Newsletter 5

Welcome to our fifth occasional newsletter (May 2007).

Latest News

Advance notice for August – The War for All the Oceans will be published in paperback by Abacus in the UK and in hardcover in the US by Viking Penguin (same title but a different jacket). We have just learned that Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle is to be translated into Portuguese – it has already been translated into Swedish, Spanish and Japanese (in two volumes!).

Many thanks to everyone who has provided us with feedback on our books since the last newsletter, either directly or in the form of reviews on Amazon and with other online booksellers, as well as in magazines. We greatly appreciate feedback about our work, so please keep it coming.

The research for our next book, about the everyday lives of the seamen in Nelson’s navy, is really gathering pace. We have managed to see several collections of manuscripts in private hands, letters held in a rural branch library, and a logbook in a local museum, all unpublished and largely unknown. We have also managed to track down some rare books that recount the lives of seamen – books that were published in the early 19th century and have since sunk without trace (in some cases, even the British Library has no copy). On top of all this, we have been doing more ‘standard’ research amongst unpublished archives such as in the National Maritime Museum and The National Archives at Kew, so we have an embarrassment of riches. However, if any of you has something that might be of interest, then do let us know. It’s good to examine previously unknown material, though we can’t promise to include it in our book.

Getting Hold of Our Books

We have been writing books for quite a few years, and details of them are on our website. Some of them are now out-of-print and can only be bought secondhand – Archaeological Illustration (Cambridge University Press) is probably the most difficult one to find. Of our more recent books, The Keys of Egypt is still available new in paperback in the UK; Empires of the Plain is available new in hardcover in the US and in paperback in the UK; Trafalgar is available new in paperback in both the US and UK (but called Nelson’s Trafalgar in the US); and The War for All the Oceans is available in hardcover in the UK and in August in the US. Because the UK paperback is also coming out in August, the UK publishers decided a while back not to reprint the hardcover, leading several of you to grumble about the difficulty of getting hold of a copy. Apparently some WH Smith and Waterstones stores still have copies, as does the website of WH Smith (and if you order it online, you can get it delivered to your local store but pay the online price – and no postage). Amazon only occasionally has copies, but the Waterstones website can’t offer it because the book distributor that they use has sold out! To us, and we know to many of you, the book trade appears to work (or not work) in mysterious ways. In the next newsletter, we’ll divulge a few mysteries about how some of our books gained their title!

Latest Expedition

The last few weeks have proved quite busy as we have been travelling across the country to do research. One trip took us up through Shropshire, and with the weather cool but sunny it was a very enjoyable journey. We managed one afternoon to look at some of the canal system in the area just south of Crewe. These canals were once a key part of the transport system, moving heavy goods from the potteries and the industrial towns of the Midlands north-westwards to the nearest ports. Now, though, the canals are used only for recreation, and while we were there this mainly consisted of people walking along the towpaths, as most narrow boats were moored for the winter. In the heyday of canals, when the boats were horse-drawn, entire families lived on board, and it was not an easy life, particularly in bleak weather. Even in the more remote spots today, it is difficult to imagine how people in these boats could freeze to death – but when the canals iced over and the snow was too deep to walk through, they could run out of fuel for the stove before the ice-breaking boat reached them.

One town on the canal network is Market Drayton, which still has a collection of old buildings relatively untouched by modernisation. One building, the Red House, bears a plaque recording that William Wilkinson, the Master of the frigate Sirius at the Battle of Trafalgar, once lived there. The house is privately owned and not open to the public, but we were reliably informed that further research has revealed that William did not actually live there. Although the Red House was owned by his family, he himself lived in another part of the town.

On our way back home we happened to pass through the Shropshire village of Cheswardine, and having spotted what looked like a miniature Stonehenge, we had to stop and photograph it. The structure is on the grass verge of a street called Symon’s Way, which leads off the main road through the village, and it is made of rough stone blocks. There is no noticeboard or explanation nearby, and nobody was around to ask, so if anyone knows why this miniature Stonehenge has been built there, we would be very interested to hear about it!

Cheswardine’s Stonehenge

Monument of the Month

Paris is a wonderful city, and visitors should try to find time to see at least one of its fascinating cemeteries. The finest is undoubtedly Père Lachaise, which was opened in 1804 by order of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the last resting place of many famous people such as Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf and Napoleon’s general, Junot, and contains all kinds of gravestones, monuments and mausolea, and sometimes statues of the deceased. One such is the monument to Dominique Vivant Denon. An established artist and engraver, Denon was also a traveller and a diplomat in Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy, but he lost his money and position because of the French Revolution. By 1798 he was making a meagre living by writing and selling drawings. He became part of Josephine’s Paris salon of intellectuals and artists, and it was Josephine who persuaded Napoleon to include Denon in his group of scientists, artists and technicians that accompanied him to Egypt. At fifty-one years, Denon was one of the oldest of this group, but he proved to be among the most energetic. While the French army marched up and down the Nile Valley trying to subdue the population, Denon went with them sketching all that he saw and building a large collection of drawings.

When Napoleon abandoned his army and slipped back to France in 1799, Denon managed to accompany him and immediately sorted out his notes and drawings to prepare a book, Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt, which was published in 1802. It was an instant bestseller, because Egypt was largely a mystical, unknown land to the people of western Europe. The book eventually went through over forty editions and sparked off the Egyptomania that swept through Europe during the early 19th century. The plates from Denon’s book inspired architects and designers, and in particular influenced furniture manufacturers and interior designers. Porcelain manufacturers introduced Egyptian patterns, and Napoleon adopted Egyptian-influenced motifs to create a style that would differentiate his reign from the old French Royal dynasties and the leftovers of the Revolution. Napoleon made Denon director-general of museums, a post which he held until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Denon then retired, and he died on 27 April 1825 at the age of 78 years.

Tomb of Denon in Paris

Britain’s Turnpike Roads

‘Road-pricing’ is nothing new. In the 18th century it was seen as the ideal solution to the problem of Britain’s roads. At that time, of course, people did not already pay for the upkeep of roads through general taxation (which did not exist in its modern form). Instead, under laws going back two centuries, everyone was supposed to spend several days each year repairing the roads near where they lived. The organisation of such labour was inefficient and often haphazard, and the wealthy paid poorer people to do their work for them. Even the best workmen did not spend long enough at the task to acquire any expertise at road-mending. As a result, most roads in Britain were almost impassable for wheeled traffic, being pitted and rutted in dry conditions and a quagmire as soon as it rained. In some regions, such as Devon and Cornwall, packhorse trackways were the norm, and wheeled traffic a rarity. Even in the south-east, roads and streets could be more of an obstacle than a thoroughfare. A correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1757 described one street in Petworth, Sussex, as ‘two hundred yards long, full of deep holes and a precipice on one side of the street without so much as a rail.’

The solution was ‘privatisation’ of the roads. Turnpike trusts were set up piecemeal from the mid-18th century onwards, although the first effective toll road was established on part of the Great North Road as early as 1663. Each turnpike trust had to be authorised by an Act of Parliament, and in return for collecting tolls it took responsibility for keeping the road in good repair. These trusts were run as businesses and usually gained their initial capital by publishing a prospectus and inviting investors to lend them money, offering interest in the region of 4 or 5 percent. This money had to cover initial repairs to the road, the establishment at regular intervals of gates and tollhouses, and the wages of the toll collectors who were paid to live in the tollhouses and collect tolls at all hours on every day of the year.

There was frequent opposition to the turnpikes, and many people tried to avoid the toll gates, or took different routes, while gangs of men occasionally broke down the gates, destroyed the tollhouses and assaulted the toll collectors. Some trusts forced travellers to use the turnpikes by blocking up alternative roads and bridle paths. Once established, the trusts often farmed out the collection of tolls and the repair of the road to a contractor, in return for a guaranteed fixed sum, leaving the contractor to squeeze as much profit from travellers as he possibly could. Although the government might see turnpike trusts as an efficient system of road maintenance, everyone else saw it as a means of making money, not least because the trusts could call on local people for a few days’ free labour to help mend the roads every year, yet still charged them the standard tolls.

In reality, the main success of the turnpike trusts was to greatly improve the efficiency of road repairs and help the adoption of improved techniques of road building that were developed by engineers such as Telford and Macadam. The turnpike roads were an improvement on what had existed before, but that is not to say they were good. A traveller in 1792 reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine on a turnpike road over the hills near Derby: ‘From the bridge [across the River Derwent] the hill is composed of loose stones and sand, and is so steep and difficult of ascent, that it is impossible for horses to drag the loaded coaches which pass that way. It is therefore common for the driver to request the passengers to alight, and I think it must be considerably above a mile that we walked before it became sufficiently level to take to the coach. This road must ever remain so, as the soil will ever subject it to gullies from the rain rushing down.’

The turnpike system lasted for over a hundred years, but by the 1870s it had been effectively killed off by the railways. This was because the turnpikes only ever covered about 20 percent of Britain’s roads at best. To be profitable, only main routes were the targets of speculation by turnpike trusts, leaving the majority of minor routes and side roads untouched. Once the network of railways was established across the country, people and freight could be moved faster, and eventually cheaper, by rail rather than by road (and passengers did not have to get out and walk uphill), so the turnpikes went out of business. They left a legacy of distinctive tollhouses and milestones that can still be seen in many parts of the country, although the widening of roads on many major routes have led to their destruction. The position of milestones and mileposts (made of material other than stone – often cast iron) are still marked ‘MS’ and ‘MP’ on Ordnance Survey maps, although the stones themselves are often missing or overgrown. If you drive along a country lane, though, and see an old milestone or a tollhouse, you know that you are on one of the old turnpike roads – the motorways of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A Tollhouse at Muchelney in Somerset
A tollhouse at Muchelney in Somerset

Competition Results

In the early 1800s the age of the planet was still being calculated from passages in the Bible, which made the earth roughly 6,000 years old. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the scientists accompanying the expedition discovered a depiction of the zodiac carved in stone in the temple at Dendera. In later years it was realised that the configuration of stars shown in this zodiac could only have been seen much earlier than 6,000 years previously, and it was thought that the carving was approximately 15,000 years old. Controversy about the age of the Dendera Zodiac continued through the 19th century until it was proved that the temple (and therefore the zodiac) dated to the Graeco-Roman period. By now, though, there was plenty of more solid evidence from Egypt showing that the world was much older than 6,000 years and that the Bible was not a reliable guide to chronology. The original zodiac carving is on display in the Louvre museum in Paris, while the zodiac in the temple at Dendera is a copy. The two winners of the competition were Grant Peffer and Sheila Freestone.

Competition [now closed]

In the early 19th century two famous men were called Sidney Smith. One died in 1840, having made a career in the Royal Navy and risen to become an admiral. He is usually known today as Sir Sidney Smith or Sir William Sidney Smith. The other Smith died in 1845. He was a rural clergyman who became a journalist and eventually a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is usually known as the Reverend Sydney Smith or just Sydney Smith. The Reverend Sydney Smith was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Where was the admiral, Sir William Sidney Smith, buried? Was it,

  • A. Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
  • B. Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
  • C. The Protestant Cemetery, Rome.
  • D. Highgate Cemetery, London.

The first correct answer drawn out of the hat will win a signed hardcover copy of The War for All the Oceans.

In the Next Issue

Britain’s old fields (ridge-and-furrow, lynchets and meadows), regulars like Monument of the Month, all our latest news, and the stories behind our book titles.