Newsletter 68

Welcome to the November 2023 issue of our occasional news.


Much More Occasional

Our original plan was to prepare a newsletter for early August, but various unexpected commitments, including an invitation to the Calpe 2023 Conference in Gibraltar, have caused this newsletter to be more like an account of what we did through much of 2023.


Two Talks

We have two more illustrated talks to give this year. The first is related to our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England:


Exeter, Devon, Wednesday 22 November 2023: ‘Everyday Life in Jane Austen’s England’ from 10.45am to 11.45am. Venue: The Mint Methodist Church, Fore Street, Exeter, EX4 3AT. This talk is in the programme of the group called ‘The Exeter Forum’, but everyone is welcome (the hall is large), with a fee of £4 for non-members.

We are also giving a talk in December, based on our book Jack Tar:

Tiverton, Devon, Thursday 14 December 2023: ‘Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy’ from 2.00pm to 3.00pm. Venue: Cherith Hall, Blundells Road, Tiverton, EX16 4BZ. This talk is in the programme of the Local History Group of the Exe Valley U3A.


The Banks of the Nile

In Folklife West 73 (May 2023), we had an article published called ‘The Banks of the Nile’. Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, and the original song ‘The Banks of the Nile’ was about the battle between the British and French near Alexandria in March 1801 (when General Abercromby was killed) and the subsequent campaign up the Nile Valley. The French finally agreed to a treaty that allowed them to leave Egypt in September 1801.

General Abercromby fatally wounded at the Battle of Alexandria

The song was so popular that it continued to be sung long after Abercromby and the Egypt campaign were forgotten. It was easily adapted for later campaigns in Egypt, and in his book The Rambling Soldier (1977) Roy Palmer suggested that it might also have become a model for songs about campaigns in other countries.

The increasing number of articles on folklife tradition has led to a bigger Folklife Traditions Journal being published twice a year. The latest one, for November, has just been published – take a look at  for details.


The Lefroys in Leghorn



The Jane Austen Society publishes an annual journal packed full of fascinating articles, under the unassuming name of The Jane Austen Society Report. The latest one, for 2022, was published in July. We have an article (pages 56–60) on Anthony Lefroy, a merchant in Leghorn, Italy, which was the name used in the 18th and 19th centuries for the port of Livorno. He was buried in July 1779 in the English Cemetery there. Needless to say, there are several connections to Jane Austen, including him being the grandfather of Tom Lefroy, with whom she was in love – or was she? More about the Jane Austen Society and its various local branches can be seen on their website:







On Wednesday 24 May we gave a talk on ‘Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy’, a joint event of the Exeter Forum and the Exeter Heritage Harbour Festival. We were effectively launching the festival, so it was great to have a large and appreciative audience. The hugely successful festival continued into the weekend, mostly around Exeter’s quay (canal basin and river).

Some of the stalls on the Quay

Sunday was for us the key day, with stalls representing organisations such as the South West Maritime History Society, an exhibition inside the Customs House, performances from shanty groups, vintage cars, pirates, the Trafalgar Gun Company and even a re-enactment of the 1957 opening of the Prospect Inn by Diana Dors, against a backdrop of fine weather. You can read more about the quay and canal in our May 2022 newsletter (


 The final festival day

The highlight was the live firing of a replica 6-pounder cannon, along with smaller guns, by the Trafalgar Gun Company, with an excellent commentary from their Chief Gunner Rob Bibbings.

The Trafalgar Gun Company specialises in the live firing of cannons of all sizes, which are replicas of those used in Napoleonic times, from the end of the 18th and into the early 19th centuries. Being right by the guns when they are fired is an awesome experience.

Over the years the Trafalgar Gun Company has done everything from single cannon artillery displays to large-scale re-enactments, even providing the cannon accompaniment for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. They have also given advice, expertise and equipment for various television and film productions, so even if you haven’t yet seen them, you have probably heard them.

We had hoped to see and hear them again in July at the open day of the Britannia Royal Navy College, but the weather forecast was so dire that we baled out, only to discover that at Dartmouth the weather was not bad at all. We also missed their performance at the subsequent Exeter Heritage Harbour Festival in September, as it clashed with Calpe 2023, but are looking forward to the 2024 programme. Their website is, with many photographs and videos here:



 The Trafalgar Gun Company in action on Exeter Quay (see also ‘Quills’ below for quill primers)




In our latest book, When There Were Birds: the forgotten history of our connections, the chapter called ‘By-Products’ describes how bits of birds have been utilised in the past, with feathers being hugely important. Over the centuries poems were written praising the virtues of bird quills (the larger feathers with a hollow shaft or tube), and the one given below was supposedly written by Francis Atterbury, a man of letters, bishop, politician and Jacobite, who lived 1663–1732.


Atterbury’s poem was published almost six decades after his death and mentioned some of the many functions of a goose quill – for arrow flights, applying oil to a jack for roasting meat, for brooms, brushes, muffs to warm hands and firescreens to protect ladies from the heat of an open fire. These large feathers were also worn on military headgear, used in musical instruments and, most important of all, they were turned into pens:




THE Quill of the goose is a very slight thing,

Yet it feathers the arrow that flies from the string,

Makes the bird it belongs to rise high in its flight,

And the jack it has oil’d against dinner go right.

It brightens the floor, when turn’d to a broom,

And brushes down cobwebs at top of the room.

Its plumage by age into figures is wrought,

As soft as the hand, and as quick as the thought!

It warms in a muff, and it cools in a screen,

It is good to be felt, and is good to be seen.

When wantonly waving, it makes a fine show

On the crest of the warrior, or hat of the beau.

The Quill of the goose (I shall never have done,

If through all its perfections and praises I run)

Makes the harpsicord vocal, which else would be mute,

And enlivens the sounds, the sweet sounds of the flute;

Records what is written in verse or in prose,

By Ramsay or Cambray, by Boyle or Despreaux.

Therefore well did the Wise Man thus preach to us all,

“Despise not the worth of those things that are small.”


The most common use of quills was for pens that were dipped in ink when writing anything, from the smallest list and letter to the finest fiction and works of history. Quill pens were made from any suitable feathers, but mostly from geese. They were formed into pens by cutting the tip of the quill and making a small slit with a penknife to aid the flow of ink. As the pen wore down, the tip of the shaft was reshaped with a penknife.  For over a thousand years, writers cut and frequently trimmed their quill pens, and writing was a messy business, with ink running down pens, pools of spilled ink and blotting paper.


The Trafalgar Gun Company’s box of quill primers

One use of quills was for firing guns. Primer quills were filled with gunpowder and inserted into the touch-holes of cannons. When a flame was put to the touch-hole, the gunpowder in the tube burned through to the main charge and fired the cannon. In the picture of the Trafalgar Gun Company firing a cannon on Exeter Quay (see above), a vertical flame can be seen at the rear of the gun, which has blown back up the touch-hole as the cannon fired.



In our book When There Were Birds, we write that birds cannot survive if there is no food, and yet a catastrophic decline in insects has occurred in recent years. In 1837 Archibald Hepburn described a very different rural scene at the village of Linton, 20 miles east of Edinburgh: ‘In the pasture fields, where thousands of insects are disturbed by the cattle, how beautifully they [the swallows] skim along.’ Such a scene is now rare, as agricultural practices have changed substantially, alongside overdevelopment and the destruction of wildlife corridors.

We have let much of our large garden grow wild and have noticed an increase in insects. This summer we had swallows skimming over our garden and house for the first time in an age – only a dozen or so, but a sign of insect life. On a quiet Sunday morning, we also heard a steady humming from the line of lime (or linden) trees near our house. The trees were in blossom and alive with bees and other insects, something that hasn’t happened for a few years. Later on the bees congregated around our Michaelmas daisies, including this buff-tailed bumblebee.

By midsummer the grass and wild flowers were waist-high and showing signs of drought, but they attracted all kinds of insects. Keeping company on the thistles were a black-and-yellow longhorn beetle , as well as a five-spot Burnet moth. This is a moth that flies in the daytime, and we used to see quite a few of them, so their return is welcome. It looks as if our policy of neglect (also called ‘rewilding’) is working.




Our last visit to Gibraltar was in 2018, so it was a real pleasure to receive an invitation to give a talk at the Gibraltar National Museum’s Calpe 2023 conference, held at the University of Gibraltar in September. The conference theme was ‘The Three Anniversaries, 1783–1848–1893’, on the ending of the Great Siege in 1783, the discovery of the Neanderthal ‘Gibraltar skull’ in 1848 and the construction of the Gibraltar Dockyard from 1893, all fascinating topics. Specialists came not just from Gibraltar but across the globe, so it was a privilege to meet them, as well as to see old friends.

 Looking from Gibraltar across the Straits to Jebel Musa (Mount Abyla) in Morocco

Our talk was ‘The Great Siege 1779 to 1783 and its legacy’, which we very much enjoyed giving. For over three years, from September 1779, the British gunners fired virtually every day at the Spanish positions.  Having been so impressed by the noise, smoke and sensation of the guns of the Trafalgar Gun Company, we used an image of their re-enactment in our talk to illustrate what life must have been like on Gibraltar. We also said that the Great Siege is still not as well known as it should be, even though it formed part of the American War of Independence and is one of history’s most dramatic and significant episodes. A new Great Siege display has just opened at the Gibraltar National Museum, which is well worth visiting.

We attended several other lectures, ranging from the Mediterranean in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the study of Neanderthal remains in Gibraltar and beyond. The conference was superbly run, the hospitality unsurpassed and the weather glorious – the first time we have visited Gibraltar when the coast of Africa was not obscured by cloud. The Rock of Gibraltar and Mount Abyla on the north coast of Africa were called the Pillars of Hercules by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and we deal with some of the legends in our story ‘Here Be Monsters’ on the Lloyd’s Register Foundation website (see the details below).



It was good to visit the Gibraltar Heritage Trust’s lovely shop in Mackintosh Square, the only place offering a range of books relating to Gibraltar’s history – their website is Inevitably we came back with several books, as they can be difficult to obtain outside Gibraltar, and we were also very pleased to see three of our own books displayed for sale (Gibraltar, Jack Tar and Trafalgar).


We took the opportunity to visit the Windsor Bridge, which was completed in 2016. This bridge is 71 metres long, suspended over a 50-metre gorge, with supporting anchors driven 12 metres into the rock. It links two historic batteries along the Royal Anglian Way.



We also couldn’t resist the Skywalk, a glass viewing platform that was opened in 2018. It gives panoramic, 360-degree views across Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco.



On the final day of the conference, we were all taken on a boat trip around the Bay of Gibraltar, including the dockyard, ending up further out in the Bay where the boat was surrounded by dolphins.



This is almost ‘Stop Press’ news, as we have just found out that our book When There Birds was longlisted in July 2023 for the prestigious John Thackray Medal of the Society for the History of Natural History (see


The medal is awarded to the best book published on the history or bibliography of natural history in the preceding two years. Although we didn’t win (Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby was the winner), it is lovely to have our book recognised.




In October we gave a talk to the London branch of the Jane Austen Society on ‘All at Sea in the Time of Jane Austen’. The venue was St Columba’s Church, not far from Hans Place where Jane Austen lived for a while with her brother Henry. Our talk was not on the seaside and bathing, but instead focused on Jane Austen’s detailed knowledge of the Royal Navy, the naval people she knew, especially her brothers Frank and Charles, how she used themes from their lives and the navy in her novels and the reasons for the names of various ships in Persuasion and Mansfield Park.

We have several shelves of books devoted to Jane Austen and life in Georgian times, but decided several months ago to bring together all our maritime books as well, so it feels very satisfying to be surrounded by these connections to the sea.


In our last newsletter, we said that we were writing stories for the website of Lloyd’s Register Foundation. We have also set up a new page on our website about all things maritime (, with links to these stories and anything else new. Since doing ‘The Cospatrick Disaster’ (mentioned last time), we have researched and written several more stories:  Donkey Engines (on the curiously named donkey engines and boilers);  The Sinking of the Royal George (in 1782, at Spithead); Salvaging the Royal George (a tale of diving innovation, including diving bells and early diving helmets);  and Here Be Monsters (on the superstitions relating to monsters at sea, including the Pillars of Hercules). Our latest piece is called ‘Unlikely Heroes of the Sea: Seabirds’ Crucial Role in Maritime Safety’.






Our next newsletter will probably be in January or February 2024.