The Occasional Newsletter
Welcome to the October 2007 issue of our occasional newsletter.
Latest Book and Audio News
The War for All the Oceans is now on sale in the United States as a hardcover (published by Viking), with a beautiful jacket design incorporating a painting by Thomas Birch of the USS Constitution defeating HMS Guerriere in August 1812, during the so-called War of 1812 between the United States and Britain (a war that actually lasted from 1812 to early 1815). This defeat by the Americans was a huge shock to the British people, as they thought the Royal Navy was invincible. The same design is used for the audio version produced by Tantor.
Meanwhile, we are hard at work finishing Jack Tar, which will be published in October 2008, just about coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Nelson.
At a chance meeting, we found that Robin Brooks lives only a few miles from us. Robin is an exceptionally gifted marine artist, specialising in historical pictures of the ships in service during the wars with the French. He is part of a studio with other excellent artists who specialise in areas such as portraits and landscapes. The very interesting website that provides a showcase for the work of Robin and his colleagues, with lots more information besides, can be found at www.blackdog-studios.com
We have been extremely fortunate with our expeditions this year. Normally when we visit somewhere in Britain it rains in that location, and we return home to find that we have missed some glorious weather. Many parts of Britain suffered terrible weather and flooding this summer, but we had good weather for all our trips, even when the forecast was dire. By the end of July, we were getting weary of the constant rain and gloom at home, but the very day we set off for a trip to north Hampshire, the sun came out, and we visited some idyllic locations in glorious weather – places that had suffered floods a week or two before.
The main purpose of our visit was to look at a fascinating archive of material in private hands that includes letters from two naval officers who were at the Battle of Trafalgar. What we have been trying to do while writing Jack Tar is obtain fresh information about the everyday lives of the seamen at that time, so if any of you think you have something that may be of interest, do please get in touch.
We also found time to look round a few places during our visit, which was most rewarding. We are much more familiar with the southern half of the county of Hampshire, since Lesley was brought up there and we often visit Portsmouth. We have frequently passed through north Hampshire on the A303, and there is a tendency to think that the entire area is built up, but we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in real countryside with many attractive rural villages. The settlements here still have a high proportion of buildings made of flint, and are a reminder of how their construction can illuminate the history of an area at a glance.
Flint comes from chalk, where it is found in bands or layers at varying depths. It was once dug up deliberately for use in buildings, and was also a by-product of the chalk pits that were common in the 18th and 19th centuries – much of the chalk has a clay cap on top, which produces poor soil, and so 18th-century agriculturalists advocated improving the soil by spreading chalk on the fields to break up the clay and so change the chemical composition of the soil. When used in walls, flints were given a roughly flat face by hitting the flint at an angle with a hammer. This process was known as knapping and was essentially the same technique as that used by prehistoric people to make missile heads, knives and many other tools. The flints were set in thick mortar with the flat face outwards to form a wall with a rippling, multi-faceted surface. Flints were seldom large enough to provide two flat faces at right-angles for corner blocks, and so corners of buildings were usually constructed of red brick. Sometimes horizontal courses of red brick were set within the walls both as a reinforcement and a decoration, giving an attractive contrast to the blue-grey flint. Large buildings, such as churches, were also built in this manner.
Flint used in a church wall
Flint was a cheap and less prestigious material than other types of building stone, and so it was not transported very far. A glimpse of flint buildings from a car or train window therefore indicates that you are in chalk country. Because of the clay, agriculture was difficult here and traditionally revolved around the growing of cereals (most commonly wheat) and sheep rearing. In some areas these two activities would be practised in rotation, so that the sheep fertilised the fields that would in turn be used to grow wheat. In other locations, large areas were devoted entirely to sheep, which over time produced open rolling grasslands such as the Sussex Downs.
Hampshire church built from flint
The poor soil was reflected in the poor diet of the inhabitants, because sheep grassland was not lush enough for the rearing of cattle and horses. In areas with richer soils, where cattle were reared for meat and dairy products, a variety of crops could also be produced, and so the health of the people was better, as they had a more plentiful and varied diet. There were also less obvious benefits. The prevalence of cow pox among those working closely with cattle provided a measure of protection against the more dangerous smallpox that was a constant threat in earlier centuries. Agriculture was more labour-intensive here, spreading the wealth through a larger percentage of the population. Many of these areas became well known for their production of cheeses, and it is thought that the contrast between the healthy appearance of the people with that of farm labourers in the impoverished chalk areas gave rise to the expression, ‘as different as chalk and cheese’.
In this newsletter we are introducing a new regular feature: forgotten books. In part, this is because we are now into an intense phase of writing, when we are unlikely to have time for expeditions, and certainly no time to linger by the wayside during any trips. Nowadays, the only way to describe the publishing/bookselling industry is ‘brutal’, and newly published books simply do not linger long in shops – if they get there at all. The average time that a new book is on sale in bookstores is said to be under six weeks, if it is stocked at all. We can think of lots of history and archaeology books that we have never seen for sale in a bookstore, but were reluctant to buy online without checking out a copy beforehand. Most readers are shocked to learn that bookselling chains often decide centrally what books to stock and that new books are prominently stocked and recommended because the publishers have had to pay out hefty fees for the privilege. Bear that in mind when you look at the Christmas catalogues this year! It means that many wonderful books over the years have not come to the notice of potential readers, which is a tragedy when you consider how much time a writer devotes to researching and writing a non-fiction book.
In this section we will be looking at books that are no longer in the public gaze, and often no longer easily obtainable, but which we feel do not deserve to be forgotten. We will cast our net wide to include relatively recent books and older ones that still have a relevance today. We start with one of the latter: Historical Britain by Eric S. Wood, published by the Harvill Press, London, in 1995.
Eric Wood first made his name in archaeology with the publication of his Collins Field Guide to Archaeology in Britain in 1963. This went through five editions and was an essential primer and quick-reference bible for hundreds of British archaeologists. Historical Britain was Wood’s last published work, now out-of-print, and its subtitle is ‘A comprehensive account of the development of rural and urban life and landscape from prehistory to the present day’. The format of the book is unusual, being almost square, only slightly wider than it is tall (235mm x 225mm ), with two columns of text per page and line-and-stipple illustrations by Rex Nicholls. At 624 pages (including indexes and extensive further reading section) its claim to be comprehensive was not an unfair one.
Opening the book at random soon reveals the depth of research that lay behind the text. The sheer size of the book makes it a daunting prospect to read from cover to cover, but the clarity and lightness of the text lessen the burden of such a task and make the book a delight to dip into. On p.179, in the section on street names, we find: ‘The meaning of some names is not always immediately apparent, but these may include some which illuminate an otherwise lost or obscure aspect of the town’s history. An example is the Shambles (York and elsewhere): a shamble was Old English for a shelf, where goods were displayed in the front of the shop; only later was the word specifically linked to butchery. Finsbury Pavement (London) was once the only firm path across the marshy area of Moorfields. Godliman Street was where godelmynnes were sold – shoes made from the skin of young animals, and named after Godalming in Surrey, a tanning centre.’ While this text deals with the often abstruse derivations of place names, the book also covers the basic truisms so easily and embarrassingly forgotten by archaeologists and historians, who sometimes look too hard for religious or social explanations for what actually has a much more prosaic cause. Thus on p.105 Wood deals with the siting of villages: ‘It goes without saying that villages were sited in the most convenient place, preferably on dry ground (an extreme case being the gravel “islands” in the Fens), with handy water supply, at focal points for local, if not main, roads, and with ready access to the fields, the meadowland, and the waste. These principles can be demonstrated from prehistoric times. Founders of villages had a sound, if instinctive, eye for geology, which sometimes determined the shape also. Thus Selborne (Ha[mpshire]) – Saxon, and not replanned – is a mile-long street lying along the junction of the Lower Chalk and the Upper Greensand, taking advantage of the spring line. Yet some villages are sited in apparently unsuitable positions. Thus the deserted part of Rockingham (Nh [Wood’s abbreviation for Northhamptonshire]) was built on an unstable slope, Piddletrenthide (Do[rset]), was actually in a stream, and Whittleford (Ca[mbridgeshire]) was in a damp peat hollow. One suspects that in some cases good land was too valuable to build on!’.
No book, however large, can be absolutely comprehensive, but if the subject you are looking for is not dealt with in detail within this book, you are very likely to find pointers to other books that may well answer the question.
Monument of the Month
In 1802 Abraham Crawford was a young midshipman sailing from Plymouth in the Royal Navy frigate Diamond. The ship had not travelled far when the wind died down, as Crawford related in his memoirs that were published in 1851:
‘The ship was becalmed, and in that state drifted near the Eddystone. The Captain availed himself of so good an opportunity to visit the light-house, and I was so fortunate as to be the youngster that accompanied him in the boat: I say fortunate, for from that day to the present hour I have had no other opportunity of examining its interior. This very useful and most singular structure measures one hundred feet in height, and twenty-six, I think, in diameter. The basement, and whole of the exterior, is composed of solid blocks of granite dove-tailed into each other. The interior is faced with Portland stone, which is also used for the four or five stories, or apartments, that divide, at equal distances, the whole building; and the slabs which compose the floors of those apartments are likewise dove-tailed into each other. The whole is constructed of stone, and I cannot call to mind that any wood is employed throughout the edifice. Over the door of the lantern, and on the last stone that appears to have been set up, is engraved the date, with the following words of thanksgiving for the completion of so arduous an undertaking:
24 Aug., 1759,
Mr Smeaton was the engineer; and he has earned most just and permanent renown by the success which crowned so bold and difficult an enterprise. It is said, that observing the stability and vast powers of resistance which the trunk of an oak presents, first gave him the idea of his plan; and accordingly, the Eddystone Lighthouse bears an exact resemblance to one in form, being circular, and gradually decreasing in circumference from the base to a certain height, from whence it diminishes more rapidly to the top. The resistance which it has successfully offered for so many years to the buffetings of seas and tempests bears lasting testimony to the judgement and talent of its designer. The light-house was occupied by three men, who kept alternate watch by night; and whose duty was to attend diligently to the light, and see that it was kept trimmed and in most perfect order. They were furnished with provisions and water by the Customs House, which had the care of that duty; and they told us that once, and only once, the supply had nearly failed them, in consequence of a succession of hard gales, which cut off all communication with the shore for three weeks, at the end of which time, and just as their stock was quite exhausted, a boat from Plymouth was with difficulty enabled to reach them.’
The Eddystone Rock is about 14 miles south-south-west of Plymouth and a hazard to the busy sea lane of the English Channel. The first lighthouse built here was put up by Henry Winstanley and completed in 1698. The light was 80 feet above the rock, but when Winstanley saw waves break over it in winter, he rebuilt it as a larger tower that rose to 100 feet. Having huge confidence in this new structure, Winstanley decided that he wanted to experience a storm from inside. He accompanied a repair gang to the lighthouse, and they were there during the night of 26 November 1703. This was the night of the ‘great storm’ that caused over £1 million damage in London alone, uprooting thousands of trees and toppling church steeples in south-east England. By the next day the Eddystone Rock had been swept clean, and no trace was found of the lighthouse, Winstanley or his men.
The next lighthouse was a wooden one, rising to just over 90 feet above the sea. This was built by John Rudyard and completed in 1709. Despite the need to replace decaying timbers, the tower stood firm until the lantern caught fire on 2 December 1755 and the lighthouse burnt down, killing one of the keepers. The next lighthouse was the one built by John Smeaton that was later visited by Abraham Crawford. Construction began in August 1756, and the granite blocks, from Dartmoor and Exmoor, were prefabricated on land to ensure they would fit together accurately on the Rock. Holes were drilled through each block so that they could be fastened to each other with oak pegs until the cement between them had time to set. The work was completed in 1759, and the lighthouse was in use for well over a century before wave erosion undermined the foundations. A replacement lighthouse was designed and built by Sir James Douglass, and while the stump of Smeaton’s lighthouse was left on the Rock, the upper part of the tower was removed and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to Smeaton. Today Smeaton’s Tower, as it is now known, is open to visitors and is a tourist attraction offering views along the coast and out to sea.
Smeaton’s lighthouse at Plymouth
Egypt in Britain
One of the strangest phenomena resulting from the Napoleonic Wars was the wave of Egyptomania that swept across western Europe following Napoleon’s abortive invasion of Egypt in 1798. This was largely triggered by Dominique Vivant Denon’s bestselling book Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt, published in 1802. The plates from this book inspired architects and designers and in particular influenced furniture manufacturers and interior designers on the Continent. Although the book was popular in Britain, the craze for all things Egyptian came after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when British explorers, adventurers and entrepreneurs moved into Egypt, soon followed by tourists. The British Museum filled up with Egyptian artifacts purchased from agents in Egypt, and at one point mummies were flooding into Britain to be used as fertiliser. Not all such mummies were genuinely ancient (just as many of the artifacts were forgeries), but fortunately not all the counterfeit mummies contained human bodies. For a time public unwrapping of mummies was a popular spectacle, as were exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts. The result of this craze was a scattering of Egyptian artifacts throughout Britain, as well as the spread of Egyptian styles.
Not all such influences date from this time or directly from Egypt. The obelisk had been used as an architectural ornament and for grave memorials in Britain from at least the 16th century. Real Egyptian obelisks had been transported to Europe as antiques by the Romans, influencing Continental styles and then British fashions. Obelisks were again transported from Egypt in the 19th century, and one was brought to London and set up on the Thames embankment. Cleopatra’s Needle, as it is commonly known, has survived two world wars and air raid damage, and still stands as a landmark to the east of the Hungerford railway bridge that carries trains into Charing Cross station. A lesser-known obelisk imported from Egypt can still be seen at Kingston Lacy House in Dorset. Now owned by the National Trust, this house was once the home of the traveller William Bankes, who shipped the obelisk from Egypt. Also in the grounds are part of a second obelisk and an Egyptian stone sarcophagus.
Many museums thoughout Britain have sizeable collections of Egyptian artifacts, although not always on display. In London the British Museum is the most obvious place to visit, but the Petrie Museum, tucked away at the end of Malet Place, off Torrington Place, also has an impressive collection of objects. At the Wellington Museum at Apsley House is a magnificent Egyptian dinner service, originally made for the Empress Josephine by the French porcelain factory at Sèvres. The service was presented to Wellington by King Louis XVIII and is decorated with scenes taken from Denon’s book. An Egyptian Hall once stood on the site of what is now 170-173 Piccadilly, almost opposite the Royal Academy. Opened in 1812 by William Bullock as the London Museum, it came to house a great collection of Egyptian art and artifacts brought to London by Giovanni Battista Belzoni. The facade of the building was an English version of ‘Egyptian’ style. It was very similar to the Egyptian House in Chapel Street, Penzance, Cornwall, that was built around 1835 as a smaller copy of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.
Egyptian House at Penzance
Throughout the rest of the country relics from ancient Egypt can be found in stately homes and occasionally within their grounds, brought back as souvenirs by former owners of these houses. More widespread are examples of architecture showing Egyptian influence in their design, often in surprising places. The pylons of Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol, for example, are modelled on Egyptian pylons. As originally planned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, they were decorated with Egyptian motifs, but the bridge was finished after his death and the design was changed.
As Egyptian influence faded through the 19th century, it was given a boost by the discoveries of the tombs of Tutankhamun and other Egyptian royalty at the beginning of the 20th century. This had an impact on Art Deco style, not just in western Europe but across the Atlantic in America as well. Many shops, cinemas and other buildings dating from this era still display Egyptian influence and frequently retain their original Egyptian decorative motifs on the upper stories, even when the facade at ground level has been updated to form modernised shop fronts. Whenever you walk the streets of a town or city, cast your eyes upwards occasionally to see if an echo of ancient Egypt still lurks, largely unseen and unappreciated, above the motley throng of shoppers.
There are substantial remains of four ships of the Napoleonic era surviving in Britain, of which the best known is the Victory at Portsmouth. Of the same vintage is part of a French ship, the Duguay-Trouin, which retreated from the Battle of Trafalgar but was captured soon afterwards. Renamed the Implacable and used for various purposes, including as a training ship, the vessel eventually ceased to be useful to the Royal Navy. After a failed attempt to raise money to preserve the ship, the Implacable was towed from Portsmouth harbour and sunk out at sea. The figurehead and stern facade are now on display in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwhich. Like the Unicorn, the frigate Trincomalee was built just after the Napoleonic War was over. The Trincomalee now lies at Hartlepool and is open to the public as part of the historic quayside complex there, and is well worth a visit. The Unicorn is now at Dundee, without masts and with the upper decks roofed over. This is the form in which such ships were ‘mothballed’ and is also similar to the modifications of ex-warships to transform them into prison hulks. From this point of view alone the Unicorn is also well worth a visit.
Competition [now closed]
This time the prize for the winner of the competition is a copy of the unabridged audiobook version of The War for All the Oceans, read by Patrick Lawlor, and comes as a set of 18 CDs. The total running time 22.5 hours, so it is ideal for a (very!) long journey, if you commute some distance to work each day, or to while away the long winter evenings. The winner will be the person whose correct answer is drawn out of the hat. The competition question is: The tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, but his work in Egypt was financed by George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, better known as the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon was born in his family home of Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, in 1866, but he died at Cairo in 1923. Where is he buried?
In the Next Issue
The next issue will be a Christmas Special.