Newsletter 66

Welcome to the December 2022 issue of our occasional news.


In Royal Company

The death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8th September 2022 at Balmoral in Scotland has been the defining moment of the year. The outpouring of emotion worldwide surprised everyone, and it was a time to reflect on the monarch’s absolute devotion to duty throughout such a long reign. In Exeter, we were struck by a commemorative window display in Waterstones, because nestling up to it was our own book, When There Were Birds. This is probably the closest we have ever been to royalty.



Books by the Sea

The Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival had an awful decision to make: should it be cancelled as a mark of respect to the Queen, or should the show go on? Duty called, and it rightly went on. We gave a talk on the first day, 14th September, based on When There Were Birds. This image shows our books inside the festival marquee.



We had a lovely, enthusiastic audience, and the atmosphere was wonderful, with packed car parks, lots of people and, of course, books. Our picture of the deserted street is deceptive, as we had to wait patiently for a quiet moment! The Budleigh festival has a strapline of ‘celebrating books by the sea’, with a particular emphasis on free events for children. Long may it thrive.


Some literary festivals have struggled for the last three years, with rising ticket prices and low sales. In September, after operating for 30 years, Ways With Words announced the cessation of its festivals. The Society of Authors’ campaign for speakers to be paid surely hasn’t helped, because festivals turned increasingly to celebrities to ensure ticket sales. Festival booksellers tend to sell books at full price, adding to the costs for visitors, but for those who can afford to do so, the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ is very relevant.

When There Were Birds

Writing a book during the pandemic and having it published in half the normal production time proved challenging, as we had limited opportunity for publicity. We reckon it is the most important book we have written (perhaps toppling our previous favourite, Jack Tar).



Most ornithologists have little knowledge of birds in history, but it is essential for anyone involved in conservation. Ours is not a cuddly, feel-good nature book, nor is it a sugar-coated history or a misery memoir with birds attached. Instead, it has been described in national reviews as ‘a page-turner’, ‘original’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘fascinating’.

We brought together a mass of disparate material to create a narrative that shines a light on the role that birds once played in everyday life, their sheer numbers and the reasons for their decline. Do you know the connection between Andrew Carnegie, the A30 and Swampy? that starlings once roosted on Nelson’s Column? that stalking horses aided the shooting of birds? that owls were made into firescreens? that human hair used in nests was believed to cause terrible headaches? that boiled eggshells were smashed to thwart witches? and that swallows were thought to migrate to the moon?

The book is now on sale worldwide, and this is your last chance to buy a hardback. The cheapest copies (less than half price) seem to be on Amazon. You can also buy an e-book version and an unabridged audiobook, beautifully narrated by John Telfer (aka the vicar Alan in ‘The Archers’). In north America, the audiobook is published by Tantor. The book is currently being translated into Chinese. The paperback will be on sale from 30th March 2023 – the new jacket is not yet ready, but it will be much the same, though with bolder colours and some review quotes. 

Cool Gibraltar

It is well worth checking Sam Benady’s blog about Gibraltar from time to time to see what’s new. Back in August he reported seeing a copy of our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History being sold by a Spanish seller on Ebay under the title Gibraltar: The Coolest Siege in British History. He explained that the Spanish seller must have translated ‘greatest’ as ‘el mas genial’, but this meaning of ‘great’ is actually ‘wonderful’ – in modern parlance, ‘cool’. It was translated back into English as ‘coolest’. Sam gave other examples of inappropriate translations, including the joke phrase ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ which becomes ‘The whisky’s OK, but the meat’s a bit off’.


A more recent post provides a list of all the substantial models of Gibraltar, including one made of plaster of Paris that was completed in 1868. It was constructed at a scale of 50 feet to one inch, allowing every building on the Rock to be depicted. It was originally displayed in the Royal Artillery Institution at Woolwich, but was offered to Gibraltar in 1928 and ended up in a specially built room at the Gibraltar National Museum. It is a key exhibit today, a fascinating way to study this incredible place.

Kishmul’s Galley

In Folklife West (issue 71, September 2022), we had an article published about ‘Kishmul’s Galley’. This was originally a Gaelic waulking song to accompany women fulling (waulking) the newly woven woollen cloth known as tweed. Originally written by a 17th-century poet, an English version of Kishmul’s Galley was published in 1909. It celebrated the return of a galley to Kishmul (known today as Kisimul) on the Hebridean island of Barra, once the stronghold of the MacNeill Clan. The explorer Isabella Bird visited Kisimul in 1860 and described the castle: ‘near the entrance is a dock adapted to the exact length and breadth of the McNeil galley, and defended by a strong wall from the action of the sea’. We first encountered Miss Bird when, appropriately, we were researching When There Were Birds.


We have had several pieces published over the years in the Folklife West magazine (in the section called ‘Folklife Traditions’), including ‘Roll, Alabama, Roll’ (on the battle between two steam-powered warships in 1864), ‘The Sailor’s Dream’ (on the Franklin Expedition), ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ (on life and death on board the Yankee clipper ship, the David Crockett), and ‘The Saucy Sailor’ (a forebitter dating to the Age of Sail, which evolved into a genteel parlour song). Our next article to be published is called ‘Johnny Cope’. From January 2023, you can subscribe separately to Folklife Traditions Journal (which has no geographical limits) or else to Folklife West magazine (which includes Folklife Traditions Journal). See their website for details.



Bosham (pronounced ‘Bozzum’) is a small coastal village and yachting centre near Chichester in West Sussex, but was once a thriving port carrying some of the trade that could not be shipped through Chichester’s main port of Dell Quay. The most noteworthy building in this attractive village is Holy Trinity Church. The church is mainly a mixture of Saxon and medieval architecture, and the earliest part is the tower.


Many interesting features and monuments can be seen inside, but one of the most intriguing is outside in the churchyard – the gravestone of Thomas Barrow.  He was master of the Two Brothers, which was a very common name for seafaring vessels, and the gravestone has a carving that depicts him falling into the sea and drowning. He died on 13th October 1759, aged only 23 years.



In Memory of

THOMAS son of Richard and Ann

BARROW, Master of the sloop Two

Brothers who by the Breaking of the

Horse fell into the Sea & was Drown’d

October the 1759 Aged 23 Years

Tho Boreas’s Storms and Neptune’s waves

have tos’d me to and fro

Yet I at length by God’s decree

am harbour’d here below

Where at an Anchor here I lay

with many of our Fleet

Yet once again I shall set Sail

my Saviour Christ to meet

The ‘horse’ was a rope running under each yard (the long wooden poles set across masts to which sails were attached). These ropes were foot-ropes for sailors to stand on while working on the sails. Edward Keble Chatterton (1878–1944), a prolific maritime writer, commented in 1912: ‘In the Elizabethan times the word “hawse” signified the bows of the ship … But two hundred years later, whilst the word hawse was retained to speak of the ship’s cables, yet “horse” signified a rope, usually that which reached from the middle of a yard to both its extremities, and depended some two or three feet from that yard for the sailors to tread [on].’

Chatterton pointed out that the crude carving was a fair representation of a sloop, but the rope that was shown as broken was in his time known as a ‘bobstay’. This was a heavy cable attached to the end of the bowsprit. Its purpose was to counteract the strain on the bowsprit caused by the triangular (lateen) sail above. From the carving, it is obvious that Barrow was standing on this rope when it gave way, most likely because it was in poor condition. He was probably working on the lateen sail, perhaps trying to pull it down to lessen the pressure of a strong wind. All this is speculation, because nothing is known about the incident except what is recorded on the gravestone.

Thomas Barrow was from a large family spread across Sussex and Kent, but how he came to be master of this sloop, and where the vessel was headed at the time of the accident, are unknown. Small harbours such as Bosham were once used by many ships of this kind, usually carrying cargo or for fishing and even smuggling. Almost all have disappeared without trace, and so the gravestone is an important historical record. Chatterton, who saw the monument over a century ago when it was doubtless less weathered, commented: ‘This is the only instance I know of which shows a fore-and-aft [rigged ship] sculpture of that period.’

The verse that forms the second half of the inscription is from a 17th-century poem written to commemorate sailors who died at sea, and it may have been the work of Admiral William Penn (1621–70), who apparently composed a similar version of it for a seaman who drowned off Deal in Kent and was buried in the churchyard. It became a popular verse on gravestones of sailors until the late 19th century. Those who died on board ship were mostly buried at sea. Barrow’s body may not even have been recovered, and while the verse on the gravestone hints that he is interred in the churchyard, no burial record exists for him. The gravestone may simply be a memorial erected by his family.



The Great Blizzard

Weather happens over a short period of time and in a small geographical area, whereas climate refers to long-term weather trends over a large area. Being an island, Britain’s weather varies considerably, and it has become a national obsession. In 1880, a great deal of rain fell in the autumn and early winter, from September to December. More unusually, southern England experienced heavy snowfall in October, and in December much of the country was in the grip of severe frost and heavy snow.

That same year, 1880, the Reverend Murray Mathew moved to Wolf’s Castle in Pembrokeshire (south-west Wales), where he spent the next eight years as curate. In When There Were Birds, one chapter is about the association of weather and birds, and we mention Mathew talking about the fate of rooks: ‘In the severe winter of 1880 thousands perished. Their dead bodies were to be seen high up in the trees suspended frozen among the branches.’ Two things stand out – the severity of the cold and the huge numbers of rooks. Being a keen ornithologist, he is a reliable source, and he later wrote a book called The Birds of Pembrokeshire and its Islands. He also co-authored The Birds of Devon.

The weather did not improve, and January 1881 saw the ‘Great Blizzard’ across much of England and Wales, one of the most severe on record, as depicted here in the satirical weekly magazine Punch, with the street urchins daring to throw snowballs at a gentleman.

A New Ice Age

Until recent years, it was assumed that over the next few thousands of years, the climate would follow previous patterns of Ice Ages (glacials) and interglacials, but this now seems inconceivable with rising temperatures. At the end of January 1881, Punch even included entries from a Glacial Diary written by an imaginary London trader looking to profit from the misery. It highlights the entirely different worries about climate change:

January 21.––Glorious, healthy, bright, brisk bracing weather. Thermometer five degrees above zero. Have just cut following from Daily Telegraph:––

“There have been great changes of the world’s climate before now, and we may be sure there will be again … It is a solemnising thought amid the hush of the snow-buried metropolis, that once upon a time, our London parks and English waters were the pleasure-grounds of Arctic animals, and that they might become so again––if the frost continues long enough.”

Believe there is something in this. Hope there is. Buy a damaged lot of indiarubber hot bottles at two and ninepence a piece, and fifty tons of prime coal at thirteen and six, on the strength of it. Mercury still falling. Hooray! …

January 31.––Tenth day of thermometer thirty degrees below zero. Effects of continued cold tremendous. Snow thirty-two feet in Lowther Arcade [a beautiful arcade in the Strand, demolished in 1904 for Coutt’s bank]. Thames frozen to the Nore. Wolves at Rosherville [pleasure gardens in Kent]. Admittance to gardens reduced to fourpence. Sold my last ton of coals to a Royal Duke, for £15,000, a Scotch moor, the Order of the Garter, and five lucifer matches.

On a more serious note, Punch urged the wealthy to give charity: ‘WEATHER AND WELL-DOING.–– The frost will “give” sooner or later. Let the Well-to-do be beforehand with frost, and give to the much-suffering poor.’

Failed harvests

In spite of the harsh winter, the summer of 1881 looked as if it would yield a decent harvest, but then wretched weather once more affected the country. On 17th September 1881, Punch featured a cartoon with holidaymakers sheltering under umbrellas, rowing down a river or possibly a flooded lane, ‘making the best of it’.



Two weeks before, the Daily Telegraph newspaper gave a gloomy account of thunderstorms and persistent rain. In South Shropshire, they reported, ‘the weather for the last ten days or a fortnight has been the most unfavourable for completing the harvest that can be remembered. The daily and nightly downpour of rain has completely arrested the progress of the harvest, and there is great danger of the grain sprouting.’

The newspaper included the account of a correspondent who had just returned from a trip to West Lancashire: ‘the conditions of the crops in that rich farming country is saddening in the extreme. Hundreds of acres of the low-lying land on the sea-coast are under water. The many deep and wide brooks and ditches have overflowed their banks, and in numerous instances the crops of cereals are rotting in the ground … Some of the streams are literally blocked with sheaves of wheat, barley, and oats, which have been washed off the flooded land.’ Such poor harvests made the ongoing agricultural depression even worse.

On 10th September 1881, Punch offered its own weather chart and general forecast on how to approach a British summer, a brilliant pastiche, especially considering that weather forecasts and maps had been in existence for only the last two decades.


The Punch forecast ended with: ‘Depressions approaching across Atlantic signalled off for want of room, and sent back.’ This was wishful thinking.

A Frightful Gale

There was room for one more severe storm, and it hit the country the following month, on 14th October 1881. Orlando Whistlecraft, from the village of Thwaite in Suffolk, kept detailed weather records, and of that storm he recorded: ‘This was the wettest October for 64 years … the frightful gale on the 14th was the most destructive we have had since Nov 29. 1836!’

The next day, 15th October, the Morning Post newspaper carried reports from across London and England, with a level of news gathering and reporting that is rarely seen today. It began: ‘London has been visited by a storm of extreme severity, amounting to almost a hurricane in violence, and causing loss of life and a considerable destruction of property.’ The fierce winds even affected the River Thames, especially at low tide:

The water was so low in the Thames at two o’clock in the afternoon that much of the bases of the piers at Waterloo and other bridges were exposed to view. Several steamers were stranded at Hungerford and Westminster piers, and owing to the shallowness of the water the boats found it impossible to land passengers at any of the usual stations. The river steam-boat service had, therefore, for a time to be almost entirely stopped … The afternoon tide in the Thames was lower than the workmen have ever seen it, and a great many vessels got aground, including the Government steamer Buffalo. The water was extremely rough and navigation was practically suspended all day.

The worst disaster of all was off the south-east coast of Scotland, because 189 fishermen lost their lives, mostly from the village of Eyemouth in Berwickshire. This dreadful day became known there as ‘Black Friday’, a far cry from the American name used for the Friday after Thanksgiving, the start of the shopping bonanza that leads up to Christmas. But all of that is another story.



The Illustrated London News for January 1890 had a summary of the festive mail in December, starting with the parcels:

The Christmas postal work in London in 1889 was greater than ever, in regard to both parcels and letters. Of parcels alone, says the London correspondent of the Liverpool Courier, there were 1,150,000, in addition to the ordinary number, and it is calculated that of these no fewer than 100,000 contained turkeys, fowls, or game. Christmas puddings passed through the post to a greater extent than on any previous occasion, and many of them were destined for distant parts of the globe.

There were many more letters, and what is striking is how late they were posted, with every expectation of them being delivered on time, even on Christmas Day itself:

Letters showed a still more astonishing increase than parcels, and in the five days from Saturday until Christmas Day inclusive no fewer than 50,000,000 postal articles, consisting chiefly of letters, passed through the General Post Office. This was at the rate of 10,000,000 a day––a total that has never before been reached in this or any other country. At one private dwelling-house no fewer than 240 letters, believed to contain Christmas cards, were delivered on Christmas Day, and to a single hospital 10,000 Christmas cards were sent … The incoming and outgoing foreign and colonial mail service showed an equally remarkable growth.

Some rules were broken, though:

Fully 350,000 letters were found to be over weight and were surcharged accordingly. Contrary to the rules of the department, two live doves were consigned through the parcel post, and, notwithstanding the unexampled pressure of the season, the birds were delivered safe and sound.

Depicted below is a vintage Christmas card, possibly sent in about 1950 or even during the war a few years earlier – it was from Mrs Gullis & Olwen to Mrs Philstead & Fred, which suggests that the children’s fathers were absent. A verse inside reads:

May every day be a step beyond

To brighter things in view,

And every day have a richer store

Of Happiness for you

It ends with the words: ‘A Friendly Greeting at this Glad Season of Christmas and to wish you Joy in the New Year.’ We probably can’t improve on that! Meanwhile, keep reading, keep reviewing.



The next newsletter will probably be in the spring of 2023.