Category Archives: Social history

Regent’s Canal

Prince Regent

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.

Tunnel vision

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

Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History

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

Travelling Roundabouts

People power

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

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:

To Dianeme.

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

Coin Holder of History

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.

Roman roots

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

Seafurrers and Jack Tar

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

Christmas Bells

CHRISTMAS BELLS

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

Link Extinguishers

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)

Link boys

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

Teasels

Found mainly in England, teasels (also spelled teazles) commonly grow on damp grassland, at the edges of fields and on waste ground. They are tall plants with prickly stems and leaves, reaching about 1.8 metres in height. It is difficult to believe that this strange-looking wildflower was once grown as a commercial crop, known as the ‘fuller’s teasel’.

Picture of a wild teasel plant

Teasels for textiles

Teasels were cultivated because they played an essential part in woollen cloth manufacture, Continue reading

Selsey Scene

Our research recently took us to the seaside town of Selsey in West Sussex on the south coast of England, at the tip of the low-lying Manhood Peninsula, some 8 miles due south of the cathedral city of Chichester. Bounded by the sea on two sides, with fertile farmland to the north, Selsey was once virtually an island. Even now, there is only one main route into the town – the road from Chichester. It was on Selsey island that Christianity was introduced to Sussex around AD 680 when St Wilfrid was driven ashore during a storm and subsequently founded a monastery and cathedral there. Both have long disappeared beneath the sea due to coastal erosion.

Holiday camp

Today, Selsey is part-seaside resort and part-dormitory town for Chichester. For centuries the main occupations were farming, fishing and smuggling, but in the 19th century Selsey began to thrive as a seaside resort. During the 1930s, when holiday camps were becoming popular, Broadreeds Holiday Camp was built, designed on a Spanish theme. In World War Two, the camp was used as accommodation for handicapped children evacuated from London, though its location right on the south coast made it a target for attack. Continue reading