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Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors. A guest post by LH Member Joanna Moncrieff.

insolvent ancestors“A unique introduction to a neglected historical source” is what jumped out at me when I was first given this book to review. That sounded intriguing.

I have recently realised that many of the resources I use for researching my family tree are equally as useful for research for my guided walks and vice versa.

‘Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors’ by Paul Blake is a case in point. This book could definitely be marketed to an entirely different audience as it has a wealth of detailed information about many of London’s debtor prisons with lots of pointers as to where you can find out more.

Although it isn’t specifically about London the main focus is on it and the book is packed with facts and examples of records in relation to the prisons’ history. The background history of each prison is gone into together with how to access its records. Other chapters delve into the history of the various courts and how they operated. Everything you need to know about the history and operation of debtors’ prisons is in this book.

Those of us who are Clerkenwell and Islington Guides and who guide in and around Old Street talk about Whitecross Street debtors’ prison. An in depth history of the prison and how it operated together with examples of research about various inmates gives a real insight into life as a debtor.

In between the sections about what records are available are lots of interesting snippets perfect for tour guides. For example an 1847 report from the Inspectors of Prisons likened the prison at Lancaster Castle to a ‘noisy tavern and tea-garden’.

I was amazed to discover that the National Archives has an account book listing names of beggars and the tiny amounts they collected at the Fleet begging grate from the 1820s. This fact has already been shared by me with guiding colleagues.

But how do you know where to find this information? There are detailed instructions of what records are available and how you can access them. There are tips on what records have the most info and that some records show a key to more detailed records that are available elsewhere. We are also encouraged to use the TNA catalogue to get an idea of what is held in local archives.  The chapter on Newspapers, Periodicals, Journals and Directories includes lots of practical advice about what is available online and how you can find it.

So much work must have gone into this book to collate such a wealth of material and searching tips. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history.


Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (224pp) by Paul Blake is published by Pen & Sword with a cover price of £14.99 but available for less if you shop around. Note: We have linked to National Archives bookshop here because same price as Amazon, they have a fabulous selection and have frequent sales from their online shop. Give them a try!


Joanna Moncrieff is a long-standing Member of London Historians and also a qualified guide for Westminster and Clerkenwell & Islington. Her blog.

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In my personal experience, they certainly do.

But seriously.
Review: Londonist Drinks – A Spirited Guide to London Libation by Londonist editors, staff writers and guests. 

londonistdrinksThis new book celebrates public drinking in London: where and what Londoners imbibe when being sociable. It is largely about alcohol, but tea, coffee, chocolate, juice, water etc. do get a decent look-in. There is an interesting chapter, for example, about drinking chocolate which reminds us that swanky men-only (still) White’s Club was originally a chocolate emporium, one of the first, in fact. And an entire four page article is devoted to tea, its history, where to enjoy it and all the centuries-old markers around town reminding us of one of our national obsessions. Coffee mania came, then went, and has come again.

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It’s not all about boozing – far from it.

But it must be said that most of Londonist Drinks’s pages are devoted to Londoners’ enjoyment of alcohol in most of its forms.

The book comprises 68 small essays which may be consumed in any order. Editor Will Noble and veteran Editor at Large Matt Brown do most of the heavy lifting here, but there are also contributions by staffers including Laura Reynolds and Dave Haste. Myriad other writers pitch in too, for example the excellent Peter Watts who has a manly stab at the unsolvable which-is-London’s-oldest-pub conundrum. It is published in hardback and is a quality item, richly illustrated by 20 talented, professional artists. I didn’t notice at first glance that the cover, the familiar London citiscape which Londonist uses as its logo – is cleverly made up of bottles, glasses and other boozing paraphernalia.

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London’s oldest pub – that thorny old question.

Primarily, this is a guide-book of pubs and bars. That sort of book and indeed web site has been done to death. But Londonist – on its website as on here – does things differently. The dozens of pen-portraits within these pages are presented variously as oldest (see above); as pub crawls (Karl Marx, Blue Posts, Circle Line (image below), Colours of the Rainbow, Docklands Light Railway, Charles Dickens, you name it); as strangest names; on water; the best Wetherspoons; and so on. We examine wine bars, speakeasies, working men’s clubs, rooftop bars, hotel bars. Where to get the best cocktails.

And for readers of this blog, there is plenty of history too. Not only the history of all these beverages, but kings and queens; the London Beer Flood; the story behind pub names; the 18C Gin Craze; animals, death and murder.

With 68 chapters to enjoy, you can see I’ve here just scratched the surface.

Readers of Londonist will know that their style has a definite lightness of touch and humour. This shines through here, making the reading of this book even more of a pleasure. Secondly, they adore trivia, and the sharing thereof. Londonist Drinks is dripping in the stuff, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.

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One of many flimsy excuses for a good pub-crawl.

I have two quibbles which are more petty even than that word suggests:
1) There is an excellent chapter called Liquid History: A Chronology of Key Events in London Drinking. Here I discovered that my favourite pint – London Pride by Asahi Breweries (formerly Fuller’s) is actually younger than me, I had no idea! Anyway, this chapter is at the back. All historians will agree with me that it belongs at the front.
2) Use of the word ‘quaff’ (‘Once more unto the breach, Casketeers!’) Points deducted.

But seriously (again). This simply marvellous book is a sure-fire treat for all sociable Londoners and, may I suggest with Christmas looming scarily, guaranteed brownie points as a gift to your friends and family.

 


Londonist Drinks – A Spirited Guide to London Libation (192 pages) is published on 3 October by AA Media (there’s a double joke in there) with a cover price of £16.99, though available for less.

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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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This review is a guest post by London Historians Member Hannah Renier. 

London-BridgeDorian Gerhold’s London Bridge and its Houses, 1209-1761 is a handsome illustrated volume based on extraordinary scholarship. An interest in any aspect of London before 1761 will be enriched by this book because the bridge (for almost its entire life the only one) was so intrinsically a part of Londoners’ lives.

You may already know the 1969 scale model of it, a wonderful, but static, exhibit in St Magnus the Martyr Church. Gerhold’s book offers a more dynamic view in which some of the details assumed by historians in 1969 have been revised. Here the bridge, its many inhabitants, and the events that affected it, come alive through time, thanks to diagrams, plans, plates, details from well-known images and imaginative coloured reconstructions.

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Gatefold spread pp 2-3 is a pre-1590 image from Samuel Pepys’s Library.

Peter de Colechurch and Henry Yevele were the first in a long parade of Masters employed to direct works on the bridge throughout its life. Diagrams show us exactly how, in the last decades of the twelfth century, mediaeval Londoners began to construct a bridge 283 metres long over a fierce tidal river – a feat as astonishing as today’s Tideway Tunnel project. Supplied only with manpower and horsepower, picks and shovels, winches and buckets, iron-tipped piles, tons of rubble, stone and timber, and determination, they made a populated landmark that endured, with maintenance and repair, for more than 550 years.

Almost everything on and around London Bridge changed in that time, and Gerhold has had access to the Bridge House and Common Council records among others. Copious details about the buildings, their interiors, the people who lived there and the rentals they paid are available from 1460 until the bridge’s final years, and a less complete record exists back to 1358. Essentially this was a roadway above the water from north to south, supported on 19 brick and stone piers which stood on starlings – these being east-to-west rubble-filled caissons up to fifty feet long, firmly lodged in the riverbed. As first built, it catered for commerce, religion and defence. At the north (City) end there was a convivial open space and plenty of room for upmarket shops, with modest living accommodation above, to line your path as you crossed the Thames. Near the middle stood more shops and a fine large chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. At the south (Southwark) end, from which any threat to the City was likely to come, the shops were cheaper and narrower. Heading north from Southwark you, or your horse and cart, would have to pass under a stone gateway with a portcullis, cross a military ground, and traverse a drawbridge.

With the centuries, much of this changed. The monks of the chapel had been responsible for managing London Bridge when it opened, but they agreed before sixty years had passed to cede control and income from tolls and rents to the committee of Bridge House, an entity of the City of London which owned the Southwark abutment (the wide land-based approach).

During the Reformation, the chapel was destroyed. It was eventually replaced by a large shop, warehouse and accommodation. Stocks and a cage for offenders were installed at the Southwark end. There was a licensed lady apple-seller there in Tudor times: apples for hurling, probably. At the Stone Gate, wrongdoers’ decapitated heads were displayed on poles from 1577 until 1684, says Gerhold, who likes to be accurate (other sources suggest there were heads after that). The timber-framed shops became taller, wider, deeper and more numerous; most were more than four storeys high. Waterwheels were constructed in 1590 next to the north end, to supply piped water to local houses. At the south, waterwheels drove a corn mill as well as a water supply. There were communal latrines at the north and south abutments, although the one on the City side eventually crashed into the river (while in use).

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Representative spreads from this richly-illustrated book.

With time and less civil disorder, the portcullis and the drawbridge became redundant. Commerce took precedence, and more shops were built east and west of the military ground. The road was gradually, and piecemeal, widened, although pinch-points remained. It was no ordinary road, open to the sky along its length; from the thirteenth century for at least four hundred years cross-buildings (oversails) were popular. These were rooms that spanned the entire street from house to opposing house above the traffic.

So that this ‘bridge’ would not thereby become a tunnel over the river, cross-building was permitted only at alternate houses and from the first storey upwards. This left a height clearance of under ten and a half feet – not a lot for a laden cart. From the seventeenth century new crossbuilds had to spring from the second storey. Imagine sleeping high above the Thames with a gale whipping up the current, your house-timbers groaning and your trade sign screeching. People felt safer with an oversail that would peg their vulnerable homes to both sides of the road. For the houses, with their shopfronts, were not built on top of the road – they had only a toehold on it, and their main rooms overhung the river. This was never a cantilever arrangement. Instead they were supported on, and from, the piers by massive timber hammer-beams, or stone arches.

Dorian Gerhold names the traders and makers who lived above their shops at different times, and shows how the wares they sold changed over the centuries from warlike: bows and arrows made on site and sold – to luxury:imported silks and muslins, and books. Very few alehouses were permitted (rowdiness), and pastrycooks were discouraged (fire). But the seventeenth-century bridge’s coffee houses, promising well-informed discussions of culture and politics, became popular with City men.

The shopkeepers and their families had privies, cellars (often inside the piers), counting houses, garrets and ‘water rooms’ supplied with winches and buckets to draw water from the teeming gullets under the arches. Almost all their chimneys, hearths and kitchens were high above the river. Some houses had ‘walking leads’, which this reader imagines as lead paths behind the roof balustrades, perfect for an evening stroll and a view up or down river. For a long time, the ‘House of Many Windows’ straddled the road facing south; a frontage that was almost entirely crown glass must have twinkled magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The drawbridge building, with houses at either side, was eventually replaced by the spectacularly colourful late-Tudor Nonsuch House.

The bridge was threatened throughout its existence by the tidal tumult between its arches, bitter winters with the frozen Thames expanding, and riot and revolt. Also disease: the Black Death depleted it of traders, although those who remained took the opportunity to take on neighbouring empty properties. Fire was the biggest threat of all. The massive Southwark conflagration of 1212/1213 destroyed buildings as far north as the Chapel. Most of the City end burned in 1633. The Great Fire of 1666 rushed down Fish Street Hill and Pepys watched it destroying more bridge buildings at the north end. Afterwards, London Bridge houses were exempted from the new no-timber-building rule, so nobody was surprised when in 1725 there was another big blaze.

London prospered nonetheless, and so did the 500 or so bridge-dwellers. Their tapestries, looking-glasses, tables, pictures and furnishings are documented house by house. This may make the book sound so detail-heavy as to be a mere compendium of lists, which it isn’t ¬– the drier facts and figures are tabled in appendices.

Towards the end (which may have begun with the great overhaul and sloppy rebuild of 1683-96), maintenance began to fail and corners were cut. The enormous timbers that supported the original bridge were perhaps no longer available or too expensive, but somehow regulation was relaxed with predictable results. New, poorly supported houses threatened to topple. At this time, in the early 1700s, bridges with buildings – which in the thirteenth century had been fashionable in northern Europe – were understandably considered rather a nuisance. The commercial world was in a hurry and immigrants from all over the kingdom were pouring into London. Traffic bottlenecks were bad for trade. And nearby bridges finally defeated Bridge House’s monopoly: Westminster in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Waterloo in 1815.

George Dance produced an ominous report on the high cost of repairing London Bridge. The City’s solution was house clearance. Despite protests from their inhabitants, the bridge houses were demolished, the piers cut down, an arch removed and the road widened to 45 feet. That happened between 1757 and 1761. Afterwards London Bridge was not itself. It had lost its world-class sparkle in exchange for improvements which were incomplete. It now provided clear passage for carts and carriages, but the remaining arches continued to obstruct river traffic.

Following the British victory at Waterloo, money was found and a wholly new London Bridge commissioned. In the 1820s work began on John Rennie’s sturdy and serviceable design. It was completed, a few pulls of the oars upstream, by 1831. The London Bridge, Old London Bridge which had been opened in 1209 on the site of many previous timber bridges, was demolished. It ‘vanished without leaving any visible trace’. It had been, as this book shows, one of the liveliest parts of London.


London Bridge and its Houses c1209 – 1761 (168pp) by Dorian Gerhold is London Topographical Society Publication No. 182, 2019. It is priced at £21 for LTS members*, £28 for non-members. Plus postage.

* Note that LTS members automatically get one copy of the annual book free of charge as part of their membership.

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Guest post by LH Member David Brown. Book review of the recently-published Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson. 

PoPPalaces of Pleasure is the most recent book written by Lee Jackson, who is well-known to London history enthusiasts for the Dictionary of Victorian London website, and for his previous book Dirty Old London (Yale, 2014, our review here), a good history of sanitation in London. The subtitle of the book “From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment” lays out the ambition of the author to cover a broad range of entertainments.

The volume provides a very enjoyable read, showing how people in the 1800s spent their free time.

After an introduction, the first three chapters look at how the public house transformed into Gin Palaces, covering the evolution of club and music rooms, and in turn creating the Music Halls. Further chapters investigate dancing rooms, academies and the brief flowering of dancing casinos. Chapters on pleasure gardens and exhibitions are included. Two final chapters cover the seaside and the emergence of football as an entertainment. The conclusion brings together many of the themes and explains why there was such an extraordinary growth in mass entertainment in the Victorian period.

Throughout, the book takes a look at the entrepreneurs that emerged, and how they had to navigate the perils of newspaper sensationalism, the impact of legislation, the temperance movement and the role of the magistrate in shaping the entertainment world. One theme is how the pleasures of the everyday man were seen as threatening and in need of suppression and regulation, whilst the pleasures of the aristocrats and the well-off rarely rated the same view. While in the early period these activities were mainly male, another theme in the book explores how women were perceived, challenges some of the myths around prostitution, and demonstrates how everyday Victorian women increasingly took part in leisure activities.

The author ranges widely, and although most of the places talked about are in London, he also contrasts examples from outside London and particularly in the North of England to show broader trends. Some of the chapters include good case studies (like Samuel Thompson’s wine and spirits business on Holborn Hill and Charles Morton’s famous Canterbury Hall).

Each chapter has a detailed set of end notes. The author uses a wide range of sources (particularly strong on the press), and provides a good bibliography and index. I’d have liked to see more pictures and ideally in the sections of the book that they relate to- here the illustrations included are limited in quantity (26, mostly half page, bound together in the centre of the book).

This is a book that could benefit every London Historian who is interested in 19th Century London. It’s full of anecdotes and facts that will delight the reader. Thoroughly recommended.


Palaces of Pleasure, From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment (320 pp, hardback) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale University Press with a cover price of £15.99.

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Review: Night Raiders by Dr Eloise Moss. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Tony Moore, a former policeman and now police and crime historian.

night raidersThe day I received this book to review in June 2019, Asrit Kapaj, a 43-year-old Albanian, known as the ‘Wimbledon Prowler’, was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after netting a believed £5 million over a ten year period; it is estimated he broke into approximately 200 homes. He is just the most recent in a long line of burglars going back centuries.

The blurb on the back cover suggests Night Raiders charts how burglary has been at the heart of national debates over the meanings of ‘home’, experiences of urban life and social inequality. We are also told elsewhere that it exposes a rich seam of continuity in relation to three areas, the stereotyping of gender roles in the home, gendered forms of criminality and hierarchies of state protection against crime structured by class and wealth.

Reading that you might think it is an academic book but it is much more than that. Using official records, newspaper reports, books, films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, the author has put together a vivid account of the history of burglary, primarily concentrating on the period from 1860 to 1968. Where did the title come from? The term ‘Night Raiders’ was used by an American criminologist to describe a masked man who climbed through windows dressed in black and silently, stole items before melting away into the darkness.

Stories glamorising criminals has a long tradition in Britain, The graphical tales of Robin Hood, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, along with the modern-day, notorious Kray Brothers are prime examples. To this list, add Charles Peace, a burglar who entered homes in the Blackheath and Greenwich areas of London in the late nineteenth-century. Peace was prone to violence if confronted, and was eventually hung for murder. But what makes the book more appealing, is the author’s inclusion of fictional characters such as the Gentleman Thief, A.J. Raffles, a burglar created by Earnest Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also happened to be an excellent cricketer!

Only a few women have been the instigators of burglary. Up until 1931, when those charged with crime in London ceased to be recorded by gender, only three women were charged with burglary compared to every 120 men. Despite the small number, the author describes the activities of some of these women under the title of the Marvellous Mrs Raffles?

A chapter is devoted to the Cat Burglar, a so-called ‘professional’ among thieves because of his daring. Describing the roofs of houses as a neglected oasis of relatively unprotected access points to homes, the author claims the burglars, rather than the police, were masters of this particular landscape, As a consequence, in the 1930s, the Metropolitan Police sought younger and fitter police recruits to take part in what became a contest between law-enforcers and burglars.

Attempts to design burglar-proof homes brought a new set of visible and invisible defences with the development of technologies, including the aptly named ‘Buzzer-Light Shriek Alarm’. Security companies, some encouraged by insurance companies, were set up to handle much of this growth. From 1950 onwards, Crime Prevention Campaigns organised by the Home Office and the police, with the encouragement and support of insurance companies, were regularly held both in London and nationally.

Finally the author examines the role of spy-burglars in London during the Cold War. They were perpetrated by Russian agents living in London or by British operatives which, on occasions, resulted in escalating tensions between the Soviet and British governments. The bungalow in Ruislip, occupied by Peter and Helen Kruger, who were heavily involved in what became known as the Portland Spy Ring, was a relative fortress, given all its security devices to avoid their detection. Comparisons are drawn between these real events and the fictitious world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Given that anyone can be the victim of burglary, the book should be of interest to a wide range of readers. It will be of particularly interest to police historians, those who are responsible for designing buildings which make them less vulnerable to burglary, agents who insure property against burglary and those who are interested in fictional burglars such as Raffles.


Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968,  272pp, by Dr Eloise Moss is published by Oxford University Press on 4 July. Cover price £25.

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Review: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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