The pressing theme at the moment is how to save the planet. Climate change and pollution are key issues, and everyone is being urged to stop using fossil fuels. The world was so very different in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. Lives were then transformed by petroleum, oil, diesel, gas and by-products such as plastic.
A garage with Esso petrol pumps at Maidenhead in Berkshire
in the 1950s, on the main highway to London
Tar for the ships
Petroleum, or ‘rock oil’, is a naturally occurring liquid that has been exploited for thousands of years in the Middle East, China and Europe, including the thickest form of petroleum known as Continue reading
Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, nobody knew what to do with the natural petroleum deposits in north America, apart from small-scale use. In the 1840s, western Pennsylvania was a sparsely populated area of forests, farms and creeks, and petroleum was marketed as a curative medicine. Experiments then showed that kerosene (paraffin) could be distilled from petroleum and was suitable for replacing whale oil in lamps. This was such an incredible development in lighting that it led to speculative wells being dug. A further development occurred in 1859 when the first artesian well was successfully drilled at Titusville in Pennsylvania, initially producing 25 barrels (each containing 42 US gallons) of petroleum a day. The news spread like wildfire, and oil mania began.
Petrolia was the overall name given to the region, and in just four years numerous small towns Continue reading
We recently stopped at Alton in Hampshire for another visit. This town is 40 miles south-west of the city of London and close to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen spent her final years (she also used to visit Alton frequently). We had planned to spend an hour or so here, but stayed much longer, because it felt open for business and welcoming.
Decline of communities
Alton is a thriving market town, which is a rarity, because although politicians bailed out banks with taxpayers’ money, they then allowed them to close down a staggering number of branches, thousands of them, leaving some places without a single branch. This has had devastating consequences and forces people to travel much further from their local communities for basic services – which is not great for the environment.
The closure of local newspapers has also led to a failure of accountability, so that local councils have, with near impunity, raised car parking charges and closed down amenities such as public libraries, buses, youth clubs and toilets, exacerbating the spiral of decline.
By contrast, Alton felt vibrant. It was market day, there was glorious sunshine, and we were looking for a few places associated with Jane Austen and her family, in particular her two naval brothers, Frank and Charles. Continue reading
In the 1st century AD, the Romans established a fort at Lancaster, at a point where the river crossing could be defended, and seagoing ships and boats would sail up the river estuary with supplies. A thousand years later, the Domesday Book’s name for the place was ‘Loncastre’, meaning ‘Roman fort on the River Lune’. A bridge may have been built during the Roman occupation, and one has certainly existed since medieval times.
St George’s Quay was developed on the south bank of the River Lune in the mid-18th century, and with access to the open sea, large sailing ships could moor close to the warehouses and load and unload goods.
St George’s Quay with its row of Georgian warehouses
The flourishing port was further boosted by the construction of the Lancaster Canal, Continue reading
The open area round the cathedral at Exeter in Devon is called the Cathedral Close, once the heart of the city. In medieval times it contained streets of houses, the burial ground for the entire city and even churches and chapels. Those living there were closely connected with the church, while the open space was used for recreation by all and sundry, rubbish was dumped, bonfires lit, animals roamed, and games played amidst the grave markers. The Close was not a tranquil place, but a frontier zone between the cathedral and the city.
In the late 13th century, relations between the cathedral and the city were especially bad. In what appears to have been a flawed election, John Pycot became dean of the cathedral, and so Peter Quinil, the bishop, tried to oust him. Pycot was an Exeter man whose supporters included the mayor, and they singled out Walter de Lechlade as their main opponent on the bishop’s side. As the precentor of the cathedral, Lechlade’s job was to organise the cathedral’s services, but on the night of 10th November 1283, he was murdered in the Cathedral Close. Continue reading
Before heated irons, laundry and cloth were smoothed with a wooden roller and flat board without any form of heating or by rubbing with glass linen smoothers, polished stones or even hard wood.
Solid irons that were heated in front of fires began to be used in Europe from the 17th century (the technique was employed much earlier in China). They were known as sad irons, ‘sad’ being an old English word for ‘solid’, though the term ‘flat iron’ became more common.
Another type of iron was the box iron that had a hollow body with a hinged lid or sliding door at the back. Heated iron blocks were placed inside, or else charcoal or glowing embers from the fire that were kept alight by ventilation holes in the sides of the box. By the 19th century, flat irons were the most popular implement for smoothing cloth.
Two 19th-century flat irons
Heating a flat iron
Various sizes and weights of flat iron were produced for different types of cloth and garments. Continue reading
A visit to Agatha Christie
Penguin paperback books, famous across the world and the mainstay of anyone’s reading during the 1950s and 1960s, were conceived in 1934 on Exeter St David’s railway station. This was (and still is) the main station for the city of Exeter and our own local station. While sat in the waiting room recently, we were drawn to the framed picture shown here that commemorates this significant episode. It apparently occurred after Allen Lane, who worked for The Bodley Head publishers in London, had been visiting the bestselling crime novelist Agatha Christie in Devon.
The Great Siege of Gibraltar was very much part of the American Revolution (also called the American War of Independence). Our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History was published in hardback in the United States in March 2018, and today it is published as a Penguin paperback. The jacket design is more-or-less the same, with the striking painting by the American artist John Trumbull (you can read more about it here). The Penguin paperback has a lovely quote from the review of our book by Stephen Brumwell in The Wall Street Journal, and yesterday we saw another excellent review in the Military History magazine by James Baresel, in which he says : “The authors provide superb context regarding the siege, drawing on firsthand accounts and touching on military innovations developed during the protracted campaign. Just as fascinating is their analysis of its political aftermath” You can read that review in full here.
The paperback of our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is published today in the UK by Abacus – on World Book Day! That’s a very fitting date, especially as the book tells the story of the Great Siege of Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783, an incredible story within world history and the most lethal battle of the American Revolution (the American War of Independence). The paperback is also published to coincide with the 240th anniversary of the start of the Great Siege. It is available in all good bookshops, and the ISBN is 9780349142395. You can find out more information here.
The official launch of the paperback will be at an event at Gibraltar House in London on 1st April. See details here.
On a recent trip to the city of Lancaster in Lancashire, we made a point of visiting the wonderful Lune Aqueduct. The main road bridge over the River Lune is on the north side of Lancaster, and a short walk further north alongside the river brings you to Rennie’s Bridge, better known as the Lune Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the river.
The Lune Aqueduct over the River Lune
The Lune Aqueduct is a fine example of Georgian architecture, largely in its original form and Continue reading