Newsletter 58

Welcome to our latest occasional newsletter, several months into the pandemic, so here are a few things that might distract you from the day-to-day news.



This advert for ‘Daisy Powders’ dates back only to 1952, when it was being marketed as a cure-all for everything, from the terrors of ‘faceache’ to chills, influenza, lumbago and sleeplessness. It feels much like the quack medicines of two centuries ago. No doubt Covid-19 would be added to the list of ailments if ‘Daisy Powders and Tablets’ were still available.


We hope you are continuing to cope with the restrictions that the pandemic imposes on us all. Like many others, we miss the exquisite peace and quiet of the first few weeks of lockdown, with so little traffic on the roads and no aircraft.


While the world waits for a cure or vaccine, or both, many people and businesses are suffering, including many cultural activities. Thankfully, books are proving to be resilient, and it is heartening to hear that they are still being bought, read, discussed, recommended and reviewed.


We ourselves are totally immersed in writing our next book, but have occasional breaks to do gardening, write this newsletter, focus on Jane Austen (more below) and dream of convivial times ahead.



The first tanks

Tanks were a British invention of World War One. Faced with the entrenchments and barbed wire of the Western Front, many soldiers were convinced that some mechanical means of breaching these defences was necessary. Only armoured cars were available in 1914, which were too easily bogged down in the mud. By December 1914 it was decided that the solution was an armoured vehicle running on caterpillar tracks to negotiate the battlefield. It took a year to develop a prototype, and in January 1916 the first working tank was ready.


Because these first tanks were conceived as protected mobile machine-gun emplacements, the first design was armed with four machine guns and two six-pounder cannons. Their armour was only 10mm thick, which would stop bullets, but not much more, and they moved at just 4 miles an hour. Some four dozen were available when they were first deployed in battle on the Somme on 15th September 1916, but they constantly broke down, and some did not even reach the frontline. Although the battle was not the hoped-for breakthrough, they terrified the enemy and showed enough potential to be regarded as a success.


World War One tank in the Victory Parade of 1918


By the end of the war in 1918, over 2,000 improved British tanks were in operation. The French, who had been developing their own design, had over 3,000 tanks, but the Germans failed to build more than a handful. They did not prove to be the decisive weapon the British had wanted, but without tanks to break through barbed wire barriers and to shield advancing troops, the war might have been prolonged.


But why were they called ‘tanks’? During their development, they were literally Britain’s ‘secret weapon’ and were disguised as water tanks and referred to as ‘tanks’ in order to maintain secrecy. The deception became reality, because the name stuck and they continued to be called tanks.

Tank regiment cap badge

In 1916 the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps was formed within the British Army, and in 1917 it was officially recognised as the Tank Corps. A cap badge was designed at the same time, using an image of a British tank. The regiment became the Royal Tank Corps in 1923, and King George V approved a black beret, because until then, no suitable headgear existed for wearing inside a tank – the peak on service uniform caps got in the way. During World War One, crews often had to return on foot to their own lines when their tanks broke down, and so they tended to wear woollen caps rather than risk being mistaken for German troops by wearing the leather helmets they were issued with.Some features of the cap badge were now altered – a top scroll was removed and the lower scroll embellished with the motto ‘Fear Naught’, while the tank motif was changed from a three-quarters view facing front to a side view facing left. Because the cap badge on the beret was worn on the left-hand side, the new design made the tank appear to be facing backwards, as if in retreat. The design was rapidly changed to one with the tank facing right!


The Royal Tank Corps became the Royal Tank Regiment in 1939, and another controversial change took place in 1941, during World War Two. With the shortage of metals, plastic cap badges were introduced, which were very unpopular, and so they were soon made in white metal instead.


Royal Tank Regiment white metal cap badge, probably dating to the Second World War.

The King’s crown shows it was made before 1952,

when Elizabeth II became monarch


Although tanks have changed immeasurably, the cap badge still features the same early World War One design of tank. Most military cap badges use a historic emblem, but this is one of very few to feature an obsolete war machine, making it seem curiously dated.



Back in 2013, our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England was published, about life at the time of Jane Austen (1775 to 1817). In the United States, this same book was published simply as Jane Austen’s England. That year, 2013, also saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and since then interest in Jane Austen worldwide has increased massively.


The Jane Austen Society in the UK is well worth joining, not least for its annual report (actually a journal filled with fascinating articles) and its six-monthly glossy newsletters, while there are also local branches that require a separate membership (see here). The society was founded 80 years ago, but the celebrations, like so much else, had to be cancelled. Instead, the society staged a wonderful online birthday party event, which is well worth looking at here.


We particularly enjoyed the last event ‘Loving Jane Austen around the World’, and during the Italian presentation, you would have heard us exclaim ‘that’s our book!’, when we glimpsed the jacket of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England as somebody flicked through their latest magazine.


You can see the Jane Austen Society of Italy here. There are Jane Austen societies across the world, and the Jane Austen Society of North America is especially vibrant, with many local branches, events and an excellent website.




When Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England was first published, we did a small newsletter piece on thatched roofs to explain the meaning of ‘eavesdropping’ (see our newsletter 28). We’re now taking the opportunity to delve a little deeper into thatch, which was, for many centuries, the most common form of roofing, because the materials were usually close at hand or relatively easy to transport. The need to thatch new buildings and repair old roofs created a demand for innumerable thatchers, which is reflected in the surname Thatcher (widespread across the UK and USA) and related surnames such as Thacker and Theaker.

What is thatch?

In the past all kinds of vegetation were used for thatch, including heather, marram grass, bracken and dock, but the favourite materials were reeds and long straw from cereal crops, particularly rye. In areas where reeds were unavailable, wheat straw was most commonly used, even though it was not the best. As farming techniques and equipment changed, thatching materials suffered, and Cecil Torr, writing about Devon in the early years of the 20th century, complained about the wheat straw:


‘There is also a machine now to prepare wheat straw for thatching; and this bruises the reed [wheat stalks], and renders it less durable than when it was prepared by hand. And now they never sow wheat early enough for the straw to gather strength. The result is that the thatch decays, and landlords and farmers get tired of patching it, and put up slate or iron instead, thereby helping to destroy the market for one of their own products. I have known a field of wheat pay rent and rates and every outlay with the straw for thatching, and the grain was all clear profit.’


By ‘reed’, he meant long stalks of wheat straw, which were combed to clean off any leaves and straighten them, resulting in what was termed ‘combed wheat reed’ or ‘Devon reed’. Reed obtained from marshes or rivers for thatching is often called ‘water reed’ to distinguish it from combed wheat reed. By ‘iron’ Cecil Torr meant sheets of corrugated iron, and throughout the 20th century it was quite usual to see houses in the countryside roofed with corrugated iron where leaking thatch had been replaced. Today, some farmers grow particular varieties of wheat with long straw that can be converted to combed wheat reed. The thatching material is no longer a by-product of cereal growing.



Thatching a cottage at Crockernwell in Devon. The cottage to the right is also thatched


The distant past

The earliest prehistoric houses in Britain were circular in shape (‘round-houses’) and most probably had thatched roofs, because when they are excavated, no evidence of roofing materials is found. This is to be expected, because thatch deteriorates relatively quickly. Instead, ‘drip gullies’ survive as proof of these roofs. Because thatch tends to absorb moisture, water continues to drip to the ground after it has stopped raining, and so gullies were either deliberately dug to carry off this water (as guttering was not possible) or else formed naturally through erosion. Some roofs were covered in turves, evidence for which can survive.


Thatch continued to be the most common form of roof right through the Iron Age, but for almost four centuries from the invasion of the Romans in AD 43, distinctive baked clay tiles were used to roof many town houses and wealthy villas in the countryside. Even so, most Roman buildings would have been thatched, and as Roman influence faded in the early 5th century, the roof tile industry collapsed. For another thousand years, thatch reverted to being the predominant roof covering, though over time the wealthy were able to make use of slates, stone slabs, baked clay tiles and wooden shingles.


Reconstructions of Iron Age thatched round-houses at Butser in Hampshire


One of the biggest problems of thatch is that it burns easily. Medieval London was a crowded city, full of wooden houses with thatched roofs, all crammed together. Inevitably, disastrous fires occurred, and although fire prevention measures were introduced in 1189, another disastrous fire spread through its thatched roofs in 1212. In his 1598 Survey of London, John Stow mentioned that the 1189 regulations required that ‘all men in this city should build their houses of stone up to a certain height, and to cover them with slate or baked tile’. By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, the situation had improved so much that wooden buildings rather than thatched roofs were blamed for spreading the flames.


The Great Fire of Crediton in Devon is claimed to be the second worst fire after the Great Fire of London. On 14th August 1743 a fire broke out in a row of thatched cottages in the town’s High Street and quickly spread. The High Street was completely destroyed, along with various other buildings – 460 houses in all.



Fires were a common disaster in urban areas, but thatched roofs were gradually replaced by less combustible materials once developments in transport occurred from the mid-18th century, in particular the introduction of canals and railways. This reduced the cost of moving heavy materials such as clay tiles and slates.


Thatched roofs usually had a steep pitch, allowing the rain to run off quickly. Replacement materials were heavier, but did not need such a steep pitch to be watertight. Changes were therefore often made to the roofing timbers to lower the pitch, which meant that a smaller area needed to be covered in slates or tiles. These changes can be detected on chimneys, which might look disproportionately tall and have traces of the flashing of the thatched roof. Occasionally, gable walls were also left substantially higher than the new roof level.


A tiled roof at Crockernwell in Devon, with the chimney showing

the original steeper line of the thatched roof

The pauper’s roof

Buildings in rural districts kept their thatched roofs far longer, but if other materials were readily available, then thatch came to be regarded as the pauper’s roof, a sign of poverty. Many churches were once thatched, and The London Magazine for 1748 dismissed the market town of Wooler in Northumberland as ‘very inconsiderable, with a thatch’d church and other marks of meanness’. The present-day St Mary’s church was built on the same site at Wooler in 1764. Nowadays, thatched houses are an important feature of the rural landscape, and many of them are listed and protected as historic buildings.


A dilapidated thatched cottage at Seaton in Devon, from a print published in 1815




Many surviving thatched buildings are made of cob, which was a cheap material for constructing walls. There is an old West Country saying: ‘all cob needs is a good hat and a good pair of boots’. The hat is the thatch, while the boots refer to the foundations. The phrase is still used by some builders today and can be traced back in magazines to at least 1837, but is probably as old as the building method itself. One description of cob was by a contributor to Notes & Queries in 1857:


‘When I was a boy, I recollect witnessing the erection of two or three houses in my own neighbourhood in this way … Cob is mud mixed with straw, and sometimes a little lime to make it harden … In raising a wall of cob, a large three-pronged fork is commonly used; a course about three feet high is raised, and allowed to dry. Then another, and another, until the wall is of sufficient height. When the whole is dry enough, it is pared smooth with a tool something like a spade. A cob wall must have a high stone foundation, and be protected from the weather at the top. The workmen declare that “a cob wall will last forever, if it has a good hat and a good pair of boots”.’


The last point is critical, because cob walls do not have a damp-proof course to stop moisture rising up from the ground, so without a solid stone foundation to raise it up, the base of a cob wall is soon washed away by rain and dissolved by rising damp. Once that happens, the wall collapses. Similarly, the top of the wall must also be protected from the rain, and often the exterior wall surface was covered in lime plaster to reduce penetration by rain and snow.




Two sections of a cob wall at Crediton in Devon. The upper one has not been rendered,

so the stone foundation is visible. Freestanding walls usually

had copings of thatch, but tiles are now used, as here


Because of their construction, cob walls were thicker than brick or stone walls. They provided very good insulation, but were relatively fragile and needed frequent maintenance, as Cecil Torr commented in 1918:

‘People talk as though there was no jerry-building in the olden times. I believe the jerry-builder was as busy then as now, but all his buildings have all tumbled down and been forgotten long ago. Only the best of the old buildings have lasted until now; and these are constantly in need of structural repair. I have overhauled a good many of these buildings; and by the time I have underpinned the walls, and grouted them, and done all the other necessary things, I always find I could have got a better result by taking them right down, and setting them up again on fresh foundations.’


Cob walling is nowadays a feature of the West Country, but this building technique was used across Britain. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that mud and straw were found in most places and quicklime was common. It also needed relatively little skill to construct a cob wall, so that costs were not high. The picturesque cottages now admired for their painted cob walls and neat thatched roofs were essentially the ‘cheap and cheerful’ dwellings of their day. They might be more comfortable than the more expensive houses built of brick and stone with slate or tile roofs, but they were less durable and needed more maintenance to prevent them collapsing. Those that still survive are a minority that represent a once widespread building tradition. 



Our article ‘Royal George: The Sinking of the Royal Navy’s Greatest Warship’ was published in the summer 2020 issue of the online magazine Quarterdeck. This was the disastrous accidental sinking of the Royal George warship at Spithead, off Portsmouth, in August 1782. As well as the loss of over 900 lives, it was also the loss of the flagship that was about to lead a relief convoy to the besieged Rock of Gibraltar. The delay caused by the sinking and its aftermath almost led to Gibraltar being captured by the French and Spanish, but the garrison of the Rock held out.


It was an important incident for British, American and Gibraltarian history, which we feature in our latest book, Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History. The editor of Quarterdeck, George Jepson, found some beautiful images to accompany our article, which can be found on pages 18–22. Quarterdeck can be downloaded as a free PDF here.


Folklife West

Our latest published article is called ‘The Saucy Sailor’, which appeared in Folklife West for May 2020. It is a song that is known from ballad sheets sold by Victorian street ballad performers. It probably dates from much earlier, possibly the late 18th century, but once it was adopted by Sabine Baring Gould in the late 19th century, it became a popular item in local concerts and was used in radio broadcasts to schools.


Because of the current pandemic, the May edition of Folklife West appeared as an online rather than print magazine, and our article can be downloaded as a PDF here.


Trafalgar audiobook

Excellent news for all you audiobook listeners (or would-be listeners) – Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle will be released for the first time as an audiobook on 22nd October, to coincide with the 215th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (and death of Nelson) that took place on 21st October 1805. For those of you who are wondering why it isn’t being released on the 21st – Thursdays are the day when publishers traditionally release books in the UK, because once upon a time they received lots of publicity in the weekend newspapers and have their books soaring in the charts. Readers don’t care – any day is a perfect book day, as long as the new books are ready and waiting in the shops.


But back to the audiobook – we are delighted that the narrator for Trafalgar is John Telfer, who did such a brilliant recording for Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History. He is an acclaimed actor, and will be known especially to fans of The Archers in his role as Alan Franks, vicar of St Stephen’s church.


The audiobook is of the full-length book, not abridged, and will be available as an Audible audiobook via all the normal channels. You can see it here.

It will also be released in the United States by Tantor, though we’re not sure if they will change the title to Nelson’s Trafalgar, which is the book’s title there.


Our other books

If you would like to check out our other books, then please see the rest of this website. Many of our books are still in print. Several are available as e-books – Empires of the Plain, Handbook of British Archaeology, Trafalgar (Nelson’s Trafalgar in the US), Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (Jane Austen’s England in the US), Gibraltar, Jack Tar, and The War for All the Oceans).


Three books so far have audiobooks and/or CDs (Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Gibraltar).


There are also many foreign editions, and we have recently agreed to renewed translations of The Keys of Egypt in China and Taiwan. You can see our foreign editions here.:


Under ‘Buy Our Books’, we have given a few links to Amazon in the US and Amazon in the UK, but there are many other retailers out there, both online and real shops.


Next newsletter

Thank you for reading this occasional newsletter. The next one will probably be prepared for December, and we hope for better times by then. Keep safe and well.