Newsletter 54

Our occasional newsletters have returned, by popular demand – thank you! We stopped them a year ago, owing to the complexities of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation, but now it’s all settled down, we have decided to resume them. So, welcome to the May 2019 issue of our occasional newsletters. If you wish, you can sign up here to receive these newsletters by email (about 3 times a year).



A visit to Agatha Christie

Penguin paperback books, famous across the world and the mainstay of anyone’s reading during the 1950s and 1960s, were conceived in 1934 on Exeter St David’s railway station. This was (and still is) the main station for the city of Exeter and our own local station. While sat in the waiting room recently, we were drawn to the framed picture shown here that commemorates this significant episode. It apparently occurred after Allen Lane, who worked for The Bodley Head publishers in London, had been visiting the bestselling crime novelist Agatha Christie in Devon.

Penguins at Exeter


Two decades earlier, in 1914, Agatha had married Archibald Christie, who she called Archie (a name that has just been thrust into the limelight with the latest royal birth). In 1920 her first crime novel was published by The Bodley Head, called The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It featured the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who would become the world’s most famous sleuth. A few years later, her marriage to Archie ended in divorce, owing to his infidelity, but in 1930 she married the archaeologist Max Mallowan. In 1938 she sold Ashfield, her large childhood home in the seaside resort of Torquay in south Devon. That same year, she and Max purchased the beautiful house of Greenway, a few miles away, which was used by them as a summer residence and is now open to the public, under the care of The National Trust. Allen Lane’s visit in 1934 must have been to Ashfield, though the precise date is uncertain, probably in the summer, because the Mallowans were in Syria by the end of the year.

All change

Allen Lane must have travelled by steam train to Devon from London’s Paddington station. The closest railway station to Ashfield was Torre, and on his return journey he changed trains at Exeter St David’s. For more than half a century, the thriving business of WH Smith had bookstalls on all mainline stations and some branch line stations. While waiting for the London connection, Lane browsed Exeter’s bookstall, but was not impressed by the type of books being sold.

Until then, cheap paperbacks were of very poor quality, so he came up with the idea of an affordable form of quality paperback book for the mass market. A penguin was chosen as the motif, and the selling price was sixpence. The first Penguin paperbacks were published in 1935 as a Bodley Head imprint, but the following year Penguin Books was launched as a separate business. Jacket designs were simple, including orange and white for fiction, dark blue and white for biography and green and white for crime. The range gradually expanded to cover other genres, notably light blue and white Pelicans for non-fiction. The world of publishing and reading changed forever, proving that huge numbers of people wanted to read and own books. Penguin Books is now part of the worldwide Penguin Random House publishing conglomerate.

A sixpenny (6D) guide to the county of Devon

published in 1939 by Penguin


Allen Lane would today be even less impressed by WH Smith, not because of a scarcity of brilliant and affordable books, but because the retailer has cut back on bookselling and much else – see the satirical Twitter thread @WHS_Carpet (which set out to highlight the dreadful state of its carpets, signifying a lack of investment).



We ourselves are thrilled to be published by Penguin in the United States, because this is such an iconic brand, the most famous in bookselling. The American editions of Nelson’s Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Jane Austen’s England were all published in hardback by Viking and then in paperback by Penguin. For the jacket of Jane Austen’s England, an embroidered design was used – including an embroidered Penguin motif for the paperback! That was a beautiful touch.


Our latest Penguin paperback is Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History, which was published in north America in March (ISBN 9780735221642).

The Penguin paperback of Gibraltar (published in north America),

complete with the Penguin motif bottom left


In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the paperback of Gibraltar was published a week earlier by Abacus (ISBN 9780349142395), an imprint that also has an illustrious history, having been launched over 40 years ago.

The Abacus paperback of Gibraltar


The paperbacks were published to coincide with the 240th anniversary of the start of the Great Siege and the attempted invasion of England, which all formed part of the American Revolution.



Gibraltar House

You might have thought that our Gibraltar tales would be exhausted, but bear with us. Now that the paperbacks of Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History are published, it is time to move on to other things, but first of all we will tie up a few loose ends. The reason for being at Exeter St David’s railway station was to travel to London for the paperback launch. This event was kindly hosted by the Friends of Gibraltar at Gibraltar House, an attractive Georgian building along the Strand, close to Somerset House. We gave a talk on the Great Siege, and it was lovely to meet so many people with Gibraltar connections.

O Calpe!

One of those present was Robin Willow, who kindly gave us a programme of ‘Gibraltar – O Calpe!’, a world première that took place in 2013 at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. In 1782, after the destruction of the floating batteries and the successful relief of Gibraltar by the Royal Navy, Mozart was commissioned to set to music the heroic ode ‘O Calpe!’ by the Austrian poet Michael Denis – Calpe was the ancient name for Gibraltar. Mozart wrote to his father: “I am engaged in a very difficult task, the music for a bard’s song by Denis about Gibraltar … The ode is sublime, beautiful, anything you like, but too exaggerated and pompous for my fastidious ears. But what is to be done?” He actually gave up after three stanzas, and it remained a fragmentary work until completed by Robin Willow.

Tim Lawson-Cruttenden

Tragically, the brilliant host of the evening, Tim Lawson-Cruttenden, died in an accident while surfing off Gibraltar before Easter. You can read an obituary here.

Green Park gates

While in London, we went to Green Park to see a pair of huge blue and gold wrought-iron gates, a Grade II* Listed Building. The gates, which once formed a grand entrance to Green Park, are a reminder that visible traces of history can be much more complex than first impressions. They were originally made for the estate that Lord Heathfield purchased in 1789 to the west of London, at Turnham Green, which was then a small rural village. Heathfield House was demolished in 1837, but the name survives locally as Heathfield Terrace – not much to mark the hero of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, who is better known as George Augustus Eliott.


The Turnham Green gates, now at Green Park


The gates were purchased in 1837 by the Duke of Devonshire for the front of nearby Chiswick House, but in 1897 or 1898 they were moved to the front of Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London. This Palladian-style house had been constructed from 1734 by the architect William Kent for William Cavendish, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. It was built on the site of Berkeley House that had been destroyed by fire in 1733 while being refurbished. During the time of the 5th Duke, whose wife was the dazzling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it became the social and political centre of the Whig supporters of Charles James Fox.

After World War One, with huge death duties to pay, the property was sold and demolished – even then regarded as cultural vandalism. In 1921 the gates were re-erected opposite, on the edge of Green Park, and the house was replaced by a large block, also called Devonshire House. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, is set on a single day in June 1923, and Clarissa Dalloway’s feeling of melancholy at the loss of the pre-war way of life is palpable as she walks down Piccadilly and passes Devonshire House ‘without its gilt leopards’ – a reference to the gilded crouching sphinxes on top of the stone pillars of the gates.




The annual conference of the Jane Austen Society (UK) will take place from 27th to 29th September 2019 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Basingstoke, in Jane Austen’s home county of Hampshire. We have been asked to talk about the Hampshire connections of Frank (Francis) and Charles Austen, who were Jane’s two naval brothers. Our talk will be at 12 noon on Sunday 29th. Details of the conference have not yet been put on the society’s website.




Our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England is now published in China. It is in simplified Chinese, and the publisher is the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. The price is 58 RMB (Renminbi). The ISBN is 9787532162055.




Charles Dickens appeals as much to people worldwide as does Jane Austen. The NSW Dickens Society in Australia is a Sydney-based literary society devoted to all things Dickens. For their recent annual conference, a small book called Why We Love Dickens was produced, for which writers, historians and others wrote fascinating short pieces on their love of Dickens. Roy’s piece starts:


“My great-aunt, born twenty-two years after Great Expectations was published and who was in service as a young woman, cut bread just as Dickens describes Mrs Joe doing in Chapter Two. As a small boy, just like Pip in the novel, I was both fascinated and horrified as my great-aunt clutched a loaf to a none-too-clean pinafore, buttered the top and deftly cut off the slice with a long knife whose razor edge was worn into a curve with repeated sharpening.”


The publication deserves widespread recognition, but may be difficult to track down, because it has no ISBN.



Various reviews

We’re very grateful to all of you who have, over the last year, been drawing attention to our latest book, Gibraltar, or indeed to any of our books – either by word-of-mouth, social media or as reviews on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads and so on. It really does matter. Many reviews are listed on our website, so we will mention only a few recent ones:

“a vivid account” (Jane Shilling, in ‘must-read paperbacks’ in the Daily Mail)

“This book is difficult to put down. It reads like a thriller” (Sam Benady, Gibraltar Heritage Journal)

“It may surprise students of American history to learn that one of the most strategically important campaigns of the Revolutionary War was conducted on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean—in fact, in the Mediterranean Sea … The authors provide superb context regarding the siege, drawing on firsthand accounts and touching on military innovations developed during the protracted campaign.” (James Baresel, Military History magazine)


“Right from page one I was engrossed in this page-turner (a rare description for a non-fiction book!) Also right from the start I found myself reaching for a box of tissues – the welling tears all the more emotional because this book is fact, not fiction. These were real people … Excellent. Historical non-fiction at its very best.” (Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds blog)  You can read the full review on the ‘Discovering Diamonds’ blog. The aim of this blog is to promote good historical fiction and some non-fiction, from both indie and traditional publishers – an invaluable contribution to spreading the word about books.



Over the last year, we have done talks for the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, the Henley Literary Festival, the Friends of Gibraltar in London and the 2018 Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival, where we spoke about the Great Siege and Trafalgar (read our blog here). As part of our research for Budleigh Salterton, we visited the Gibraltar Stone on Woodbury Common (which is described on our blog).


A few months ago, we went to two events at Sharpham House, near Totnes in Devon, which was built by Captain Pownoll after winning a fortune at sea. He was later involved in the Great Siege of Gibraltar. You can read about the house and his exploits on our blog.


We’ve also done radio interviews, including one with Fitz (David Fitzgerald) on BBC Radio Devon at Plymouth. He describes his morning programme as being “for music and conversation about Devon from Devon”, and as Devon authors, we were speaking about a book with quite a few Devon connections.



In Folklife West 60 (January 2019), we had published an article called “Selling Wives”, on how wives might be sold as a form of divorce and were the subject of several ballads. In Folklife West 61 (May 2019), we had published “The Sailor’s Dream”, on the song’s background of John Franklin and his doomed Arctic expedition of 1845.


A piece by us on the role of cats in Gibraltar’s Great Siege is featured on the Seafurrers blog, which is apparently maintained by Bart the seafaring cat.




The Gibraltar Heritage Journal 24 (published 2018) has an article by us called ‘The Centenary of the Sinking of HMS Britannia’. We describe this tragedy in our newsletter 48, but the article explored in greater detail the life of John Jones, a stoker on board HMS Britannia, which was sunk on 9th November 1918 by the German submarine UB-50 just off Cape Trafalgar. John Jones was rescued but died at Gibraltar on 11th November 1918, Armistice Day.