Our new book was published in hardback and e-book on 11th November 2021, called When There Were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections. It is available in all superior bookshops and libraries, as well as online retailers. See our website page for details and reviews.
An audiobook will be available in 2022.
“a marvellously original slice of social history” (Daily Mail, Book of the Week)
“an appealing social history of Britain … [with] a lot of quirky information” (The Independent)
“The facts and folklore of birdlife … are dissected in admirable detail” (The Sunday Times)
Many surviving thatched buildings are made of cob, which was a cheap material for constructing walls. There is an old West Country saying: ‘all cob needs is a good hat and a good pair of boots’.
The hat is the thatch, while the boots refer to the foundations. The phrase is still used by some builders today and can be traced back in magazines to at least 1837, but is probably as old as Continue reading
This advert for ‘Daisy Powders’ dates back only to 1952, when it was being marketed as a cure-all for everything, from the terrors of ‘faceache’ to chills, influenza, lumbago and sleeplessness. It feels much like the quack medicines of two centuries ago. No doubt Covid-19 would be added to the list of ailments if ‘Daisy Powders and Tablets’ were still available.
It sounds just like the medicine practised in Jane Austen’s time, which you can read about in our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, or in Nelson’s Navy, which we describe in Jack Tar.
While in London a year or so ago, we went to Green Park to see a pair of huge blue and gold wrought-iron gates, a Grade II* Listed Building. The gates, which once formed a grand entrance to Green Park, are a reminder that visible traces of history can be much more complex than first impressions. They were originally made for the estate that Lord Heathfield purchased in 1789 to the west of London, at Turnham Green, which was then a small rural village. Heathfield House was demolished in 1837, but the name survives locally as Heathfield Terrace – not much to mark the hero of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, who is better known as George Augustus Eliott.
The Turnham Green gates, now at Green Park
The gates were purchased in 1837 by the Duke of Devonshire for the front of nearby Chiswick House, but in 1897 or 1898 they were moved to the front of Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London. Continue reading
Earlier in the year, we were enjoying a lengthy bout of sunny weather in Britain, with predictions of the summer turning into a prolonged heatwave, like the memorable year of 1976. Record-breaking temperatures are often reported with triumph by newspapers, as if this is a good thing. Then later on came the inevitable floods and high winds, leading to much misery.
Sunshine and showers in Devon in the summer of 2019
Such changeable weather is duly attributed to climate change, and yet the evidence for Continue reading
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).
Dickens never had a good relationship with his parents, mainly because he had to constantly Continue reading
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.
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.
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
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