The Victorian Rag Trade, Smallpox and a Sussex Paper Mill

Ian Friel MA, PhD, FSA

© Ian Friel 2020

This paper was first published in The Quarterly, The Journal of the British Association of Paper Historians, No 115, July 2020, pp 37-44, and is published here with the kind agreement of Peter Bower, General Editor of The Quarterly. I would also like to thank Peter for commissioning the original paper.

Iping Paper Mill, from a postcard of 1906 (image courtesy of Peter Bower)


Nowadays, the term ‘the Rag Trade’ is sometimes used as a description of the fashion business. In the 19th century it had a very literal meaning: the reuse of old clothes and other pieces of cloth to make different materials, including paper. 

This study concerns a paper mill that once existed in the village of Iping in West Sussex, and a smallpox epidemic that spread from it in 1883.[1] I came across this seemingly forgotten incident some years ago, while researching a house history. This paper has been written under the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, and is based on my notes from that time, as well as additional research undertaken in online sources. There may well be more to be learned about the 1883 outbreak, and there is certainly more to be learned about the Iping paper mill. 

I am not an historian of the paper industry or of medicine, and approach the subject from the point of view of local history. However, the story of the Iping epidemic is of more than local significance. It highlights a disturbing aspect of the Victorian paper industry and also shows how the outbreak of a deadly disease could be controlled and then stopped without the benefit of modern medicine. It may have resonances for some readers today that it would not have possessed before the beginning of 2020.[2]

Iping Paper Mill

Iping is a small West Sussex village about three miles west of Midhurst and around fourteen miles north of Chichester. It straddles the banks of the western Rother, a river that flows into the River Arun, with the settlements of Stedham to the east and Iping Marsh to the north. The Rother valley was a prosperous area as far back as the Middle Ages, and the Domesday Book of 1086 listed at least seven mills in settlements on the river, probably all of them cornmills driven by water.[3]

The Iping paper mill came much later, and its history has been expertly summarized in research by H E S Simmons and D Chamberlain.[4] Their work shows that in 1665 a cornmill and malt-mill existed at Iping under the same roof. It is believed that this mill was converted into a paper mill: the exact date is not known, but the paper mill was certainly in operation by 1725. 

Later map evidence suggests that the mill complex was built across a channel cut in the bank of the Rother, so that the part of the mill sat on a small island. For much of the 19th century the mill was owned by the Pewtress family, who are said to have supplied The Times with newsprint. They sold the company in 1867, and by the late 1870s it was in the hands of William Edward Warren and John Chalcraft Warren. They concentrated on the manufacture of blotting paper: according to a 1910 account, this was due to the introduction of machine-made paper, which effectively killed off the handmade paper industry. 

The machinery at Iping mill was modernised in about 1885 with the installation of new equipment made by Bently and Jackson of Lancashire, but the Warrens continued to use rags as their main material. In 1910 it was said that the rags were gathered ‘throughout Sussex’, transported to Iping by road and rail. The rags were then cleansed, and then ‘torn and cut up’ by a staff of women and girls using knives, before a machine pulped the material was pulped. This traditional process seems to have continued into the 1920s, as in 1924, the mill advertised for six female rag-sorters. The paper mill was eventually destroyed by a fire on 11 March 1925, and papermaking at Iping came to an end.[5]

In 1883, the rag-loft at the mill was the source of a smallpox epidemic, one that only seems to be recorded in a report by the county’s Medical Officer of Health and the accounts of the local Sanitary Authority. It was a small-scale event In terms of Victorian smallpox outbreaks, but must have been terrifying to those who had to live through it. The narrative of this epidemic is a story of disease, effective public health work and human courage, but it also exposes the unsavoury and rather callous workings of the paper industry in the 1800s. Before looking at the outbreak itself, it is necessary to discuss first, smallpox, and then the rag trade.


Smallpox epidemics are a thing of the past. In 1979, thanks to modern medicine, the World Health Organisation was able to declare the world smallpox-free. In earlier times, smallpox was a common killer, often on a large scale. The disease is thought to have developed from a version of cowpox that migrated from domesticated cattle, at some time after human beings started farming about 12,000 years ago. It killed readily, and survivors were left with pock-marked bodies and faces as a terrible reminder of their ordeal.

The process of inoculation can give someone a mild form of a disease, and so help them to build up immunity. The idea of inoculation was known in China as far back as the 10th century AD and in Africa, Turkey and probably other places by 1700. The process involved taking infected pus from the pustules of an infected person, and placing it in a scratch on the skin of someone without the disease. Known as variolation (from the Latin name for smallpox, variola), the technique was brought back to England from Turkey in 1717 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She had seen it being used to protect Turkish children, and had her own children inoculated against smallpox.  The method came into widespread use in Europe and America, but it carried the danger that variolation could actually infect someone with smallpox and so start an epidemic.

Edward Jenner, an English physician, discovered a much safer form of protection in the 1790s. There was a well-known tradition that dairymaids did not get smallpox because they caught cowpox (a minor disease in humans), from the animals they milked. Jenner decided to follow this up, and his cowpox inoculations or vaccinations (from the Latin vacca, cow) were – literally – innocuous, and came into widespread use, replacing variolation. 

Ignorant and vociferous cranks opposed the procedure, but in 1840 the British government passed its first Vaccination Act, which made free vaccinations available for the poor, and made variolation illegal.  An 1853 Vaccination Act made vaccination compulsory for all newborns in their first three months, and in 1867 this was extended to all children of 14 and under. The state compulsion underlying these important and largely successful public health measures, provoked noisy and passionate campaigns from anti-vaccinators that have echoes in modern anti-vaccination movements. However, despite opposition, vaccination was a commonplace medical procedure by the later 19th century.[6]

The Rag Trade

We tend to think of recycling as a modern invention, but in reality it has been practised throughout history. In the 19th century, one of the materials widely recycled was cloth, taken from old clothes, sheets and many other items.

It was well known that consignments of rags sometimes included contaminated material, and in 1865 an eminent physician, Dr John Syer Bristowe (1827-95) produced a report on the rag trade for the Privy Council. This was one of a number of enquiries into public health that he conducted for the government.[7] Bristowe’s report is given an extensive summary here, because it has a lot to say about the operation of the rag trade, and how rags were used by the paper industry.[8]

According to Bristowe, mid-Victorian Britain imported rags from many countries, with Germany, France, Russia, Italy and the Low Countries among the main suppliers, though it was not unknown for them to come from as far away as Japan. The rags were shipped in bags that came in through the ports and were sent (almost invariably unopened) to the wholesale rag dealers or the manufacturing companies that recycled them.

The wholesalers in big cities like London and Liverpool also handled rags that came from British sources, but the initial supplies were often gathered in small quantities by marine-store dealers. These enterprises sorted the rags and generally passed them on to ‘collectors’ (middlemen) or sold them direct to the big rag dealers, though in some cases rural manufacturers sourced their rags direct from the marine-store dealers.

The term ‘rags’ covered a great range of cloth, including cotton, linen and wool, or mixtures of them, and comprised everything from ‘best white rags’ or cotton and linen to canvas, jute and tailors’ waste. Though much of the cloth had been sorted before it got to the wholesalers, it often needed to be re-sorted, with workers employed to cut out things such as button-holes. The sorting work at the wholesalers’ warehouses was usually undertaken by women, with the sorted rags packed for dispatch by men: the biggest rag-merchant in London employed about one hundred people. The one thing usually missing from the process was any attempt to clean or disinfect the rags.

There was concern that infected hospital waste got into the supply chain, though London’s ‘small-pox and fever hospitals’ assured Bristowe that they did not sell off their old sheets. They kept the infected material so that it could torn up and reused as dressings. Hardly a comforting notion for patients, one might have thought.

The report continued:

‘As regards cleanliness, it may be added that rags collected in country districts are, as a rule, cleaner that those collected in large towns…, that Irish rags are generally very filthy, and that many foreign rags (such as Italian, Spanish, Russian, and especially Egyptian) are often not only dirty, but stink’.

Rags were used to help make manure, poor-quality flock bedding (something discontinued by the time the report came out) and for making shoddy (shoddy was low-quality cloth remanufactured from woollens). However, the paper industry was the chief user of rags, and for this reason Bristowe paid it special attention.  The industry itself was very extensive. A directory of the time listed 304 paper mills in England, 10 in Wales, 54 in Scotland and 21 in Ireland. The counties with twenty or more mills were Buckinghamshire (20), Kent (36), Lancashire (39) and Yorkshire (33). Sussex had only eight (at this date ‘Sussex’ meant both modern West and East Sussex).

The demand for paper was, of course, huge, and covered everything from writing paper, newspapers and books to wallpaper, blotting paper and papier-maché. The paper-industry’s need for rags was even greater, as it was reckoned that for every ton of paper made in a mill, the weight of rags used had to be about five per cent greater.

Bristowe outlined the multi-stage process used to make the best rag-based handmade paper. The first steps involved dusting the rags, cutting them up and then sorting them. They were then subjected to superheated steam, before being soaked and washed in a caustic solution. The dusting was designed to get rid of particles of dirt and what Bristowe described as ‘animal filth’. In some bigger mills a large cylindrical sieve was used for the purpose, though in many others, cutting and sorting preceded dusting. Where the mechanical sieve was used: 

‘the rag-cutting room, which is always a dusty and not agreeable place, is rendered much more cleanly and sweet than it would otherwise would be’.

Rag-cutting was always carried out in a separate part of a mill, and was mainly the work of women, aged from fifteen or sixteen years upwards, though a few boys might also take part. Some people might work for decades as rag-cutters, particularly those in rural districts – presumably for lack of other employment opportunities:

‘The rag-cutters work for the most part in a large room or rooms, which of course vary much in their size relatively to the number of occupants, and vary much in their ventilation, in their other arrangements, and generally in their suitability for the purposes to which they are applied. They are always dusty, and always have a more or less musty if not more offensive smell. They generally, however, appear to me to be fairly ventilated.

‘Each rag-cutter, while at work, stands at a board with a knife fixed in it in front of her vertically, with the cutting edge forwards, provided on the one hand with an adequate supply of rags, and on the other with a kind of bin furnished with compartments, into one or other of which she throws, according to their character, the rags as she cuts them’.

There were normally some female overseers, depending on the number of cutters, with a foreman in overall charge. The largest paper mill in Britain at the time, belonging to a Mr Joynson, employed 250 rag-cutters.

Bristowe’s enquiry was made in response to two complaints that smallpox outbreaks had been caused by infected rags at paper mills. One outbreak had occurred in 1858 in the vicinity of mills at Wraysbury and Colnbrook on the Buckinghamshire / Berkshire border, and the other was at Thetford in Norfolk in 1864. The Medical Officer of the Privy Council had investigated the first epidemic at the time, but could come to no definite conclusion. After the Thetford outbreak, Bristowe was ordered to investigate that incident and to make a more general enquiry into the rag trade.

Bristowe interviewed about a dozen rag merchants and some twenty marine-store dealers in London, but he also visited eighty-six paper mills across England, mainly in Kent, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Devon and Lancashire. He was generally received with ‘great civility’ and openness, and in only one case was he refused admission to the ‘rag house’. As far as possible, he spoke to both managers and workers. Few of the managers claimed to know of any cases where smallpox was caused by rags, and in most of the mills ‘the workpeople appeared to have no dread of the rags on which they were engaged’. People in the majority of the mills had had smallpox while working with the rags, but Bristowe only recorded instances where the people themselves believed that they had caught them from the rags. This anecdotal evidence surely undermined the validity of Bristowe’s conclusion that the evidence:

‘…seems to me to show that smallpox and other infections are very rarely introduced into paper mills by rags, but to show that at the same time that their introduction is possible, and even occasionally takes place’.

He did confess that the ‘quality of the evidence [for actual epidemics] which I have collected is not very good’, given the fallibility of memory and in some cases the time that had elapsed since the outbreak.

Though Bristowe had gone far and wide in the course of his enquiry, and had investigated the nature of the rag trade, his overall conclusions were questionable, and overly complacent, given that smallpox and many other infectious diseases could be real killers in the mid-19th century. He did seek advice from ‘practical men’ in the industry about precautionary measures that could be taken to ensure that infected rags did not reach the workers. Unsurprisingly, they said that proper treatment would be very difficult. 

The best time to disinfect rags would have been before they were disposed of, because anyone handling contaminated rags thereafter should have been protected. This could have been made a legal requirement, but Bristowe doubted that it could ever be enforced. The only practical solution he could see was to ensure that ragworkers at mills had already been vaccinated against smallpox, or were re-vaccinated when they started working with rags. The ‘use of disinfectants, or any process for purifying rags, either at the rag merchants or in the mills, would be attended (so far as I can ascertain), not only with great inconvenience, but with considerable expense’: such additional expenses, ‘in the present condition of the rag and of the paper trades, would be in a high degree injurious to these branches of industry’. This was most probably the nub of the objections from the ‘practical men’ in the industry, and so issues of cost and convenience trumped the health and safety of the workers.

The 1883 Iping Smallpox Epidemic

The 1883 smallpox epidemic at Iping, Iping Marsh and Stedham was recorded in forensic detail by Dr Charles Kelly MD, FRCP, the Medical Officer of Health for Sussex in his 1883 Report on the Rural Sanitary District of Midhurst (Midhurst is the town nearest to Iping). It was headed ‘Small Pox at a Paper Mill’.[9]

As is said above, the mill was owned by Warren & Co, and made blotting paper. According to Kelly, the rags used in the mill came from all parts of the country, and also from abroad. They were carried by train to a station that then existed near the village of Elsted, a couple of miles to the south-west. They were loaded on to wagons and taken to the rag-loft at the mill, where they were sorted, dusted and cut into small pieces ready for boiling and bleaching. On average, it took about two days to convert the contents of a bale into paper.

The Iping area as shown on the First Edition Ordnance Survey map of Sussex, published in 1813. Iping Marsh is in the top left-hand corner, with Knap Farm (The Knap) just below. In 1883 there were two Stedham Commons, one to the south of the village, on the eastern end of what is named as ‘Trotton Common’ on this map, and one to the north, in the area described as ‘Stedham Marsh’ in 1813. It is likely that the tented hospital was set up on the more- accessible southern Common.

The rag-loft was a wooden building, standing separate from the mill itself on the opposite side of the millstream (probably on the south side). The loft was described as ‘old’, but also well-ventilated. It was staffed in 1883 by fourteen women and two men. The women mainly worked as sorters, while the men opened the bales and carried the sorted rags across the stream to the mill.  The mill employees were all local, living within two or three miles, in Iping or in the nearby settlements of Iping Marsh and Stedham.

Kelly maintained a degree of privacy for the people involved in the outbreak by giving their first names, followed by the first letter of their surnames. He simply gave their homes as ‘cottage 1’, ‘cottage 2’ and so-on, in order to pinpoint which households were affected and where the disease spread. The surnames of some of the affected families in Iping and Stedham can be established with certainty in the 1881 Census, though by no means all, and none of the last names of those living at The Knap in Iping Marsh in 1883 can be matched with those listed there in the Census two years before.[10]

Iping Paper Mill in 1874. The mill buildings are shown in solid black. The rag-loft was most likely on the south side of the river, by the road to Elsted Station (redrawn and reinterpreted from Ordnance Survey 6-inch map Sussex XXI, surveyed 1874 and published in 1879).

The first person to be infected was probably a 25 year-old married woman, Fanny L. She worked as a rag-sorter at the mill, and lived in a terraced cottage at The Knap with her husband, two small children and a young woman lodger, Mary A. Fanny was last at the mill on 5 May, but on 7 May she began to experience backpain and a headache, followed by a smallpox rash that appeared on 9 May. She went on to suffer a severe infection, but eventually recovered. In the meantime, Mary A, who was also a rag-sorter in the mill, started feeling ill on 11 May and developed a smallpox rash on 15 May. Fortunately for her, it was a mild attack. Like Fanny, she recovered.

The second person to catch the disease seems to have been a fifteen year-old named Clara. She lived in Iping with her stepfather Frank Horlock and her mother Jane Horlock, and three younger siblings, one of whom was a baby (Clara’s name was given in the Census as Clara Booker, but Kelly called her ‘Clara H’). Like Fanny and Mary, Clara also worked at the mill. She came home at midday on 8 May with pains in her head and back, and feeling sick. The rash appeared on 10 May and she eventually fell into a coma on the evening of 11 May. She died the following day, and was buried before nightfall. Frank moved out with two of the children, while Jane remained behind to nurse the baby. Frank soon returned however, and lodged in a nearby shed, from where he was able to help sick people by running their errands.

The cottage next door to that of Frank and Jane was home to 20 year-old Emily Hill, her brother and his wife, three children, and two young male lodgers, William D and Moses S. Emily, William and Moses were all employed at the paper mill, Emily working there as a rag-sorter. She, too, fell ill with smallpox, and went to the house next door, where Jane Horlock had agreed to look after her. 

The Hills’ landlord seems to have moved the family and the lodgers out of the house very quickly, and they moved to stay with their families a few miles away (the Hills and Moses went to Bramshott and William D to Kingsham, a suburb of Chichester). This was hardly a good idea as regards confining the spread of infection, though no-one outside the Iping area is known to have caught the disease. 

At the same time, tragedy struck a family in Iping Marsh. Mrs M, a 58 year-old rag-sorter, fell ill on 9 May. The smallpox rash appeared four day later, and she died on 18 May, after a severe attack. She was buried the next day.

Yet another rag-worker succumbed to the disease, this time a male employee. Frederick Denyer lived with his father James, mother Ann and four brothers and sisters in a small terraced house at Stedham. He caught the disease; his father moved into an empty cottage with three of the children while Ann stayed behind to care for Frederick and her infant daughter. Sadly, Frederick died on 18 May, and was soon interred.

Dr Kelly received early reports of the outbreak at Iping and Stedham, and moved quickly, visiting Iping and Stedham on 11 May. However, smallpox moved faster. 

By 18 May there had six primary cases of smallpox, and three of them were dead. There had been no recent cases of smallpox in the district, none of the people who fell sick had been absent from work (except on Sundays, their one day off), and there had been no fair locally to introduce the virus from somewhere else. Besides the fact that they lived within a few miles of each other, the only other linking factor was that all six worked in the rag-loft at the paper mill.

Fifty-two people in eleven houses were affected directly by this first phase of the disease – twenty-nine adults and twenty-three children – with infections in five houses. Interestingly, it emerged that vaccination had been practised in the area before the Vaccination Acts.  Many of the adults had been vaccinated in the past, some as children, including a woman born in about 1817. On Kelly’s instructions, some people were now re-vaccinated with cow-pox from a calf, but this was not always seen to be successful. An effective vaccination was supposed to raise a small lump if there was a positive immune response.

A man was employed in each of the three settlements to run errands for the people in the eight houses where the inhabitants self-isolated, fetching food, medicine and other necessaries.  The people in the infected houses could not go out to work, so the local Poor Law Guardians supplied them with what they needed. Houses where there were deaths were fumigated with burning sulphur, and sick-room clothes and bedding were burnt. This was not enough, however. Secondary infections now started to appear.

Emily Hill, who had stayed in Iping when the rest of the family went to Bramshott, soon recovered. Her sister-in-law Ellen was not so lucky. She was taken ill, and the smallpox rash appeared on her body on 27 May. The family moved back to Iping that day, but Ellen’s condition quickly deteriorated and she died on the morning of 30 May. She was buried that evening by her husband and one of the local gravediggers.

With a secondary outbreak brewing, Kelly requested that the Midhurst Rural Sanitary Authority should give him powers to remove all fresh cases to an isolated spot. There was no building available for use as a hospital, and the weather was fine, so a tented camp was set up on Stedham Common (probably the common to the south of village).

A marquee measuring 40 x 20 ft (12.2 x 6.1m) was erected on the Common on 31 May, along with four bell tents. Beds and bedding were brought in, with six beds there by the end of 1 June, and wooden planks were laid to provide flooring. A horse-drawn cart was used to bring in existing and new patients. One of those was William D, who lodged with the Hill family, and had fallen sick at Kingsham. He was able to walk, but was kept in bed for a day or two in the large tent. A hospital nurse (unnamed) took up residence in a bell tent, and two other bell-tents were occupied by patients’ families.

Some more bell-tents were acquired on 1 June, and patients from Stedham were brought in, accompanied by another hospital nurse and their families. The newly-arrived families lived in the bell tents, and by the end of 1 June all of the known Iping and Stedham patients were at the tented hospital, twenty-five people in all, plus the two nurses. The Iping Marsh patients were all doing well at that time and it was considered better not to move them.

The sandy Common made for a pleasant location, and the camp was well-supplied with food and water. The water came in a water-cart which could hold enough for two days. Cooking and washing was all carried out on site, with a mangle brought in to help dry clothes, and the contents of the latrines were buried. Anyone who wanted to deliver anything to the patients and families had to leave it at a flagpole some 300 yards away.

Some people from Iping Marsh now became sick enough to require hospitalisation. Two of these were Mrs Ann H (64) and her granddaughter Elizabeth L (13), and they came to the hospital on 4 June. Mrs H was a pauper, receiving poor relief, and had been bed-ridden for the previous month. She lived one hundred yards from an infected house, and believed she had caught the smallpox from a doctor who had had contact with one of the infected people.

Another Knap patient came in on 10 June. George C was aged 68; he had fallen ill two days earlier. He did not think he had ever been vaccinated, and refused it now. He died five days after admission to the hospital, and was buried the next day at the Knap.

Two grave-diggers were employed to bury the victims. They had to be supported by the local parish for a fortnight because no-one would take them in, and were forced to live in a hut on Midhurst Common. One of them caught a mild case of smallpox (for the second time in his life) but he refused to come to the hospital. He and his colleague were stuck at the hut for twenty-three days, but they were provided with food, and, according to Kelly, passed the time by either fishing or reading. No-one caught smallpox from them.

The camp reached its peak numbers on 14 June, with twenty-seven patients and their families, and the two nurses.  George C’s death on 15 June was the last of the epidemic, however, and on 20 June fifteen people went home. All of the patients were well by 30 June, and the camp was broken up. Tents were fumigated, and the bell tent and bedding used by George C was burnt.

While the patients’ houses were empty, more fumigation was carried out. The process involved the use of smoke from burning sulphur, burned on three separate occasions. Walls and ceilings were washed down with hot lime solution, and floors and woodwork were scrubbed. Any clothing and bedding that was not burnt was disinfected with carbolic acid and boil-washed. The Sanitary Authority replaced all items that had to be destroyed.

The six primary cases exposed another 59 people to infection, in total. Nineteen fell ill, and five of them died. Kelly believed that vaccination or re-vaccination had played a big part in keeping people alive, even if it did not always protect them from infection. Of those who caught smallpox, sixteen had been vaccinated before, and four of them died.

The contemporary local papers, the West Sussex Gazette and the Horsham, Petworth, Midhurst and Steyning Expresscan be fully searched via the British Newspaper Archive, yet neither appears to contain any mention of the Iping outbreak. The Horsham Advertiser, another West Sussex paper, devoted one short sentence to it in a review of Kelly’s 1883 report. The paper noted that it was attributed to rag-sorting at an (unspecified) paper mill, but did not take the issue further.[11]

The 1875 Public Health Act (Section 126.3) had imposed a penalty on anyone who ‘Gives lends sells transmits or exposes, without previous disinfection, any bedding clothing rags or other things which have been exposed to infection…’ The penalty was not to exceed about £5 (about £2,500 in modern wage values), and enforcement was left up local authorities. Kelly was in no doubt that the outbreak started with rags that had been brought into the rag-loft at Iping, but no action appears to have been taken to get the Warrens to clean up their working practices. 

It is possible that the re-equipment of the mill with new machinery in the mid-1880s also involved a change in the rag-loft, but there is no actual evidence of this. Comparison of maps surveyed in 1874 and 1910 show that the mill seems to have got smaller in the intervening years, but this does not mean that there was any change in the way it handled rags. The most that can be said is that there does not appear to have been another smallpox epidemic that can be linked to the raw material used by the Iping mill.[12]

Kelly’s prompt action, with a programme of vaccination and the rapid isolation of the affected households, seems to have stopped the disease from spreading. The epidemic was killed off within two months of its outbreak.

The wider picture

The dangers of infection from untreated rags were well known across the world. In the early 1890s the US Surgeon General, the national medical authority, was very concerned about rags that were being imported into the United States from Germany, and that might have been contaminated with cholera, smallpox or other communicable diseases. A German survey of nearly 700 firms that used rags across Europe included three returns from English paper mills. Two of these reported smallpox outbreaks, though the US report noted that there had been more than 70 epidemics at rag dealers and paper mills in England.[13]

In Britain, local authorities were supposed to be the first line of defence in public health matters, but they were not always very proactive – and nor was central government. In 1896 there a consignment of infected rags was sent from Gloucester to a paper mill at High Wycombe. The issue was raised in Parliament, and the government response was to more or less wash its hands of the matter. It was said that the need to enforce the Act as regards infected rags was being ‘pressed’ upon Gloucester Corporation. At the same time the government stated that paper mill workers themselves had a simple and effective remedy in the form of vaccination or revaccination by the public vaccinator, a process that was free.[14]

Newspapers and other sources between the 1860s and the early 1900s record various smallpox outbreaks that emanated from rags at paper mills. The 1864 Thetford smallpox outbreak, investigated by Bristowe, was a serious one. It began with two female rag-cutters working at the Mackay and Watson paper mill. There had been no cases of smallpox in the village for some years previously, but this epidemic lasted for six or seven months, and infected thirty-two people. Sixteen or seventeen of them died. 

Bristowe also reported on eleven cases in which individuals believed, or were believed, to have caught smallpox from rags. One of these incidents occurred at the Eashing paper mill, near Godalming, Surrey. Coincidentally, the mill was owned by Pewtress & Co, the company that also owned the Iping paper works at that time.[15]

There were other examples:[16]

  • In 1881 a girl employed as a rag-cutter at paper mill in Holywell in North Wales caught smallpox from infected rags; the Local Government Board (LGB) said that it had no power to enforce the cleansing of rags as they went ‘through many hands’ on their way to the mills;
  • in the same year there was an ‘extensive’ outbreak among rag-sorters at a mill in St Mary Cray, Kent;
  • an 1886 epidemic caused by a mill at Woburn in Bedfordshire led to a statement in Parliament by the Local Government Board that it had no powers to enforce the cleansing of rags, but had sent out information as to the best way to prevent infection and had recommended the re-vaccination of everyone in the paper industry;
  • in 1887 the Board investigated three outbreaks – in 1883, 1884 and 1886 – caused by untreated rags in paper mill in Ivybridge, Devon;
  • in 1900, two girls employed in the ‘rag department’ of Inveresk paper mill, East Lothian, fell sick with smallpox;
  • in 1902 nine people caught smallpox from infected rags at Chirnside Paper Works, Berwickshire, Scotland, but the outbreak was stopped by the effective action of local doctors and sanitary authorities.

It might be possible to find many other accounts of such infections from rag-lofts in this period, though judging by newspaper reports, they do seem to have declined in frequency after the early 1900s. A 1917 account attributed this to the taking of greater precautions, without specifying what those were.[17] Vaccination probably played a large part in this, along with better medical responses to outbreaks and a decline of the use of rags in paper manufacture. 

The 1883 Iping outbreak was stopped by the prompt and professional action of Dr Charles Kelly and the local Sanitary Authority. However, halting the epidemic also relied on the courage of the doctors, nurses and family members who cared for the patients. Five dead represented a tragic toll, but it could have been a great deal worse.

A view of the north side of the Iping paper mill ‘island’ site, photographed from Iping Bridge in 2020. All traces of the mill appear to have gone, apart from the weir across the River Rother, and the site is used for private housing.


Bristowe 1865   J S Bristowe, ‘Report by Dr John Syer Bristowe on inquiries whether the RAG TRADE is of influence on SPREADING INFECTIONS of DISEASE’, in Report 1865, pp 196-208

Chamberlain 2018   D Chamberlain (ed), “Paper mills” : extracted from the Simmons collection of records related to British windmills and watermills, Vol 2 , British Association of Paper Historians, Studies in Paper History, Vol VI, London

Cook 1997  H Cook, ‘From the Scientific Revolution to the German Theory’ in Loudon 1997, pp 80-101

Kiple 1996  K F Kiple, ‘The history of disease’, in Porter 1996, pp 61-51

Loudon 1997   I Loudon (ed), Western Medicine. An Illustrated History, Oxford

Morris 1976   J Morris (ed), Domesday Book Sussex, Chichester

Pickstone 1996, J Pickstone, ‘Medicine, society and the state’, in Porter 1996, pp 304-41

Porter 1996   R Porter (ed), Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine, Cambridge (inc pp 9 and 377)

Report 1865   Reports of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council and Local Government Board, London

Savage-Smith 1997   E Savage-Smith, ‘Europe and Islam’ in Loudon 1997, pp 40-53

Shorter 1996   E Shorter, ‘Primary care’, in Porter 1996, pp 118-53

Wolfe and Sharp 2002   R M Wolfe and L K Sharp, ‘Anti-vaccinationits past and present’, British Medical Journal, 24 August 2002, 325 (7361), 430-32, via

[1] Contemporary sources sometimes describe it as ‘paper mills’ in the plural, presumably implying a double set of machinery, but to avoid confusion it is referred to in this paper in the singular.

[2] I would like to thank Mr Peter Bower, editor of the Journal of the British Association of Paper Historians, for asking me to write this paper.

[3] Morris 1976, pp 23a, b, c and 29d.

[4] Chamberlain 2018, pp 533-36.

[5] West Sussex Gazette, 28 July 1910, p 6 and 7 November 1935, p 12; Chichester Observer, 16 April 1924, p 8. The West Sussex Record Office has deeds and other papers relating the mill dating between 1827 and 1869 – WSRO Add MSS 18995-18998 and SP/283, plus much other material concerning Iping and Iping manor. Unfortunately, these papers could not be consulted for this paper due to coronavirus restrictions.

[6] This account is based on: Porter 1996, pp 9, 375 and 377; Kiple 1996, pp 21, 36 and 39; Pickstone 1996, p 321 and 322; Shorter 1996, p 130; Savage-Smith 1997, p 53; Cook 1997, p 89;; Wolfe and Sharp 2002.


[8] Bristowe 1865.

[9] West Sussex Record Office WDC/CL 74/1, Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Combined District of West Sussex 1875-1877, 1881, 1883, 1885, 1888-1911: the account of the Iping outbreak is on pp 96-108 of Kelly’s 1883 Report; WG7/59/3 Minutes of Midhurst Union Rural Sanitary Authority 1879-85, pp 193-94, 195, 264-65 and 267-78.

[10] Census data via

[11] Horsham Advertiser, 10 November 1883, p 5.

[12]; modern equivalent penalty calculated from:; maps: Ordnance Survey, Sussex XXI 6-inch map, surveyed 1874 and published 1879 and Sussex XXI.11, 25-inch map surveyed 1910 and published 1912.

[13] Annual Report of the Supervising Surgeon-General of the Marine-Hospital Service of the United States, 1893, Vol 1, pp 246-51


[15] Bristowe report, pp 205-07.

[16] Winsford & Middlewich Guardian, 25 June 1881, p 6; The Medical Times and Gazette, Vol 1, 1882, p 589; Blackburn Standard, 22 May 1886, p 3;Western Morning News, 7 January 1887, p 5; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 June 1900, p 4; Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, London, 1902, p 96.

[17] Bucks Herald, 1 December 1917, p 2.


Lost Property: Identifying the Seventeenth-century Swash Channel Wreck

2010_complete_tcA photomosaic of the Fame wrecksite. (C) Bournemouth University

The Swash Channel leads to the main entrance of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and this is where the Swash Channel Wreck lies. The original name of the ship has been lost for close on 400 years.

Until now.

The Swash Channel Wreck is a Protected Wreck Site, one of 62 in the UK. This means that it has been designated by the government under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of its contents or former contents.

The wreck of this 17th century armed merchant ship was first discovered by accident in 1990 and then rediscovered in 2004 by Wessex Archaeology. Subsequent work, led by Bournemouth University, has uncovered the structure and raised many artefacts. It’s a vulnerable site as well as an important one, and its condition is monitored.

Bournemouth University commissioned me to undertake a research project to see if it was possible to identify the ship. The subsequent hunt led through more than 15,000 manuscript pages in Dorset and London. It’s a bit of a cliché (to say the least) to compare historical research with detective work, but this project certainly felt like it. Many of the paper trails didn’t go anywhere, a few led to ‘possibles’, and one took me to what I believe is the right answer.

The Swash Channel Wreck is at a depth of between 7 and 9 metres on the edge of the Hook Sands. The hull is carvel-built and about 40 m of the port side survives. This is remarkable, because it includes some of the upperworks, though the structure is split into two pieces. Tree-ring evidence suggests that the hull contains some wood felled between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany, with at least one timber from a tree cut down in the year 1628. The hull had an outer plank sheathing, designed to help protect the main planking from marine organisms. This indicated that the vessel might have been on a voyage to or from the tropics.

Judging by the number of surviving gunports, the ship carried 26 or more carriage-mounted guns, though most of the weapons themselves are no longer there. No cargo was found in the hull, but some Dutch domestic pottery was discovered which dated to the years 1625-1650 (1).

So, the ship was probably Dutch and operated between c 1620 and 1650, or a bit later. With this sort of timeframe, you might think that finding the right ‘candidate’ for the wreck should have been easy. No problem.

Ah, no.

For one thing, there was no systematic government recording of shipwrecks in Britain until the Victorian era. For another, the period 1620-50 predates the first English newspapers by a long way.

1625-42 wreck incident map

Map showing wreck incidents listed in my 1625-1642 wreck survey: Dutch wrecks are marked in red, and many positions are approximate only, e.g. ships identified as wrecked ‘on the Isle of Wight’. (C) Ian Friel 2013

This is not to say that there are no records of wrecks. The archives of the 17th-century state are full of letters, accounts, legal proceedings and other material concerning sunken vessels, some of it very detailed. As part of the search for the Swash Channel Wreck I pulled together as many wreck references as I could find in British sources (mainly for England and Wales) for the years 1625-1642. First and foremost I wanted to identify the Swash Channel Wreck, but also needed to get a sense of the nature and scope of the evidence and to set the Dorset wreck in context. The year 1642 was chosen as the end-date for the survey because the English Civil War started then, and a lot of central government record-keeping went to pieces until the 1650s.

The survey turned up 142 references to losses of specific ships. These were mainly merchant vessels that were important enough to generate paperwork. No doubt there were also many losses of fishing boats and small merchantmen which went unrecorded, but in this case ‘important’ generally meant ‘valuable’.

The single most common reason for reporting these wrecks (in 74 of 142 cases) was that they were lost property, not that they were disasters that endangered life and limb. The loss of a ship could be a huge financial blow for the owner and for anyone who had goods aboard. Small wonder that they made a fuss about it. The fuss was frequently caused by illegal salvage operations.

By law, a sunken ship could only be declared a ‘wreck’ if no-one escaped alive from it. If there were no survivors, the remains of the ship and cargo belonged to whoever owned the ‘right of wreck’ on the stretch of shore where the incident took place. In many cases, this was the local lord of the manor. However, if there were survivors, then the ship and its contents were deemed to be the property of its original owners.

This all sounds straightforward enough, but coast dwellers and others often disregarded the legal niceties and just grabbed anything they could. The vast majority of rural inhabitants were very poor, and a wreck could dump vast wealth virtually on their doorstep.

People could go to extremes to get hold of such booty. One Dutch wreck on the Essex coast in winter 1633, for example, was picked over by three different groups of salvors. One party extracted goods worth at least £5 million in modern terms, but a man in one of the other groups died because he and his companions had to work deep inside the hull in freezing water up to their armpits (2).

Hoorn - port 1980The port of Hoorn. (C) Ian Friel 1980

Dutch wrecks were fairly common around the English coast in this time, a reflection of the rising power of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at sea. Their ships travelled the globe, and in January 1631 one particular vessel set sail from its home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam, on a voyage to the West Indies. The ship was the Fame, an armed merchantman owned by two men, Hercules Garretson and Cornelius Veene. The vessel’s master was called John Jacobson Botemaker, and in all there were some 45 people on board.  The Fame must taken a course through the Dover Strait and along the south coast of England, because at some point in February it anchored off Poole.

It is not known why the Fame stopped off Poole, but the English Channel can be an inhospitable place in winter and perhaps the crew were seeking to shelter in Studland Bay. If this was the case, it didn’t work, because there was a storm, and the ship seems to have dragged its anchor (that is, the anchor would not hold). The Fame was ‘overset and overwhelmed’, driven on to a sandbank and ‘broken in pieces and torn up’. ‘Overset’ meant that the ship was knocked on its side, or capsized.   Fortunately, the master and crew all escaped alive and got to land – so no way was the ship legally a ‘wreck’ – but people from the Poole area still came out and filched tackle, gear, victuals and other items from the stricken vessel.

Hoorn 1980 - merchants' houses - EDITEDFormer merchants’ houses in Hoorn, decorated with 17th-century ship carvings. (C) Ian Friel 1980

On 2 March 1631, soon after the incident, Garretson and Veene made a complaint about the looting of the Fame to the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA: the HCA was the central court for maritime cases). They wanted the HCA to put together a commission to recover the stolen goods and arrest the people who had taken them. As there were survivors, the owners had a claim in English law to everything that had been stolen, and all that was left in the ship. This was also backed-up by an international agreement. In 1625 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton specified that the remains of any Dutch ships and goods wrecked on the British coast had to be restored to their original owners. The Dutchmen had a cast-iron case, but despite this, it seems that the HCA did nothing.

Fortunately, there is a local source that adds to the story. Poole had its own Admiralty Court from the Middle Ages, and records of its proceedings survive from 1550. The Court was meant to meet about once a year, with the Mayor serving as ‘Admiral’ and ’24 honest seafaring men’ acting as the jury. The boundaries of Poole haven extended from the border with the port of Wareham, to North Haven Point, and then as far out to sea ‘as a man could discern a Humber barrel to float upon the ocean’. This distance has been estimated at about three miles, and would have taken in all of Studland Bay and the site of the Swash Channel Wreck (3).

The Poole Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over a wide range of issues within its small maritime empire. These included matters such as theft, piracy, derelicts, flotsam, valuables found on dead bodies, accidental death, impressment for royal service, as well as the regulation of fishing and the fish market (4).

In practice, most Court meetings were taken up with workaday discussions of harbour management and the enforcement of rules. Wrecks were seldom mentioned in the 17th-century proceedings, but in the Court record for 24 June 1631 there is an entry regarding a ‘Mr Newland’ who had undertaken for a ‘Fleming to clear the harbour of the wreck of the Fame of Hoorn’ (spelling modernised; ‘Fleming’ was a catch-all English term for anyone from the Netherlands or Flanders). Newland had also agreed to place two marker buoys on the site by 1 August, on pain of a colossal fine of £200 – millions, in modern terms (5).

It didn’t happen.

Nearly a year later, on 21 May 1632, the Admiralty Court noted that ‘Mr Robert Newland the Younger of the Isle of Wight’ had still not cleared the channel of the ‘Flemish wreck’. He was ordered to do this, and to put two buoys on it by 25 July, or face the fine (6).

These two entries place the wreck of the Fame ‘before Studland’ and in a ‘channel’. The highest single fine that the Court normally levied was £2, so the figure of £200 shows just how serious a problem the wreck was thought to be.

The clear implication is that the sunken vessel was situated on the main approach to Poole Harbour and represented a real danger to shipping. The evidence fits very well with the position of the Swash Channel Wreck, lying right on the channel leading to the modern harbour entrance. Also, the Wreck lies on its side on the edge of Hook Sand, and this corresponds to the statement that the Fame capsized on a sandbank.DSCF1361 (1)The head of a classical warrior, carved on the rudderhead of the Fame of Horn, as displayed in Poole Museum. (C) Bournemouth University 2017

The Fame, of course, slots right into the 1620-1650 timeframe for the Wreck derived from the archaeological evidence. There are other things about the archaeology that also tie in with the documentary sources. The wooden hull sheathing would certainly be consistent with a vessel en route to the West Indies, as the Fame was. No cargo was found in the Wreck, and none is mentioned in the HCA complaint about looting, suggesting that the Fame was sailing out in ballast – i.e. empty of cargo on the first leg of the voyage.

It’s also very significant that a lot of the Wreck’s guns are missing.  Cannon are heavy, expensive items that tend to stay put when they hit the sea bottom. It may be that they were removed by local looters, but the problem with this idea is that the missing guns included most of those on the port side, which was nestled into the seabed and would have been very difficult for opportunist salvors to access. There is another possible explanation, though. Modern archaeologists might not be the first people to dive on the site.

Robert Newland ‘the Younger’ of the Isle of Wight must have been one of the sons of Robert Newland Senior, a wealthy merchant and shipowner (died 1637) who had wharves and warehouses on the island at Newport and East Cowes (7). Four years prior to the loss of the Fame, Newland Snr was involved with a celebrated Dutch salvor called ‘Jacob the Diver’ in the salvage of cargo, gear and weapons lost in the Dutch Eastindiamen Kampen and Vergulde Draeck on the Needles in 1627 (8).

Jacob the Diver’s real name was either John Jacob Janson or Jacob Johnson. He worked in this country, France and Ireland between 1620 and 1633, and was perhaps still operating here in 1636. Jacob had some kind of diving apparatus, which he used to descend on wrecks, and seems to have been very successful at recovering sunken goods and equipment (9).

The ‘Fleming’ who was working with Robert Newland Junior could well have been Jacob the Diver. If this was the case, it means that the Swash Channel Wreck was worked on by one of the most accomplished divers and salvors in Europe. This would account for the disappearance of so many guns, particularly those on the port side, which would have been very difficult to reach.

Presumably, too, Newland and ‘the Fleming’ eventually also cleared the Fame out of harm’s way, breaking it up – the starboard side of the Wreck is long gone. The Court proceedings do not refer to it again after May 1632, and the shipwreck was eventually forgotten.

The links between the historical and archaeological evidence lead me to believe that the Swash Channel Wreck is the Fame of Hoorn.

Unfortunately, research by historians in the Netherlands has not so far turned up any references in the Dutch archives to the Fame or those associated with it. However, given its declared destination, it is possible that the Fame belonged to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a body set up in 1621 to control Dutch trade with the Americas, the Caribbean and West Africa. Run in true 17th-century Dutch fashion by a body of merchant oligarchs, the Heeren XIX, it had power to make both war and peace, as well as to trade. Like the contemporary Dutch and English East India Companies, the WIC had a terrifying reach (10).

Many of the records of the WIC were destroyed in the 19th century, so identifying the Fame as a ‘Westindiaman’ in this sense may be very difficult. There is an alternative possibility, though. The Fame may have been an ‘interloper’, a vessel on a private trading voyage under the noses of the WIC.

What gives this credence is the lack of any real follow-up to the complaint made by Garretson and Veene to the HCA.   Dutch shipowners with real political and economic clout – like anyone backed by the WIC – often used diplomatic channels to pursue matters of wreck looting in British waters. The case of the Salmon of Amsterdam, wrecked and plundered on the Dorset coast in 1632, even reached the English Privy Council, King Charles I’s own advisory body. Years later, during the short-lived English Republic, goods were taken from yet another Dutch ship sunk off Poole, the St Adrian of Middelburg. The owners of the cargo were important people, and included a Dutch ambassador. The Dutch raised so much hell about the matter that the dispute eventually landed on the desk of the dying Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (11).

The apparent lack of any HCA follow-up to Garretson and Veene’s complaint may well indicate that they were interlopers, and lacked the corporate pull needed to get what they wanted. It’s also significant that the Poole Admiralty Court made no reference to the looting of the wreck.  Perhaps some of the ‘honest seafaring men’ of Poole were not so honest, but even they would have been forced into action if an HCA commissioner had turned up from London.  Commissioners had real power. The Dorset landowner involved in pillaging the Salmon in 1632 was threatened with being dragged before the HCA in order to explain himself.  Only by pleading extreme old age was he able to avoid an unpleasant, and possibly terminal, trip to the capital.

Whatever the full facts of the Fame affair, the ship and its remaining contents joined all of the other lost property lying on the seabed around England.

Future research may uncover more about the stories of this ship, its owners and crew. For now, the Swash Channel Wreck at least has its name back.

The Fame of Hoorn.



Very special thanks are due to Bournemouth University and Dave Parham, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, for commissioning me to research this ship, and for allowing me to use the Swash Channel Wreck images in this piece. Thanks are also due to Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University for his help with the images.

The discovery, excavation and conservation of the Fame have involved the efforts of maritime archaeologists, scientists, conservators and others over years. Without their skill, commitment and scholarship the loss of the ship would only be known now as one incident among many others.   Their work has made it special, and made it accessible to an international public.

I would also like to thank the staff of The National Archives, Kew and the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, for their courtesy and assistance.   The DHC staff were especially helpful in locating the Poole Admiralty Book, not then listed in the main DHC catalogue, which was of enormous significance for this research.   The Admiralty Book is an important document, and deserves to be published in full. It is one more demonstration, if any was needed, that local record offices are treasure-houses of history.

The upper part of the rudder from the Fame, with its distinctive rudderhead carving, is now impressively displayed in Poole Museum along with other items from the ship, and is very well worth a visit.


DHC    Dorset History Centre, Dorchester

TNA     The National Archives, Kew

(1);; D Parham et al. 2012 D Parham et al., Swash Channel Designated Wreck Site, Bournemouth University. This present piece is based on my report for Bournemouth University, ‘The Mercy of the Sea’ – Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck, 2013.

(2) HCA 24/89, nos 187, 193 and 202.

(3) HCA 24/87, No 171, ff 1-2v; H P Smith, ‘Poole’s ancient Admiralty Court’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, Vol 49, 1928, pp 125-31; DHCDC/PL/CLA 24, Poole Admiralty Book 1550-1834.

(4) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, unnumbered folios at the beginning of the volume.

(5) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 60.

(7) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 61.

(8) TNA PROB/11/174, will of Robert Newland.

(9) A Roddie, ‘Jacob, the Diver’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 62, 1976, pp 255-69, pp 259-60.

(10) C R Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London 1977, pp 24-26 and 48-50; a translation of the WIC’s charter can be found online at:

(11) The Mercy of the Sea, pp 38-47.

© Ian Friel 2017

Cracks in the Ice – a weekend in the Cold War

Rostock street Jan 1987

A Rostock street, January 1987

This is a fragment of personal history about the fringes of the Cold War.  I want to post it now because the events happened thirty years ago this year and because they recall people in a time and place very different from today’s world. This piece is based on my memories and on notes that I made at the time.

My one journey behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ took place in January 1987. It wasn’t an epic of high adventure. I was a foreign guest at an international conference on maritime history at Rostock in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), accommodated in one of the country’s best hotels, and treated well by my hosts. Not exactly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Funeral in Berlin. However, even in this academic equivalent of ‘la-la-land’, reality managed to intrude.

I was a bit apprehensive about visiting East Germany. I didn’t speak German, and twenty-plus years of spy films, novels and other writings gave me the feeling that it was Enemy Territory of some kind.

As it turned out, the journey to the DDR was hassle-free. A British Airways’ Boeing 737 got me from Heathrow to Hamburg on time, and I was able to catch the 13.43 train to Rostock.   I shared a compartment with five other people, a young West German ambulance driver and four East German pensioners, who were probably returning from a visit to relatives in the West. The pensioners were very friendly, but we didn’t have a language in common. The ambulance driver, fortunately, spoke very good English and helped me out with the officials when we got to the border.

I wrote at the time: ‘The border (at Herrnburg) was undramatic: you emerge suddenly from the trees on to open fields, and then encounter two high wire fences separated by a stretch of ominously clear, open ground.’

The border-stop lasted about three quarters of an hour, and my papers were examined by three separate sets of state employees, dealing with money (changing hard currency), passport control and customs.   We could hear clunking sounds as other border officials checked the carriage’s toilet cistern for concealed items, and (so it sounded), even climbed on to the roof to look for anyone or anything concealed there.   Given that it was deep winter, the chances of finding any stowaways huddled on the roof were a bit low.

The green uniforms worn by the officials put me in mind of those of the Third Reich, but the officer who examined my passport was a motherly woman in middle age. With the help of translations by the ambulance driver, the process went off smoothly and we headed on to Rostock.

Once we got to Rostock, I wandered round the station for some time trying to find the right platform for Warnemünde, the seaside town where we were due to stay during the conference. One thing sticks in the memory – a poster visible in the booking hall, showing a cartoon of children playing among flowers.  It alluded to the nuclear standoff with the West in an ominous caption about ‘NATO Raketen’.

Eventually, I found the right train and got the S-Bahn to Warnemünde, a ten-mile journey for a cheap 50 pfennigs. I got there at about half-past six. The streets were well lit, but there was snow and ice everywhere, and it was very cold. There didn’t seem to be a town map at the railway station, so I wandered off, hoping to find the hotel.

On the way, I passed a building that belonged to the East German navy, the Volksmarine.   There were three young sailors outside carrying brooms. They were probably detailed to clear snow from the building entrance, but instead were just clowning around, using the brooms to plough snow into each other.

I asked a number of people for directions. Luckily for me, one was a lady who spoke very good English, and she kindly took me to the right street for the Hotel Neptun.

The Hotel Neptun was a tall, 18-storey tower block, designed by a Swedish company, and opened in 1971. I wrote then: ‘It is very comfortable and luxurious, and is apparently one of the best in the country – but it is also a machine for separating foreigners from their money!’.   According to a Wikipedia entry about the Hotel’s history, it was originally designed just for foreign visitors – its guests apparently included Fidel Castro – but much of it was later opened to East Germans. However, the cost of a stay there was very high, and local guests were selected on the basis of ‘socialist’ principles.

Once I got to the hotel, my first encounter with the desk clerk was not very encouraging. He spoke English, but denied all knowledge of the conference, and said that I should ‘come back in the morning’. As the temperature outside was way below zero, this was not an appealing idea. In the end, one of the conference organisers turned up, and everything was sorted out.

For all its modernistic sheen, the Neptun did have its peculiarities.  The western-style breakfast buffet looked very enticing, but when you bit into the rolls, they were often stale. Along with the buffet, the Neptun had western-style muzak in the dining room, though in this case it consisted of IRA songs, perhaps broadcast for the edification or otherwise of any English-speaking diners. The Neptun in those days seems to have been a government instrument as much as it was a hotel. According to evidence that has come out since 1989 it was then a ‘Stasi hotel’, used to draw information (in addition to hard currency) from foreigners (1).

DDR Jan 1987 passport stamps

Official DDR stamps in my passport

That said, the security presence wasn’t very obvious. We knew that Communist countries were police states, but the perhaps the reason that the State Security or Stasi was less obtrusive was because it was so pervasive. The paranoia of this dead state does come out in the two pages of official DDR stamps in my old passport, however. This amount of bureaucracy covered a mere five-day visit – a contemporary indefinite USA visa in the same passport occupies little more than half a page!

Apart from the museum staff, the only clear sign of an official East German government presence at the conference was a thin young man from the Culture Ministry in Berlin. He was given to nervous smiles, and looked more like the archetype of a Church of England curate than a ‘Stasi goon’.

The conference itself was hosted by the Rostock Schiffahrtsmuseum. As Rostock was the largest port in the DDR, the Schiffahrtsmuseum was effectively the country’s national maritime museum, housed in a big 19th-century house.   Both Rostock and Warnemünde looked pretty in the snow, but you got a sense of being in a very different country as soon as you went outside. The air caught at the back of your throat because it was thick with smoke from the DDR’s ‘brown coal’.

The conference went well, and it was good to see some old acquaintances and make new ones. Two people in particular stand out in my memory, along with what they said about the underlying reality of life in the East.

The first was a Hungarian, Peter (not his actual name). He was a friendly man of about my age, spoke good English, and we got on well. He told me that Hungary had a better economy than most of the Warsaw Pact nations, and more links with the West. Despite this, his salary as an academic was not enough to support his family properly, so he and his wife toured around Hungary with a puppet-show.

Peter had travelled to Russia, and was quite disillusioned with the place, its ailing economy and the restrictions on life there. For him, the state of Russia was encapsulated by the behaviour of an audience that he saw at a performance of an Italian opera at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Ten minutes before the interval, most of them got up and left the auditorium – so they could queue for the Bolshoi’s foreign goods shop.

It seemed that political controls were less strict in Hungary than in other eastern countries, and Peter had been permitted to write a book critical of Marxism. He could not, however, get it published directly in Hungarian in Hungary.  Strangely, he was allowed to publish it in German in West Germany, and planned to bring the German edition out in a Hungarian translation in his home country, because this would be permissible. In a small way this summed-up the often bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world of the eastern bloc states (2).

The second person who made a real impression on me was a young East German woman, Rosa (not her real name, either), who was at the conference.  One evening, she came with a group of us to the Sky Bar, a ‘very flash nightclub’ (according to my notes) at the top of the Hotel Neptun, where a band played versions of Beatles songs and what I guess was East German pop music.

Rosa and I got talking. I was surprised to find how open she was about her political opinions, especially when speaking with a foreigner. To take one example, the Sky Bar was full of expensively-dressed DDR citizens. Given the nominal lack of individual wealth in East Germany, it wasn’t at all clear who they were. I asked Rosa how she thought most of these people got to this exclusive-looking place – ‘Oh, probably through corruption’, she said, in a matter-of-fact way. Significantly, she also said that ‘most young East Germans have no feeling that they belong to their country, and would quite happily leave’.

There was some problem with the trains on the day that the conference ended, so three of us got a taxi to Rostock.   The car was a Trabant.  Though the type was notoriously flimsy, the driver managed to navigate his vehicle safely through ten miles of blizzard, with snow blowing horizontally.  None of us knew it then, but the ‘Trabi’ would become famous a couple of years later when thousands of East Germans, including many young people like Rosa, used them as a means of exiting their nation during the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And that was my one excursion to the eastern bloc. I wanted to write about my brief experience of the place partly because the DDR is a country that you cannot visit any more, except in art, memory and history. For all the corruption and oppression, it was still a place where there were many decent people willing to show kindness to strangers.

This blog piece is also a way of saying something about the courage and honesty of the optimistic Peter and the insightful Rosa. Their words were small signs that the ice of the Cold War was finally cracking – even if at the time the reality of the eastern bloc states seemed all too solid.

I hope that both of them have enjoyed good lives since we all emerged into the world that came with the thaw.

(1) Revamped since DDR times, the Neptun remains a 5-star hotel.  Wikipedia entry:

(2) It could get stranger. In the 1980s I heard a story that came from someone who had family links to Poland: a museum in Moscow created a travelling exhibition about ‘Lenin in Warsaw’, to be sent for display in Poland. However, when the exhibition got to Moscow airport, the wooden display panels were found to be too wide to go into the airliner’s baggage hold. The baggage-handlers hit on a solution: they got a saw, and cut the ends off the panels. Everything now fitted perfectly. When the display got to Warsaw, the Poles did not make an anguished call to Moscow for a replacement. Just to show what they thought of Lenin, Russia and Communism, they put the panels on display with the sawn-off pieces crudely hammered back into place using nails and lengths of timber.



A balinger for the King

4.22   Balinger draft 2Conjectural sketch of a balinger (C) Ian Friel 2015.

Balingers were the frigates of medieval sea warfare: relatively fast, relatively small and suitable for a wide range of tasks, short of taking on a major enemy ship singlehanded. Henry V owned a total of nineteen balingers during his short reign (1413-1422), and they were the most versatile craft in the royal fleet. They were used in sea patrols, expeditions, invasion and battle fleets, convoy work, sea trade, fishery protection, the rapid transit of war supplies, reconnaissance, secret work (still secret after 600 years!), coastal defence, the transport of VIPs and other duties.

The word derives from the Old French baleinier, meaning a ‘whale-boat’, a vessel that presumably would have needed some speed in order to catch and harpoon a whale. As a ship-type, ‘balinger’ is commonly found in English sources of the second half of the 14th century and the 15th century. Balingers were sometimes confused with ‘barges’ in the documents, which may have been a larger type of balinger, but I’m not sure there is much point in making a lot out of the distinction.

Balingers were driven by both oar and sail. As a fighting craft, a balinger seems to have been long and narrow, with a shallow, low-built hull (so the oars could reach the water). All this seems to have made the balinger reasonably fast. The ability of balingers to move under oars, independent of the wind, must have made them an asset in battle or in tricky situations, such as covert landings in shallow water. Unsurprisingly, they were also popular with pirates (1).

Only one detailed building account survives for one of Henry V’s ships, and it is for a balinger. This was the 120-ton balinger Anne, and the document has been published in an English translation by Dr Susan Rose. Only part of the account is extant (most of the wages sections are lost), but its evidence is supplemented by a contemporary summary of the original, known as an ‘enrolment’ or enrolled account. When the Anne material is looked at in conjunction with other documentary and archaeological evidence from the period, it is possible to build up a reasonably coherent picture of how one of Henry’s ships was built (2).

This is not the only reason why the account is important, however.  As far as we know, all English-built ships before 1416 were one-masted.  The Anne was a two-master.  The second mast was a mizzenmast, positioned behind the mainmast and carrying a triangular lateen sail.  Two-masted rig originated in the Mediterranean, and helped to improve the manoeuvrability of a vessel.  Henry’s shipwrights and sailors seem to have learned how to build and use this rig by following Italian examples.

The Anne was actually the second two-master built for Henry V that year.  The other one was the balinger George, built at Smallhythe in Kent.  It was completed just over a month before the Anne, making it the first two-masted vessel known to have come out of an English shipyard.

One of the other important features of the Anne‘s story is that the master shipwright who built it – and was almost certainly its designer – was John Hoggekyn.  Hoggekyn was the man who would go on to create the biggest ship ever seen in England up to that time, the Grace Dieu.

The project was under the administrative charge of William Soper, a Southampton merchant and politician who was deeply involved with the royal ships from 1414 onwards. He compiled both the detailed (‘particular’) account and the enrolled summary.  The additional information in the enrolment crucially includes the overall cost of the work, wages included, was £179/19s/1¾d. In terms of its economic impact, the cost of this project would be equivalent to just over £70 million nowadays (3).

Shipwrights - St David's Cathedral MisericordLate 15th/early 16th century misericord in St David’s Cathedral, Wales, showing shipwrights at work – or not – on a clinker-built hull.

The building team consisted of Hoggekyn as the master shipwright, with boarders, clenchers and holders working under him. Boarders were senior shipwrights who probably undertook the shaping and fitting of timber, boards, masts and spars, and supervised the clenchers and holders. The clenchers and holders were involved in fastening the clench-nails at the edges of the boards, and it was these nails that held the shell of hull planks together. Clenchers worked inside the hull to clench the nail-points over metals washers called roves, in order to secure the nails, and holders operated on the outside to hold the hails in place as they were clenched. It was also common to have a few boys on site to act as general dogsbodies. Clinker construction dictated the structure of the medieval English shipbuilding craft. A shipwright might begin as a boy, then progress to holder, clencher, boarder and finally to master shipwright (4).

It took just under eighteen weeks to build the Anne. In theory the venture began on Thursday 18 June 1416, though breaks for religious feast days seem to have meant that the work did not get into its stride for a couple of weeks, by which time 23 shipwrights were engaged on the project.

Unfortunately, most of the wages section of the account is missing from 31 July onwards, though the enrolment does show that other carpenters were employed, besides the shipwrights.  These men were  used to fell trees, most probably somewhere off-site.  This is important, because may explain why the account does not mention the purchase of key timbers such as floor timbers and futtocks (hull frames used in the bottom and sides of a vessel) or beams.  It is likely that the ‘missing’ timbers were felled in one of the king’s woods,  such as the New Forest.   This timber was free when used for a royal project, and therefore wouldn’t feature in the accounts as purchases.

The Anne was constructed in a purpose-built waterfront dock, evidently closed off from the water by a dam. It’s possible to follow the process of construction though the account, because the payment-dates for materials were noted. The first purchases were some small barrels of pitch and tar, but the first structural element recorded was, appropriately enough, the keel. This 68-foot (20.7 m) timber was bought on 21 June, and over the next eight days a further 85 hull timbers were bought, including pieces for the stem and stern assemblies. Sixty-seven timber shores were also acquired, to shore up the hull as it was built.

Over two tons, seven hundredweight of clenchnails and roves (2.4 metric tonnes) also came in the first couple of weeks. A total of 1,619 boards were also used in building the Anne, and three-quarters of them were acquired by the end week 3. This is exactly what one would expect with a clinker-built vessel, because the shaping and erection of the plank shell was a fundamental part of the building process.

The major part of the hull planking and framing was probably completed in July and August. The planks were caulked with moss and oakum, by caulkers employed for the purpose, and the usual pitch, tar and tallow (‘wax’) were provided to fully waterproof the structure. Four hundredweight of calfatnail (203.6 kg) were also bought between 7 August and 5 October. ‘Calfat’ comes from the French verb ‘calfater’, ‘to caulk’, suggesting that these were nails connected with caulking. These may have been little saddle-shaped fasteners used to hold down batten on the inner edges of the clinker planking, to help hold the caulking in place. Metal fasteners and caulking battens of this kind have been found in some clinker-built medieval shipwrecks in the Netherlands (5).

The first reference to the ship’s rig dates from 23 August, when 294 ells of canvas were bought from a prominent London merchant named John Reynwell (Reynwell had also supplied the rigging for the king’s great ship Trinity Royal). Medieval England could not produce its own canvas, and this sailcloth was imported from Vitré in Brittany. An additional 42 ells of canvas came from a Southampton supplier. An ell was a cloth measurement, equivalent to 45 inches (1.14 m), so in total the rolls of cloth used measured 1,256 ft or 383 m in length.

The mainsail of the Anne was a ‘square sail’ in modern terminology – a four-sided sail. This was divided into a ‘course’ or body, which contained the largest area of canvas, and detachable canvas ‘bonnets’. The bonnets were strips of canvas that could be laced to the bottom of the sail (and to each other) in order to increase sail area. We can’t be sure of the size of the mizzen sail, though it will undoubtedly have been much smaller than the mainsail.  Both sails must have been made in Southampton, because the account records the purchase of ‘sail needles’ for the work.

The balinger’s mainmast, or ‘great mast’, was bought on 9 September, with the mainsail yard, bowsprit, mizzenmast and mizzen yard following on 21 September (the enrolment also shows that the mast had a topcastle). A couple of days later, just over 1¼ tons of ropes were acquired, to make the vessel’s rigging. One of the last purchases made for the balinger was an iron mekhoke, a U-shaped metal cradle used to help support the main yard when it was lowered.

The account does not tell us anything about the deck, rowing-benches or superstructure of the Anne, though as an oared fighting vessel, the balinger would have had ports for oars cut at regular intervals in the upper planks of the hull. The balinger  probably also had fighting castles at bow and stern, but again there is no clear reference to materials used for these.

The Anne was set afloat on Thursday 22 October 1416, pulled out of its dock by means of two cables. and taken to moorings.  It eventually passed into the keeping of the official in overall charge of the king’s ships, William Catton, on 13 November 1416. It seems that the final fit-out of the Anne was undertaken by Catton. His account shows that the balinger was supplied with 68 oars, each 24 ft (7.3 m) in length.

However, not everything to do with this new warship was strictly utilitarian. Soper employed a painter named John Rendyng to paint the topcastle, stern and sail of the balinger. We don’t know what colours or images were used, though it’s likely that the balinger carried a representation of St Anne, after whom it was named (6).

The Anne had just one shipmaster during its time as a royal ship, Ralph Huskard. It is an odd fact that out of the 61 shipmasters employed by Henry V during his reign, only three commanded both balingers and sailing ships. Huskard was one of the three. Quite why there was this disparity between sailing-ship masters and ‘balinger men’ is not clear.  It is possible that some special ability was needed for the management of rowing crews, or that balingers were seen as inferior to sail-driven vessels in some way.

Whichever way you look at it, Huskard must have possessed significant skills and experience in order to be given command of such a new and expensive warship. Its crews numbered between 60 and 100 sailors, and living conditions in the narrow confines of the balinger’s hull must have been grim. Maintaining control of a large crew in such a situation will have been challenging, to say the least.

At 120 tons, the Anne was one of the three biggest balingers in the royal fleet, and had an active naval career. In 1417 it took part in a sea patrol, and in company with another royal balinger, the Craccher, captured two Spanish ships. It is also very likely that the balinger took part in the great sea battle off the Chef de Caux in 1417, against the French and their Genoese and Spanish allies. Huskard was one of the nineteen royal shipmasters granted a salary soon afterwards, almost certainly as a reward for service in battle.

The following year, the Anne was one of several vessels used to rush supplies of saltpetre and gunpowder to Henry’s invasion forces at Caen, and in 1420 it took part in another sea patrol. The sea war was pretty much over by this time, though the balinger seems to have been used to help transport Henry and his retinue on various cross-Channel voyages in 1420 and 1421.

Henry V died in August 1422 and most of his royal fleet was sold off in the three years that followed, including the Anne. On 27 June 1424, it purchased for £30 (about one-sixth of its building cost) by a man from Saltash in Cornwall named John Slogge (7).

There is still a lot that we do not know – and may never know – about balingers. Even identifying one from wreck remains could be difficult, unless a substantial part of the hull remained. However, it may happen one day, and then we will begin to learn more about these once-important, long-vanished ships.  Maybe, buried under mud and silt in some West Country creek, lie the remains of Henry V’s Anne.

(1) I Friel, Henry V’s Navy. The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, Stroud 2015, pp 45-46, 83-85; S Rose, The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships, 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol 123, London, p 42; Oxford English Dictionary,, under ‘balinger’.
(2) Rose 1982, 222-28.
(3) The National Archives, Kew, TNA E364/61, G m 1v; E364/59, G m 2r;
(4) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 39-46.
(5) H R Reinders 1979 in S McGrail (ed), Medieval Ships and Harbours of Northern Europe, BAR International Series 66, Oxford, pp 41-43.
(6) TNA E364/59, G m 1r.
(7) Friel 2015, pp 53-54, 160 and 178; TNA E364/61, H m 1v.


Daughters of England


Stedham - OS 1st edn publ 1813

Stedham and Iping on the 1st edtion Ordnance Survey Map, 1813.  By the 1880s the area called ‘Trotton Common’ was known as Stedham Common, and was the site of the temporary hospital.

This piece is a small contribution to women’s history, for International Women’s Day. It looks at the events of two terrible months in a part of Victorian Sussex, and what they tell us about the lives of local people, particularly those of women.

The village of Iping stands on the banks of the river Rother, a few miles west of the small West Sussex market town of Midhurst.  Before the 20th century the local economy was mostly based on agriculture, but industry was not entirely absent.  In the early 1700s a watermill at Iping was converted into a paper mill.   The mill had an extraordinarily long working life and remained in production until it was destroyed by fire in 1930 (1).

By the early 1880s the mill was owned by Warren & Co and produced blotting paper.   This was made from the fibres of cloth rags – typically cotton and linen.  The bales of cloth came from sources in both Britain and abroad, and were transported to the area by train, arriving at the now long-vanished station at nearby Elsted.   A wagon took the bales to the paper mill, where they were sorted, dusted and cut into small pieces. Boiling and bleaching followed, after which the cloth was made into paper. The whole process, from opening a bale to the finished paper, took about two days.

The rag-loft was an old wooden building that stood on the opposite side of the river to the mill itself.   Described as ‘admitting plenty of air’, it was probably a freezing place to work in winter, and it is likely that the work carried on there was dirty and unpleasant. Fourteen women worked in the rag-loft as sorters, with two men employed to open the bales and to carry the sorted rags over Iping bridge to the mill.   The millworkers mostly lived in and around Iping, though some came from the neighbouring village of Stedham.

The story of what happened there in 1883 relies on local health records, including the report of Dr Charles Kelly, who was the Medical Officer of Health for the West Sussex Sanitary District (2).   Kelly gave the people mentioned in his report a modicum of anonymity by refraining from the use of surnames – he referred to them as ‘Ann D’, ‘Emily H’ and so-on.

On 8 May 1883, a 20 year-old Iping rag-sorter named Emily H went down with a headache and backpain.   Shortly after, she developed a rash.  The rash was caused by smallpox.

Emily had been vaccinated against smallpox before, and soon recovered.  However, Clara H, aged 15, was not so lucky. Like Emily, she fell ill at the rag-loft on 8 May and went home to her family cottage in Iping.   The disease progressed with horrifying rapidity and the girl slipped into a coma on the evening of the 11th. She was dead the next day, and buried by nightfall.

Dr Kelly had gone to Iping on 11 May, having heard of the outbreak there.  He had also received disturbing news that it had already spread to Stedham.   The first Stedham victim was one of the two men who worked in the rag-loft, Frederick D, aged 21 years.   He had felt unwell on 5 and 6 May.  He must have dragged himself into work on the 8th, because he returned home almost at once, feeling very ill.   Frederick went to bed, and by the evening the characteristic smallpox rash had appeared.

Former New Inn, StedhamThe former New Inn (later called the Gnu Inn), Stedham.  Frederick D was probably once one of its customers (image C) Ian Friel 2016

Frederick lived in what was little more than a two-up, two-down cottage with his parents, James (60) and Ann (48), and four siblings, Charlotte (17), James (junior, 10) Lettice (7) and a baby sister. James (the father) took the three middle children to stay with him in an empty cottage.  Ann remained at home to care for Frederick, but also had to look after the baby.

Each of the family members had been vaccinated twice before, and two were revaccinated on 12 May, but this may have been scant reassurance in the face of such an aggressive and terrible disease. As matters proved, vaccination did not offer total protection either: it had not prevented Frederick for catching smallpox, and within a few days his younger brother had it, too. James junior went back to the family home to be looked after by his mother. He was in a bad way by 23 May, but eventually recovered.   It’s difficult to imagine what must have passed through Ann’s mind as she nursed her younger son, for on 18 May the disease had killed Frederick.

Smallpox continued to spread. A 58 year-old Iping rag-sorter, Mrs H, died on the same day as Frederick.   Dr Kelly quickly identified infected rags as the source of the disease. As the people who handled the rags came from the poorer parts of society, it is little wonder that the epidemic seems to have been confined to the poor of the district.   Certainly, all of the victims seem to have lived in cottages, dwellings that were often cramped and crowded, far from being the sort of ‘des res’ some of them would become in the 20th century.

A programme of vaccination was tried, but met with little response.  Isolation was the only alternative treatment available, so infected cottages were quarantined. In  places where a death occurred, the rooms were fumigated with burning sulphur, and sickroom bedding and clothes were burnt. The local Poor Law Guardians supplied quarantined households with food and other necessaries, as did some of their neighbours.   Men were employed at each place to act as messengers, taking supplies to the infected homes and bringing news back.

However, this form of ‘care in the community’ did not work. The smallpox continued to spread. Kelly decided to take the sick people out of their homes and put them in complete isolation.  He got powers to do this from the Midhurst Sanitary Authority, and at the end of May a tented isolation hospital was set up on Stedham Common, to the south of both villages.  Fortunately, the weather was warm and dry.

A big 40 x 20 ft marquee was put up on the Common on 31 May and used to house most of the patients.  Five or more bell tents were also acquired, along with beds, bedding, wooden boards to make temporary floors and a mangle for laundry use. Two trained nurses were employed to work at the hospital, and they were assisted by quaratined relatives of the patients, who were accomodated in the bell tents.  By 1 June there were 25 people at the hospital, rising to 29 two weeks later.  Their homes were each fumigated three times in their absence, and any bedding or clothing remaining in them was either destroyed or disinfected by carbolic acid and boiling water. One elderly man died at the hospital, but he was the fifth and last to be killed by this outbreak, which was declared to be over on 30 June.

In the end, the epidemic seems to have been contained by a number of things.  One was a history of past vaccination in the area.  Many people had already been vaccinated, some as far back as the 1820s, and so had a measure of protection.  Kelly’s decision to move all of the cases to the isolation hospital was clearly a key factor in stopping the smallpox from spreading further. The disease was also defeated by courage – the bravery of the messengers who kept the infected families supplied, of the doctors and nurses and of the family members who tended their sick.

One of these, in particular, stands out: Ann D.   At the risk of her own life she nursed her two sons through a terrible disease and saw one of them die. We cannot know how she coped with the grief and yet was still able to keep her baby safe and see her other son through his deadly ordeal. If asked, she might have denied that this was courage, and have said that this was just what a mother had to do.  We cannot know. However, it is important to remember women like her, who carried – and still carry – enormous burdens and yet manage to keep life going. Her name was Ann Denyer.

(1)      L F Salzman (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4, The Rape of Chichester, London (Victoria County History), p 63.

(2)     West Sussex Record Office WDC/CL74/1/1884, pp 93-106; WSRO WG7/59/3, minutes of the Midhurst Rural Sanitary Authority 1879-85, pp 264-65, 267-78; 1881 Census information, identifying the Denyer family, via

I came across the report on the smallpox epidemic whilst undertaking research into a house history for some clients: it is thanks to their commission that the story has come to light.

© Ian Friel 2016

A son of England

Louis Raemakers - Burial of Private Walker 1915The Burial of Private Walker, by Louis Raemakers, 1916

In the wake of the terrible events in Paris on 13th November, and with all the other tragedies in the modern world, it may seem self-indulgent, to say to least, to write about another terrible event from a century ago.   In this case, however, I think there may be a wider point to be made about war, loss and memory.

At around 12.30 pm on Wednesday, 17th November, HM Hospital Ship Anglia was sunk by a mine off Folkestone in Kent. The ship was carrying 385 wounded servicemen, besides medical and nursing staff and the crew. At least one hundred and thirty-four people died, many of them wounded from the battlefields in France and Belgium, but also including one of the nurses.

The Anglia was one of 13 British hospital ships lost in the First World War. It was a former Holyhead ferry that had been taken into government service and converted to serve as a hospital ship.   The mine that the Anglia hit had been laid shortly before by a German submarine, UC-5.

In a War full of horrors, there is something especially awful at the thought of a shipload of wounded men being sunk.   The details of the sinking, the courage shown by the nurses who struggled to get the wounded men into lifebelts, the bravery of the rescuers – one of the rescue ships was itself sunk by a mine – have been retold by others elsewhere, and do not need to be repeated here (1). However, what really brought the tragedy of the Anglia home to me was the story of one of its victims, Joseph Walker.

Joe Walker was a few weeks short of his 25th birthday when he died. He was the youngest of four brothers, and was born at Pirton in North Hertfordshire in 1890. Joe enlisted in the army in early September 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of war. He joined the 8th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, but did not go overseas for almost a year (2).

In the autumn of 1915 his unit was pitched into a great battle at Loos in Belgium, but Joe caught trench foot. Trench foot is a hideous condition caused by the prolonged exposure of the feet to damp or wet conditions. Left untreated, it can lead to gangrene. This obviously happened to Joe, as both his legs had to be amputated at a military hospital in France.   This is why he was aboard the Anglia, on his way home to England.

One of the nurses must have got a lifebelt on Joe as the ship sank. Sadly, it did not save his life, but it ensured that his body stayed afloat for nearly two months. On 11 January 1916 his remains were washed up on the shore at West Kapelle in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was neutral during the War, and the discovery of his body attracted some attention in the press. He was interred in the churchyard at West Kapelle shortly afterwards, and the Amsterdam newspaper De Telegraaf gave the following account of the burial (English translation):


 ON September 9, 1914, Joseph Walker enlisted for the duration of the war; on January 11, 1916, the sea bore his dead body to the dyke at West Kapelle. This afternoon, at 1 p. m., while the northwest wind whistled over Walcheren, the English soldier was buried in the churchyard of West Kapelle.

First the vice-consul, in the name of England, spread the British flag over him who for England had sacrificed his young life. Four men of West Kapelle carried the coffin outside and placed it at the foot of the tower, that old gray giant, which has witnessed so much world’s woe, here opposite the sea. It was a simple, but touching ceremony.

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. . . . He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.” Thus spoke the voice of the minister and the wind carried his words, and the wind played with the flag of England, the flag that flies over all seas, in Flanders, in France, in the Balkans, in Egypt, as the symbol of threatened freedom the flag whose folds here covered a fallen warrior.

And in the roaring storm we went our way. There was he carried, the soldier come to rest, and the flag fluttered in the wind and wrapped itself round that son of England. Then the coffin sank into the ground and the hearts of us, the departing witnesses, were sore. Earth fell on it, and the preacher said: “Earth to earth, dust to dust.”

As the newspaper piece suggests, there was sympathy for the Allied cause in Holland.   One of those present at West Kapelle church was the internationally-famous Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemakers.   Appalled by effects of the German invasion of Belgium, Raemakers became fervently anti-German, producing hundred of cartoons that scathingly satirised German militarism and the nature of the war itself. He drew a sketch of the scene as Joe Walker was buried (above).

Joseph Walker was my great-uncle. He died decades before I was born, but what makes his death so poignant to me is that his three brothers, including my grandfather, all lived into the 1960s. I knew them as a child. My grandfather had also been a soldier on the Western Front.  He would never talk about the Great War, and this was probably one reason why Joe was seldom mentioned at home.

I learned the basic details of Joe’s death and the loss of the Anglia many years ago, but it was not until 2008 that I read some detailed research on the events surrounding the wreck and the sufferings of those on board.  The fact that I could connect Joe with people I had known, made his terrible death much more personal. It left me shaken to think that a close relative had endured such agonies. The long lives of my grandfather and his other brothers are also measures of just how much this young man lost on 17th November 1915.

The loss of lives in war, particularly young lives, can cast a long shadow.  What shadows will stretch into the future from Syria, Paris and all the other atrocities of modern times?

Je suis Paris

(1)      S McGreal, The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Barnsley 2008.

(2)      I owe the details of Joe’s service and the recovery of his body to the researches and kindness of Mr Steve Fuller and his colleagues, who have built up the remarkable website, devoted to the story of the regiment’s soldiers during the First World War.

(3)      Raemakers’ Cartoons, Vol. 2, London 1916, pp. 212-13.

Notes: Joe was later reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Vlissingen, in the Netherlands.

The UK Ministry of Defence is currently being lobbied to list the wreck of the Anglia as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The remains of the ship were revealed by a sidescan sonar survey in 2014: details can be seen at:

There is also a piece about the Anglia on Historic England’s Wreck of the Week site:

Text (C) Ian Friel 2015

The graveyard of the great ships


The site at Bursledon: to the left, the site of the Grace Dieu, to the right, the possible site of the Holy Ghost.

‘But how do we know that?’ is a good question for people to ask of historians and archaeologists, and one that they have every right to ask. On 12 October Historic England announced that it was going to investigate and assess a feature in the River Hamble in Hampshire that I had identified as the possible remains of Henry V’s great ship Holy Ghost.  The media reaction has been intense and very positive, but it has made me think some more about the ‘how do we know?’ question.  This blog aims to go some way towards answering it (1).

Back in 1982, when working in the (now sadly long-gone) Archaeological Research Centre of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, I was looking one day at an aerial photograph of the Burseldon stretch of the River Hamble in Hampshire. Near to the known wreck of Henry V’s great ship Grace Dieu I spotted a shape resembling one end of a large ship, marked in the mud. This led me to think that a sizeable and perhaps very old vessel might be buried there. Knowing that that there was documentary evidence that the Holy Ghost had been laid up at Bursledon, it made me think that there was a possibility that the ‘ship-shape’ might mark the location of the Holy Ghost. My then Head of Department, Dr (now Professor) Sean McGrail, looked at the evidence I had put together in a document entitled ‘Bursledon II?’ (Bursledon I being the Grace Dieu) and decided that ARC would investigate further.   The fieldwork was decidedly low-tech – we probed the mud with long metal rods from a boat – but about six feet under the mud the rods started hitting something solid in the area of the ship-shape. I can still remember the sense of relief that we had not come on a wild-goose chase!

The presence of the solid object was also confirmed by sonar work carried out by a University of Southampton postgraduate student, Hanna Steyne, in 2001 (2). Historic England will be undertaking further work next year and it is hoped that this will tell us whether or not the Holy Ghost lies here (Historic England is also assessing the site for statutory protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act).  I think that there is a real possibility that this is the Holy Ghost, but leaving aside the identity of the site for the moment, I wanted to write something about the documentary evidence for fates of the Holy Ghost and Henry’s three other great ships.

The four great ships were clearly intended as war-winning weapons. They were hugely expensive, absorbing about one-third of total spending on the royal ships between 1413 and 1422, but three of them seem to have justified the vast amounts spent on them.   Their basic details were as follows (3):

Trinity Royal, 500-540 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Greenwich, Kent, entered service 1415

Holy Ghost, 740-760 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Southampton, entered service 1415

Jesus, 1,000 tons burden, built at Smallhythe, Kent, entered service 1417

Grace Dieu, 1,400 tons burden, built at Southampton, entered service 1420

The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost took part in the two battles in 1416 and 1417 that broke French seapower and opened the way for Henry V’s second, much deadlier invasion of France in 1417. The Jesus very probably took part in the 1417 battle as well, though the Grace Dieu was completed too late to play a serious part in the sea war, and its one known voyage ended in fiasco (4).

The great ships were all moored in the River Hamble from the latter part of 1420. With a wooden fort called the Bulwerk at its mouth, and two heavy harbour defence chains, the Hamble provided a sheltered and well-defended anchorage for the king’s fleet (5).

Henry V died in 1422, and most of his remaining ships were sold off in the next few years. The great ships were kept, however – perhaps the royal government believed that they could form the core of a reborn royal fleet, if needed. A lot of money was spent on keeping them afloat – paying shipkeepers to live aboard as small maintenance crews, employing shipwrights and caulkers, and purchasing pitch, tar and other materials, along with extra pumps.   Because they were mostly  organic objects, Henry’s warships were wasting assets, subject to decay and sudden leaks. The leakiest of the lot seems to have been the Holy Ghost, which in 1423 received the attentions of a dyver named Davy Owyn, who worked under the hull to stop up cracks. This may be the earliest record of a diver being used for ship maintenance work (6).

HMS Victory - shores in dockThough Nelson’s HMS Victory lies in a Georgian stone dock, it is supported at the sides by shores, just as the Holy Ghost was 

However, by the spring of 1426 the damage caused by natural decay, bad repair and storms left the Holy Ghost in a very poor condition. The authorities must have feared that it was close to sinking. The mast, rigging and much other gear and stores were removed, and taken to the king’s storehouse at Southampton for safekeeping.   Meanwhile, a dock was dug for the ship. This was no mere hole in the riverbank, but a construction project that occupied 96 labourers for much of May and June 1426. Timber for the work was bought on land owned by Titchfield Abbey, and trundled to the site by cart.   The timber consisted of a dozen large pieces of wood to go underneath the hull as stocks or keel blocks, and 100 shores to support the ship at the sides.   The time, money, resources and care used in making the dock strongly suggests that at the time the aim was to preserve the ship for future repair or rebuilding.

As much water and sand as possible was emptied out of the ship before it was docked on 21 June 1426.   The operation involved 80 sailors, as well as an unknown number of craftsmen, and they were kept fed and watered with supplies of bread, fish and local Hamble cider. Jordan Brownyng, the man who served as the ship’s only master from 1415 to 1422, went to live aboard as shipkeeper. He had already worked as shipkeeper on the Holy Ghost when it was afloat, but that was with a team of four other men.  This time, he was alone, and according to the records of the king’s ships he spent the next 1,622 days, sometimes working day and night, pumping out water and baling out mud.   This backbreaking and ultimately futile job finished about the end of November 1430. Brownyng left the ship, and this must mark the point at which the government gave up all hope of ever repairing the Holy Ghost, and left it to rot (7).

But where was the dock? The account for docking the ship is very detailed, but ironically is very vague as to location – ‘near Southampton’, is all it says, which is not much help.   Though the government had given up on the Holy Ghost as a ship, it was still used intermittently over the next twenty years or so as a source of materials, and documents from this period tell us where the ship lay.   The accounts for the king’s ships between 1439 and 1442 are explicit about the Holy Ghost’s location. When 254 boards were salvaged from the ship’s cabins, the accounts say that the boards came out of ‘the king’s ship Holigoste, being at Bruselden’ (Bursledon). This is backed up by the previous set of accounts, which records payments to workmen taking iron chains, probably shroud chains, out of (in this order) the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal. The men took the ironwork in a boat to Southampton, the account noting that the boat went from ‘Brisselden (Bursledon) and Hamble where the said decayed ships in this way are…’. To my mind, the evidence of the accounts is incontrovertible: the Holy Ghost and its dock were at Bursledon.   The last set of royal accounts to mention the ship, from 1447-52, describe it as ‘sunk in the sea (sic) and in this way broken’.   As the Holy Ghost never went anywhere after 1426, this phrase most likely means that the ship and its supports had collapsed into the dock, and by 1452 the vessel was mostly underwater (8).

Bursledon was also the last resting-place of the biggest of the great ships, the Grace Dieu.  The ship stayed afloat at least 14 years, moored in the Hamble from 1420 to 1434. Part of the ship’s giant mainmast was removed in 1432, probably to lighten the vessel, but it was finally laid up in a dock on the mud at Bursledon on 1 August 1434. The dock for the Grace Dieu does not seem to have been anywhere near as deep or elaborate as that for the Holy Ghost – there is no record of stocks or shores, for example – though it was surrounded with a security hedge (probably thorn bushes, natural barbed wire) and an enclosure designed to deflect the water current from the hull. Tellingly, no shipkeeper was left aboard.   Just under five years later, on the night of 7 January 1439, the ship was hit by lightning. It caught fire and probably burned to the waterline.   Large amounts of ironwork and timber were salvaged from the wreck, but then the derelict was left alone, to re-emerge in public consciousness in the 19th century (9).

The end for the other two great ships was less dramatic.   At first, the Trinity Royal was moored at Bursledon. At some point between 1 September 1429 and 31 August 1430 (8 Henry VI), its single great mast, shroud, top and various other items of gear were removed. Taking out the mast was a difficult job, and a man was sent from Southampton to Sandwich to recruit a team of 15 ‘discreet and wise’ foreign shipmasters, led by a man named Peter Johnson. These men carried out the work, assisted by a number of other mariners. The ship was then towed from Bursledon to Hamble. It was emptied of mud and ballast, and laid up in a ‘digging’ (fossura) in the mud (le Wose – ‘ooze’), because of its decay. It is probable that by ‘Hamble’, Hamble-le-Rice (modern Hamble) was meant rather than Hamble Hook on the other side, which was normally called either ‘Hook’ or ‘Hamble Hook’ (10).

The mention of a ‘digging’ rather than a dock, and the lack of any expenditure on wooden stocks and shores to support the hull, may mean that its deterioration was too far advanced to make it worth preservation. It looks as if the Trinity Royal was simply dumped.

The reference that it was towed from Bursledon to Hamble in order to be laid up is pretty conclusive evidence that the Trinity Royal was at Hamble.  However, additional confirmation is offered by the 1437-39 payment (mentioned above) for taking iron chains out of this ship and the Holy Ghost.   Likewise, a payment account for removing cabin boards from the Trinity Royal between 1439 and 1442, says that the ship was at Hamble (11).

The planned fate of the fourth great ship, the Jesus, was at first similar to that of the Holy Ghost.   Like the Trinity Royal, the Jesus was initially moored at Bursledon. Its mast, shroud, top, yard, bowsprit and various other pieces of gear were taken out there in August 1432, and transported to the king’s storehouse in Southampton.   The ship was subsequently towed by stages to Southampton, where it was docked. The dock was built between 1 September 1432 and 31 August 1433 by a group of labourers, and the ship was put on the stokkes within it for ‘remaking, repairing and renewing’. The intention of the king’s Council at the time was for the ship to be ‘made and repaired’ at some future date, which explains the care and no doubt expense lavished on the dock. However, there is no record of any refurbishment work being carried out on the Jesus, though it does not seem to have been mined for timber, boards and nails in the ways that the other great ships were (12).

On 3 December 1446 ‘one feeble and perished ship called the Jesus… lying at Southampton’ was granted to Christopher Barton and Richard Greneacres, servants of Cardinal Beaufort.  The subsequent fate of the ship is unknown. The remains of a large ancient vessel were uncovered off American Wharf at Southampton in 1848, and it was suggested in 1971 that this might have been the hull of the Jesus, though some doubt has been cast on this identification (13).

Whether the ship-shape that I spotted on the aerial photograph in 1982 proves to be the remains of the Holy Ghost or not, it does not alter the fact that the official records of the king’s fleet show that the great ship was docked at Bursledon.   Anyone travelling along the Hamble in the years between the summer of 1434 and early January 1439 would have been confronted by the spectacle of three enormous derelicts, the Trinity Royal at Hamble and the Holy Ghost and Grace Dieu at Bursledon. Even in their decay, the great ships must still have made most contemporary shipping look like minnows.

© Ian Friel 2015

(1) Historic England, 12 October 2015:

(2) H. Steyne 2003. An integrated investigation into Henry V’s warships the Holigost and Trinity Royal, and the Bursledon II wreck site in the River Hamble, Hampshire, University of Southampton: unpublished dissertation

(3) I. Friel, Henry V’s Navy – The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, The History Press Stroud, 2015, pp. 99-157 (passim) and 164-66.

(4) S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and mutiny at sea: some new evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror Vol 63, 1977, pp. 3-6.

(5) Friel 2015, pp. 138-41.

(6) S. Rose (ed.), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol. 123, London 1982, pp. 122-24.

(7) 1426 docking: Rose 198, pp. 122-24; Titchfield Abbey was on the same side of the river Hamble as the ‘ship-shape’ site at Burseldon; Jordan Brownyng’s job to 1430: The National Archives, Kew (TNA) E364/69, S m 2r.

(8) 1439-42: TNA E364/76, C m 1r; 1437-39: TNA E364/73, N m1r; TNA E364/86, G m 1r.

(9) I. Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1993, Vol 22, pp. 10-11.

(10) TNA E364/69, S m 2r.

(11) TNA E364/73, N m 1r; TNA E364/76, C m 1r; E101/53/7; E364/81, G mm 1r-2r.

(12) TNA E364/69, S m 2r; E364/81, G mm 1r; 30 iron chains from the Jesus, were sold off in December 1443, but these had probably been removed back in 1432 and taken to the storehouse.

(13) TNA E364/81, G m 2r; Rose 1982, pp. 55 and 247 and notes. 195 and 345; F.T. O’Brien, ‘Was this the Jesus?’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 57, 1971, p. 325; reply by R.C. Anderson, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 59, 1973, p.48.

The Clothesline of Fate

It was certainly one in the eye for me.  But why?

It was certainly one in the eye for me. But why?

A minor incident at the weekend started me thinking again about the question of why things happen.

I was writing an email to someone about a ship’s bell I’d seen in a museum store the day before. Realising that I needed some information that was in a book I had left on the garden table, I got up and went to the back door. A couple of steps lead down into the garden, and about 1½ metres from the steps there is a socket in the ground for a rotary close drier.  This common and very useful gadget has multiple clotheslines strung between three long aluminium prongs, tipped with plastic caps. It was sunny here on Sunday morning, and we had put the drier up to take a wash that was churning around in the washing machine.

Hurrying to get the book, I didn’t notice one of that the aluminium prongs was facing me, until my headlong progress brought my eye into contact with its plastic cap. I must have instinctively shut my eye and slowed up the moment before hitting the prong. It was a real shock, and I was left feeling shaken, but the eye was undamaged and there wasn’t even a bruise. I was lucky. Do not try this at home.

But it set me thinking. Why did this particular event happen and why do things in general happen? There are various answers to the enigma that is the Clothesline Incident.

(a) The story set out above: saw bell + emailing a query about it + left book in garden + drier was up + my carelessness = ouch. The Role of Stupidity in History.

(b) Scenario (a) + good September weather = rotary clothesline erected = you get it. The Role of Weather in History.

(c) Scenarios (a) and (b) plus the invention of the first really successful rotary clothesline, apparently by an Australian named Lance Hill in the 1940s (1). The Role of Technology in History. No-one ever took their eye out by walking into a conventional clothesline strung between posts. Thanks a lot, Mr Hill.

(d) The foregoing scenarios + the reason I needed the book in the first place i.e. the ship’s bell (I’d like to do a bit of research into this and will publish it in a blog if it gets anywhere). The bell is of 16th-century date, apparently made in England for a Tudor warship.   If the bell hadn’t existed, or if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have needed the information at that particular moment. The ship served in a navy that really got going under Henry VIII.  At first the fleet was used chiefly as a means to invade France, but subsequently became a bulwark against the invasion of England.  This was after Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church turned England into a heretic nation in the eyes of the great Catholic powers of Europe.

(e) So there you have it. Henry VIII bears fundamental responsibility for me nearly poking my eye out last Sunday.

Our lives are full of turning points, big and small. For a historian, one of the things you have to do in studying events is to try to decide what are minor causes of things, and what are major ones. For example, in the light of the 1914 anniversary there has been a lot of discussion about how the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie led to European war some weeks later. The assassins almost missed their chance, but for the bad luck of the Archduke’s car accidentally pulling up in front of Gavrilo Princip.

In one way, the deaths of these two people precipitated events that led to the deaths of millions. But did they, really? The nations of Europe were already armed to the teeth, international rivalry and rank fear were in the air, and some countries were already planning for war. Something else could have set the whole, terrible process in motion.

On a personal level, looking into Why Things Have Happened to Me As They Did can drive you a bit bonkers, if you’re not careful. For individuals and societies, this brings us into the territory of might-have-beens, sometimes called ‘counterfactual history’. It also leads on to ideas of alternate universes, brought into being every instant as timelines split in an inconceivably large number of directions. The idea of the ‘multiverse’ has gained some popularity in scientific and philosophical circles, and the well-known physicist Professor Brian Cox has recently expressed support for the notion (2).

I have not the slightest idea if the ‘multiverse’ really exists, and nor does the scientific community. The alternate universe theory has long been popular in science fiction, and it has been aired recently in the novels by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth and The Long War.   It’s an appealing, if confusing idea, but until someone actually steps through an inter-dimensional doorway we’re not going to know if it’s the most astounding scientific insight ever or the modern equivalent of the imaginary monsters that peopled some 16th-century sea charts.

Of course, there is always the belief in Fate or Destiny.   Perhaps I was fated to walk into the clothesline, though this seems a too-convenient way of repackaging past events in a way that suggests all our lives are governed by higher powers.

Why things happen is a fascinating question, and one we should continue to ask, whether it’s about history or the present day. As for the rotary clothesline, its fate is sealed. It will be going to the local tip. Probably. Unless something else happens – or doesn’t.

Take that, inanimate object!

Take that, inanimate object!




A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this year, the invention of photography was announced to the world.   In January 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot read a paper at the Royal Society in London on his process of ‘photogenic drawing’; eight months or so later, Louis Daguerre’s rather different photographic technique was made public at the Institut de France. Both announcements followed years of experimentation, and Daguerre had been the partner of the brilliant French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (died 1833), whose ‘heliography’ produced the first true photograph in 1826-27.  The term ‘photography’ or ‘drawing with light’, seems to have been first coined in France, not long after Niépce’s pioneering picture; the word first appeared in an English publication in 1839 (1).  Identifying a single inventor for a new piece of technology is not always easy, and as the historian Michel Frizot points out, ‘photography was not invented by one person’ (2).  This blog is not aimed at reopening the issue of Who Got There First.

Instead, I want to write about the fascination of historic photographs. By this, I don’t just mean images of major historical events, or portraits of the Great and the Good. To me, the term denotes photographs of anyone, anything or any place in the past. I know that people’s definitions of where ‘the past’ begins differ enormously, but that’s another issue I’m going to sidestep here.

What photography has given us is the ability to seize a moment and hold it forever – or at least for as long as the image will last.   In the days of print cameras, the technology and expense of print film and cameras meant that most people only took photos on special occasions – birthdays, weddings, holidays and so-on, or they visited a professional photographer.  Nowadays, photography has become ubiquitous, even habitual, thanks to the advent of point-and-click camera controls, digital photography and the internet, along with mobile phone cameras.   Our lives can be documented visually as never before.

'The past is a foreign country': sometimes it really looks like it, too. 'Grecian' dancing, c 1900-1920?

‘The past is a foreign country’: sometimes it really looks like it, too. ‘Grecian’ dancing, c 1900-1920?

To my mind, this makes the photographic record of the pre-digital world even more valuable.  That includes those images which at first might be dismissed as banal or dull – you know, studio portraits of unknown people, album shots of holidaymakers in deckchairs, unremarkable street scenes.  Some photos of this kind do get into archive collections or books, but a great number seem to end up at boot sales or in junk shops, the product of estranged families, solitary old age and house clearances. There’s a good chance that many of these images might end up in landfill if no-one buys them.

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

You might ask why any of this matters, if there’s no-one left to care what happens to the photos? With many of these images, the names of the people in them are unknown, the exact locations are uncertain and the only way you can date them is by reference to clothes, vehicles, and so-on. What use are they?

A Thames lighter being 'sculled' under old London Bridge, c 1930

A Thames lighter being ‘sculled’ under old London Bridge, c 1930

The answer to this is that each photo, however inconsequential it may seem, is a fragment of history, made all the more precious because it relates not to famous figures or events, but to ‘ordinary’ people. For example, the historian Avril Lansdell made telling use of pictures of this kind to show how British people actually dressed in the 20th century, as opposed to what the contemporary fashion mags might suggest was worn (3).  And in amongst all those portraits and holiday snaps are images of vanished buildings, long-gone street scenes and landscapes, and sometimes evidence of dramatic historical events. For all these reasons, such photos are worth preserving.

There can also be something terribly poignant about looking at people in an old photograph, like the attractive young couple at the head of this blog.   The photo was taken in the Hampshire seaside resort of Southsea, and their not-quite solemn expressions and linked arms suggest happiness – people on a day out, on holiday, or even honeymooning.  Judging by the clothes, the image dates from the early 1900s, and it is quite possible that they could have lived into the 1960s or later. Two World Wars, the Depression and the Cold War awaited them, but also the welfare state, rising standards of education and greater equality.  Standing in the photographer’s studio on that Edwardian day, they could have no idea of what was to come.  A similar thing could be said of us, staring out of a Facebook or Instagram page. Think of that next time you take a selfie.

Cuddly old 'Uncle Joe', Germany 1945.  Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Cuddly old ‘Uncle Joe’, Germany 1945. Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

The photos in this blog come from my personal collection, most of them bought at boot sales.   The first stage in preserving such images is for them to be acquired by someone who cares about them.  The second stage is to find an eventual home for the collection – perhaps museums, libraries or archives  – where the original images can be looked after in the long term and made accessible to the public.

(1) Oxford English Dictionary,

(2) M Frizot (ed), A New History of Photography, Cologne 1998, p 23.

(3) A Lansdell, Everyday Fashions of the 20th Century, Shire Publications, Princes Risborough 1999.

The Age of the Hell Burners: fireships and terror weapons (part 2)


The fireship attack by the English fleet on the Spanish Armada off Calais on the night of 7th/8th August 1588 was the turning-point of the Armada campaign. The attack temporarily dispersed the Armada, drove it into the North Sea and opened the fleet up to the devastating close-range gunfire of the English ships.   After this, with the wind pushing it further north, the Armada lost all real hope of achieving its objective – to invade England and dethrone the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I (1).

The commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had ordered his fleet to disperse because he thought that the eight English fireships might be floating bombs.  Why did these weapons engender such fear among professional soldiers and sailors?

The answer to this question has been explored by many historians, but usually only in terms of the history of the late 16th century.  I want to look at its wider implications, and the disconcerting links that it has with our own times.

Gunpowder was utilised as a propellant in guns from the 1300s, but by the 15th century it was also known that powder could be used en masse as a bomb, buried in a mine under the fortifications of a besieged castle or town. The results could be incredibly destructive – and decisive. For example, in 1503 a Spanish engineer set off a gunpowder mine under the rocky fortress of Uovo near Naples, then occupied by French troops.   The explosion not only demolished part of the rock, it also blew up the castle’s chapel and the senior French officers who were meeting inside (2).

Accounts of the 1588 fireship attack rightly ascribe the Spanish fear of floating bombs to the ‘Hell-Burners’ at Antwerp.   In 1585, Antwerp was held by the Protestant Dutch, but they were encircled by the Spanish Army of Flanders. The siege was one of many in the so-called Eighty Years War, in which the Dutch struggled to assert their independence from the Spanish Crown.   The Spanish siegeworks at Antwerp included a great wooden bridge laid across the River Scheldt, which cut the Dutch off from seaborne resupply and reinforcement.

In order to try to break the siege, the Dutch employed a disaffected Italian engineer named Giambelli to build some fireships and floating bombs for them. These were sent down the river towards the bridge. Most failed to do any damage, but one did go off. Its huge charge (nearly four tons of explosive, packed along with much shrapnel) blew a hole in the bridge and killed at least 800 Spanish soldiers. The explosion must have been the loudest man-made noise ever heard up to that time. The physical and psychological shockwaves caused by the Hell-Burner were enormous, for it was the first weapon to cause instantaneous death and destruction on a large scale (3).

The Hell-Burner incident was not the only Dutch assault with a floating bomb, however. There was another Dutch waterborne attack of this kind in early April 1588, this time on what might be termed a largely ‘civilian’ target.   An account of it reached Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, a few days later. According to the report, a Dutch merchantman had entered Spanish-held Dunkirk harbour one night.  Ostensibly, it carried a cargo of beer and cheese, but there was evidently a large bomb concealed under the victuals.  After the ship had tied up, the crew made off in a boat, claiming that they had to retrieve an anchor left at the harbour mouth ‘… And within a short space after the ship with beer and cheese blew up a Breton ship with salt, 2 ships laden with munition of the king [of Spain], as [well as] victuals, cables and ordnance, with other great spoil among the ships and houses alongst near the quay sore spoiled, and a tower which standeth near the quay, the great stones on the top thereof were blown amongst the houses, which sudden blast did so terrify the Spaniards that they went whirling about the streets crying like cats…’   The writer of the report noted that if the bomb had gone off at low tide, all of the ships there would have been burned (4).

It is not known if a report of this attack reached the Armada before it sailed, but it underlines the sheer terror created by gunpowder bombs. They took the potential dangers of fireships to a new level, and this explains why Medina Sidonia issued his order for the Armada to get out of the Calais anchorage in the middle of the night.

The gunpowder bomb was here to stay, and made its appearance as a political weapon, as well as a military one. In England, its most famous manifestation was of course the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and Parliament in 1605. Like the Armada, it became part of English Protestant legend, the defeat of both being commemorated and celebrated annually in the 17th century (5).

The 1605 attempt was not the only ‘gunpowder plot’ in England. After the city of Chichester in West Sussex fell to a Parliamentarian siege in 1642, the victorious commander, Sir William Waller, established himself in a house in what is now Priory Park.   That evening, in his own words, ‘I discovered a train laid to some barrels of gunpowder not far from my lodging…’   The assassination attempt failed, but Waller was not able to find out who was responsible (6).

Fifteen years later, a Colonel Edward Sexby and a group of republicans, angry at Cromwell for taking quasi-regal powers, planned to blow up the Lord Protector as his coach passed along a narrow section of road in Hammersmith. The plot collapsed, and some of the plotters were apprehended, but Sexby went on to justify the attempt as tyrannicide, in a pamphlet entitled Killing Noe Murder (7).

The presence of sulphur as an ingredient of gunpowder had always meant that the explosive carried a whiff of the demonic. The playwright Ben Jonson referred to Bertold Schwarz, the mythical medieval inventor of gunpowder, ‘who from the Devil’s-Arse did guns beget’, and in Paradise Lost Milton also portrayed the invention of gunpowder and guns as the work of the Devil (9). As well they might.

The fireships of Calais and the Gunpowder Plot have become part of a cosy national legend.   Even if the Armada is no longer remembered with revelry, we still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5th, and admire the whooshing rockets at firework displays, quite forgetting that the event marks an attempt to change the government by force.  If the plot had succeeded, it would probably have sparked off a war of religion in Britain.

It’s inevitable that the danger, fear, pain and horror associated with such things should fade over time – after all, there’s more than enough of them in the daily news.  However, this also obscures the fact that the gunpowder bomb marked a profound shift in the ability of human beings to do large-scale and indiscriminate violence to others with little or no warning.   One way or another, we are still living in the age of the Hell-Burners and the ships of fire.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia and his men had very good reason to be afraid of the eight flickering lights as they bore down on the Armada that August night.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1) See my preceding blog, ‘Fireships and the first terror weapons (part 1)’.

(2) C Duffy, Siege Warfare. The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660, London 1979, p 11.

(3) Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada (various editions, London 1988 on), pp 74-76; National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120; J Kelly, Gunpowder.   A History of the Explosive that Changed the World, London 2004, pp 131-32.

(4) The National Archives (TNA), Kew, SP78/18, 51: David Cabreth to Walsingham (spelling and punctuation modernised); see also Calendar of State Papers Foreign Elizabeth I 1586-1588, p 567, which discusses the report writer’s error with the date, and National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120.

(5) Kelly 2004, pp 126-29; National Maritime Museum 1988, pp 283-84.

(6) P Gill, ‘The Siege of Chichester, December 1642’ in W Hussey (ed), Chichester 900, Chichester 1975, p 18.

(7) Alan Marshall, entry for ‘Sexby, Edward (1616–1658)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,; British History Online, ‘A brief Relation of the late Dangerous Plot for the Destruction of his Highness’s person’, Diary of Thomas Burton esq, volume 2: April 1657 – February 1658 (1828), pp. 483-488.

(8) Kelly 2004, p 81.