Newsletter 69

Welcome to the April 2024 issue of our occasional news.



We have had two articles published since our last newsletter. One of them is in Folklife Traditions Journal 75, for March 2024, pages 14 to 16, called simply ‘Rushes’. Several folksongs mention rushes, and we discuss how they were used as floor coverings and made into rushlights. We also talk about ‘rush-bearing’, the annual ceremony of carrying rushes to churches.


This image is of one of the incredible rush-carts that were created each year at Uppermill, now in Greater Manchester. This one dates to 1890, and it was published in Alfred Burton’s 1891 book Rush-Bearing. To him it was not history but part of everyday life. See

Chimney Swallows

The latest Gibraltar Heritage Journal, volume 29, was published towards the end of 2023 and has an article by us on pages 110–13 called ‘Chimney Swallows’, in which we discuss bird migration, swallows and connections between England and Gibraltar. One such connection was the Selborne curate and naturalist Gilbert White writing to his brother John White, who was chaplain to the Gibraltar garrison from 1756 to 1772. To obtain this journal, see the Gibraltar Heritage Trust’s website here.



See also ‘All at Sea’ (further down) for our articles that have been published on the Lloyd’s Register Foundation website.




To errr?

Humour in books of non-fiction is always welcome, including humour that is hidden by authors in the text. We have all done it, slipping in something to see if it ever gets noticed. We wonder if the prolific writer Edward Keble Chatterton (1878–1944) had a sense of humour. In his book Steamships and their Story, published in 1910 by Cassell and Company, he has a Preface of over 7 pages, which ends with several acknowledgements. His last paragraph (on page xii) is:

‘Finally, I have to apologise if through any case it should be found that in spite of extreme carefulness errrors should have found their way into this narrative. The nature of the subject is necessarily such that to have erred herein would have been easy, but I have been at great pains to prevent such a possibility occurring.’

If not the author, then perhaps the typesetter saw fit to have a joke?


Writers have always been at the mercy of reviewers, though it is considered more humane to avoid reviewing a bad book rather than cause the author untold anguish. The poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799–1845) was none too keen on reviewers or critics, as he made clear in his Whims and Oddities, in Prose and Verse, published almost two centuries ago by Lupton Relfe (London, 1826):



WHAT is a modern Poet’s fate?

To write his thoughts upon a slate:––

The Critic spits on what is done,––

Gives it a wipe,––and all is gone.

Books as history

It was reported recently that because children are so accustomed to using electronic devices, some of them try ‘swiping’ the pages of physical books, as they don’t know what to do with them. We rather hope that this is an urban myth, and yet so much has changed in the book world that it could be true.

When buying secondhand books, remnants of how books were used in the past are often revealed, such as uncut pages, the names of long-forgotten publishers, bookplates of former owners, lending library stamps and conditions, as well as fascinating ephemera like bookmarks and advertising leaflets. The best bookmarks are surely ad hoc ones, including old bus tickets.

In Wales, the Cardiganshire library service purchased The West Coast of Scotland, Skye to Oban: A Shell Guide by Stephen Bone when it was first published in 1952, and the date stamps show that it was fairly regularly borrowed over two decades. It was up to borrowers to return the book before the due date or else renew it to avoid incurring a fine (which was one penny for the first week and two pennies for each subsequent week. This was pre-decimal, when there were 240 pennies in a pound).



Long ago we picked up a copy of Devonshire Verbal Provincialisms, a small book of 196 pages that was published in 1909, using material from the1877 to 1908 Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Ours was once a lending copy from Devon County Council’s County Library. It is now marked ‘WITHDRAWN FROM DEVON LIBRARIES’ and was sold for £1.


The sheet with the date stamps has been removed, but the conditions for borrowing survive, and of particular note are the instructions on what to do if there has been any infectious disease in the borrower’s home:

‘Borrowers … must ask the Medical Officer of Health for the district what is to be done with any books which have been borrowed. They must not return any book to the Library without the express permission of the Medical Officer of Health, and must not make any further use of the Library until the Medical Officer of Health has given them permission to do so.’

We can smile at these restrictions, and yet they feel more reassuring than the panic that was prevalent during the covid pandemic.



The Devon library service is now part of ‘Libraries Unlimited’, an ironic name considering that much of what they used to provide has been cut. Their online catalogue shows 12 subsequent versions of this book (reprints from later Transactions of the Devonshire Association), but just one original book. There are no lending copies, as they are all ‘reference only’. There are no copies in the British Library or London Library, and we can’t find any copies that can be downloaded, so our insignificant-looking book now seems much more special. Four copies are currently for sale online, ranging from about £20 (an ex-library copy, like ours) to £88!

As you might imagine, the book is a collection of words and phrases from the wonderful Devonshire dialect, and this is the entry for ‘nautical’ (which we thought might reflect Devon’s maritime past):

NAUTICAL = naughty, ribald. An old farm labourer, native of Culmstock, speaking of some factory girls who had not the best of characters, said, “But they don’t zing no nautical songs in their work; ’tis mostly hymns like.”

Book spotting

Once upon a time, when there were real books, magazines and newspapers, anyone travelling by train, tube or bus could see what the other passengers were reading. Authors might even hope to spot one of their own books being read by a discerning commuter. Alas, everything has changed, and it is now rare to see anyone reading a physical book. Sadly, most people seem to spend their time scrolling through goodness knows what on their phones.  It is nowadays a forlorn hope that we will spot a traveller reading anything we have written. Even so, we did take pleasure in discovering some of our own books amongst a collection of naval books that we purchased last year. They included this well-used copy of Trafalgar, adorned with post-it notes.


A vending machine for Penguin paperback books was installed at Exeter St David’s railway station last year, and if successful, then we are happy to be proved wrong in thinking that virtually nobody on public transport reads books. No prices were displayed – presumably you have to make a selection first, before the electronic display reveals all.

The reason for installing such an innovative book vending machine at this station is because paperback books were conceived here in 1934, exactly 90 years ago, a noteworthy anniversary, when Allen Lane was visiting Agatha Christie (and travelling by train)! For that story, see one of our earlier newsletters (number 54 here).



The Brocklebank Line

Rummaging through various vintage bits and pieces recently, we came across two buttons, which we realised were uniform buttons of the Brocklebank Line, one of the oldest shipping firms in Britain. It was founded by Daniel Brocklebank, who was a shipbuilder and originally from Cumberland. In 1770 he went to America, but when the American War of Independence began in 1775, he returned to England and eventually established a shipbuilding and shipping business at Whitehaven. When he died in 1801, his two sons, Thomas and John, took over and expanded the business, opening routes to South America and later to India and China. The firm was incorporated as Thomas and John Brocklebank (usually shortened to T. & J. Brocklebank) and continued to trade under that name long after both brothers had died. In 1820 a Liverpool office was established, and during its long history the company operated many ships. In 1865, with iron ships coming into use, the Whitehaven business was closed, and instead Harland and Wolff at Belfast built many of the company’s iron and steel ships. The company expected high standards of behaviour from the crew, and they were required to wear a uniform.


Brocklebank Line uniform buttons with a rope twist edge, an anchor and downward-pointing flag.

On the reverse is ‘Firmin London’, the long-established military button maker founded in 1655

Running Aground

One of the Brocklebank Line ships was the four-masted steamer Mahratta, built in 1892 by Harland & Wolff at Belfast and rated as X100A1 by Lloyd’s Register, which means that she was built under Lloyd’s Register Special Survey in accordance with their 1869 rules for the construction of iron and steel vessels. Regular trips were made to and from India, and on 5th March 1909 the Mahratta left Calcutta in India homeward bound for London and Dundee, fully laden with a valuable cargo of coffee, tea, rice, hemp, hides, rubber and jute. A pilot was taken on board at Portland, who was to oversee the passage of the vessel up the English Channel.

In the early morning of Good Friday, 9th April 1909, the Mahratta ran aground on the Fork Spit of the treacherous Goodwin Sands, opposite the coastal town of Deal in Kent. The Daily Telegraph described the scene:

‘When morning dawned the stranded vessel was clearly visible from the marine promenade at Deal, and throughout the day she was watched by crowds of visitors and others. The ship failed to float at high water. In view of the serious consequences of a steamer remaining long on the Goodwins, other tugs were requisitioned, and it is possible that it may be found necessary to jettison some of the cargo.’

Boats, tugs and lifeboats from Deal, Dover and Ramsgate tried to help, but they were insufficient to pull the immense ship off the sandbank, and shortly after the last attempt, the vessel broke in two. Most of the passengers had already been taken off, but about 200 crew, boatmen and labourers from Deal were still on board, trying to salvage the vessel and cargo. Once the ship began to break up, there was a rush to the boats, while the Deal lifeboat took off the remainder. The only person left on board was the chief engineer, Samuel Gibson, who had unaccountably killed himself in his cabin.

The Mahratta’s cargo was one of the greatest losses sustained by Lloyd’s Insurers, as the Belfast Telegraph reported:

‘Lloyd’s underwriters were unfortunately faced with the worst cargo loss of the year through the grounding on the Goodwins of the Liverpool liner Mahratta on Good Friday. Being on her homeward voyage, the vessel was laden with a valuable miscellaneous cargo … It is estimated that the aggregate value of the interests at stake exceed a quarter of a million, of which about £50,000 is allocated to the hull of the vessel.’

In May a Board of Trade Inquiry was held at Liverpool to decide the cause of the wreck, and it concluded that the master (captain) was negligent in not returning to the bridge when the vessel was navigating narrow waters. The second mate was also negligent in not keeping a proper watch, but most blame was heaped on the pilot who had failed to recognise one of the lights and was uncertain of their position. Although the night-time weather was clear, he claimed it was hazy, which meant he was either trying to save his skin or else his vision was faulty.

History Repeated

It was customary to reuse names of ships, and in 1917, during the First World War, the name Mahratta was given to another new steamship of the Brocklebank Line, this time built by Robert Duncan and Co at Port Glasgow and also rated as X100A1 by Lloyd’s Register. This vessel was also intended for voyages between Britain and India.



On the night of Friday 6th October 1939, at the start of the Second World War and three decades after the first Mahratta was wrecked, history repeated itself. The second Mahratta was almost home after a voyage from Calcutta. Between the Goodwin Sands and Deal is a safe anchorage called the Downs, which was crowded with vessels from other wartime convoys. The blackout conditions made it very hard for pilot boats and ships to identify each other, but when the Mahratta pulled out of the convoy to pick up a pilot, she struck the same sandbank.

At first it was thought the ship could be saved. Some of the cargo was thrown overboard, and at high tide tugs tried to pull the vessel into deeper water. The weather began to hamper these operations as a south-westerly gale arose, but one tug managed to move the ship a short distance. During the day, a crack in the ship’s port side began to open up, and by the evening it was obvious that salvage was impossible. What happened next, at around 7pm, was reported by The Liverpool Echo:

‘While the Deal motor-boat Lady Haig was standing by the stranded Liverpool ship Mahratta, on the Goodwins, the ship suddenly broke in half and crumpled amidships. Smoke, steam, dust, and volumes of water shot into the air, smothering the crew of the motor-boat. One Lascar member of the Mahratta’s crew was killed, and David Pritchard, aged 77, on the motor-boat, was seriously injured when a Lascar seaman threw his baggage aboard the motor-boat. The strain of pulling by tugs and suction of the quicksands is believed to be the cause of the ship sinking. All the eighty-seven on board, except the Lascar, who was killed, were saved by motor-boats.’

The wreck was recorded in the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, Returns of Ships Totally Lost, Broken Up, &c. 1st October to 31st December 1939 – just another casualty of war.

The End of the Line

Many other Brocklebank ships were lost during the Second World War. The shipping line had come under the control of the Cunard Line in 1919, and in 1940 Cunard bought the remaining shares in the Brocklebank company. After a reorganisation in the 1960s the line was renamed the Cunard Brocklebank Line, and from then on it carried all Cunard’s freight. The company could not compete with increasing use of containers and container ships, and the last Brocklebank ships were sold in 1983.



Sea Stories

We continue to do maritime research into all sorts of fascinating topics for Lloyd’s Register Foundation, with a focus on safety at sea, and regularly produce articles, with illustrations, that are posted on the ‘Stories’ section of their website. The most recent topics to be featured are about guano, women and tobacco smoking.


In ‘Guano: A Perilous Cargo’, we investigate guano (bird manure), which from the 1840s was highly prized for agriculture, especially guano from Peru. It was a perilous cargo for wooden sailing ships, not just because it involved a passage round Cape Horn, but because guano was very unpleasant and could cause fires, explosions and other hazards. We dealt with this topic in our book When There Were Birds (pages 335–7), but were able to broaden our research for this story, including the surprising role of the National Trust property of Tyntesfield near Bristol.



In ‘Women, Ships and the Sea’, we look at the contradictory relationship between women and the maritime world. On the one hand they were easy to blame for misfortunes at sea and on the other they brought good fortune to vessels at launches and as figureheads.






Our latest story is of tobacco smoking in:   “What harm could one do?” The Disastrous Result of Smoking at Sea.

Tobacco was originally used as a medicinal herb, but smoking with pipes was introduced to England in the late 16th century. For over 400 years, smoking with pipes and cigarettes, as well as the use of matches, was completely acceptable at sea, even aboard wooden vessels, and inevitably it was the cause of countless disastrous fires.



You can find out more about what we have written on this page of our own website (which has links to each of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation stories):


Flamborough mystery

In our last newsletter, we mentioned the story we had written for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation called ‘Unlikely Heroes of the Sea’, on the role of seabirds in maritime safety. The sight and sound of seabirds have always alerted mariners to land being close by. At Flamborough Head, the shrieking of seabirds was especially welcome, warning mariners of the dangerous chalk cliffs, and they even acquired the name of ‘Flamborough Pilots’. A link to the story is here.



One image that we used was a depiction of Flamborough’s chalk cliffs, called ‘Flamborough: The Seabirds’ Home’. It was painted by the artist Frederick William Booty, who lived 1840 to 1924. It was reproduced on a postcard that was posted on 12th April 1905 at the village of Stoke-by-Nayland in Suffolk. The halfpenny stamp bearing the head of King Edward VII was attached diagonally, which was often a declaration of love.



The postcard was sent to Miss E. Underwood in the village of Acton, about 5 miles away, and the message was written in reverse, no doubt to hide it from prying eyes:

‘Dear cousin so sorry I haven’t wrote before I have been busy Have you got another crib yet or are you going to stop & get married Is your album getting full yet Love from your cousin A.H.J.’

The album must have referred to a collection of postcards. By ‘crib’, we assume he is using the word like ‘berth’, probably referring to her lodgings, employment or position, perhaps as a servant or nursemaid. We could have continued with the research by asking:  Who was A.H.J.? Did he live in Stoke-by-Nayland? Had he previously offered to marry his cousin? Did they marry? Are either of them in a previous or later census? Did he survive World War One? What was her first name? Why did he have a postcard of Flamborough? And can Home Farm Lane be traced today? So much mystery in one postcard!





Our next newsletter will be later in the year. Keep reading and reviewing!