Newsletter 62

Welcome to the autumn 2021 issue of our occasional news.


Our main news is about our latest book, When There Were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections – published on 11th November 2021. We gave a summary in the last newsletter, repeated below so you can see how the essence of the book is brilliantly captured in the lovely jacket illustration by James Weston Lewis (designed by Nico Taylor).



Birds are a joy and solace in troubled times, as well as a symbol of hope for the future. For centuries, they were seen as a source of food, feathers and even fuel, and being so numerous, many were persecuted as pests. When There Were Birds will appeal to anyone interested in birds, but it is also a social history that charts the complex connections between people and birds, set against a background of changes in the landscape and evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour. Birds were once key elements of the nation’s history, traditions and sports, giving rise to a rich legacy of literature, language and myths.

No other group of animals has had such a complex and lengthy relationship with humankind. Birds have been kept in cages as pets, taught to speak and displayed as trophies. More practically, they have been used to tell the time, predict the weather, foretell marriages, provide unlikely cures for ailments, convey messages and warn of poisonous gases. Although very familiar, birds have often seemed strange, sinister and alarming. With their ability to fly, they bridged the gap between the earth and the heavens, and superstitions were rife because they appeared to be linked to the supernatural. When There Were Birds draws together many disparate, forgotten strands to present a story that is an intriguing and unexpectedly significant part of our heritage.

Leaving the nest

The book feels like a fledgling bird about to be pushed out of the nest. Will it fly or plummet to the ground? There is reason for optimism, because The Independent (reviewer Martin Chilton) has just described it as “an appealing social history of Britain … [with] a lot of quirky information”. Of course, what is quirky today was a key element of life at the time.

We are also thrilled to be Book of the Week in the Daily Mail, where the reviewer Christopher Hart concluded: “When There Were Birds is a marvellously original slice of social history, a portrait of our ever-conflicted relationship with the natural world which we so abuse and which we cannot live without; a book beautifully balanced between wonder and warning.” Click here for the link to the review.

Guy de la Bédoyère (formerly of Time Team and a successful author of numerous books, especially on ancient Rome) has created an entertaining video review on YouTube, where he says: “a real revelation actually … I really recommend this book.” It can be watched here:  It lasts about 19 minutes, with a slight pause halfway; skip the adverts at the outset. Feel free to share the video and also to create a flock of comments and reviews on social media and elsewhere.

Obtaining a copy

The book is published in hardback by Little, Brown, 488 pages, ISBN 9781408713570. It can be borrowed from all quality libraries and purchased from superior bookstores, as well as online, and it is also available as an e-book.

The pandemic has revealed that the “just-in-time” policy of businesses is environmentally disastrous, and so instead of bookstores having exciting displays of new books, they tend to order a single copy at a time. You may therefore find that your bookstore has just sold their only copy! But don’t forget that many shops now offer a free click and collect service, which saves a wasted journey.

When There Were Birds focuses on Britain, but also flits far and wide, including Australia, China, South Africa, Gibraltar, the United States and even the moon. We therefore hope that it will migrate to overseas territories before too long.



Now for a musical interlude. We live in an era with numerous options for playing music, from recordings on vinyl records, magnetic tape and tape cassettes (considered as “old technology”), through compact discs (“CDs”) and MP3 players, to streaming and playing directly from the internet using various devices, including smartphones. Until the late 19th century, music could not be recorded, but was instead produced by orchestras, bands of musicians (frequently unpaid amateurs) or individuals playing an instrument or singing. Many homes had pianos, as did most pubs, where the singing and dancing led to the development of music halls with their wider variety of entertainment.

Clockwork music

It was only in 1877 that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph (“sound writing”), with recordings made on cardboard cylinders coated with wax. The term came to be used for any recording or playing device, but by the end of the century “gramophone” tended to be used for machines that played flat discs (“records”) rather than cylinders. By the start of World War One, such record players were being mass produced.

Early record players were totally acoustic, relying on a large horn to amplify the tiny sounds made by the needle or stylus travelling around the wax cylinder or record disc. The result was a bulky machine that did not produce a very loud sound. By the 1920s these problems had been overcome, and record players were much more portable, as seen here.


Portable record player of the 1920s


Newspaper advert of March 1928

Because the turntable holding the record was powered by clockwork, and not an electric motor as in later hi-fi and stereo units, the mechanism was wound up before (and sometimes during) the playing of the record. Portable record players had a removable handle for winding, which was often left in place in case a few more winds were needed. This could occur with older machines whose clockwork motor was wearing out, slowing the record towards the end and producing a distorted, drawn-out sound. The same thing happened if anything obstructed the winding handle, which turned backwards as the clockwork ran down.

The sound was produced by a needle (sold in packets and tins) running in the groove that was impressed into the record as a continuous spiral, ending at the centre of the record. The inside of the groove had a sequence of indentations, causing vibrations in the needle that were carried by a wire to a diaphragm and then amplified into audible sounds. The steel needles and heavy arm of the record player wore down the grooves of the records, so that the quality of the sound was reduced over time.



Radios versus gramophones

Originally called wireless sets, radios could provide music and other entertainment within the home, and their improvement after World War One was a serious threat to the trade in gramophones, as the sound quality was better. However, radios were bulky and relied on electricity, mainly in the form of accumulator batteries, which were glass bottles containing diluted sulphuric acid that were usually topped up and recharged at garages. They also needed an aerial, which was often just a long wire strung outside the house. These radios were not at all portable, and they also had the disadvantage that the broadcast music was not always to the listener’s taste or at a convenient time.

The development of more easily portable record players and the growth in the variety of available records, with music and even speeches, allowed them to compete with radios. Run by clockwork, they did not need potentially dangerous batteries, and while not particularly light, they were robust enough to be carried by one person or transported in a vehicle or strapped to a bicycle, and were quick to set up at their destination.


Newspaper advert of November 1928

Music imports from the USA were beginning to increase in the 1920s, with jazz and big-band music being the most influential. There followed a series of waves of mostly dance music that was made popular in America and then imported into Britain, and this continued into the late 20th century. With the rise of digital music making popular music much easier to produce and also to distribute over the internet, the dominance of American music has been greatly diluted by contributions from all over the world.

Back (almost) where we started

Despite the ease with which music can be accessed and played on a variety of electronic devices, there is a small but growing demand for vinyl long-playing records (“LPs”). These were the latest development of record players before they were eclipsed by other forms of recording, such as cassette tapes and CDs. Both the final form of the original vinyl records and the new revivals require sophisticated electronic hi-fi systems to achieve the best quality. The sound they produce is massively better than that of the record players and radios of the 1920s, but it is not as “perfect” as that produced by digital means. It seems to be this perfection that people find unsatisfying, and some feel that the slight imperfections and minor unpredictability of vinyl records is in some way closer to the sound of live performances. Ultimately, there is nothing better than a live performance, but these cannot be had on demand, and for that some sort of recording will always be needed.



 Our new book, When There Were Birds, is not divided into chapters on individual birds, such as robins, blackbirds and geese. Instead, we have themes such as food, medicine and the weather. Eagles therefore fly in and out, though nowadays in Britain only the lucky few will have ever seen one. For thousands of years, these immense birds were adopted as symbols, and a few snippets are given here.

Ancient symbols

The double-headed eagle design was known in the ancient Near East around 6,000 years ago, and eagle motifs subsequently appeared in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Single-headed eagles were one of several symbols to adorn Roman army standards, though from 104 BC every Roman legion had an eagle as a standard. By the time of Julius Caesar, they were made from gold and silver and were the responsibility of each legion’s most senior centurion (known as the primus pilus, literally “first spear”). The eagle standard represented strength and power, and such was their significance that if one was lost, that legion might be disbanded.


The single-headed eagle of Roman military might was used by the Holy Roman Emperors, starting with Charlemagne, who was crowned by the Pope in 800. The eagle became increasingly popular as a symbol of empire and a heraldic device. In heraldry, the eagle was depicted in various ways, usually as an “eagle displayed”, with its legs, wings and tail outstretched, while two-headed heraldic eagles probably originated in the ancient Near Eastern civilisations.

This small crested china pot shows the coat-of-arms of the town of Bedford, with a single-headed eagle looking sinister (to its left), surmounted by a castle.



The American eagle

Over the centuries, the eagle in heraldry extended from personal coats-of-arms to symbols of nations or empires. When independence was declared on 4th July 1776, it was resolved to devise a national coat-of-arms for a Great Seal for the new United States of America. This Great Seal was first used on 16th September 1782.

Rather than the imperial eagle of Europe, the native American bald eagle was chosen as the national symbol. This quarter dollar of 1942 displays a modified design, with the eagle looking to its right (dexter), clasping a bundle of thirteen arrows that represented the original states, below which is an olive branch of peace.



The Napoleonic eagle

Twenty-one years after the United States adopted the eagle symbol, Napoleon Bonaparte took the Roman eagle symbol for the standards of the regiments of his army. During the Napoleonic Wars, prisoner-of-war camps were set up across Britain. Norman Cross in Cambridgeshire was the first purpose-built prison for those captured at sea and on land, and it was constructed in response to the overcrowding in forts such as Portchester Castle and in prison hulks converted from old warships. In 1797 prisoners began to be moved to Norman Cross, which was designed to hold up to 6,000 prisoners in a series of two-storey barrack blocks grouped round a central blockhouse. At times it was overcrowded, and conditions were basic, because the French government refused to provide funds for the prisoners’ needs.

After Napoleon was finally defeated, the prisoners were allowed to go home, although a significant number stayed in Britain. Norman Cross was abandoned and largely forgotten, but in 1914 the Entente Cordiale Society set up a monument in memory of the French prisoners-of-wars who had died there. It comprised a brass eagle on a stone column and was placed on a roundabout in the middle of the A1 Great North Road at Norman Cross, near the village of Stilton. It was a landmark for travellers on the A1 until 1990, when it was vandalised, the column knocked over and the eagle stolen.

In 1998, when improvements were made to the A1, the column was re-erected a short distance away, adjacent to the field where many of the prisoners were buried. Following a campaign by the Norman Cross Napoleonic Prisoner of War Depot Memorial Trust, funds were raised to buy a replacement brass eagle, seen here, which was unveiled by the 8th Duke of Wellington in April 2005. The monument is now a Listed Building.



Pubs and churches

The heraldic “eagle displayed” could have one or two heads and was informally known as a spread eagle. In everyday language, “spread-eagled” meant outstretched for punishment by flogging. The spread eagle became a common inn sign in England from at least the 17th century, often reflecting the coat-of-arms of the local lord. It is still used as a pub sign today, including this centuries-old traditional pub in the oldest part of the village of Liss in Hampshire.



In churches, sculptures of eagles were often incorporated into freestanding lecterns or bookstands. Early ones were of wood, or gilded wood, but brass eagles became popular from the 15th century. In the 17th century, particularly 1640 to 1660, the Puritans stripped many churches of popish ornaments such as candlesticks, stained glass windows and brass eagles. Some lecterns survived and others were replaced, so that eagle lecterns can still be seen in some churches.


Medieval lectern of gilded wood in the church of St Mary in Ottery St Mary in Devon




Hopefully, the next newsletter will be in the spring of 2022.