Category Archives: British history

Boz in Oz and Exeter

Charles Dickens is a constant favourite. Some weeks ago, we received a copy of Boz in Oz, the wonderfully named annual journal of the New South Wales Dickens Society in Australia (‘Oz’, of course, meaning Australia, while ‘Boz’ was Dickens’s pen-name). What a treat – 86 pages of beautifully presented articles, news, snippets and reviews, illustrated with loads of colour and black-and-white pictures. It is surely worth joining the society for its journal alone. We have an article in it called “Mile End Cottage, Alphington” (pp. 73–5, with footnotes on p. 86).

Rural banishment

Dickens never had a good relationship with his parents, mainly because he had to constantly Continue reading

Portsdown Lodge

Jane Austen had two naval brothers, Frank (Francis) and Charles. Frank was born at Steventon in Hampshire in 1774, the sixth Austen child, then came Jane in 1775 and finally Charles in 1779. Both brothers became admirals, but Frank eventually rose to Admiral of the Fleet, the highest rank in the Royal Navy, and he ended up living in Portsdown Lodge.

Portsdown Lodge

Being on the north side of Portsdown Hill, Portsdown Lodge was sheltered from the prevailing winds. It had 14 bedrooms, and the estate had farm buildings and several acres of land that extended to the top of the hill, from where Frank could view Portsmouth, its naval base and the Spithead anchorage. Close by was the main route from London to Portsmouth (now the A3). The nearby George Inn, which still survives (shown here), was a coaching inn on this busy route.

Continue reading

John Singleton Copley

The birthplace of the Anglo-American artist John Singleton Copley was Boston, Massachusetts.Born in 1738 (or possibly 1737) to Irish immigrants, Copley became a successful artist in Boston and New York, but left for England in June 1774, followed by his family a year later, in order to escape the political turmoil on the eve of the American War of Independence.

St John the Baptist Church at Croydon in 1785, where John Singleton Copley was buried

He became one of the foremost artists in London and spent more than five years on the huge Continue reading

Gibraltar Heritage Journal

The Gibraltar Heritage Trust has been publishing the Gibraltar Heritage Journal for 25 years. The Trust itself was formed a few years before the journal was launched. Each journal contains a range of articles connected with Gibraltar, and many have a social history theme.

Back numbers can be purchased as print copies or downloads on their website. We have an article in the latest volume, called “The British Salamanders”, an expanded version of a piece we wrote for Folklife Quarterly on a contemporary ballad relating to the Great Siege of Gibraltar. This year, Continue reading

Tar and Bitumen

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

Petrolia

Oil mania

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

Alton in Hampshire

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.

Curtis Museum

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

Lancaster and the Slave Trade

Origins

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.

The port

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

Exeter’s Ungodly Murder

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.

The murder

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

Sad Irons

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