Newsletter 57

Welcome to the spring 2020 issue of our occasional newsletters. Most of this newsletter was written weeks earlier, and hopefully it will provide an antidote to coronavirus stories, but if it feels out of place, simply move on. We hope you are coping well with the Covid-19 restrictions. It feels uncannily similar to what we wrote about in our book on the Great Siege of Gibraltar, during which food shortages were experienced, along with isolation and epidemics such as influenza, typhus and smallpox. The Great Siege, like the two world wars, went on and on, and so we now respect even more what was endured in those conflicts.



Seventy-five years ago, in 1945, World War Two ended, but in Britain reminders of the conflict survived for many years afterwards in the form of bombed-out sites, air-raid shelters, painted camouflage on walls and a mass of reinforced concrete structures and rusting metalwork on the beaches. Most of these reminders have gone, with the exception of pillboxes. These small forts were usually armed with machine guns and were intended to protect a handful of soldiers or Home Guard.


A brick-faced and concrete pillbox at Dunmill Lock in Berkshire


After the defeat at Dunkirk in May–June 1940, an invasion of Britain seemed a real possibility. The countryside was therefore divided into small areas with a series of defended boundaries that were called stop-lines. Their primary purpose was to slow down or even stop the advance of German armoured columns. Wherever possible, the stop-lines used natural barriers such as canals and rivers, with anti-tank obstacles (notably concrete blocks) covering any gaps. Road blocks were also set up on major routes and some minor ones.


Pillboxes were sited along these stop-lines, and particular attention was paid to strategic points, such as river crossings and rail tunnels. Pillboxes were not a new concept, as they were known in World War One, when the terms pill-box (usually hyphenated then) and pillar box were used. It is uncertain if they were named after pillar boxes with slots for posting letters or after the small squat boxes with lids that became popular in the Victorian era to contain medicinal pills (medicines were previously sold as powders or liquids). Most likely, the origin of the name is a confused mix of the two.


The Blue Line

Stop-lines had names or labels, and the Blue Line or Ironside Line was part of the GHQ (General Headquarters) Line and ran across the heart of southern England, along the Kennet and Avon canal, from Semington near Trowbridge in Wiltshire to Theale near Reading in Berkshire. Pillboxes and other defences were set up at strategic points all along this route.


The bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal at Dunmill Lock

(the canal lock can be glimpsed through the bridge)


At Dunmill Lock Bridge, just outside Hungerford in Berkshire, a succession of bridges carried the road over the railway line (from London to the West Country), over the Kennet and Avon Canal (seen here) and over the River Kennet. Whoever held the bridges controlled much of the east–west traffic from London, as well as north–south traffic through the area. This vital point therefore had several defensive structures, including roadblocks (which have since been removed) and pillboxes, some of which survive.


Coastal defences were designed to prevent any invasion from gaining a foothold. Batteries of guns were set up to protect particularly vulnerable places, while open stretches of coastline bristled with barbed wire entanglements, minefields and all kinds of obstacles and traps. An integral part of these defences were lines of pillboxes along much of the eastern and southern coasts, as well as large stretches of the western coastline.


Most pillboxes were constructed of concrete, though in rural areas they could be faced in brick, like the Dunmill Lock pillbox (pictured above). There were many types of disguise, and some coastal pillboxes were camouflaged with beach pebbles, as can be seen with the two Somerset examples below.


A pillbox at Dunster in north Somerset, behind which is the beach


The pillbox at Porlock Weir in north Somerset, which is gradually collapsing


Pillboxes tended to survive after the war because they occupied such small spaces and were so solidly built that they were difficult to demolish. Over 18,000 pillboxes were constructed to defend Britain, and about a third still exist. Have a look at the Pillbox Study Group website, which includes a page on recommended books. A few pillboxes are listed buildings or scheduled ancient monuments, but the majority have no official protection. While we remember the fallen in war memorials, pillboxes provide rare tangible evidence of Britain during World War Two.


Hellfire Corner

Another defence, of course, was provided by the gun and torpedo boats of Britain’s Coastal Forces, a previously untapped subject for World War Two fiction – until now. Alaric Bond has moved from the Age of Sail to a World War Two book, the first of a series, set off war-torn Dover in the dangerous stretch of the English Channel known as Hellfire Corner. The author’s website is



The artwork on the jacket is by the distinguished marine artist Geoffrey Huband, who is perhaps best known by readers of Age of Sail novels for the cover paintings he did for Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho series of novels.



Penny post

The General Post Office (GPO) was officially established by King Charles II in 1660. For over three centuries it remained a department of the state responsible for the postal service and – later on – for telecommunications as well. The first postage stamps were introduced with the one penny (1d) post in 1840. Before then, the cost of sending letters was paid by recipients (see ‘Keeping in Touch’ in our newsletter 33.


A penny stamp was fixed to the letter to show that the postage had been paid by the sender. This led to a greater use of envelopes, rather than folding and sealing the writing sheet and leaving a space for the address. Because there was no longer any need to open the door and pay the postman for deliveries, the middle classes in London quickly responded by having holes cut in their front doors, to which letter boxes were fixed.

Increased prices

Over a century later, during World War Two, the price of sending a letter in Britain rose to twopence halfpenny (2½d), while postcards cost twopence (2d). In 1948, just three years after the Second World War ended, Britain was still suffering severe shortages, and food rationing would not finish for another six years. At that time, you could buy a book of stamps for two shillings and sixpence (2/6, or 2s 6d), which equates to 12.5P in modern decimal money.




Below is part of a postcard that was posted on board HMS Victory at Portsmouth on 10th September 1952, with a 2d stamp bearing the head of King George VI. The King had died on 6th February 1952, but his stamps were still being used, even though Queen Elizabeth II had succeeded to the throne. The frank advised customers of the postage rates to Europe: ‘carriage rates on letters to Europe 4d’ (fourpence).





Price comparisons

Inside the front cover of the 1948 stamp book was a helpful summary of current postal rates within Britain.



Allowing for inflation, this book of stamps would today cost £4.57. It enabled someone to send six letters and six postcards, though if the six surplus ½d stamps were added to the 2d stamps, twelve letters could be posted instead. The 2d cost to send a postcard is equivalent to just under 1P today, but if inflation is factored in, the cost would be 31P. In fact, it now costs 65P to send a postcard in Britain second class, with no guarantee of it arriving the next day. In 1948, there was no division of post into First and Second Class, but the vast majority of letters and postcards reached their destination the next day, if not sooner.


All change

In 1969 the GPO became the Post Office, no longer a government department. In 1980 British Telecommunications (‘British Telecom’) was formed, separating telecommunications from the Post Office. Now known as BT, the company was privatised in 1984, which is why it has been able to diversify into the transmission of sports programmes rather than provide a world-class broadband and phone service.


Further reorganisations of the Post Office followed, splitting it into Royal Mail plc and Post Office Ltd, a very unpopular privatisation of a valued public service, leaving consumers confused about their respective roles (for example, Royal Mail issues postage stamps, which it sells online; the Post Office also sells stamps online and through its network of branches. The Post Office takes in mail for the Royal Mail to deliver, and the Royal Mail also collects mail from pillar boxes).


Modern communications tend to be instant – if they are digital and electronic. The cost of an individual email (including the cost of owning a computer or mobile phone, as well as the cost of the necessary infrastructure and software) does not seem to have been accurately calculated by anyone, leaving the suspicion that slower, older methods of communicating by letter and postcard might still be cheaper.



A place in history

Much of our research involves delving into family history – not so much our own family histories, but those of other people. Genealogy or family history was once the preserve of the higher echelons of society, who wanted to be certain of their own status and confident that their wealth was passed down to the rightful heirs. This has all changed. Family history is no longer the poor cousin of history, but provides an invaluable contribution to a balanced understanding of the world.


Family history is now extremely popular, as increasing numbers of people want to find out who their ancestors were, how they lived and how they are part of history. There is now an added dimension, because DNA testing has become affordable, enabling many more connections to be made.

Getting started

For anyone new to family history, the first port of call is to a decent local library, if you are lucky enough not to have had yours wrecked during the never-ending Age of Austerity. There are now several online family history websites, offering different services by subscription, and at your library you should be able to access one or two of these websites free-of-charge, as well as find out about your local family history society. Some societies hold drop-in sessions or courses for beginners, and some have their own premises where you can access all sorts of records. Take a look at the Family History Federation website.


The Genealogist ( runs a few family history shows each year, and we recently attended one at the University of the West of England Exhibition and Conference Centre in Bristol (which is about to be turned into a coronavirus hospital).



This was our first visit to such an event, and there was a great deal to do and see, with two lots of simultaneous talks by family history experts. We went to two talks. One was ‘Tips and tricks for online research’ by Sunderland-based Keith Gregson, who explained that he himself has ancestors from deepest Devon to the Shetlands. We have been in touch with Keith for years about naval bits and pieces, amongst other things, so it was a real pleasure to meet him at long last. The other talk was by Jayne Shrimpton on ‘Dating Family Photos from the 1840s to 1940s’, which proved fascinating.


The Bristol venue was impressive, with a range of stalls, including displays by numerous family history societies. In addition, all the speakers were available for one-to-one sessions. We would certainly recommend going to one of these shows, and many family history societies hold similar local events.



When describing Combe Gibbet in our last newsletter, we were in danger of digressing into parish boundaries, hundreds and other land divisions, because the gibbet was set up on a prehistoric long barrow between two parishes. Instead, we decided to do a separate overview here, which will highlight the complexity of the subject and the impossibility of achieving a succinct summary. 


If you look at any detailed map of Britain, the smallest and probably oldest boundaries depicted are those of parishes, like this 1835 map of Barnstaple in north Devon. As Christianity took hold from the 7th century, in Anglo-Saxon times, the parish became the system of ecclesiastical administration.



Originally, a parish was the community of Christians living in a city, with the word ‘parish’ ultimately deriving from ancient Greek, then passing into Latin and Norman French. Its meaning changed to cover the geographical area in which a priest or minister was responsible for the pastoral care of the inhabitants, with a church at its centre. Parishes developed piecemeal, but most were in existence by the 13th century, numbering about 9,000 in England and Wales.


For the majority of priests, their parish was a single piece of land, but some parishes had an outlying (detached) area of land within another parish. This ecclesiastical system of parishes survived upheavals like the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the change from Catholicism to Protestantism during the Reformation.


Parish boundaries frequently followed convenient natural boundaries or existing estate boundaries, and in many places an annual procession of parishioners and clergy was held to check the boundaries for incursions and as a reminder of where the boundaries ran. This ceremony usually took place in May, on Rogation Day, and had various local names such as ‘bannering’, ‘processioning’ and ‘crossing’, but was more commonly referred to as ‘beating the bounds’. We describe the ritual in Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (pages 170–2).


Responsibility for the poor, for local law and order and for highways became the secular responsibility of parishes. From the late 18th century, the massive population increase in urban areas meant that the number of parishes also expanded. When the Local Government Act of 1894 reformed civil parishes, they became the smallest unit of the reorganised system, and England and Wales ended up with more than 14,000 (further reforms have since taken place).


Shires or counties were larger regions of local government, and each one contained numerous parishes, whose boundaries tended to respect shire boundaries. Shires were formed as administrative areas from about the 9th century in Anglo-Saxon England, though Yorkshire was the only shire to the north of the River Humber. Other northern counties were created after the Norman Conquest, with the word ‘county’ being derived from the Norman French ‘comté’. Shires in Scotland and Wales had a later origin. Local government changes in 1974 drastically altered many of the historic counties, severing links with the past.


Reeves were Saxon officials, and although not the highest official in a shire, which was the ealdorman, they were responsible for keeping law and order and collecting taxes. After the Norman Conquest these shire reeves – or sheriffs – were given greater powers and acquired a reputation for being despotic, as exemplified by the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood legends. From the 16th century, the role of sheriff within a county became largely symbolic, as their power was transferred to officials such as justices of the peace and coroners.


The role of sheriff as a county official made its way to America. Here, the traditional posse that a sheriff in the ‘Wild West’ relied on was derived from the posse comitatus (Latin for ‘force of the county’), which a British shire reeve could summon to help keep law and order.


From the 10th century, before the Norman Conquest, shires were divided into smaller administrative areas called ‘hundreds’, a term used in most parts of the country, though in the former Danish territories of northern and eastern England, the equivalent areas were called ‘wapentakes’, while in Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland they were known as ‘wards’. The word ‘wapentake’, which was derived from the Scandinavian custom of showing approval by brandishing weapons, reflects the fact that early land divisions such as hundreds and wapentakes were also military divisions.


Several hundreds are depicted on this 1695 map of Devonshire by Robert Morden

One plausible theory for the origin of the word hundred is that it originally meant 100 hides of land, with one hide being the area of land that could support a family for a year. A range of soil types and terrain could account for the differing sizes of hundreds, though this theory has been called into question. Not only did hundreds vary greatly in size, but the number of hides within each hundred also varied greatly, leaving the origin of the word uncertain.


After the Norman Conquest, hundreds continued to function for centuries as administrative, military and judicial subdivisions of shires. As late as the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, hearth tax returns and militia records were organised by hundreds. The judicial function was carried out by the hundred court, which in medieval times might meet as frequently as every three weeks.


Problems and disputes were discussed at meetings or ‘moots’ of the shire or hundred, from which the phrase ‘a moot-point’ derives. These meetings took place out in the open, using a prehistoric mound or similar landmark as a platform from which to address the crowd. A mound might even be specially built, and that was the case at Secklow in Buckinghamshire, in the middle of what became the new city of Milton Keynes, which we covered in our newsletter 4. Hundred courts gradually declined in use over the centuries and were finally abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1867.

Lines in the landscape

Because of their early origins, predating detailed maps, the boundaries of parishes, hundreds, shires and counties adopted various features, some of which dated to prehistoric or Roman times. These included rivers, trackways, distinctive hills, rock formations, trees, burial mounds and standing stones. Any gaps might be filled by wooden posts and boundary stones. Even within cities, it is possible to find parish boundaries that are still marked by stones, such as at Kensal Green cemetery in London, which we featured in our newsletter 9. Once mapping took place, these lines in the landscape became lines on maps, in stark contrast to other places in the world where boundaries were drawn first on a map and then imposed on the landscape.



Mariner’s Mirror

We were very pleased to receive a lovely review of our book Gibraltar: The greatest siege in British history in the latest issue of The Mariner’s Mirror, which is the International Quarterly Journal of the Society for Nautical Research. The reviewer was Professor Richard Harding, a Vice-President of the Society. The Society has an excellent website (


Folklife West

Our latest published article is called ‘Roll, Alabama, Roll’ in Folklife West for January 2020. The sea shanty of that name describes the construction of the Alabama at Birkenhead from 1861 and then the battle between the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge, which took place off the French port of Cherbourg during the American Civil War.


Our next book

We are pleased to say that we have recently agreed a new book with our publisher and so have embarked on its research and writing. More news will follow!


Next newsletter

Thank you for reading this occasional newsletter. The next one will probably be done in September. By then, we hope the world will be on the mend (though hopefully not back to its bad old ways). Keep safe and well.