Newsletter 64

Welcome to the May 2022 issue of our occasional news 



Hour glasses (also called sand glasses) for measuring time were formed from an elongated bubble of glass that was nipped in the middle to form two identical bulbs joined by a narrow neck. A measured amount of sand was added through a hole in one bulb, and the hole was sealed by a cork or by more glass. The finished hour glass was usually enclosed in a wooden or metal framework to protect it from breaking. The sand took an hour to dribble through the constriction to the other bulb, and the glass was turned to start again.


The manufacture of hour glasses was dependent on skilful glassblowing, which was feasible 2000 years ago, in Roman times, but the first mention appears to be in the 8th century. Hour glasses only became common from the 14th century and were the best method of measuring time before the development of accurate and reliable clocks and watches. Being simple, they could be robust and so were particularly valuable on board ships, where they continued in use into the 19th century, well after watches were widespread.


Hour glasses came into general use in churches after the Reformation. Before then, sermons tended to be short, perhaps less than 10 minutes, but after the mass and all other Roman Catholic elements were removed by law from church services, sermons became longer. This may have been to keep the service to a suitable length, and there is no doubt that longer sermons grew in popularity. There is some dispute as to whether hour glasses were introduced to ensure that the sermon lasted at least an hour, or whether it was to prevent the preacher from exceeding that time!



Hour glass near the pulpit in the Church of St Mary the Virgin,

Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset


Many churches had an hour glass, usually on a stand within reach of the pulpit. There are still some rare examples, although usually only the supports and brackets survive. In practice, the sermon’s length was the choice of the preacher, but it was not unknown for congregations to walk out if they thought it too long.


Frequent references occur in churchwardens’ accounts, since they were part of the church furniture, but the entries tend to be short, such as one in 1634 from the Church of St James in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire: “paid for an houre glasse 8d”. A more informative entry comes from the accounts of the Church of St Catherine Cree (also known as Christ Church, St Catherine) at Aldgate in London for 1564: “Paid for an hour-glass that hangeth by the pulpitt when the preacher doth make a sermon, that he may know the hour passeth away”. Long sermons continued to be popular well into the 19th century, but hour glasses fell into disuse as clocks and watches became common.


Probably because the sand running from one bulb of an hour glass to the other was a visible measure of the passing of time, the hour glass persisted as a symbol. From the 17th century, it was popular on gravestones and is still used today on greetings cards, postcards and other ephemera, particularly around New Year. This gravestone is of John Norris, in the churchyard of the Church of St Margaret at Rottingdean in Sussex. There is an hour glass to the right of the skull and crossbones, another popular motif, which in this instance has led to this grave being called the “Pirate’s Grave”. The inscription reads:

“Here Lieth the Body of JOHN NORRIS who departed this Life April 26th 1734 Aged 59 Years.”



Egg timers

Although hour glasses became obsolete, smaller versions to measure shorter periods of time continued, most commonly as egg timers when boiling eggs. This egg timer probably dates to the very end of the 19th century, and the sand in it runs for 3¾ minutes to produce a soft-boiled egg.






Since our last newsletter, Ukraine has been invaded by Russia, with the most unspeakable atrocities. We feel helpless and horrified, and look to politicians, religious leaders and assorted organisations to provide leadership. In our books about historical wars and battles, we always try to show how ordinary people and the lower ranks in the armed forces were affected. Ukraine is a grim reminder of what was suffered for so many years in the last two major conflicts, World War One and World War Two, and now there are predictions that the Russian aggression will continue for months, if not years. What is surprising is how aspects of “normal” life can survive, with beautiful things transcending evil.


In the last newsletter, we looked at how books used to be sold, and here we have selected a few random topics about books in wartime. In 1936, Odhams Press published a hefty book of 767 pages called Fifty Amazing Stories of the Great War. This was of course the First World War, which was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and this book was a compilation of  the writings of numerous authors. The striking endpapers at the front and back of the book depicted warplanes, bayonets, artillery, barbed wire, gas masks and clouds of smoke – or was it gas?



The 50th story was taken from The Gambardier: Giving some account of the heavy and siege artillery in France 1914–1918, published in 1930. The author was Mark Severn, of the Royal Artillery, who lived 1892–1964 and whose real name was Franklin Lushington. The final page of this story has a despatch rider handing to a young officer a message that hostilities would cease at 11am. Totally numb, the officer could only think of those who had died. He then stirred:


“Mr. Straker.”


“You can fall the men out for breakfast. The war is over.”

“Very good, sir.”

Overhead the pigeons circled and wheeled.


Tragically, it was not the end of warfare, and in 1939 the Second World War began, while the Great War came to be called the First World War. From 1940 to 1942, Bulletins from Britain were published by the British Library of Information in New York to promote British interests in the United States. They consisted of reports and bulletins from around the world, and one from April 1942 described the book trade that was struggling with a shortage of labour and paper, when demand for books was high. The destruction of London’s publishing quarter by German bombs was also catastrophic:


“Much of the present difficulty of the book trade is due to the fire Blitz of December, 1940, when Paternoster Row and the very heart of the London book trade were burned out and more than five million books turned to ashes. Among the publishing houses that then suffered serious and in some cases total loss of their premises and stocks were Hutchinson, Blackwood, Longmans, Collins, Nelson, Eyre and Spottiswoode, Ward Lock and Sampson Low. But the heaviest blow of all was the total destruction of Simpkin Marshall, Ltd. –– the great wholesale organization on which the British book trade had relied for more than 130 years.”


The report also said that bombing raids across the country had destroyed many printing and binding works, as well as public and private libraries, such as in the port city of Plymouth. It was estimated that 20 million books had up to then been destroyed. The book trade also suffered from paper rationing, and so a Book Production Economy Agreement was introduced – flimsier paper was used, and measures were taken to avoid wasted space, such as eradicating wide margins, using leaner fonts and reducing the space between lines. The example here is taken from Godfrey Winn’s Home from Sea: The story of an ordinary seaman’s life in war-time, published in 1944 by Hutchinson, in hardback, 131 pages, with small print that is difficult to read.



The New York bulletin feature ended with an upbeat summary of the trade in 1940:


“Booksellers report that the shortage of books comes at a time when the demand is unprecedented in the history of the trade. It seems to have taken the war to make the nation book-conscious and to bring new readers to buy and borrow books. London booksellers will tell you that they notice how many more Government and business workers come to buy books on their way to work or in their lunch hours. Poetry has come into such demand that one London bookseller has had to set aside a whole counter for a display of books of poetry and it gathers a steady swarm of customers.”


Books were much valued in wartime. In 1932, book tokens in the UK were launched, which were a wonderful gift, as they enabled recipients to choose their own books from participating bookshops. They came with a card and matching book plate, and a poignant wartime example is ‘Can Spring be Far Behind?’. This used a design by the war artist John Armstrong, dated to May 1940, on the eve of Dunkirk, and was originally intended for a propaganda poster, but Churchill deemed it unsuitable. A tulip is growing out of bombed ruins, a sign of hope and renewal, and the quote is from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ of 1820, which ends: “O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The token was given “To Darling Jasper from Gwennie”.



Another book token also dates to World War Two. This particular example was the gift of “A.W. Poole”, and the beautiful image is, perhaps, a small library or study at night in a London townhouse, with two framed pictures of horses on the wall, either side of a large window looking out at ruined buildings. This is civilisation continuing in spite of barbarity, another symbol of hope.







Because of the pandemic and our focus on writing When There Were Birds, we have barely done anything of a sociable nature for the last two years, so it felt strange to be invited to an event in Exeter at the Old Custom House. Our friend Jon Bell (who we have known for a fair few years) devised, wrote and produced ‘The Inland Haven’ for the Exeter Canal & Quay Trust and the Exeter Red Coat Guides. It proved to be a wonderful celebration of Exeter’s lost route to the sea, with a great deal of songs, music and laughter.



The canal and quay at Exeter, with the Old Custom House in the centre


The canal was opened in 1566 to bypass the weirs that had been built across the River Exe, and over the decades it would be extended, widened and deepened. Shipping could now reach the city of Exeter, with its thriving woollen cloth industry, rather than be forced to use Topsham. For over 500 years, Exeter’s port was thriving, with associated industries and warehouses. The beautiful Custom House was built around 1680, for the Customs and Excise Service. The vessels were initially hauled by hand along the canal and later towed by horses. Sail gave way to steam, but it was the arrival of the railways that led to the decline of the port and canal. A maritime museum used to be housed at Exeter Quay, but that closed in 1997: see the description of a museum ticket in our newsletter 60.


An exhibition called ‘An Inland Haven: The Story of the Exeter Ship Canal’ is open to visitors at Topsham Museum (see their website here) until 30th September 2022, 2pm to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday. That’s certainly our next port of call.


Exeter is just 5 miles from where we live, and yet until very recently we had no idea that it is a UNESCO City of Literature. To compound our ignorance, we discovered a week or so ago that the Custom House is a centre for literature (‘Quay Words’) and that the deadline has just passed for applications for a writer-in-residence for the month of July with the theme of ‘maritime’ – and a fee of £1,000! Quay Words seems to be part of Literature Works, which is flagged up as the development agency of South West Regional Literature. So many names, so many well-kept secrets and opportunities.


Today, the custom house, quay and canal feel separated from the city, not helped by the ugly bypass that was built in the 1960s. There is a great need for the two areas to be better linked. The only viable car park is the disgraceful and confusing ‘Cathedral & Quay’ multi-storey monstrosity that is plagued by anti-social behaviour and is falling to pieces, so that in 2020 the four upper levels were closed for safety. What a welcome. In November 2020, the Exeter Ship Canal and its Basin became the UK’s fourth Heritage Harbour, a status awarded to historic ports and harbours in a joint initiative between National Historic Ships UK and Maritime Heritage Trust. Let us hope that it is a sign of a flourishing future for this fascinating part of the city.




As we said in our last newsletter, our new book is When There Were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections,  which was published in hardback and as an e-book in November 2021.


The unabridged audiobook was released by Hachette Audio on 24th March. It is almost 15 hours in length and is brilliantly narrated by John Telfer, who also recorded our books Trafalgar, Gibraltar and Jack Tar. Nowadays, audiobooks are unfortunately no longer produced as physical objects (we’re talking about cassette tapes and CDs) that you can choose as a gift for your nearest and dearest, donate to (or buy from) a charity shop, or borrow from a local library. Instead, they all need to be downloaded to your mobile phone, computer or whatever device you use, which is not good news for those with terrible broadband connections. More and more people, though, are turning to audiobooks, and they are a wonderful way of becoming immersed in a book.


In the United States, Tantor released the same audiobook on 26th April, which can be downloaded from all the normal outlets. See their website here.



The jacket shown here is Tantor’s design, skilfully adapted from our hardback jacket, with a format like the old inserts in CD boxed sets. There is text on the reverse, not shown here, which gives an outline of the book, details of us as the authors and a summary of the narrator:


“John Telfer, an AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator, is an actor best known for playing the character of  DC Willy Pettit in five seasons of Bergerac. His work on stage has included leading roles at the Bristol Old Vic, the Royal National Theatre, the Old Vic in London, and many regional theaters.”


We would also add that in the UK, he is well known for his role as the Reverend Alan Franks in the long-running radio drama, The Archers. So far, we have only had a chance to listen to a small part of the recording. It sounds wonderful, and we are really looking forward to listening to it all.

Hardback overseas

The hardback will be released in the United States in August 2022, though we’re not quite sure of the reason for the delay, as it is already available in New Zealand and Australia. If you see any publicity in these territories, then do let us know, as more than likely we won’t hear about it.


Many readers prefer to wait for the paperback, and at the moment a provisional date of March 2023 has been set. However, we are told that it all depends on whether or not sufficient numbers of hardbacks have been sold by then, which to us seems absolutely mad. Why can’t the two exist side-by-side?

Fowey festival talk

We are really pleased to be returning to the Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature to give a talk on When There Were Birds on Thursday 12th May 2022, 6pm to 7pm, at Fowey Town Hall. Tickets are on sale now, £10, which you can buy here.



The festival takes place 6th to 14th May, and is a mix of music and talks. After the turmoil of the last two years, we all need to show our support for the return of this much-loved and enjoyable festival in the beautiful riverside town of Fowey in Cornwall.

Budleigh Salterton talk

The Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival is another  favourite, and this year it takes place 14th to 18th September. It is regarded as one of the leading cultural events in Devon and the South-West. We live quite close to this small seaside town, and after such a long period of being confined at home while writing and through lockdowns, this was the first place we visited, and it was so blissful to sit on the beach, with virtually nobody else there.



We were therefore very pleased indeed to be invited to return to give a talk at this year’s festival, which is provisionally scheduled for Wednesday 14th September at 2pm, but this might change. Keep an eye on the website. Tickets go on sale to Festival Friends on 18th July and to the public on 25th July. When we gave a talk on Gibraltar there, ours was the first event to sell out, so be warned!

Mark Avery review

We value all the reviews of our books, of course, but one last month was especially welcome. It was by Mark Avery, a scientist who worked for 25 years for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner. He set up Wild Justice with Chris Packham and Ruth Tingay, a not-for-profit company that stands up for wildlife. Check their website:

To have Mark’s seal of approval is therefore a real accolade:

“There is much in the way of riveting anecdotes … I was hooked on them … Every chapter is replete with such anecdotes which, for me at least, made the book a page-turner. The authors are historians and archaeologists but there aren’t any howlers about birds that I spotted here [thank you!]. They used their research skills and experience to put a different type of book together, and I am grateful to them because it is a very good read. I think many readers of this blog would enjoy this book and I recommend it.”

You can read the review in full on his blog here.

His final comment summarises exactly what we set out to achieve in When There Were Birds:

“It’s good to be reminded that a while ago, say the time of your great grandparents, there were so many more birds and that we are now looking at crumbs where there were once stacks of loaves.”

If you know what has been lost, you are in a better position to campaign.




Gibraltar Heritage Trust

We were thrilled to be sent this photograph a month ago, showing a display of three of our paperback books in the window of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, announcing that its lovely shop at Main Guard in John Mackintosh Square has been restocked. These books, Jack Tar, Trafalgar and Gibraltar, have a significant connection to Gibraltar. This shop sells all sorts of books (fiction and non-fiction), and much more besides, a must-visit location for tourists and residents alike. This photograph is on the Gibraltar Heritage Trust’s Facebook page here.  Many other lovely Gibraltar images are displayed there as well.



BBC History Magazine

 The May 2022 issue of the BBC History Magazine includes a feature by us (pages 37–9) called “Feather beds, cockfights and midnight flights to the moon”, in which we describe five different themes related to birds and history.

Grab a copy at your supermarket or newsagent, or subscribe to the magazine. It is Britain’s bestselling history magazine and is also available in North America. Alternatively, you should be able to read the magazine online, free-of-charge, via your local library.




History Extra podcast

 A podcast is simply a ‘Personal on Demand Broadcast’, which is basically a recording or series of recordings, audio only, that can be obtained from various sources on the internet. Often, these recordings are done by one or two people. Be warned. It’s a bit like the Wild West, as anyone can record a podcast, but that’s not to say the quality is good. We could start a podcast series tomorrow, perhaps changing our newsletters to audio content, though we have no plans at present! You can be assured of quality with particular podcast channels, and one of those is History Extra, the website of the BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. Part of this website hosts podcast interviews with historians that can be heard at any time of day. To coincide with the feature in the magazine, an interview with us was released at the same time, which you can listen to here. We very much enjoyed chatting with Emily Briffett, and the interview lasts for almost half an hour.

Wokingham Borough Libraries

We have done several talks in the past for the wonderful Wokingham Library, but their programme has been disrupted by the pandemic. The library service has a lovely blog, and we wrote a guest piece for it instead on When There Were Birds, which you can read here.

The Twa Corbies

The latest Folklife West issue 70 (for May to August 2022) has just been published, full of all sorts of live events over the summer. You can subscribe to the magazine here: (scroll down to WHERE TO BUY FOLKLIFE). This issue has several features, including one by us called “The Twa Corbies”, a Scottish ballad that is superficially similar to “The Three Ravens”, but is actually quite different – a murder mystery.






Royal Mail bird stamps

Royal Mail’s latest ‘special stamps’ were released in April, just after the latest price rise. These ones are of particular interest, as they celebrate migratory birds that visit the UK in the spring and summer.

Ten birds are featured – Nightjar, Arctic Skua, Pied Flycatcher, Stone Curlew, Montagu’s Harrier, Arctic Tern, Swallow, Turtle Dove, Swift and Yellow Wagtail. They are available only as first-class stamps, with no other denominations, which is surely unusual? It is disappointing that they are not available as second-class stamps. In fact, Royal Mail hardly ever does special second-class stamps these days, which is a shame and shows that they aren’t catering for ordinary people. Take a look at the stamps on the Royal Mail website:




The next newsletter will probably appear in the autumn.