Archive for the ‘War’ Category

This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2017. 
by Rob Smith. 

explosion at silverown police news April 1880

Police News Illustrated 24th April 1880

January this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the explosion at the Brunner Mond factory in Silvertown, one of London’s most devastating disasters. The explosion at the plant, where TNT was being made for the British war effort, killed 73 people and injured more than 500, flattening nearby homes and factories. The explosion led to a rethink about locating dangerous manufacturing plants close to residential areas; a memorial to the explosion has recently been relocated in a new housing development on the site. The disaster has become an important part of East London history. However, the 1917 Silvertown Explosion reprised another event from 1880 at a factory just next door. Unfortunately, industrial accidents in this part of London were depressingly common.

The 1880 explosion took place at a creosote plant owned by Burt, Boulton and Haywood. The company had been set up by two railway engineers H P Burt and S B Boulton with the idea of producing a chemical preservative that could make railway sleepers last longer. Coal Tar creosote had been patented in 1838 by London-based inventor John Bethell. Burt and Boulton set up their works in what was at that time known as Lands End – the strip of industries set up between the Thames and the Plaistow Marshes. This was a desolate location at the time, served by a railway built by George Parker Bidder to connect Kent with the City of London via a passenger ferry at Woolwich – a railway known as “Bidder’s Folly” so unlikely did it seem to succeed. Bidder had the last laugh though, when investors were looking to build the vast Royal Victoria Dock, they had to take him on as a partner as his railway owned the land in the area. When the dock opened in 1855 Burt and Boulton’s factory was in a prime location – able to bring in timber by ship and with the raw materials for making creosote being brought by rail as the by products of London’s many gas works. Soon the plant was busy creosoting tens of thousands of railway sleepers for India’s growing railway network. This unglamorous factory played a small but vital part in making rule of the British Empire possible.

The area now known as Silvertown grew up as housing for workers at Samuel Silver’s rubber and gutta percha works, where the coating which made Transatlantic telegraph cables possible was made. By 1880 the area was home to a sizeable population with a school and a rather fetching church built by S S Teulon. Dangerous industries were no longer on an isolated part of the Thames but in the midst of workers housing

Monday 12th April 1880 had started as an ordinary day at Burt, Boulton and Hayward, with the workforce of three or four hundred boys producing barrels of creosote, as well as by-products like insecticides and sulphuric acid, which went on to become fertilizer. The factory, at a location called Prince Regent’s Wharf, was constructed around a yard which at its centre had a group of four stills containing 2500 gallons of tar each. Two workers oversaw the stills which were heated to separate naptha and creosote from the coal tar. At around 2pm a worker in the yard saw a blue flame erupt from a manhole at the top of the still. A man attempted to pour sand on the flame and shortly afterwards another worker called Benjamin Price attempted to use a portable fire appliance on the blaze. Before Price could do anything, a huge explosion ripped through the still, and the lid went flying into the air, despite weighing several tons. Witnesses say the men on the lid of the still were blown high in the air, and that the still lid rose up like a hot air balloon. Workers in the yard ran in panic as they were showered by burning tar, falling bricks and twisted metal. Two men panicked and ran to hide in a building filled with sulphuric acid fumes, dying instantly. Another still had cracked in the blast and there were fears that it would explode too, while a 50-tonne water tank was knocked over causing more destruction. Barrels of creosote caught fire, setting fire to adjacent buildings. The blast had also damaged ships in the neighbouring Royal Victoria Dock. Terrified horses bolted through the streets of Silvertown

Twenty-five fire engines raced to the scene. It was to their credit that the blaze was brought under control in three hours but not without further problems. A horse pulling the Leyton fire engine panicked and crashed into a lamppost – injuring the crew and killing the horse. The next day the grim task of identifying the dead began. The explosion had been so huge it was uncertain of the death toll. Body parts were put on display at the nearby Graving Dock Tavern while family members filed past in the hope of identifying some of them. One man was identified by his wife recognising his whiskers. In all, eleven men were found to have died in the blast. The sad funeral took place on the Sunday, the victims’ families all agreed that the funerals should be held together and a grim but stately procession of 250 people from the local community followed the eleven hearses that had been paid for by the factory owner.

An inquiry into the accident began shortly afterwards. It was found that the “worm” part of the still that allowed pressure to be released had become blocked. This was quite common in the factory the inquiry was told, but this time the worker in charge had not noticed. A verdict of Accidental death was given in the inquiry, which was over in a day. This infuriated some people, including the press. It was like having a kettle being boiled with the spout blocked and the lid bolted down, claimed the London Evening Standard – any schoolboy could see that this was dangerous. A simple safety valve could have prevented the accident. Why had there not been stricter regulations on the plant, under the 1875 Explosives Act? The factory owners said that it did not apply as tar was not explosive. Eventually the factory was rebuilt and creosote produced there until the 1960’s. There is no memorial to the explosion, but the site is now occupied by the rather lovely Thames Barrier Park.


Thames Barrier Park – on the site of the 1880 explosion at Burt, Boulton and Hayward.

This was far from the end of the industrial accidents in Silvertown. In 1886, fire broke out at a guano storage works; in 1887, a huge fire starts in an oil storage facility; in 1897, a worker at the Silver factory was killed in an explosion; and in 1899 the Keiller jam factory was destroyed in a gas explosion. The Brunner Mond explosion needs to be seen in that context: the largest incident but not an unusual one.

London’s industry during the Victorian period made a huge impact on the world, something it rarely gets credit for. However, with every great innovation there are dangers and learning to minimise the risks in industrial production was an important breakthrough in itself. We often talk of “health and safety gone mad” but the Silvertown Explosion is an example of what life was like for workers without the protection of health and safety rules.

Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a guide with Footprints of London. You can find out more about his industrial-related walks at their website.


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Most of us have heard about the City church which was rebuilt in America, but not many have actually visited. A guest post from the USA by LH Member Penny Jennings. 


It is unknown when St Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury was first built but there is reference to the church in 1181. After the great fire of 1666 it was ruined, Christopher Wren commissioned its reconstruction. He utilised the Gothic building of 1437 and ensured that the structure would preserve the English Renaissance style. It stood in London for the following three centuries until it was gutted during the London Blitz in 1940.

Dr Robert LD Davidson had a vision that what remained of the church, which had now lay as a charred shell for 20 years, could be dismantled and relocated in the USA. After negotiation and the raising of funds to finance the project in 1962, the 7,000 stones were carefully disassembled and transported as ballast. After arriving in Virginia USA they were then loaded on railroad cars for their journey to Fulton, Missouri. The stonemasons and waiting builders reconstructed the jigsaw of stones to the original design and dimensions. They faithfully adhered to the vision of Christopher Wren. Finally in 1969 the church of St Mary, Aldermanbury was reconsecrated; 10,000 people attended it was described as “Fulton’s finest hour”. Winston Churchill’s daughter, Lady Mary Soames, described Missouri as “very lovely” it reminded her as she said “ of our Cotswold region in England with its lovely rolling green hills”. The church is located at the Winston Churchill Memorial, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, USA.

Today, there is a memorial garden in the City of London where this church once stood. More on St Mary Aldermanbury. 




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A guest post by LH Member Suzie Grogan. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from November 2013.

Before 1914, the idea that war could be waged in the air was beyond the imagination of most British people. The creative minds of authors such as H G Wells had foreseen the destructive possibilities of air power, but in Britain those leading the country into war were still pursuing a strategy that focused solely on the soil of foreign parts. The violation of British airspace and the realisation that both combatants and civilians were vulnerable to attack was to shake national certainties and individual security, leaving both traumatised beyond the Armistice and into the years up to the Second World War. From the early Zeppelin raids of 1914 to the end of the war in 1918, the British population was literally terrorised from the air.

By the end of 1916 the German Air Force accepted that the Zeppelin airships used in the air raids launched from 1914 to 1916 had caused more wonder than panic, even though lives had been lost and the towns and cities attacked were shaken. So in the spring of 1917 a new approach was adopted. The ‘England Squadron’ was formed with a key aim: to destroy the morale of the British people. The development of the Gotha IV heavy bomber allowed German pilots of fly at higher altitudes than British fighter planes while their huge payload offered the opportunity to wreak much greater devastation than the airships.


In Germany, the morning of 13th June 1917 dawned bright and clear and the crews of twenty-two Gotha aircraft were ordered to take off and fly the routes allocated to them. The target was London and the raid that day was to prove one of the most cataclysmic of the First War.

A few of the original formation of planes dropped away as technical problems – always a challenge for pilots and crew – forced them to turn back. Pushing onwards, Squadron Commander Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg signalled the turn to the south-west; a diversionary party wheeled away to attack the Kent coast and seventeen Gothas were left to set course for London.

Coming in over the burgeoning north London suburbs, Brandenburg took the formation southwards towards the City. By now, those looking into the clear skies over the capital would have experienced the first unwelcome thrill of fear and not a little curiosity. Britain’s civilians were still, at this point, largely unprotected and few warnings were given of the approach of the planes, which were able to fly in unchallenged by British forces. People would stare up in wonder as the engines became audible. Many spoke of their ‘awe’ at the spectacle of the planes in formation, perhaps confusing their nationality until the bombs began to fall. Observers described the planes variously as ‘insects’ ‘snowflakes’ ‘swanlike’ or as ‘little silver birds’; all phrases that belied the havoc and destruction shortly to be wreaked in the roads around them.

Anti-aircraft guns were heard pumping a constant barrage of shells towards the formation, but were only able to cloud the air and momentarily distract the pilots who dodged the hail of explosives leaving them to fall to earth causing damage, injury and death by ‘friendly fire’.

The first bombs were unleashed from the huge planes over East Ham, killing four and wounding thirteen. Then Stratford and Stoke Newington were targets, the only warnings a policeman’s whistle and a cry of ‘take cover!’ Houses, schools, shops and factories were hit, as were the Royal Albert Docks. Flames engulfed buildings before rescues could be effected and the screams and cries of the dying and their loved ones mingled with the death throes of the many horses caught in the blast.

A key target that day was Liverpool Street Station, which the bombers reached at 11.40am. In just two minutes seventy-two bombs were dropped, most in the streets surrounding the station itself which received a direct hit by just three. However, accounts liken the scene as the Gothas passed overhead to a ‘battlefield’. Buildings collapsed; a terrified population scattered in every direction to seek shelter; horses lay dead in numbers, many atop their drivers; shrapnel decapitated some and mortally wounded others who couldn’t find safety. Where customers had been a minute before buying provisions, shops were reduced to rubble and glass with their owners and errand boys among the dead. A caretaker’s wife was beheaded as she worked in the attic of a nearby house. A bus received a direct hit, which shot over the head of the driver, travelling through the floor and bursting beneath the conductor, blowing him to pieces while throwing passengers forward, injuring and killing many. The driver, in his dazed state thought he had run someone over; only a girl of about nine survived; she was found sitting on the remains of the floor crying. The lower parts of both her legs were missing.

As the planes disappeared, Londoners were left to assess and clear the wreckage while tending the injured and dying. Ambulances and Red Cross vehicles took away the casualties. The poet Siegfried Sassoon stood on Liverpool Street Station concourse that day, and seeing an old man wheeled away dead on a porter’s barrow, women covered in blood, and occupied train carriages literally flattened to the tracks, he wrote in his ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’:
“In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organised retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky…’

Bombs continued to fall as the Gothas headed towards Bermondsey, killing three on the roof of Pink’s Jam Factory. In Southwark the British and Benington Tea Co. lost three members of staff and saw others seriously injured as the basement strongroom, in which many had sought shelter, collapsed, burying staff in the rubble.

But the greatest outcry was reserved for the next atrocity. The Gothas regrouped and headed east for the Thames where they released their remaining bombs over the densely populated and poverty stricken Poplar and the East India Dock Road. Here stood the Upper North Street School.

Of the six hundred pupils on the roll, most were from poor families, struggling to feed and clothe their children properly. Just before lunch, a fifty kilogram bomb struck the roof of the school. Sixteen children were killed instantly, two died later from their injuries and thirty were seriously injured. All but two were aged five or under. Teachers heroically got children out of the building; panicked mothers searched for their young ones. It was a scene that shocked the nation.

A week later, one of the biggest funerals in London was held for those that died that day and in June 1919 a memorial was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, bearing the names of the eighteen pupils that were killed on that first daylight air-raid on London.

Squadron Commander Brandenburg had led his Gotha crews over the British Isles for just ninety minutes, dropping four tons of bombs, killing one hundred and sixty two men, women and children and injuring four hundred and thirty two more. British aircraft had tried but failed to shoot down any of the German planes and would struggle to find a way to oppose them even to the day the Armistice was signed.

Suzie Grogan’s new book Death Disease and Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850 was published by Pen and Sword Books in October 2017.

Her web site.

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DSC08984b200With grievous museum losses in recent times – notably the London Fire Brigade museum in Southwark and the Artillery Museum (“Firepower”) in Woolwich – it’s always welcome news when a brand new one opens its doors. Friday 28th July saw the much-anticipated foundation of The Postal Museum in Phoenix Place, WC1, virtually on the doorstep of Royal Mail’s massive Mount Pleasant London hub.

An official postal service was first founded by Henry VIII in the early Sixteenth Century more effectively to manage intelligence throughout his domain, hence the Royal Mail. Of course it wasn’t for the great unwashed and indeed unlettered wider populace. A universal postal service didn’t properly kick in until 1840 and onwards with the introduction of the Penny Post. If fact, until that time, most letters and parcels were financed by the recipient rather than the sender. This gave rise to coded symbols and marks being put on the outer surfaces of folded letters (envelopes are a relatively modern invention).


The post nonetheless was already big business long before Rowland Hill and his stamps, Anthony Trollope and his post boxes.

The Postal Museum takes us through all the developments and innovations of the mail down the past half millennium, but most importantly the people who kept the system going, focusing mainly, as one would expect, on the humble postie who in times gone by had quite spectacular uniforms. He and 1,500 of his colleagues volunteered and perished in WW1, bands of brothers in the Post Office Rifles, a unit founded in 1860 at the same time as the Artists Rifles at at time when Britain was thought to be in grave danger (it wasn’t). Their absence gave rise for the first time to women posties.

There is a straightforward historical narrative with certain things – like wartime – to zoom in on depending on your interest. For me it’s the coaching era, the pure logistics. There were quite remarkable timetables, precision and scheduling in the pre-railway age. I didn’t know that in the mid-20th Century the Royal Mail had its own Frank Pick. Just as Pick did with London Transport, Sir Stephen Tallents (Londoner, Harrow, Balliol – what’s not to like?) beefed up and standardised the Royal Mail’s corporate image, its design, its message, how it presented itself to the world. He used many of the same artists that Pick did, notably Max Gill, unsung brother of Eric.


Sir Stephen Tallents


Poster by Max Gill. Fans of “Wonderground” will recognise it!


Although a typographer in his own right, Max used brother Eric’s Gill Sans for this logo. Indulge me!


The Postal Museum is excellent. A hugely diverse combination of the obvious and the obscure. Wonderful ephemera, of course. It doesn’t patronise children, a mistake of many museums nowadays, I feel. I have seen the wider collection at Debden and Mount Pleasant so have an idea what choices have been made what to put in and to leave out. The curators have done a really good job: congratulations to them.





Mail Rail.
There’s more good news. Mail Rail is the Postal Museum’s sister attraction which will open early September. It was the Royal Mail’s own underground railway which ran from Paddington to Liverpool Street from 1927 although existing on a smaller scale since the 1870s, another brianchild of Rowland Hill. It was mothballed in 2003 and has been reawakened for the public to ride on, with another superb exhibition alongside. A marvellous thing when you consider that these conveyances carried no humans at all, not even drivers.



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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.


But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.

M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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A guest post by Joe Gingell.

In May 1940 the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco to convert Gibraltar into a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture.

NPG x166829; Sir Kenelm Everard Lane Creighton by Walter Stoneman

Commodore Creighton. National Portrait Gallery.

Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France fell. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian evacuees. Commodore Creighton (later Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton) pleaded for the cleaning and replenishment of the ships but the request was refused and evacuees were forced on board by French troops.

The British Government did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. Nonetheless, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. But on arrival these evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had to be cleaned and replenished. By then both the Italian and Vichy French air forces were bombing Gibraltar. Eventually alterations were made to the holds of the ships sailing into the Atlantic, with no medical facilities with hardly any life-saving equipment. After six days all provisions were inedible. Babies were born and some elderly people died in the journey. To avoid the menace of German U-boats, the convoy had to circumnavigate the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach England, specifically London.

Commodore Creighton in his book Convoy Commodore said that “if the convoy with Gibraltar evacuees had been attacked, it could have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.”

The evacuees arrived in London in August 1940, shortly before the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. About 13,000 of them lived in the capital during the war enduring all four years of bombing with some inevitable casualties.

I was one of those children evacuated to London. By 1944 I was already six and have vivid memories of the bombing of our evacuation centre, the Whitelands College in Putney. While in central London, I still remember my mother, my two brothers and I lying on the floor of the room at the York Hotel as a result of the explosion from a flying bomb which killed a Gibraltar evacuee. By end of July 1944 half of the evacuees had been repatriated. The remaining half were to live for four years in camps in Northern Ireland to await their gradual return home. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as long as ten years from the beginning of the war to rejoining their families in Gibraltar.

During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital, particularly, during Operation Torch. Some historians have qualified Gibraltar’s importance to the extent that, without Gibraltar, Britain would have lost the war. In the fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant civilians who co-operated fully with a forced evacuation. Very little seems to be known about the story of the Gibraltar evacuees in London.

If you wish to read the book and find out the full story you can download it from the Gibraltar National Archives.


Evacuees at Dr Barnardo's

Evacuees at Dr. Barnardo’s.


Evacuees at Wembley.


Evacuees at Whitland College.

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A guest post by Rebecca Rideal.

In April 1664, a House of Commons committee was set up in Westminster to investigate the nation’s declining cloth industry. It didn’t take long, however, for committee members to widen their focus to the deterioration of English trade more generally. Over the previous few years, mercantile tensions between the England and the Dutch Republic had grown steadily (erupting into the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652–1654) and much of the blame for this perceived deterioration in trade was levelled at the Dutch. Throughout committee meetings, influential London merchants were encouraged to voice their grievances. With their companies venturing further afield for mastery of trade in gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, silks and spices, key complainants were the Levant Company, the East India Company, and the Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa, whose headquarters and boards were all based within the capital and whose ships docked and delivered along the Thames. They complained that the Dutch had taken possession of all the former Portuguese territories, especially along the West African coast where they had severely inhibited England’s ability to trade.


Cape Coast Castle in 1682.

In fact, that same year, a forty-three-year-old Irish-born sea captain named Robert Holmes had been sent by the London-based benefactors of the newly-formed (and state-backed) Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate the company’s expansion. Founded by the Duke of York and Prince Rupert of the Rhine on the belief that there were rich gold fields along the Gambia river, the company regularly came into conflict with Dutch trading bases along the West African coast. As the small fleet set off from the Thames, its primary goal was the acquisition of gold but Holmes also had explicit orders, for the first time, to establish a trade in slaves, with the aim of acquiring 3,000 per year to sell to the West Indies. He was instructed to ‘kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall oppose you’, but the unwritten truth was that in order to achieve these ends, he would need to take possession of Dutch trading bases.

In his forty-gun flagship, the Jersey, Holmes led a taskforce of English vessels to capture the Dutch fortress of Carolusborg, on the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea. He took with him a new spring-based pendulum watch, designed by the illustrious Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens and refashioned by the Royal Society ready for the sea. It was hoped that the watch might enhance the accuracy of navigation. A cunning man who, by his own admission, looked ‘his enemies in the face with as much love as his friends’, Holmes was also a determined military leader and knew these waters well. With the support of his loyal crew and aided by the latest naval weaponry and navigation equipment, he seized a cluster of trading bases before setting his sights on the main prize, Carolusborg. It took Holmes eleven days of hard bombardment to capture Carolusborg, which was renamed Cape Coast Castle under English control.

His actions on behalf of Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa far exceeded what the company’s backers had expected and Holmes found himself in the unanticipated situation of being reprimanded for capturing Dutch vessels. That said, his achievements were not unwelcome and, along with the wider grievances raised by London merchants and influential war-hungry court factions, they would trigger the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). The Dutch eventually managed to win back many of the African trade posts Holmes had taken, but they never again had control of Cape Coast Castle; a fortress that, over the next two centuries, morphed into the rotten heart of the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.

revised-1666_Bpb.jpgAdapted from 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. Rebecca Rideal is a writer, former TV producer and historian. Her first book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire is published by John Murray and out in paperback today, 23rd February.

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