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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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A guest post by Caroline Derry. This article originally appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from May 2014.

5b3cc99c-e7d9-457a-97c6-7e780f93fb87When Tsar Peter the Great visited London in 1696 to learn about shipbuilding and naval architecture, it was natural that he should stay in Deptford. After all, the town had England’s foremost Royal Dockyard, and was close to the Naval Hospital and Observatory in neighbouring Greenwich. The river offered easy travel into London. And conveniently, Sayes Court, the Deptford home of John Evelyn, had just become available to rent.

John Evelyn is best remembered today as a diarist, albeit overshadowed by his contemporary Samuel Pepys. Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was in gardening and forestry. As well as designing his own and friends’ gardens, he wrote horticultural works ranging from the Elysium Britannicum, a major (if unfinished) work of gardening history, to Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets, devoted to salad plants but including discussion of vegetarianism and a selection of recipes. The work with which he was most closely identified was Sylva, a treatise on tree cultivation; he was later even nicknamed ‘Sylva’ Evelyn.

Sylva was the first book published by the Royal Society, in 1664. A learned and wide-ranging work on forestry, it aimed to encourage the planting of trees to replace those lost in the Civil War or cut down for industrial use. The practical purpose of this was made clear in the sub-title: A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions. The book proved a double success, not only selling well but also achieving its greater aim. Landowners answered Evelyn’s call to plant trees – and in doing so, they provided raw material for the ships which helped win the Napoleonic Wars nearly a century and a half later. In a foreshadowing of a popular phrase from that war, Evelyn had described the Navy as the nation’s ‘wooden walls’.

Meanwhile, Sayes Court was proving an ideal testing ground for Evelyn’s work on gardening, despite suffering from easterly winds. The nearby docks meant that foreign plants were readily available; the large site offered scope for ideas he had gathered on a grand tour of France and Italy. His ideas on creating naturalistic gardens probably influenced developments in landscape design which would come to fruition in the eighteenth-century work of Repton and ‘Capability’ Brown.

As well as private gardens with flowers, herbs and bee-hives, there were extensive grounds and an ornamental lake. It is no surprise that the author of Sylva included orchards and a grove of various tree species. A contemporary described the garden as ‘most boscaresque’, while Pepys enthused over its ‘variety of evergreens and hedges of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life.’

The garden was Evelyn’s pride and joy: he had started planting it even before the purchase of the house was complete in 1652. Many illustrious guests came to Sayes Court to admire its gardens, and were generally welcomed by him. His diary for June 1685, though, records a more surprising would-be visitor:

A large whale was taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, coach, and on foote, from London and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats; but lying now in shallow water, incompassed with boats, after a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood and water by two tunnells, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.

The gardens themselves later suffered a rather undignified experience at the hands of Peter the Great and his friends. Apparently more interested in heavy drinking than the appreciation of horticulture, the Russian visitors did a great deal of damage to the property – but what seems to have upset Evelyn most was the harm to his holly hedge caused by the Tsar driving wheelbarrows through it. On 5 June 1698 he wrote:

I went to Deptford to see how miserably the czar had left my house after three months’ making it his court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the king’s surveyor, and Mr. Loudon, his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Lords of the Treasury.

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Peter the Great Memorial, Deptford.

Among the items to be repaired were 300 broken panes of glass, 170 feet of oak wainscoting, and 240 feet of fencing, as well as grease and ink damage to the floors. Damage to the furniture added another £133. Two months after Peter’s departure, the Treasury awarded Evelyn the then-enormous sum of over £350 in compensation.

While the physical injury to the prized holly hedge was seemingly not permanent, the injury to Evelyn’s feelings was more enduring. He would write in a subsequent edition of Sylva:

Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind, than an impregnable hedge of about four hundred feet in length, nine foot high, and five in diameter; which I can shew in my now ruin’d gardens at Say’s-Court, (thanks to the Czar of Muscovy) at any time of the year, glitt’ring with its arm’d and varnish’d leaves? … It mocks at the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts, or hedge-breakers.

Sadly, drastic changes followed Evelyn’s death in 1706. The holly hedge could not mock the rude assaults of the expansion of the neighbouring dockyard or the replacement of Evelyn’s home with a workhouse. Sayes Court gardens have now all but disappeared. Most of the grounds are underneath Convoy’s Wharf (itself derelict pending a controversial redevelopment) although a small area survives as Sayes Court Park. Its ancient mulberry tree, now in poor health, may have been part of the original gardens.

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Evelyn’s name is found in many Deptford street and place names, but his contribution to victory in the Napoleonic Wars is largely forgotten. His unruly tenant Peter the Great has arguably fared better, since his statue stands on the river front. However, its strange and unflattering portrayal of the Tsar makes it a rather mixed blessing!


Further reading on Sayes Court:
There is very good Wikipedia article.
The London’s Lost Garden blog has a lot of discussion of the garden and the possibility of restoring it.

… finally, an excellent book was published last year by Margaret Willes (LH Member!): The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.


Caroline Derry
Caroline – a long-standing London Historians Member – is the author of the Caroline’s Miscellany blog, which focuses on London history and ghost signs. She has lived in Deptford for over a decade, and is fascinated by its past and the physical traces which remain.

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