When you next post a letter, take a look at the letter box (or post box). We’ve recently been in Gibraltar, where they are instantly recognisable to visitors from Britain, being of cast iron, painted red and bearing a royal cipher. British letter boxes are so traditional that they are commonly depicted on Christmas cards, adorned with seasonal snow and a festive robin or two.
A rare pillar box near Main Street, Gibraltar, of Edward VIII,
who abdicated. The cipher reads ER VIII
French New Year Postcards from the 1920s
Postcards have long been used for sending Christmas and New Year greetings (see our newsletter 43), especially in the heyday of the General Post Office in Britain, when a next-day delivery of letters and postcards was provided (and in some places a same-day delivery). The use of postcards for festive greetings was not confined to Britain, as is shown by this collage of four distinctly French New Year greetings postcards that date to the 1920s, with the words ‘Bonne Année’ – Happy New Year. We wish you all the very best for 2018.
This year, 2017, is the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death in July 1817. It is also the bicentenary of her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were published posthumously in December 1817 – some 42 years after she was born.
Death at Winchester
Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon on 16th December 1775, and she lived in various places, such as Southampton and Steventon in Hampshire and Bath in Somerset. When she became seriously ill in April 1817, a physician from Winchester in Hampshire was consulted after the local doctor admitted defeat. Continue reading
One of the projects with which John Drinkwater was involved after the Napoleonic Wars was the construction of the Regent’s Canal through London, which was begun in 1812 and completed in 1820. The Regent’s Canal was part of a grand plan of the architect John Nash to redevelop a large area of central London for the Prince Regent. Prince George, later King George IV, ruled as Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820 when his father, George III, was too incapacitated by mental illness. Like the canal, other parts of this scheme, such as Regent’s Park and Regent’s Street, were named after the Prince.
The canal was designed to link the Paddington section of the Grand Junction Canal, which had opened in 1801, with the River Thames at Limehouse. Unusually for a canal just over 8½ miles long, Continue reading
This 50th issue coincides with the publication on 7th September of our latest book, Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History. It also coincides with Gibraltar’s National Day on 10th September, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the first time that Gibraltarians were given the choice of retaining their link with Britain or coming under Spanish sovereignty. They decisively chose to remain British. Another key event is that 2017 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of George Augustus Eliott – the Governor of Gibraltar throughout the Great Siege.
In the UK, Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is published in hardback (ISBN 9781408708675). It is 449 pages long, plus a prologue, black-and-white and colour plates, and several maps.
“well-researched and briskly written narrative … worthy of the most melodramatic Hollywood blockbuster” (Sunday Times)
E-books and audiobook
It is also available as an e-book in various formats, and there is an unabridged downloadable audiobook produced by Hachette Audio. The narrator is John Telfer, no less – the acclaimed actor Continue reading
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
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
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
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