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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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The Rainborowes, Adrian Tinniswood

It was appropriate and a little strange seeing the Commons assert its authority during the Syria debate while at that very moment reading of the House doing a similar thing about two thirds through this new book by Adrian Tinniswood. For most of The Rainborowes takes part during the English Civil War. Centre stage is Thomas Rainborowe – the Colonel Rainsborough of Putney Debates fame – who among many things, is a Puritan Leveller and seige specialist par excellence. Utterly loathed by the Royalists, he is widely admired by his men and Parliamentary leaders alike; he is physically courageous, intelligent, militarily talented and not unambitious politically. Could he rather than Cromwell have become the head of a Republican England? It’s not unthinkable, but Thomas was too intransigent, too doctrinaire, too – well – left wing.

Thomas Rainborowe

Thomas Rainborowe

Although he is the leading light in this story, Thomas is but one of a remarkable family of siblings who experienced first-hand the tumult and violence of the Civil War or eking out an existence in colonial Boston. Or both. But we start with the telling of how their father and patriarch of the family, William Rainborowe senior, establishes the family fortunes as a merchant mariner of the Levant trade and also as the scourge of Barbary pirates along North Africa’s Atlantic seaboard. He ruthlessly leads the successful blockade of the pirate stronghold of New Sallee, freeing hundreds of English captives destined for slavery. But his adventures against Irish rebels a few years on were signally less successful.

William senior leaves us just as the Civil War kicks off. His sons and daughters are intermarrying into an extended network of ambitious Puritan families on both sides of the Atlantic, in London and in colonial Boston. His daughters Martha and Judith marry into the elite of Boston Puritan society many of whom also have origins in East London; his sons Thomas and William Junior – the latter returning from New England – fight for Parliament against the king.

That’s the basic narrative, a lot of history there. Two generations of a high-achieving London maritime family in a relatively short and tumultuous period of violence and rapid change which witnesses the birth of one nation and the re-birth of another.

The author has succeeded totally in arranging and compiling a huge amount of evidence – particularly with regard to complex trans-Atlantic family networks. –  and delivering a compelling, pacy work of history. It encompasses on one hand intimate domesticity – the Puritan household – to warfare on a grand scale, on land and on sea. He achieves this seemingly effortlessly, though it is perfectly clear that a lot of hard work lies behind this fabulous account.

I fully expect The Rainborowes to be cited on those book of the year lists you see in the pre-Christmas newspaper supplements.

There is a section of well-chosen images at the centre of the book, which include a portrait of Thomas Rainborowe (above) and others, engravings featuring the Thames and contemporary ships (very fancy, no wonder they were expensive), and what I particularly like: crude contemporary propaganda pamphlets, both religious and political.

The book has two maps, always a good thing: The British Isles showing the main Civil War sites featured; and the Massachusetts Coast. Plus, there is a contemporary one of Old and New Sallee, in the images pages. Index, Notes, Bibliography, all present, thorough and excellent.

The Rainborowes (407pp) by Adrian Tinniswood is published by JonathanCape on 5 September. Cover price is £25.00 but available for less.

Putney Debates.

Thomas Rainborowe’s famous quote at St Mary’s, Putney, where he clashed with Cromwell.

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Just downriver of Tower Bridge you have Wapping on the North bank (Middlesex, as was) and Bermondsey to the South (Surrey). To generalise a bit, the Wapping side has traditionally been about docks and wharfs – logically goods needed to load and offload near the consumers and manufacturers – that’s to say the City of London and what we know as the East End. The Bermondsey side tended to be where ships were manufactured, fitted out and repaired. Here were the homes and neighbourhoods of shipwrights and associated trades craftsmen.

bermondsey

Before the modern docks were built from the beginning of the 19th Century, this section of the Thames was choked solid with thousands of vessels – an unbroken forest of masts and rigging of merchantmen with service vessels, river taxis, lighters and the like weaving between them as best they could.

Today at low tide, archaeologists go down to the river’s beaches and try to make sense of past from the valuable but shifting clues left behind. Last Thursday professional archaeologists and volunteers from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) hit the mud on the Bermondsey side to study a section. All tape measures, clipboards and wellies. One of their number, Eliott Wragg, gave a public tour of the area and the operation to about 20 of us “civvies”. We kicked off with a nice surprise: some ruins of an ancient manor house or possibly a hunting lodge dating from around 1350 . I knew of this building but not exactly where it was. Now I do.

bermondsey

King Edward III’s manor house. Possibly.

Bermondsey.

Archaeologists at work.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Eliott explains.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Rudder of an 18C frigate, re-purposed as part of wharf or dock structure.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Heading upriver.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

“A Fine Summer’s Day in London”

Fellow LH Member Hannah Renier and I really enjoyed our outing with the TDP as we did at Vauxhall a few months ago.  We managed to squeeze in some mudlarking while we were at it. I was very excited to find my first clay pipe stem; an hour later we’d amassed dozens. Obvious, really, that “finds” should be more plentiful just down from the City.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey

Eliott, Hannah, Eddie the dog.

http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/

Some of the stuff we found. Crockery bits, rusty nails, clay pipe stems.

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The Thames Discovery Programme is an archaeological group comprising around 300 volunteers and a tiny complement of full-time staff (2.5 members, to be precise). Its mission is to record, measure, monitor the largest archaeological site in Britain: the Thames foreshore. A major part of its remit is public engagement: walks, talks, site visits. With a little training, you can join them as a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), i.e. volunteer. Or just tag along for an outing as we did. It’s all on their web site.

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