Newsletter 51

Welcome to the December 2017 issue of our occasional newsletters.


Whatever your religious beliefs, this is a traditional time of festivity for most people. When you post your Christmas cards to family and friends and the children post their wish lists to Father Christmas, take a look at the letter box. We’ve just been in Gibraltar, where they are instantly recognisable to visitors from Britain, being of cast iron, painted red and bearing a royal cipher. British letter boxes are so traditional that they are commonly depicted on Christmas cards, adorned with seasonal snow and a festive robin or two.


A rare pillar box near Main Street, Gibraltar, of Edward VIII,

who abdicated. The cipher reads ER VIII


Post box variety

From Victorian times, letter boxes or post boxes were set up in streets and lanes for posting mail, and they comprise secure freestanding pillar boxes, wall boxes and lamp boxes. A pillar box is shaped like a short pillar, while smaller wall boxes are set in walls, with just the front face showing. Pillar boxes in particular were exported to British Overseas Territories like Gibraltar. Small lamp boxes were first introduced in London in 1896, fixed to lamp posts. Today, they are mainly located in rural areas in Britain, attached to posts, such as wooden telegraph poles, as well as embedded in walls. Ideal for smaller quantities of mail, this type of letter box was once a familiar sight in the countryside, but their numbers are diminishing, and they are rarely found in urban areas.


The Letter Box Study Group has a website. See also our newsletter 15 on the Carron Company and letter boxes, as well as newsletter 33 on posting letters in Jane Austen’s time.


Before 1857, mail to Gibraltar was brought by a monthly packet ship service that sailed from Falmouth in Cornwall. There was also an overland postal service run by a separate agency, and so Gibraltar had two post offices. In January 1857 the two services combined to form the Gibraltar Post Office, under the control of the Postmaster General in London. Mail had to be collected from the Post Office in Gibraltar, though local delivery was introduced from October 1858. In 2005 the Gibraltar Post Office was granted the title of ‘Royal’ by Queen Elizabeth II, the only overseas territory to be honoured in this way.



A George V pillar box on Main Street (left) and a rare George V lamp box (right)

set in a wall in Gibraltar. The ‘V’ (for 5th) is not shown on either box


…and a collection

The Royal Gibraltar Post Office has acquired and brought together some historic examples of pillar boxes, sited in or very close to Main Street, making this a unique collection – one from the reign of every British monarch since their introduction in Victorian times. They differ from those in Britain by having their tops painted black. The boxes date to the reigns of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), King Edward VII (1901–10), George V (1910–36), Edward VIII (1936), George VI (1936–52) and the present Queen Elizabeth II (1952–). Other examples of historic letter boxes on Gibraltar include a rare George V lamp box. This collection helps to give Gibraltar a nostalgic feel for many British visitors.



Writing a book is a solitary experience, and when we distributed our last newsletter in early September, our latest book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History had only just been published in the UK. Since then, we’ve very much enjoyed being plunged into the wider world and have done a few radio interviews, as well as talks about the book. In particular, we loved being invited back to our favourite public library at Wokingham and were also pleased to take part in the inaugural Lancaster Historical Writing Festival.


This was our first ever visit to Lancaster, though we have passed close by many times when travelling on the M6 motorway to and from the north of England and Scotland. The fact that the M6 bypassed Lancaster in the early 1960s meant that it has retained many of its attractive features. It is a fascinating city, well worth a visit, and a place that we will no doubt mention in a future newsletter.


Waterstones in King Street, Lancaster, an old-style bookshop

with constantly changing, glorious window displays


Reviews and articles

We’re thrilled to have received several excellent reviews for the book, including the ones below, and you can read more on our website:


“a fascinating, well-crafted account of a siege that defined Britishness” (Andrew Lambert, BBC History Magazine)

“never loses sight of the human story at the heart of an extraordinary international incident” (History Revealed, Book of the Month)

“Fascinating and timely” (Tony Rennell, Daily Mail, in a double-page digest)

“highly readable … Rather than hovering above events and providing an overview, the reader is taken directly into the action … The writing is first-rate right from the start … With plenty of drama to draw upon and an impressive commitment to research, this is a book to delight the military history enthusiast” (History of War magazine)

“well-researched and briskly written narrative … worthy of the most melodramatic Hollywood blockbuster” (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times)

“another epic and illuminating look at Britain’s past from Roy and Lesley Adkins, masters of the historical narrative” (George D. Jepson, Quarterdeck)


We have also had another article published in Folklife Quarterly (issue 55 for October 2017), in which we talk about the meaning of the ballad ‘The British Salamanders’, a term given to soldiers who served on Gibraltar.



For our final talk of 2017, and the highlight of the season, we were invited to the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival, which took place from 16th to 19th November. Because our talk was the very first one, we had no idea in advance what to expect.


The venue for our talk was the beautiful historic Garrison Library, where we have spent many hours doing research. Full of atmosphere, it was the focal point for the festival and provided the ideal setting, because it was originally founded by John Drinkwater. He served as an ensign in the 72nd Manchester Regiment throughout the Great Siege and kept a meticulous diary that became a bestseller in his own lifetime. See our newsletter 50 for a description of him and his involvement with London’s Regent’s Canal.

Some of the audience during the applause for our talk

(photograph: Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival)


Tickets for our talk sold out early on, even though the organisers managed to install extra seating. On the day, there was standing room only, with an audience that included VIPs, Gibraltarians and visitors and tourists from Spain, Britain and elsewhere, along with photographers and reporters from the media. Before our event, we were nervous about how our talk would be received in Gibraltar, where the people are very knowledgeable about their own history. Instead, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response, not just in the lively Q&A, but also at the book signing and in the days that followed.

Signing books after the talk

(photograph: John Bugeja, Gibraltar Chronicle)


Once the talk and questions were over, we sat meeting people and signing books they had bought in the adjoining festival bookshop run by Blackwell’s, a very enjoyable experience that seemed to go on forever. Afterwards, we learned that several members of the audience bought additional books and then queued for a second time to have them signed. By the very last day of the festival, Blackwell’s had sold every single copy of our book.


We are grateful to everyone who took the trouble to waylay us in the street and elsewhere to tell us how much they had enjoyed our talk or were enjoying the book. Usually at festivals, speakers have little opportunity to stay on and so rarely hear any feedback, but the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival encourages speakers to stay for the entire festival. There is also an Education Programme, giving children an opportunity to meet authors. We had the privilege of speaking to seventy boys and girls from year 2 at Governor’s Meadow School. For 45 minutes we chatted to them about the Great Siege and Egyptology (an interesting mix!), and they were brilliant, very focused and with lots of questions. We look forward to meeting them again.



Entrance to Blackwell’s festival bookshop in the Garrison Library, Gibraltar


Our overall impressions are of sunshine, the sea, friendliness, a warmth of welcome, superb organisation and a huge interest in books and talks on all sorts of topics. For anyone thinking of having a holiday at the festival next year, then we would also say that it ranks as one of the most fascinating locations, on the edge of Europe, with plenty of other things to do and see as well. It was certainly the best literary festival we have ever taken part in.


The traditional time for planning holidays was once the period after Christmas, when – in the northern hemisphere – the days are short, dark and cold. If one of the holiday destinations you are considering is Spain, bear in mind that there is much more to the country than ‘sea, sand and sangria’. You do not have to travel far from the coast to find small settlements steeped in history, and the delightful town of San Roque in Andalusia is a good example.

Gibraltar in exile

San Roque is situated on the main coastal highway between the surfing centre of Tarifa (Europe’s most southerly town) and Marbella and Malaga on the Costa del Sol. It is built on a hill a short distance inland from the Bay of Gibraltar, and its key historical significance lies in the relationship with the Rock of Gibraltar. After the British Admiral George Rooke took Gibraltar with an Anglo-Dutch squadron of ships in 1704, many of the existing inhabitants fled to San Roque, which King Philip V of Spain designated ‘Gibraltar in Exile’.


Picturesque San Felipe Street in San Roque


The old quarter of San Roque is an area of buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries that was designated a collection of Listed Historic Buildings in 1975. The street of San Felipe runs up from the square called Alameda Alfonso XI to the Plaza de la Iglesia at the top of the hill, which has the Governor’s Palace along one side.

The Governor’s Palace

On the east side of the sloping Plaza de la Iglesia (Church Square) is the Church of St Mary the Crowned, which was built in the 18th century on the site of the Chapel of Saint Roch and now contains statues and relics from Gibraltar. Occupying the north side of the square is the Governor’s Palace, built in the early 18th century and once the home and headquarters of the local governor.

The Governor’s Palace, San Roque – now Art Gallery and Tourist Office


During the Great Siege of 1779–83, the palace became the command centre of the besieging force camped on the land between San Roque and Gibraltar. From the roof of the tower there is a good view south-eastwards to Gibraltar. The Governor’s Palace is now occupied by an art gallery and an excellent tourist office, which is the best place to obtain information about what to see in the town and surrounding area.



San Roque is reputed to be the place where the bullfighting technique of a matador on foot with red cape and sword was invented in the first half of the 18th century. An annual bull run, said to have begun 1649, is still the event that closes the street fair every year. The bull ring at San Roque is one of the oldest in Andalusia.

A 1962 poster for a bullfight at San Roque


Carteia Museum

Not very far from San Roque is the ancient Roman town of Carteia. We mentioned this site in our newsletter 44 because it was a centre for the manufacture and export of fish sauce. Many finds from Carteia are on display in the new San Roque Museum, and a visit to this museum should be high on the list for tourists. The displays are not just of Roman finds from Carteia, but also of information about how the site was found and explored, as well as the history of the excavations, with historic photographs of the archaeological work. The video is one of the most nostalgic and evocative we have ever watched.


The Museum of San Roque, focusing on the Roman town of Carteia



As you can see in the picture below, the monkeys have already been on holiday and have their traditional sticks of rock to prove that they visited Gibraltar. In fact, they first arrived there centuries ago and liked it so much that they stayed on. They were probably originally brought across the Straits from Morocco by seafarers, who traditionally kept monkeys as pets. The macaques on Gibraltar are now the only free-ranging monkeys in Europe.

Souvenirs and gifts

The French word souvenir, meaning memory, was a good word to pass into the English language to describe gifts that are often purchased by tourists for friends and family. Some of the earliest holidays in Britain were to the seaside, and the most popular souvenirs were sticks of pink-coated rock made from boiled sugar, with the name of the resort running through the sticks, such as BRIGHTON. In the mid-19th-century streets of London, Henry Mayhew even saw confectionery for sale that included ‘Gibraltar rock and Wellington pillars’. Those going on holiday today might still be asked to ‘bring back a stick of rock’, though on Gibraltar little toys like this pair of macaques are also sold as souvenirs.


These macaques solved their Christmas present problem early by buying everyone a copy of Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History, though they weren’t too keen on reading about the possible fate of their ancestors during the Great Siege. If you live on Gibraltar or are visiting, then pop into the Gibraltar Heritage Trust’s shop in John Mackintosh Square, as they have a good range of heritage-themed gifts and souvenirs, including books such as ours.


Rock Monkeys


If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, there is still time to buy a copy of our latest book, and you can even combat the siege mentality that tends to set in during the festive break by reading about a real siege yourself. It is available in the UK as a hardback (ISBN 9781408708675) and as an ebook, and it can be downloaded as an excellent full-length audiobook read by John Telfer, the actor who is probably best known for his role in ‘The Archers’ radio series. If you can’t find our book in any bookshop (perish the thought), then Amazon is the best place. In the US, it will be published in hardback in March 2018.



French New Year Postcards from the 1920s


Postcards have long been used for sending Christmas and New Year greetings (see our newsletter 43), especially in the heyday of the General Post Office in Britain, when a next-day delivery of letters and postcards was provided (and in some places a same-day delivery). The use of postcards for festive greetings was not confined to Britain, as is shown by this collage of four distinctly French New Year greetings postcards that date to the 1920s, with the words ‘Bonne Année’ – Happy New Year. We wish you all the warmest seasonal greetings and the very best for 2018.