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)
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
‘Jack Tar’ remains one of our most popular talks, though until we finish our new book on the Great Siege of Gibraltar, we are not booking any more talks. We are, though, looking forward to giving a ‘Jack Tar’ talk (called ‘All at Sea in the Time of the Austens’) at the January 2017 meeting of the Jane Austen Society South-West (on the 28th). This is a very active branch of the Jane Austen Society, and it holds four conferences a year, each one lasting from 10.30am to 3.30pm, with morning coffee, buffet lunch and two talks. They are held in central Exeter (at Southernhay Hall, Dix’s Field, EX1 1QA). This gives you plenty of time to join – for further details, see their website page here (you do not have to be a member of the main Jane Austen Society to join).
We were recently alerted to a well-crafted and generous review of Jack Tar by author and historian Jonathan North. He posted the review on his interesting website that focuses on the French Revolution and Napoleonic history Continue reading
The latest quarterly issue of Quarterdeck has just arrived, for September–October, always a welcome moment. Its tagline is ‘celebrating maritime literature & art’, and readers will find many books that they will want to read – from the latest ones by well-known authors to little-known gems that have been brought back into print. We are delighted to be featured on page 3, with news of the book we are writing on the Great Siege of Gibraltar.
Several pages are devoted to Julian Stockwin, whose Kydd books continue. His latest book is The Powder of Death, a new standalone novel based on gunpowder being brought to England for the first time. We’ve not yet seen the novel, but it sounds fascinating as gunpowder looms large in the Gibraltar siege. Quarterdeck is published by Tall Ships Communications under the editorship of George Jepson and is distributed by McBooks Press. To download this latest copy (and back numbers), go to McBooks here.
The 2016 summer in Britain has been somewhat indifferent – very few scorching hot days, much cloud and below-average temperatures. Exactly two centuries ago, the weather was far worse. As Jane Austen died in July 1817, her very last full summer in 1816 was a wretched one, and she refers to the rain and the cold in a few of her surviving letters. ‘I begin to think it will never be fine again,’ she lamented in early July. On 1st September 1816 William Holland, the vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset, wrote in his diary: ‘The weather has continued in the same uncertain state that it has done for sometime past. Indeed properly speaking we have had no summer, for we scarce have been a week without [a] fire throughout, I have now this very day a fire in the parlour.’ For much of the year his diary had been a litany of bad weather and dashed hopes. In his rural community, he was keenly aware of the effects of the weather on the crops. The constant rain had delayed the hay harvest considerably, and two weeks earlier he had written: ‘Rainy, windy weather confined William [his son] & I within doors – nay we had a fire tho’ in the midst of August. What will become of the corn I know not, for it does not ripen.’
Flooded and frozen
This exceptional weather was not confined to south-west England, but was felt right across the northern hemisphere. Continue reading
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
A tale of two villages
When talking of Georgian town architecture in Britain, places like Bath, Cheltenham, Buxton and even parts of London spring readily to mind. Melcombe Regis in Dorset is very little mentioned, not even as part of the port of Weymouth, yet King George III often spent his summers here. Weymouth is actually made up of two smaller ports, originally villages, that sit on either side of the mouth of the River Wey – with Weymouth on the south bank and Melcombe Regis on the north. Both were medieval settlements that competed as ports until 1571, when they were legally joined under a charter of Queen Elizabeth I and took the overall name of Weymouth. The first bridge linking the two parts was not built until 1597.
A statue of George III (who died in 1820) close to the seafront of Melcombe Regis (Weymouth), Dorset. It is now part of a traffic island
Regis derives from the Latin ‘rex’ meaning ‘king’. ‘Regis’ means ‘of the king’, and many places in England have that name, such as Lyme Regis. Melcombe Regis did not acquire this name because of George III staying there Continue reading
Attention is now keenly focused on the presidential election campaign in the United States of America, but over 200 years ago differences of opinion were decided in more traditional ways. On Saturday 11th August 1804, The Times newspaper in London carried the following story:
‘We yesterday received sets of the New York Papers up to the 14th of last month. The intelligence which may be considered of most importance in them respects the death of General Hamilton, who was to have succeeded the present American Ambassador at Paris [Robert Livingston]. He died on the 12th of July, at two in the afternoon, in consequence of a wound received in a duel on the morning of the preceding day. His antagonist was Colonel Burr, who fills the office of Vice-President of the United States. The causes which led to this unhappy catastrophe are not stated in the American newspapers.’
The American newspapers also lacked precise information, though there was a great deal of speculation. Continue reading
The stretch of water between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is known as the Strait of Gibraltar, separating Spain and Gibraltar from north Africa (Morocco). The southernmost tip of Spain (and of Europe itself) is at the town of Tarifa, and here the African coast is only 10 miles (16 km) away. Gibraltar lies some 15 miles (24 km) north-east of Tarifa, and the African coast is almost 14 miles (22 km) away. Even though the distance to Africa is greater here, the promontories of Calpe (Gibraltar) and Abyla (Ceuta in Africa) were significant in Greek and Roman mythology, as they were believed to be the mythical ‘Pillars of Hercules’.
This picture shows the Strait of Gibraltar, looking westwards. The African coast with the promontory of Ceuta is on the left. Next comes the seaway of the Strait of Gibraltar that opens into the Atlantic. The right-hand half of the picture portrays the coast of Spain, with the distinctive darker outline of the Rock of Gibraltar in front.
The Pillars of Hercules looking westwards from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic
The myth of the Pillars of Hercules originated with the ancient Greeks and was adopted Continue reading
The Romans liked to eat well, and some of their choices of food are still regarded as wholesome today, particularly the staples of bread, olives and wine. They also had a liking for pungent fish sauces such as liquamen, muria and – the best-known one – garum. The production of these sauces was a by-product of the fish-processing industry, mainly in Roman settlements along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, Portugal and north Africa, where there was an abundant supply of fish. Fish sauce, especially garum, was so popular that it was exported across the Roman empire as an expensive delicacy. Doubtless in far-flung garrisons on the edges of the empire, many ex-patriot Romans found garum a welcome reminder of home comforts back in Italy.
Raw materials for a Roman meal
Garum was produced on an industrial scale in purpose-built factories. One factory Continue reading