland, the old Mothering Sunday was retained, but after the Second World War it evolved into an American-style Mother’s Day, aided by the efforts of commercial interests keen to sell more cards and gifts. At the same time, simnel cakes have also gained popularity as a seasonal speciality, being sold by supermarkets and shops, as well as being created at home.


People power

Theme parks, offering a variety of complicated fairground rides, have done much to eclipse the popularity of travelling funfairs. Yet the one advantage of fairs is that they do travel, taking their rides to places far and wide. Compared to the attractions at a static theme park, the roundabout (also known as a carousel or merry-go-round) may seem tame, but it has a long history, and primitive roundabouts were one of the first types of travelling fairground rides to appear. The earliest examples were not much more than horizontal wheels with seats, powered by men who stood within the rim of the wheel and pushed on the spokes while walking round and round. Eventually, like small mills and similar machinery, roundabouts were powered by a horse turning another wheel connected to the roundabout by a belt.


The Roundabout from ‘The Costume of Great Britain’ by William Henry Pyne published in 1805


Dobbies and gallopers

Dobbies (singular: dobby) were roundabouts that had wooden horses hanging by a single pole from the roof. There was no floor to the roundabout, and no mechanism to make the horses rise and fall. Originally designed for use by children, larger versions were later made for adults, and on some dobbies the poles were hinged at the top, allowing the horses to swing outwards as the ride gathered speed. Although they were later run by horse power and then steam power, early dobbies were powered simply by people pushing the roundabout round. The big roundabouts in travelling fairs known as gallopers developed from dobbies, and they have large wooden horses, made for adults rather than children, carved to resemble galloping horses. Each horse is fixed to a vertical pole that raises and lowers the horse, giving roundabouts their distinctive appearance when in motion.


A fairground galloper


Traction engines

Steam power was first developed for pumping engines, then for railway locomotives. By the late 1860s the steam traction engine was fast becoming a common method of hauling heavy loads along the roads of Britain and was the first self-propelled vehicle to replace horses for heavy haulage. While horses were still the norm for individual riders and for pulling passenger vehicles, they could not compete with the traction engine for raw pulling power. Traction engines were large, heavy and slow, but they had a number of advantages for travelling showmen. As well as pulling huge loads of equipment from one venue to the next, steam engines also provided electricity, via a generator, to power the fairground rides and lighting. On the road, the footplate of a traction engine, like that of a railway locomotive, provided warmth from the adjacent furnace heating the boiler, and a canopy over the engine usually kept off the worst of the weather.


A restored traction engine

The romance of steam

It was steam power that gave late 19th- and early 20th-century fairgrounds their distinctive atmosphere. Traction engines provided plenty of electricity, so rides and stalls were covered in bright lights for the first time, making fairs more appealing to a wider section of the population. The abundant power was also used to run fairground organs and other mechanical music machines, adding to the attraction of stalls and rides. The traction engines themselves were a novelty, and the sound of running engines became a familiar background noise for fairs. The smoke from ‘steam coal’ (the particular grade of coal best suited to steam engines) gave fairgrounds a distinctive aroma that is completely lacking from fairs powered by diesel or petrol generators. Always ready to adopt new technology, after the Second World War fairgrounds abandoned steam engines in favour of generators, but many people were nostalgic for the pre-war fairs and so enthusiasts began to hold steam rallies and steam fairs, powered by traction engines, and these events continue to be incredibly popular.


Poster for the steam fair at Shottesbrooke, Berkshire, in 1964