Newsletter 55

Welcome to our early autumn 2019 issue of our occasional newsletters.




The pressing theme at the moment is how to save the planet. Climate change and pollution are key issues, and everyone is being urged to stop using fossil fuels. The world was so very different in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. Lives were then transformed by petroleum, oil, diesel, gas and by-products such as plastic.


A garage with Esso petrol pumps at Maidenhead in Berkshire

in the 1950s, on the main highway to London


Tar for the ships

Petroleum, or ‘rock oil’, is a naturally occurring liquid that has been exploited for thousands of years in the Middle East, China and Europe, including the thickest form of petroleum known as bitumen or asphalt, and also referred to as tar and pitch. Tar was an intrinsic ingredient of life at sea, being widely used on board wooden sailing ships. Most of the Royal Navy’s tar came from the Baltic – not from petroleum, but by burning pine resin in the vast forests of northern Europe. It was also called Stockholm tar, because Stockholm was the major exporting port. Black tar pervaded everything, right down to the skin and clothing of the seamen, who were known as Jack Tars. We talk about how tar was used in our book Jack Tar.


The 9th Earl of Dundonald – the father of Thomas Cochrane, the maverick naval officer – was a gifted scientist. In 1780 he developed a new method of extracting tar from the coal that was mined on his Culross Abbey estate in Scotland. He envisaged selling the tar for ships and for coating iron to prevent rust. It was not to be. He was a disastrous businessman, though others successfully adapted his brilliant work and made their fortune, especially through coal gas for lighting, which he had regarded as a novelty.


Tunnel vision

Wooden sailing ships also made use of petroleum-based tar. While patrolling the Ionian Islands in 1812, the seaman George Watson went on shore at Zakynthos, where, he said,


‘there is a well, in the middle of a corn field, that produces tar, and all around the margin of it to some distance, is this bituminous substance, and by putting a ladle into this well … you may draw it up full, and it is so perfect in nature, it only requires boiling to be fit for use. I was at this place with some others, and got a barrel of its contents as a specimen.’


These natural bitumen springs had been utilised for hundreds of years and were even mentioned by Herodotus. In Britain, another source occurs close to the River Severn in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire. Known since at least the late 17th century, it was believed to have medicinal properties. Dundonald also became involved in the Coalbrookdale industries, which included tar extraction, and in 1786 a substantial bitumen spring was discovered when digging a tunnel. Originally intended for a canal, the tunnel was instead used to extract thousands of gallons of bitumen.


Tar tunnel at Coalbrookdale


Today, the tar tunnel is one of the strangest attractions of the Iron Bridge Gorge Museums (a World Heritage Site).


Oil mania

Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, nobody knew what to do with the natural petroleum deposits in north America, apart from small-scale use. In the 1840s, western Pennsylvania was a sparsely populated area of forests, farms and creeks, and petroleum was marketed as a curative medicine. Experiments then showed that kerosene (paraffin) could be distilled from petroleum and was suitable for replacing whale oil in lamps. This was such an incredible development in lighting that it led to speculative wells being dug. A further development occurred in 1859 when the first artesian well was successfully drilled at Titusville in Pennsylvania, initially producing 25 barrels (each containing 42 US gallons) of petroleum a day. The news spread like wildfire, and oil mania began.


Petrolia was the overall name given to the region, and in just four years numerous small towns developed, as a special correspondent from The Times reported in October 1864:


‘The mountain tops have been shorn of their forest growth of ages, and in its stead rise cities. Wild, solitary creeks and river inlets … are now roughly bridged, their shores lined with shanty wharves, their waters covered with every kind of nondescript craft that can be got to float, all laden with oil.’


Oil City

The first settlements were shanty towns, and one was described by the correspondent:


‘Oil City is about 600 miles from New York … All along the last few miles to Oil City the derricks have been becoming thicker and thicker; the incessant walking beam which pumps the oil more and more active; the roads worse; and the painful scenes of overladen teams [of horses] struggling through mud up to their shoulders more and more frequent. The smell of the gas, though at first not very unpleasant, soon gets painfully strong, and at last most decidedly nauseating … Mud and oil, one or the other, or both combined, reign supreme here.’


Oil City in Pennsylvania in 1864


One track to a new well was, he said, almost beyond description: ‘I saw a fair share of mud at Balaklava, but for varying depths, varying tenacities, varying colours, and universally nauseous odour, there is nothing to compare with the mud along this path’. The Times correspondent was none other than William Howard Russell who had witnessed the Battle of Balaclava a decade earlier and had become famous for his Crimean War reporting. A few years later, he had written about the early stages of the American Civil War and was now back in the United States for a few weeks, having travelled to New York across the Atlantic on the SS Great Eastern.

Fire and Fortune

In spite of the squalor, fortunes were being made:


‘The whole population is ragged, muddy, and dirty; but the whole population is without an exception more or less thriving, and, as a general rule, more or less rich … the real Oil City is only one long, winding street on a mud flat between the river and the high, steep bluffs, and along this narrow strip [are] depôts, wharves, stores, hotels, eating saloons, whisky shops, and wells … Here is a whisky saloon, with men smoking and drinking, and next to it a pumping well, which fills the air with its inflammable gas.’


Smoking was banned, but terrible fires did occur: ‘It is true that at every hand’s turn one meets the warning notices, “No smoking,” “Beware of smoking,” “Smokers will be lynched,” &c. Yet … smoking does go on on the sly, when teamsters and others can slip into the brushwood and furtively light their pipes.’ Years later, in 1872, some 40 miles to the south, the Fanny Jane well struck a huge reserve of oil, and a town developed that was itself called Petrolia and where the gas was harnessed for lighting:


‘At night the “belt” [the Cross Belt oilfield] can be distinctly traced for miles by the hundreds of gas-lights which mark its outline … Petrolia utilizes the gas from the Fairview gas wells [a mile away]. It is supplied to many of the houses, and illuminates the streets.’


For a while, the region of Petrolia supplied four-fifths of all petroleum worldwide, but many of the wells dried up, and today the old oil boomtowns have much smaller populations or are ghost towns, truly of historic significance. Although the introduction of kerosene for lamps helped to save whales from extinction, nobody could have imagined the far-reaching consequences of the petroleum industry and the internal combustion engine.




Earlier in the year, we were enjoying a lengthy bout of sunny weather in Britain, with predictions of the summer turning into a prolonged heatwave, like the memorable year of 1976. Record-breaking temperatures for July 2019 were reported with triumph by newspapers, as if this was a good thing. Then came August, with floods and high winds, leading to the cancellation of several summer festivals and much misery.


Sunshine and showers in Devon in the summer of 2019


This changeable weather was duly attributed to climate change, and yet the evidence for climate change comes from trends in weather, not from one-off weather events, which have always happened. The frequently used term ‘since records began’ is also misleading, because unofficial meteorological information has been compiled for more than 2½ centuries, especially where weather played such a critical factor in everyday life. Ships’ logs are full of such notes, as are many early diaries, while local and national newspapers have long been obsessed by the weather.

July 1859

The following report could so easily have been for July 2019, but was published under the heading of ‘Our English Climate in 1859’ in The Leisure Hour, a Victorian magazine. It is actually a report of the weather in July 1859 – 160 years ago:


‘The heat of this month [July] is stated by the Greenwich authorities to have been unequalled during the period over which trustworthy records extend (about 100 years). In Scotland it was not so great, but in the south of England, Ireland, and even as far as Spain, this excessive heat prevailed. A large number of cattle died from coup de soleil, or sunstroke, and our readers will doubtless remember that the newspapers mentioned several cases in which human life was sacrificed to the same cause. From the 16th to the 22nd, the country was visited by very violent hail-storms. The destruction was great in all parts, though fortunately not often to what it was at Wakefield, where “in the houses, conservatories, and stables of four gentlemen, the large number of 150,000 squares of glass were broken by the hail on the 18th.”’



The competition in our last newsletter asked for the birthplace of the Anglo-American artist John Singleton Copley. The correct answer was Boston, Massachusetts. Congratulations to Scott McCracken and Steve May for being the first correct entries to be pulled out of the hat. Born in 1738 (or possibly 1737) to Irish immigrants, Copley became a successful artist in Boston and New York, but left for England in June 1774, followed by his family a year later, in order to escape the political turmoil on the eve of the American War of Independence.

St John the Baptist Church at Croydon in 1785, where John Singleton Copley was buried


He became one of the foremost artists in London and spent more than five years on the huge Gibraltar oil painting, which the jacket of our UK book Gibraltar has used. The original painting was commissioned by the City of London in 1783 and today hangs in London’s Guildhall Art Gallery as one of its key exhibits. Copley never returned to America, but remained a refugee for the rest of his life, dying in 1815 at the age of 77. It is often said that he was buried in Highgate Cemetery, but it was his son of the same name who was later buried there. He himself was buried in the Hutchinson family vault in St John the Baptist church at Croydon, where in 1780 another prominent American refugee had been buried – Thomas Hutchinson, the former Governor of Massachusetts at the time of the Boston Tea Party. The church, now Croydon Minster, suffered a disastrous fire in 1867 and was rebuilt. Copley’s original memorial was lost, though was later replaced.



We recently stopped at Alton in Hampshire for another visit. This town is 40 miles south-west of the city of London and close to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen spent her final years. We had planned to spend an hour or so here, but stayed much longer, because it felt open for business and welcoming.

Decline of communities

Alton is a thriving market town, which is a rarity, because although politicians bailed out banks with taxpayers’ money, they then allowed them to close down a staggering number of branches, thousands of them, leaving some places without a single branch. This has had devastating consequences and forces people to travel much further from their local communities for basic services – which is not great for the environment.

The closure of local newspapers has also led to a failure of accountability, so that local councils have, with near impunity, raised car parking charges and closed down amenities such as public libraries, buses, youth clubs and toilets, exacerbating the spiral of decline.

Curtis Museum

By contrast, Alton felt vibrant. It was market day, there was glorious sunshine, and we were looking for a few places associated with Jane Austen and her family, in particular her two naval brothers, Frank and Charles. We also made our way to the Curtis Museum at the northern end of the main shopping street, almost opposite the building that was once the bank in which Henry Austen (Jane’s brother) was a partner.

Curtis Museum at Alton


It is a delightful museum, and we loved the many different displays relating to Alton and surrounding villages that are of equal interest to those from further afield. There is also a local studies area. The museum is free of charge, though visitors are welcome to make purchases in their well-stocked shop and perhaps put some cash into the donations box. In fact, it was here that we heard the rallying cry of ‘Don’t let banks cause cheques and cash to disappear’. The website is here.

Secondhand books

A sign of a civilised place must surely be a bookshop, and even better a secondhand bookshop. Alton has both, and Holybourne Rare Books is not far from the museum, at 7 Market Street. Amongst its collections are many books relating to Jane Austen.

Holybourne Rare Books at Alton


Big Dig

We happened to be in Alton only one day after the two-week ‘Big Dig’ had started in the lovely public gardens, a community archaeology event in which it was hoped to locate evidence for previous activity. It was overseen by Liss Archaeology, and you can see more here.

Fanny Adams

We have previously featured a story called ‘Sweet F.A.’, about the murder of Fanny Adams in Alton, which you can read here.



The Week

The Week is (obviously) a weekly magazine. It describes itself as ‘the best of British and international media’, and it has become a ‘must-read’ for many people. One regular feature is ‘Best Books’, and the issue for 20th July featured Roy’s six chosen books, all linked to Gibraltar:  Brothers at Arms by Larrie D. Ferreiro, The Royal Navy at Gibraltar by Tito Benady, Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea by Paul Begg, Deadly Visitations in Dark Time: A Social History of Gibraltar by L.A. Sawchuk, Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler by Nicholas Rankin and, finally, Fall of a Sparrow by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe, which is a detective novel set in the Great Siege.


McBooks is now an imprint of Globe Pequot, and we know that many people – authors and readers alike, including ourselves – are incredibly pleased and relieved that its online magazine Quarterdeck will continue to be published. This is a magazine devoted to maritime literature and art and remains under the editorship of George Jepson. Like Devon Life (below), it succeeds in making readers feel enthusiastic and excited about books. You can subscribe here.

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, though we will mention two recent ones here that have appeared since our last newsletter.

Firstly, we had a lovely mention in the July issue of the glossy magazine Devon Life, amounting to half a page of the ‘Bookshelf’ feature by Annette Shaw, who we really enjoyed meeting and chatting with about our book. She kindly wrote that ‘it was one of the most interesting conversations to date in terms of linking current events with an historical context’. The county of Devon is (quite rightly) one of the most popular UK holiday destinations and a dream place for retirement. Devon Life has great value subscriptions (see their website here) and includes an excellent section devoted to books.

A lengthy review was posted on H-Net Reviews, which publishes scholarly reviews in the humanities and social sciences. The review was by Jon Ault here, and it was aimed at those interested in the American War of Independence. It ends:  ‘Roy and Lesley Adkins have given us a gripping well-written account … It is an excellent reminder to American readers, especially, that the spread of hostilities beyond the geographical limits of the thirteen rebellious colonies was a determining factor in their successful fight for independence’.


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, which is the theme of the event. 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. The society’s website is here. However, there are no details of the 2019 conference on it, which seems a shame.

Buying our books

We now have a page on this website called Buy Our Books. We don’t sell books directly from this website, but are gradually adding Amazon links for the different editions of our various books, enabling you to buy them or look up the information for purchase elsewhere.