Newsletter 9

The Occasional Newsletter

Welcome to the Spring 2008 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Latest News

The manuscript of Jack Tar is now finished, edited and with the typesetters, so the book is well on schedule for publication in Britain in October. Inevitably we are still tidying up loose ends, such as selecting possible illustrations for the book, but we have also continued writing articles for magazines. We now contribute fairly regularly to Ancestors magazine, which is published by The National Archives. Essentially it is a family history magazine, and it carries articles on many aspects of history that are relevant to ordinary people. Since the difference between family history and general history is really only one of scale, this offers a great deal of scope for contributors. We generally concentrate on specific monuments and the stories behind them – stories that can range from ones of very local importance to international significance. If you are working on the history of your family and have not come across Ancestors magazine, it is well worth a look.

Forgotten Books

A fascinating book, long out of print, is The Land of England by Dorothy Hartley, which was published in 1979. Its subtitle is ‘English Country Customs through the Ages’ and in the introduction she explains: ‘This is not a history book, but a “documentary” about people’s life on, and from, the land in the days when most of them were country folk, and powered machines were still to come.’ She envisaged the book as loosely dealing with the Medieval period, but in reality many of the farming practices, customs and traditions that she describes survived at least until the First World War, and some of them still survive in rural areas today. This is nowhere more obvious than in the plate section of the book, where Medieval pictures sit side-by-side with photographs of nineteenth- and twentieth-century craftsmen and farm labourers using hand tools and techniques that had changed little for nearly a millennium. The book is also well illustrated with line drawings that record the tools and explain the techniques, and the text is broken up with quotations from early writers on agriculture. It is the clear, concise descriptions, however, that make the book enjoyable to read or dip into. In the section on harvest, for example, there is a description of ‘brose’, a word not now commonly heard outside the poetry of Robert Burns:

‘Brose. We give the Scottish name, although it was a general type of cereal food and probably one of the earliest. The corn husks after threshing were put to soak in water and stirred well. After (roughly) twenty-four hours the light husks float up, and the brown flour of the grain lies at the bottom of the bowl under almost clear water. This water when boiled would thicken slightly, but the thick sediment would form a porridge. That is essential brose. Its serving with milk and honey, or salt, and so on, varied. The unboiled water, if poured into the wooden hoggings [small barrels] carried by shepherds, would, after some miles of mountain walking, be churned up, and infected by the bacteria or yeasts held in the wood, and become a slightly acid fermented drink. Welsh shiot was a type of brose.’

The book also covers some unexpected topics, such as bracken:

‘Bracken was once a valuable crop to farm and industry. Right up until the 1920s it paid the farmer to cut the bracken as litter for the steading, and the under-packing of corn- or hay-stacks. Bracken was used to deep-litter the cowshed, stable and pig pen, it stoked the bread oven and made a tanning solution called “brake water”, which was stewed from the coarse parts and roots. Root crops were clamped with dry “brake”. It was a good springy and dry preservative. The surplus the farmer sold at a good price to potters and stoneware manufacturers for transport packing. In slate districts the quarries used the bracken, or heather, from the sheepwalks adjoining the quarry to pack their slate.

   “Brake” also reached the city as pannier packing for small products (pack horses would not eat it and straw was too valuable to waste): garden produce was “laid on fern”, as fish is laid on seaweed. All bracken, reed waste, or trodden straw cleared out of byre and sty, was composted and ploughed in. (It is interesting that the invention of the pneumatic tyre made bracken unnecessary for the safe packing of fragile goods; far less was cut, and the bracken encroached greatly on the sheep’s grazing. It is a root spreader, so deep gullies were dug to restrain its advance, but it just went down, and up the other side; and digging deep gullies cost more than cutting bracken.)’

The author, Dorothy Hartley, was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, in 1892 but lived most of her life in Wales. She travelled extensively around Britain noting the rural customs and traditions, and her other books, Food in England and Water in England, are just as interesting, enjoyable and useful. She died in 1985 and her ashes were buried in her family grave at St David’s Church, Froncysylite, Wales.

Roman Bridges

Pont du Gard Roman bridge and aqueduct, Provence
Pont du Gard Roman bridge and aqueduct, Provence

Roman bridge and aqueduct at Segovia, Spain
Roman bridge and aqueduct at Segovia, Spain

What did the Romans do for us? Ever since that question was asked in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, it has become a cliché. Some people, influenced by the parallels between the Roman Empire and the British Empire, take the view that the coming of Roman civilization was a ‘bad thing’ because it altered or destroyed the native ethnic cultures of Europe. Unfortunately, unlike some of the ancient civilizations that the British Empire came to control, the native cultures of Europe were illiterate, and so we have only the written record of the Romans, which condemns them all as barbarians. The Romans themselves were regarded as barbarians by the Greeks, and some people point out that Roman art and architecture was uninspired, derived from Greek models, and that Greece was the home of democracy. In fact, Greek democracy only applied to a small section of the population (adult male citizens) and like the Roman economy, Greece was totally dependent on slavery. Without the wealth produced by slave labour both Greek democracy and the Roman Empire would have instantly imploded.

Comparisons between any two cultures or civilizations is of limited use and must be treated with caution. It is much more accurate to look at the elements that make up such a civilization and see how well they worked. Rather than asking, what did the Romans do for us, it is better to ask what did the Romans do? One of the possible answers is: they built bridges. Roman art and architectural styles may not be in the same league as that of the Greeks, but the Romans were better engineers who introduced new techniques and materials. The Greeks relied either on timber bridges or very simple bridges consisting of large stone lintels supported on masonry pillars. The Romans developed the design of timber bridges for rapid building (usually for military purposes) and for remote areas. They also greatly improved the span and height of stone bridges by the employment of arches and concrete.

To cross a river, piers were built by using coffer dams from which the water was pumped out so that a trench could be dug down to the solid rock beneath the river bed. With this technique, the base of each pier was set on a firm foundation made of waterproof concrete. Since such piers obstruct the flow of water, cutwaters were constructed on the upstream side of each pier. These were triangular in plan and so greatly reduced the pressure of water on the bridge. In tidal reaches a cutwater was built at both ends of each pier. These piers were then spanned by a masonry arch which carried the road or aqueduct that was to cross the river. The Romans only built semi-circular arches, and so although these were immensely strong, the distance each arch could span was limited. In order to achieve a greater span, they had to make the arch larger overall, which also made it higher, so that it was actually easier for Roman engineers to span deep gorges than wide flat areas if the bridge was not to obstruct ships on the river. Bridges across deep gorges are some of the most spectacular Roman monuments that survive today.

Portchester Castle

Portchester is a castle for all seasons. Whether you prefer the Romans, Medieval fortifications or later periods of history, you should find something to interest you here. The castle was sited on a promontory at the head of Portsmouth harbour, deliberately positioned as protection for that harbour and the surrounding coastline. The first defence to be built here was a third-century AD Roman fort covering about 3.4 hectares, which was probably a naval base from which to attack pirates as they attempted to raid the coast. This fort was strengthened in the late third century when a massive masonry wall and double-ditch system was constructed, which can still be seen today. This was one of the Saxon Shore forts, which were a network of coastal defences set up to counter the increasingly intensive raids from Continental Europe. The name Saxon Shore (litus saxonicum in Latin) comes from a document called the Notitia Dignitatum, which is a Roman list of civil and military posts in Britain and dates to the end of the fourth century.


View from the keep of Portchester Castle, looking east to Portsmouth Harbour

After the Roman Empire retrenched and abandoned control of Britain, the castle continued to be occupied throughout the Saxon period: doubtless such a ready-made defensive site, with easy access to the sea, was an attractive place to live in those troubled times. At the end of the period, the castle was designated a burgh – a fortified place intended to help defend the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex against attack from the Vikings. After the Norman Conquest the castle was granted to a Norman lord, but passed back into the hands of the monarch after Henry II became king in 1154. It was probably a few years before this date that the square masonry tower keep was built in the north-west corner of the Roman fort. A church was also built around this time, and an Augustinian priory was founded within the walls, although no trace survives today. Throughout the Medieval and Tudor periods the castle was mostly held by monarchs, several of which held court there for a time, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The castle played no part in the Civil War, however, and in 1665 it was used as a prison to hold prisoners taken during the Second Dutch War. Throughout the eighteenth century the castle was intermittently used to hold prisoners of war, particularly Frenchmen captured during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793. These men were housed in wooden buildings in the interior of the fort and also in the keep, where many of their graffiti, scratched on the walls, are still visible.

The church of St Mary, built in the south-east corner of the fort, has some interesting monuments, although many gravestones in the churchyard have been badly eroded by the salt sea air. One of the more recent gravestones is that of the marine artist William Wyllie who lived and worked in the area and died in 1931. As might be expected from a coastal cemetery, many of the graves are of seamen from the area. Inside the church is a memorial to James Lind who was a naval surgeon and later a physician at Haslar Naval Hospital in nearby Gosport. In 1746 Lind published a Treatise on Scurvy, which recommended citrus fruits as a preventative and cure for the disease. While he was not the first person to recognise the benefits of such treatment, which replaced the missing vitamin C that caused the disease, he was the first to publish his views widely. However, because the cause of  scurvy was still not understood, it was only some decades later that his treatment was widely adopted in the Royal Navy.     

Monument of the Month

Kensal Green Cemetery in London is definitely worth a visit. It is reminiscent of the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and this is probably because the founder of the cemetery, George Frederick Carden, was inspired by that French cemetery. In the early nineteenth century London was overcrowded, and its churchyards were overflowing, posing an obvious health risk to the population. People like Carden, who was a barrister, began to look for suitable cemetery sites in the countryside around London, and in 1831 he and his colleagues found a smallholding of seventy-seven acres for sale at Kensal Green. The General Cemetery Company was set up to buy the land and run the cemetery, becoming the first large joint-stock cemetery on the periphery of the capital. The cemetery was initially funded by selling shares in the company, which also came with an option for a reduced-cost burial, and it started to build a potential client base from the outset.


Small stone with inscription ‘H P 1868’

The cemetery is full of eccentric, grand and not-so-grand monuments of all kinds of people, ranging from royalty like Prince Augustus Frederick, a son of George III, to Admiral Sir George Cockburn, the man who ordered the burning of the White House in Washington when Britain briefly invaded the USA during the War of 1812. Most of the gravestones, however humble, usually have at least a few lines of inscription, so it is strange to come across a very small stone with merely the initials ‘HP’ and a date of 1868. Such minimalist stones are often seen in country churchyards and can be an indication that a small stone with such a brief inscription was all the deceased’s family could afford: more lasting and more expensive than a wooden grave marker, but cheaper than the standard gravestones. In other cases, such stones and inscriptions would have been deliberately chosen for various reasons, rather than dictated by cost, but such a thing seems out of place in Kensal Green Cemetery where the tombs and gravestones are obviously designed as lasting and eloquent monuments.

The little stone with ‘HP 1868’ lies just to the east of one of the paths through the cemetery called Oxford Avenue, and if you continue south along this path, it is not long before you notice another stone exactly the same. In fact, there are ten such stones in the cemetery, and they are not gravestones but boundary markers. In the countryside, particularly over areas of open land such as Dartmoor in Devon, this type of marker is not uncommon, but it seems strange to find them today in an urban setting. These stones, with ‘HP’ on one side and ‘KP’ on the other, mark the boundary between Hammersmith Parish and Kensington Parish, which runs right across the cemetery from north to south.

Although Kensal Green Cemetery was originally built in countryside, it is now a rare open space within the built-up area of north-west London. The parishes became London Boroughs, and so the line of stones through the cemetery marks the modern borough boundary as well as the old parish boundary. Many grave monuments in the cemetery are protected because they are on the List of Historic Monuments, and so too is this little collection of boundary stones, which are Grade II Listed Historic Monuments. Their importance lies not, as with some of the grave monuments, in their significance for the history of art or architecture, but in the fact that they are a physical reminder of a time when there were still country parishes and wide open spaces less than six miles from the Houses of Parliament.

Competition Results

The Pont du Gard is a bridge in southern France that was built by the Romans to carry an aqueduct. Often it is only on such bridges that remains of aqueducts survive above ground level, and indeed many aqueducts were originally buried, either to maintain the gentle gradient that was needed to keep the water flowing, or to reduce loss of water through evaporation. As a consequence, the bridges themselves are often referred to as aqueducts, but in reality the aqueduct itself is just a narrow channel perched on top of the bridge. 

Competition [now closed]

Portchester began its existence as a Roman fort and ended up as a prison, but many Roman forts in England developed into towns, while some Roman forts were abandoned and never occupied again. One of the following places was never a Roman fort – which is the odd one out?

A. Winchelsea, East Sussex

B. Chesterholm, Northumberland

C. Lanchester, County Durham

D. Ribchester, Lancashire

E. Pevensey Castle, East Sussex

In the Next Issue

The ‘Chester’ place name, the temples of Paestum and regulars like Monument of the Month.