Welcome to the winter solstice (December) 2019 issue of our occasional newsletters.
BOZ IN OZ (AND EXETER)
Charles Dickens is a constant Christmas favourite. Some weeks ago, we received a copy of Boz in Oz, the wonderfully named annual journal of the New South Wales Dickens Society in Australia (‘Oz’, of course, meaning Australia, while ‘Boz’ was Dickens’s pen-name). What a treat – 86 pages of beautifully presented articles, news, snippets and reviews, illustrated with loads of colour and black-and-white pictures. It is surely worth joining the society for its journal alone. We have an article in it called “Mile End Cottage, Alphington” (pp. 73–5, with footnotes on p. 86).
Dickens never had a good relationship with his parents, mainly because he had to constantly deal with unpaid debts incurred by his father. After a particularly wretched episode in early 1839, Dickens decided to move his parents from London to the rural backwater of Devon, effectively exiling them. Four years earlier, when working as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle, he went to Exeter to cover the election speech of Lord John Russell. He now travelled there again and stayed at the New London Inn, a coaching inn that was long ago demolished. Its site is now a featureless building occupied by a Waterstones bookshop.
Almost immediately, he found a suitable cottage to rent south of Exeter, as he told his friend Thomas Mitton:
“I succeeded yesterday in the very first walk, and took a cottage at a place called Alphington, one mile from Exeter.” He then described the cottage, which had “on the ground-floor, a good parlour and kitchen, and above, a full-sized country drawing-room and three bedrooms; in the yard behind, coal-holes, fowl-houses, and meat-safes out of number; in the kitchen, a neat little range; in other rooms, good stoves and cupboards; and all for twenty pounds a year, taxes included.”
“Mile End Cottages” was a sizeable semi-detached property, built in about 1820 alongside the Exeter to Plymouth road and named after the first milestone that had been set up here when this operated as a turnpike road. Dickens said that the cottages were brick built and painted white, with a thatched roof. Their owner, Mrs Pannell, was a “Devonshire widow … a fat, infirm, splendidly fresh-faced country dame, rising sixty”. She lived with her brother in the right-hand cottage, while Dickens rented the left-hand one from her. He also told Thomas Mitton how he negotiated for the produce from her adjoining garden:
“There is a good garden at the side well stocked with cabbages, beans, onions, celery, and some flowers. The stock belonging to the landlady (who lives in the adjoining cottage), there was some question whether she was not entitled to half the produce, but I settled the point by paying five shillings, and becoming absolute master of the whole!”
Dickens lived here (sort of)
Dickens installed his parents and younger brother Augustus in the house. He stayed with them from time to time and wrote parts of his novels here. In November 1845, the executors of Mrs Pannell put both cottages up for sale by auction:
“The one which is let comprises good sized dining and drawing rooms, 3 bedrooms, kitchen with a good cooking apparatus, a wash house and copper. The other Cottage (which was occupied by the late owner) is not quite so large, but, as well as the first, replete with Fixtures; together with an excellent Garden well stocked with fruit trees, in which is a lead pump. The above Cottages were newly built about 25 years since and are in good condition … Immediate possession may be had of one of the Cottages, if required.”
It is unclear whether or not any of the Dickens family were still living there, but in 1897 a local newspaper published some letters from people in Alphington, including an intriguing memory from a local auctioneer, Mr Hussey:
“Mr John Dickens (father of Charles) lived at Mile End Cottage for some years, and then he went into a house that stood by itself a little further on, and nearer Alphington. There he lived for some years longer. The place, however, did not quite suit Mrs. Dickens, and she lived principally in London. Mr. Hussey remembers the elder Dickens as a jolly old man, full of conversation, and as genial as anyone a person could wish to meet. He lived at Alphington for four or five years altogether, and then he, too, went back to the Metropolis.”
The cottages were made into a single house in the 1930s and renamed Mile End Cottage. The milestone has long gone, the thatched roof has been replaced, and a plaque has been put on the house to commemorate its occupation by the Dickens family. Alphington became bisected by a railway line that was later closed down. It is no longer an idyllic rural village, but a suburb of the ever-expanding city, near a major road and cut by one of the main routes into the centre of Exeter. The once tranquil country turnpike road that passes Mile End Cottage is now a busy thoroughfare leading to supermarkets and a business park.
TALES OF COMBE GIBBET
It is traditional at Christmas to relate ghost stories, preferably by candlelight and with an open fire, all creating a confusion of flickering shapes and strange shadows across a darkened room. We hope that these tales of murder and hangings will do instead.
On 23rd February 1676 at the Assizes in the city of Winchester in Hampshire, a trial took place of George Bromham (or Broomham), a farm labourer from the village of Combe (which was at that time in Hampshire), and Dorothy Newman, a widow from the village of Inkpen, just 2 miles to the north but in the county of Berkshire. They were accused of murdering George’s wife Martha and his son Robert by beating them with wooden staves.
Over the centuries, widely differing and contradictory versions of the murders circulated, including Dorothy being from Combe and George from nearby East Woodhay in Hampshire. In some stories, the two sons of Dorothy Newman were murdered as well. One account was related in person to a correspondent of Notes and Queries in 1868 by Mrs Piper, who lived at Gore End, a remote hamlet about a mile from East Woodhay. She was more than 70 years old and had heard about the events from her own mother, who lived to a similar age. The story must have been told to her mother, and it may therefore have become garbled over time, though it feels plausible in parts, not least because the accused woman is referred to as ‘Doll’, a common contraction of Dorothy. Mrs Piper began:
“George was a carrier, who lived at Gore End … He had a wife and child, and travelled daily between Woodhay and Combe. Doll was a widow, who lived at Combe with her two children, boys; and George was in the habit of meeting her during his stay at Combe, and had long carried on an improper connection with her. One day George induced his wife and child to accompany him on his journey to Combe, and soon after leaving their cottage, he murdered his wife, stuffing her head into a hornet’s nest, for the purpose of making it appear that she had been stung to death. Continuing his journey, he threw her child into a pond.”
It was evening when George reached Combe, and he told Doll what he had done. Her two sons, who worked as ploughboys on a nearby farm, were asleep in the same room, and suddenly George was afraid that they had stirred and overheard him. He suggested to Doll that they should be murdered as well, but she assured him all was fine. In fact, they were awake and the next morning told their employer what had happened. They continued ploughing all day, while a constable was fetched from Newbury. That evening, Mrs Piper said, their mother tried to kill them with a meal of poisoned pancakes, but they were on their guard. During the night the constable arrested George Bromham and Dorothy Newman.
Whatever the true story, they were both found guilty and sentenced to be hanged and their bodies to be suspended in chains at the crime scene. Corpses of criminals wrapped in chains and suspended from a gibbet were a common and unpleasant sight across the country, and in a previous newsletter we mentioned a similar punishment in Somerset that took place a century later. This was intended as an additional punishment, denying the perpetrator a Christian burial, and it also acted as a warning to all. The body would remain in place until it rotted. Sometimes the gibbet (an upright post with a projecting arm) was a permanent fixture in places where crime was rife, but many were specially erected.
Bromham and Newman were publicly executed at Winchester on 3rd March 1676, but there was a dispute over whether the murders had been carried out in the parish of Inkpen or the parish of Combe. This mattered, because of the cost of setting up the double gibbet – a gallows was the apparatus from which a living criminal was hanged, but the terms gibbet and gallows were often confused. The gibbet was ordered to be placed on the parish boundary, with both parishes covering the costs.
A succession of gibbets
On 6th March, the two corpses were duly suspended in chains from a double gibbet that was erected on what was thought to be the highest point of the parish boundary – the top of a Neolithic long barrow on the crest of a hill known today as Gallows Down and sometimes as Inkpen Beacon. It lies roughly midway between the villages of Combe and Inkpen, with sweeping views across the countryside. The adjacent Walbury Hill, with its Iron Age hillfort, has since been measured as slightly higher, at 297 metres above sea level, replacing Gallows Hill as the highest hill in Berkshire and the highest chalk hill in England.
Because the gibbet (7.6 metres tall) became a landmark, it was replaced after the first one eventually rotted at the base and fell over. In all, there have been six replacements, after suffering decay, storms, lightning strikes and vandalism.
John Schlesinger (1926–2003 ) was still at Oxford University when he was inspired to make a film about Combe Gibbet and the story behind it. The result was a silent, black-and-white film, shot in September 1948 on a very tight budget with his fellow students, relatives and local people as the cast. He made the film with another undergraduate called Alan Cooke, while one of the cast was another student, Robert Hardy, who would become a renowned actor. The film was called Black Legend, and at least one critic commented on the potential of John Schlesinger as a future director. He went on to win an Oscar, several BAFTA awards and a BAFTA Fellowship for the films he had directed.
Shot on location, Black Legend apparently used the gibbet and a prop made for the film. Here the story becomes confused, because the gibbet was supposedly replaced after a storm brought it down the following year, in 1949. There is a suggestion that the prop was reused as the replacement, which may explain why it lasted only a year and had to be replaced again. A replica gibbet still stands on the spot as a local landmark and a grim tourist attraction, while the countryside has remained rural enough to hint at what the landscape was like when the original gibbet was erected in 1676.
Jane Austen had two naval brothers, Frank (Francis) and Charles. Frank was born at Steventon in Hampshire in 1774, the sixth Austen child, then came Jane in 1775 and finally Charles in 1779. Both brothers became admirals, but Frank eventually rose to Admiral of the Fleet, the highest rank in the Royal Navy. In our last newsletter, we asked for the name of the house where Frank Austen lived when he was an admiral. The correct answer was Portsdown Lodge. Congratulations to the two competition winners, Ann Dawson and Lesley Lidgett.
Being on the north side of Portsdown Hill, Portsdown Lodge was sheltered from the prevailing winds. It had 14 bedrooms, and the estate had farm buildings and several acres of land that extended to the top of the hill, from where Frank could view Portsmouth, its naval base and the Spithead anchorage. Close by was the main route from London to Portsmouth (now the A3). The nearby George Inn, which still survives (shown here), was a coaching inn on this busy route.
Frank Austen in brief
When almost 12 years old, in 1786, Frank (shown here) attended the Naval Academy at Portsmouth and in 1788 started his Royal Navy career. In 1800 he became a post-captain and in 1805 joined HMS Canopus as flag-captain in Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet. He missed the Battle of Trafalgar as his warship was stuck at Gibraltar fetching supplies. In 1807 he made a trip to South Africa and in 1809 he journeyed to China. After the Napoleonic Wars, Frank went on half-pay. His first wife died in 1823, and five years later he married Martha Lloyd, but his wealthy aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, disapproved and disinherited him (she was a shoplifter, and you can read about her in our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England). Even so, she paid him off with £10,000, a huge sum then, enabling him to buy Portsdown Lodge. At that time Frank was also promoted to rear-admiral.
Charles Austen in brief
Charles went to the Naval Academy in 1791 at the age of 12 and started his career in 1794. In 1804, still a lieutenant, he took command of a warship being built at Bermuda for the North American squadron. He returned to England in 1810, now a post-captain, and was put in charge of HMS Namur guardship (on which his first wife would die). In 1820 (three years after Jane Austen’s death), Charles began work for the Preventative Service in Cornwall, then in 1826 he returned to sea. In 1846 he became a rear-admiral and in 1850 commander-in-chief of the East Indies and China Station, where in 1852 he was buried in Sri Lanka after succumbing to cholera.
Ghosts of the Austens
In 1843, Frank’s wife Martha died at Portsdown Lodge. Frank had seen no active service since 1814, but in 1844 he was made commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indies station. He advertised Portsdown Lodge to let for three years, fully furnished. His sister Cassandra came to bid farewell in March 1845, just before he sailed. Tragically, she had a stroke and died at the house. Charles came to help out, as well as their brother Henry, and Cassandra was taken back to Chawton for burial. In 1849, after returning from north America, Frank’s unmarried daughter Cassandra Eliza also died at Portsdown Lodge. Frank himself died there in August 1865 at the age of 91. In later years the house became a school and was demolished in the 1960s to be replaced by a housing estate, seen here. Today, it is difficult to imagine that these people so dear to Jane Austen had died here, or that so many of the Austen family spent time here.
Jane Austen Society conference
At the end of September, we attended the latter part of the Jane Austen Society’s annual conference, which this year was in Basingstoke, with the theme of Jane’s home county of Hampshire. We had been invited to give a talk about Frank and Charles and so had the opportunity to present new and refreshed evidence for their lives and Hampshire connections. It was the final event of the programme, and we had a warm and wonderful audience.
Back in print
After the Jane Austen Society conference, we noticed that our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England was out of stock on Amazon (UK), and so it remained for six weeks while the publisher reprinted and tried to get Amazon to open their newly delivered stock! Amazon is now selling it at the ridiculously low price of £6.59, so grab a copy before the price is raised. We have a page on our website called Buy Our Books, which gives some Amazon links for different editions of our various books, enabling you to buy them or simply look up the information for purchase elsewhere.
Jane Austen Society
If you are interested in joining the Jane Austen Society (UK), go to their website and click on “How To Join”. The website is a bit understated, but the society is well worth joining, not least because they produce two fascinating A4 newsletters each year and an Annual Report, which is actually far more than a report – the 2018 one has 120 pages and is full of articles. There are also regional groups (click on “Branches/Groups”), which you can join without being a member of the main society. The vibrant south-west branch (for example) is based in Exeter, with well over 70 members.
To the Eastern Seas
The latest novel in the Age of Sail Kydd series to be published by Julian Stockwin is To the Eastern Seas, which is described as “A battle for Java and an empire in the East stretches Kydd and Tyger’s company to their very limits”. We are privileged to be thanked in the Acknowledgements for sharing our knowledge of Banda Neira. This was something we researched for our book The War for All the Oceans (see pages 344–55), when Captain Cole captured the Dutch stronghold of Banda Neira in what was an incredibly daring operation. We won’t say any more for fear of spoiling To the Eastern Seas, which is the 22nd title in the Kydd series, exceeding Patrick O’Brian’s tally. That’s quite an achievement!
Gibraltar Heritage Journal
Another achievement is that of The Gibraltar Heritage Trust, as it has been publishing the Gibraltar Heritage Journal for 25 years. The Trust itself was formed a few years before the journal was launched. Each journal contains a range of articles connected with Gibraltar, and many have a social history theme. Back numbers can be purchased as print copies or downloads on their website. We have an article in the latest volume, called “The British Salamanders”, an expanded version of a piece we wrote for Folklife Quarterly on a contemporary ballad relating to the Great Siege of Gibraltar. This year, 2019, has been the 240th anniversary of the start of the Great Siege. Because the siege lasted from 1779 to 1783, then there is an opportunity for another four years of commemoration.
Thank you for reading this occasional newsletter. The next one will probably be sent out in late April or early May 2020. Meanwhile, have an enjoyable festive season and all good wishes for 2020.