Welcome to our blog, ‘Patterns of the Past’. We are historians and archaeologists, and on this blog you can read short features about all sorts of fascinating topics. We write them in the same way as our books, but instead of keeping to a particular theme, we wander wherever we wish. You can read more stories by going to ARCHIVES or CATEGORIES on the right. Do please leave comments (just click on the title of the post, which will bring in the ‘comments box’).
Theme parks, offering a variety of complicated fairground rides, have done much to eclipse the popularity of travelling funfairs. Yet the one advantage of fairs is that they do travel, taking their rides to places far and wide. Compared to the attractions at a static theme park, the roundabout (also known as a carousel or merry-go-round) may seem tame, but it has a long history, and primitive roundabouts were one of the first types of travelling fairground rides to appear. The earliest examples were not much more than horizontal wheels with seats, powered by men who stood within the rim of the wheel and pushed on the spokes while walking round and round. Eventually, like small mills and similar machinery, roundabouts were powered by a horse turning another wheel connected to the roundabout by a belt.
The roundabout from ‘The Costume of Great Britain’ by William Henry Pyne published in 1805
Dobbies and gallopers
Dobbies (singular: dobby) were roundabouts that had wooden horses hanging by a single pole from the roof. There was no floor to the roundabout, and no mechanism to make the horses rise and fall. Originally designed for use by children, Continue reading
Over the centuries, many ships have foundered in bad weather off Cape Trafalgar on the rocky southern coast of Spain, where in 1805 the Battle of Trafalgar was fought. In this same area during World War One, HMS Britannia was hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine.
Built in Portsmouth, HMS Britannia was launched in December 1904 as a battleship of over 16,000 tons, with four 12-inch guns, four 9.2-inch guns and ten 6-inch guns, and was completed in 1906. That same year saw HMS Dreadnought enter service, a new type of battleship Continue reading
Simnel cakes have a long history. The 1799 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary gives the simple definition of ‘simnel’ as ‘A kind of sweet bread or cake’, but one of the earliest mentions is in the short poem by Robert Herrick, first published in 1648:
A Ceremonie in Glocester
I’le to thee a Simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou‘lt give me.
The reference is to Mothering Sunday, which is traditionally the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Mid-Lent Sunday, Continue reading
We are continuing to work on our new book about the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Generally, publishers specify a word length based on what is felt to be commercially viable and what the authors feel is appropriate. When doing research, we tend to find enough material to fill many volumes, but the trick is to cut it all down to produce something readable. For our Gibraltar siege book, we could easily wander off into countless digressions, leaving no space for the main story, but our newsletters do allow us to indulge in digressions galore – such as Coxheath Camp here.
Gibraltar’s Great Siege was rooted in the American War of Independence. In early 1778 France sided with the rebel colonies and then in July declared war on Britain. The French tried to persuade Spain to unite with them against Britain and even offered to help capture Gibraltar. Eventually, in June 1779, Spain also declared war on Britain, and the Great Siege of Gibraltar began. While all this was going on, Coxheath was turning into an enormous military camp.
Coxheath (marked ‘Cocksheath’) in the centre of this 1783 map of Kent
Coxheath – sometimes spelled ‘Cocksheath’ – was located just south of the town of Maidstone in Kent, some 30 miles south-east of the City of London. It comprised a stretch of wild heath Continue reading
Decimal coinage has been the legal currency in Britain for 45 years, since 1971, based on pounds and pennies (with 100 pennies equivalent to one pound), so that a price of £1.05P means one pound and five pennies. There are still plenty of people who remember a pre-decimalisation time when £.s.d. was the abbreviation for money – pounds, shillings and pence. Of those three letters, only the £ sign (an embellished form of ‘L’) remains in use.
The letters L.s.d. developed from Roman times when gold was the basis of coinage, along with silver. The ‘L’ or ‘£’ originated from the Latin word libra (plural librae), meaning a pound in weight (not librum as it is at times incorrectly written). The ‘s’ came from the Latin word solidus (plural solidi), which was a type of late Roman gold coin. The ‘d’ came from the Latin word denarius (plural denarii), which was a Roman silver coin (see the picture). The value of these Roman coins depended on the amount of gold and silver they contained, and when coins were debased, their relative values changed.
A denarius of Hadrian who was Roman emperor AD 117–138
With the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, the use and minting of coins were disrupted. With gold in short supply, Continue reading
Our book Jack Tar plays a role in a blog post called ‘Nelson’s Floating Menagerie’ (for November 14, 2016). This is a wonderful blog called ‘Seafurrers: True Tales of the Ships’ Cats that Lapped and Mapped the World’, which you can enjoy here.
Picture credit: “Illustration cobbled together by Ad Long”
Seafurrers is hosted by Bart the Cat, though we do suspect some human participation as well. Continue reading
Roman archaeology has been one of our long-abiding passions, even an obsession, and as field archaeologists for some three decades, we worked on excavations of several Roman sites in Britain, from rural hovels to villas, towns and fortresses. We even spent our honeymoon on Hadrian’s Wall, and have visited countless other sites throughout the Roman Empire, pored over exhibits in museums and written papers and books on Roman themes. Recently, we were very pleased to be sent a newly published book called Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome by Paul N Pearson (Pen & Sword Military hardback, 2016, ISBN 9781473847033, xxiv prelims, 296 pages, illustrations, maps, appendices, endnotes, bibliography and index).
Before saying anything more, we must declare an interest. In the dim and distant past, Continue reading
Images and customs
One of the perennial symbols of Christmas and New Year are church bells. Images of bells appear in Christmas card designs and as Christmas decorations, and the sound of bells forms part of many television and radio programmes (and, of course, advertising). For centuries, bells were sounded to welcome in Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and in 1824 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported the ringing of Christmas bells in Yorkshire:
‘Christmas-eve is, in Yorkshire, celebrated in a peculiar manner. At eight o’clock in the evening, the bells greet “old father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the Yule candle is lighted.’
This custom was probably thought worth noting because it was different to the practice of Continue reading
Streets of darkness
When wandering along town or city streets, you can often spot objects that are leftovers from a previous way of life, including the strange-looking ‘link extinguishers’ outside a few houses in London and elsewhere. Before gas street lighting became widespread in the early decades of the 19th century, urban streets were extremely dark. Even on moonlit nights, the moon might be darkened by clouds, while the buildings on either side would cast deep shadows. For anyone out in the streets at night, there was not just the obvious hazard of being attacked by thieves, but a constant risk of accidents through not being able to see the way.
A link extinguisher in London on an entrance pillar (left) and in a close-up view (right)
The solution for many people was to hire a link boy – a boy or young man who carried a flaming torch called a ‘link’ to light the way for the traveller. Continue reading