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  • Edward IV - Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James

    edward pic 1 Edward IV (Courtesy of Ripon Cathedral)

    Perhaps no English king fought harder for the throne than King Edward IV, personified by Shakespeare as ‘this Sun of York’; an allusion to the three suns which are said to have risen in splendour prior to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, near Hereford, fought on 2 or 3 February 1461, a perceived supernatural display seen by Edward as a favourable omen, presaging victory. Courtier, Philippe de Commines, recalled Edward as ‘the handsomest prince my eyes ever beheld’. Tudor historian Sir Thomas More described him as ‘princely to behold, of body mighty’. In true Plantagenet mould, he stood six foot three inches tall. Naturally charismatic, with abundant charm and bonhomie, Edward approached every man (and woman) ‘of high and low degree’ with great familiarity. Down to earth, easy-going and with an eye for the ladies, his enjoyment of the trappings of luxury has sometimes been portrayed as a weakness, but might more generously be extolled as a virtue; a necessary display of status and achievement in an age which demanded it.

    Edward was a usurper, his kingship was won on the battlefield, the result of a conflict caused by upheavals at the end of the Hundred Years War. As such he could be seen as an opportunist. In my book, Edward IV, Glorious Son of York, I explore the background to this takeover and chart the difficulties Edward faced consolidating his rule. It was a bloody business. The period between June 1469 and May 1471 has been described as one of great instability ‘without parallel in English history since 1066’. Governance changed hands three times, the crown twice, and major battles for the throne were fought.

    edward pic 2 Elizabeth Woodville, whom Edward IV married in sercet, putting love above the interests of the state

    Edward was a fighter, but not just for the sake of it. He considered his greatest martial achievement to have been the bloodless campaign and settlement with the French King Louis XI during his second reign, rather than any of the epic battles for which he is better known. Even so, he had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles, but they came at great cost: his victory at Towton near York, fought in a snow blizzard, has been characterised as England’s most brutal battle, its outcome described as akin to a national disaster in terms of casualties inflicted; the Battle of Barnet, fought in dense fog ten years later on the outskirts of London, another of Edward’s victories, gained the dubious accolade of being the fiercest battle fought in Europe for a hundred years.

    Like the visibility at Towton and Barnet, much that occurred in Edward’s day remains opaque: marriage carried out in secret, remorseless propaganda, malicious slanders and proxy wars. These years have been described as among the darkest of our annals, and not just for lack of primary source material. Motivations and rivalries that existed within a closely inter-married nobility were of paramount importance in shaping what occurred. The main players included Edward’s father, Richard duke of York, described as England’s most illustrious failure of the Middle Ages; the period’s great facilitator of political change, Richard Neville earl of Warwick, known as the ‘kingmaker’; the ill-starred Henry VI who Edward deposed (twice); Henry VI’s steadfastly loyal Queen, Margaret of Anjou, a woman maligned as the ‘she-wolf’ of France, but who bravely defended her husband’s and her son’s rights with all the means she could muster; Edward’s seductive wife, Elizabeth Woodville, an upwardly-mobile commoner who Edward married in secret, putting love above the interests of the state. There were also Edward’s ambitious brothers, George duke of Clarence and Richard duke of Gloucester. Richard famously seized the throne once, yet Edward did it twice, becoming the only English king to both win and regain his crown through force of arms.


    Jeffrey James' new book Edward IV Glorious Son of York is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Barnstaple - What is a Secret? by Elizabeth Hammett

    When asked to write a book with ‘Secret’ in the title, one of my first thoughts was to wonder what ‘secret’ meant in this context. Obviously if an event was really ‘secret’ neither I nor anyone else would know about, so it would be rather difficult to write a book on the subject!

    barnstaple pic 1 The war memorial located in Rock Park, erected in 1922

    In the context of history, however, ‘secret’ presumably means all the history you do not know, which is inevitably rather a lot and varies from person to person. Many people are not interested in history at all, so for them it is all a secret and many others are only interested in particular periods, people or places. My colleague, Denise Holton, and I were asked to write ‘Secret Barnstaple’ a book about local history. Many people are interested in their local and family history (especially people who buy history books!), but we knew from previous writing and from leading town tours, that there are many facts and even some physical remains of the past that are not well known. There are also well-known ‘facts’ and assumptions that are wrong. So, although we knew, or could find out, these things they were still ‘secret’ from many in the local area. We, therefore, went ahead and wrote Secret Barnstaple, hoping that enough of our information was ‘secret’ to make it an interesting read.

    One fascinating aspect of these ‘secrets’ is how many are ‘in plain sight’ but not noticed. There is a tree in our local park which has a plaque in its roots from 1919 when it was planted to commemorate the end of the First World War. Despite walking through the park many, many times over the years I had not noticed it and I suspect very few other residents have.

    barnstaple pic 2 The bust of Charles Sweet Willshire, erected after his death

    Then there are the forgotten people – and even those famous in their day are soon forgotten. There is the bust of a Victorian gentleman in the Square at Barnstaple and it is usually assumed that it is of William Frederick Rock, a nineteenth-century benefactor who is still remembered because he gave the town a park, still called Rock Park in his honour. But the bust is of Charles Sweet Willshire. It was erected, along with the nearby fountain, after his death in 1889. At the time the local paper reported that it was the largest funeral North Devon had ever seen. He had been a well-like local councillor for many years, a magistrate and a leading light in the local Liberal Party. He was known to the Liberal leader, Gladstone, and had been deeply involved in the organisation of the party.   He had no children and there are now very few in the local area who have heard of him. But at least there is a permanent reminder of him for those who discover why the bust and fountain are there. There are no doubt many who were just as famous in their time, especially if they lived before the publication of local newspapers, who are now completely forgotten. It seems quite likely, with so many records easily available due to modern technology and the enormous interest in family history, that many of these forgotten men and women will now be discovered and remembered once again.



    Denise Holton and Elizabeth Hammett's new book Secret Barnstaple is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Ipswich: Three Remarkable Women by Susan Gardiner

    Writing a book with the title Secret Ipswich meant that I had to avoid the inclusion of too many famous people from the town so that I could concentrate on the more obscure people and places that are also part of its history. Ipswich's connections with Thomas Wolsey, Lord Nelson and two England football managers, Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, are very well known, for example. Similarly, the Cobbold family, brewers, employers, local politicians and members of Parliament, are all too familiar as figures of local history to be included in a book about Ipswich's hidden history.

    There are a few figures in the history of the Cobbold family, however, who are not as widely known as they should be. They were all women who married into the Cobbold family, and they were all in their own way remarkable. The first, Elizabeth Knipe Cobbold (1767-1824) has become better known in recent years but is still not widely appreciated. Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867-1963) was a traveller, who was the first British-born woman to convert to Islam and Lady Blanche Cobbold (1898-1987) was the first woman president of a league football club.

    ipswich pic 1 Memorial to Elizabeth Cobbold in St Mary-le-Tower

    I have been a little unfair to Elizabeth Cobbold in Secret Ipswich, comparing her to the fictional Mrs. Leo Hunter in Dickens' Pickwick Papers. Although Charles Dickens could not have known Elizabeth, I'm convinced that this hilarious character was, at least in part, based on her. Elizabeth was a polymath, and genuinely talented but was perhaps not the greatest poet of her age and Mrs. Leo Hunter's execrable Ode to an Expiring Frog, as well as her role as a political wife, holding fête champetres in the extensive grounds of her mansion are all too reminiscent of Cobbold. There was a great deal more to Elizabeth Cobbold than this, however. John Cobbold was her second husband, her first having died only six months after they had married. Cobbold was also widowed with 14 children from his first marriage. Elizabeth bore him seven more. Despite all her other duties, she found time to write novels and poetry, and whatever their quality, they were well regarded in her time. She was also a knowledgeable natural historian and a species of shellfish, Acila Cobboldiae, was named after her.

    In fact, Elizabeth's name keeps cropping up in my book, despite my wish to exclude better known Ipswich residents, because as well as producing her own literary works, she was a patron of the arts and attempted to help several writers, particularly those from labouring-class backgrounds. In 1803, she edited and assisted in the publication of poems by Ann Candler, who lived in the Tattingstone workhouse, enabling her to end her days in her own home with some dignity. Cobbold also encouraged Mary Ann Goward, the daughter of a brazier and maker of tin goods in Ipswich, to go on to the stage. Goward, who married fellow actor, Robert Keeley, went on to be one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century theatrical life.

    Lady Evelyn Cobbold was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, and in many ways led the traditional life of a Scottish aristocrat, with the notable exception that she followed the Islamic faith from an early age. She was born in Edinburgh but spent much of her childhood in Egypt, where she began a lifelong passion for the Arabic language and the Islamic faith. She married John Dupuis Cobbold in Cairo in 1891, but found it difficult to settle at his home in Holywells Park, Ipswich and they formally separated in 1922. A wealthy woman in her own right, she continued to live in Scotland, where her interests included stag hunting, but also travelled in the Middle East. Her adoption of Islam and, no doubt, the fact that she was a woman, gave her access to many things that other travellers were denied, and she was able to write about the hidden lives of women in Islamic culture with first-hand knowledge. She was the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, and published a book about this experience, Pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1934. An intrepid individual she was canoeing - and apparently coming to the rescue of other canoeists - in her eighties.

    Lady Evelyn Murray Zainab Cobbold died in 1963 and was buried on her estate at Glencarron in Wester Ross. At her funeral, a piper played MacCrimmon's Lament and verses from the Qu'ran were recited by the Imam of Woking mosque.

    A third formidable woman to marry into the Cobbold family was Lady Blanche Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and sister-in-law to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She married John Cobbold, of the brewing family, who was known as Captain Ivan Cobbold. His great achievement, as far as many Ipswich people are concerned was to be a driving force behind the success of Ipswich Town Football Club in the late 1930s, enabling the club to become professional and join the football league. He was killed in an air raid in 1944 but had passed his enthusiasm for football on to Lady Blanche who became honorary president of the club in 1964. Her enthusiasm saw her fly to the away leg of the UEFA Cup Final against AZ Alkmaar at the Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, in 1981, where she reportedly stood on the terraces to watch her team win the trophy.

    There are two particularly well known stories about Lady Blanche Cobbold. One is that when she met Adolf Hitler in the 1930s - probably through her relations by marriage the notorious, Nazi-supporting Mitford sisters - she was distinctly unimpressed. Much later, at the 1978 FA Cup final, when Ipswich beat Arsenal, she turned down the offer of meeting Margaret Thatcher saying "Good God, I'd much rather have another gin and tonic." This was no rebuttal of Thatcher's politics, however, but - as with Hitler - a manifestation of the snobbery of her aristocratic background directed towards a grocer's daughter.

    It could be argued that Thatcher was thoroughly revenged on the Cobbolds though. It was her government that brought through legislation to end breweries' monopolies on tied public houses, of which the Tolly Cobbold brewery had many, thus arguably starting the decline that ended with the sale of the firm and its eventual closure.


    Susan Gardiner's new book Secret Ipswich is available for purchase now.

  • Don Kenyon His Own Man by Tim Jones

    Don Kenyon was a ’leader of champions and a champion of leaders’ for good reason; he was his own man and did things his own way.

    Known as ‘Braddy’ at school - like Don Bradman - he would bat for long periods without getting out. He still holds the record as the youngest player to score a century in the Birmingham League first division aged just 14.

    For 19 seasons he scored over 1,000 runs and captained Worcestershire’s first championship winning side in 1964, (retaining the title in its centenary year of 1965). He remains the record holder with 589 appearances and 34,490 runs for the County.

    Elected to the Test selection panel while still a player, he fearlessly supported the inclusion of Basil D’Oliveira for the Tour to South Africa in 1968/69, the outcome of which ultimately led to their sporting exclusion.

    It was in the ‘Kenyon Room’ at Worcester – named after him – where he died in 1996 just as he was about to show a video of Worcestershire’s World Tour from 1965. He died as he lived his life, surrounded by cricketing friends and family.

    ‘His Own Man’ details the life of a devoted family man who did everything within his capabilities to provide for them. It was this devotion which drove him to be the best in his chosen profession.

    ‘His Own Man’ asks the question why one of the outstanding batsman of his generation did not play more Test cricket? Both team mates and opponents provide opinion. What made Don such an outstanding captain and leader of men? Former players give an insight into what ‘made him tick.’

    ‘His Own Man’ celebrates the back-to-back triumphs in the County Championship, looks in detail at the joyous World Tour of 1965 (supported by rare archive material) plus the disappointment of agonisingly missing out on a third consecutive Championship title in 1966.

    His Own Man’ covers Don’s three year term as Worcestershire President which coincided with the return of the glory years in the late 1980’s when the likes of Ian Botham and Graeme Hick were in their pomp.


    Tim Jones book Don Kenyon His Own Man is available for purchase now.

  • Meet the Great British Eccentrics by Steven Tucker

    To celebrate the publication of his new book Great British Eccentrics, author SD Tucker provides some edited highlights from the lives of three of Britain’s most lovable lunatics ...

    That Magnificent Madman with his Flying Machine

    Charles Waterton, the Squire of Walton Hall in Yorkshire, was a prominent nineteenth-century naturalist who developed the strange belief that he could fly. He even manufactured himself a pair of home-made wings, but found there was one thing which prevented him using them properly; his legs. No matter how “symmetrically formed”, said Waterton, a man’s legs were “inconveniently long and heavy” for an “atmospheric trip” and kept on bringing him back down to ground. He could have chopped them off, but this would have proved inconvenient in other ways; another solution would be to float them on some kind of artificial cloud, but he never worked out how to make one. As a result, when he jumped off a platform to test his wings out, he plummeted straight down to earth like a stone.

    Maybe the Squire had simply enjoyed an uncharacteristically heavy meal that day; for, such was the light nature of his diet, he claimed to be able to float down from heights quite naturally, due to his belly being full of wind and air. For example, when cutting off a rotten tree-branch one day, Waterton’s ladder slipped, causing him to suffer a 12 foot drop to the ground. However, in his own words: “I had just presence of mind, in the act of falling, to forcibly restrain my breath, and from fasting, being meagrely supplied within, when I reached the ground I may say with truth that I literally bounced upon my feet in an instant. My transit from high to low merely produced a stiffness in my neck and right leg the following day. Had I been full of beef at the time, I assuredly should have fared worse.” Yet another benefit of going on a diet!

    The Mad Hatter of Newton Burgoland

    Had you visited the small Leicestershire village of Newton Burgoland during the 1850s or 1860s, then you may well have encountered a very strange gentleman named William Lole, who was happy to welcome visitors into his own personal secret garden. Here sat a large tub, acting as a pulpit, and next to it stood a home-made gallows, from which dangled a stuffed effigy of the Pope. Lole viewed the Pope as evil and, whenever he had managed to lure enough visitors into his garden, would climb into his tub and begin to deliver what was called by one witness “a long rambling tirade”, telling his visitors that the Vicar of Rome was really the Anti-Christ.

    Just as strange as Lole’s garden was his appearance. He owned at least twenty special symbolic hats, each bearing various mottoes he felt were of the utmost importance to humanity. It appears these hats were shaped like the objects they were meant to symbolise – so, when wearing a hat entitled ‘Bee-Hive of Industry’, he presumably walked around with a fake bee-hive on his head. Lole’s ‘Patent Tea-Pot’ hat must have looked the strangest, being, I suppose, short and stout, and coming complete with a handle and a spout. It seems that, when wearing this particular item, Lole wished to pour out the sweet tea of social justice into the world; its motto was ‘To draw out the flavour of the tea best – Union and Goodwill’. I wonder how much goodwill he would encounter if he tried on such antics today, though?

    The Nutty Professor

    Probably the most eccentric scientist in British history was Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin whose interests included statistics, anthropology, currency reform, the best way of flashing signals to Martians, inherited lunacy amongst cats and the fluctuating weight of British noblemen. As an experiment intended to illustrate how easy it was to convince yourself to believe in falsehoods, he decided to see if it was possible to convince himself that a puppet of Mr Punch was in fact God. By sheer force of will, Galton eventually managed to convince himself that Mr Punch did indeed possess divine powers, feeling it impossible to look upon his hook-nosed and red-cheeked face without feeling a mixture of awe and reverence.

    Every bit as bizarre were some of his many weird and wonderful inventions, like the so-called ‘Gumption-Reviver’, which dropped water onto his head to maintain alertness during periods of study. By placing pressure-gauges under the legs of chairs at dinner-parties, meanwhile, he aimed to record scientifically how much his guests fancied each other, his theory being that, the more each male leaned towards each female at the table, the more suitable marriage-partners they were. Best of all was a special hat Galton invented to prevent the wearer’s brain overheating during periods of strenuous thought. Claiming to have once ‘sprained’ his own brain whilst studying Mathematics at Cambridge, Galton was determined that his head should never again become too warm through over-use, leading to cerebral malfunction. To this end, he devised a special ‘ventilating hat’, whose top featured a valve which opened and closed whenever a rubber-bulb dangling down from its brim was squeezed, thus preventing disaster. The fact that this aim could have been achieved rather more easily by simply not wearing a hat at all seems never to have occurred to Sir Francis ...


    Great British Eccentrics by SD Tucker is available now from Amberley, and features dozens of strange tales about dozens of equally strange people.

  • Malting and Malthouses in Kent by James Preston

    When I have mentioned that I have been looking for malthouses the general reaction has been a blank look. Malt as a material is no longer understood. It has no relevance to generations that were not fed cod liver oil and malt or Virol! It might as a word appear on malt vinegar labels but has no meaning for most people. Even its connection with beer is not recognised. Beer emerges from a brewery, with a flavour of hops which is recognised in Kent because of the number of oast houses, but the fact that beer is made of malt and water is not understood by many. I have to explain that malt is made from barley which is germinated before being kilned to whatever degree is desired for the type of beer being produced. I then have to go on to describe the type of building used in the process, and what features would distinguish a malthouse from a hop oast.

    This is part of the reason that I wanted to put this information into book form, to make accessible for the first time for Kent what had happened to a once widespread industry that had disappeared from view. Another reason for publishing is that over the years I had accumulated a mass of miscellaneous notes relating to a wide number of malthouses, had photographs of most of the extant buildings, and it seemed appropriate to share my knowledge.

    Malting pic 1 Moving grain from the store to the steep using a traditional barrow. (Whitbread plc)

    The malting process in Kent was floor malting in which barley was soaked for a couple of days before being spread over a floor to germinate and sprout, being turned all the while to promote even growth and to prevent matting. Once the sprouts had reached roughly half an inch the green malt was kilned to stop growth and help convert the starch to sugars. The process determined the type of building utilised. This was usually long and with low ceilings to help with temperature control, with a kiln block at the opposite end to the soaking steep. The length of the building allowed the grain to be moved towards the kiln as it was turned on the floor. Early malthouses looked very similar to oasts, but had one distinguishing feature, other than the low ceilings, which was the very small usually shuttered windows which were also an aid in keeping temperature adjusted. Early kilns for making pale malt would, like oasts, have employed wooden slatted kilning floors covered with horse hair mats over open fire baskets. Later nineteenth century malthouses such as at Hadlow or Gravesend (now flats), Faversham (Tesco) and St Stephens, Canterbury (Barrett’s car sales) which can been clearly identified by their scale, utilised wire mesh kilning floors which allowed higher temperatures for dark malt.

    Malting pic 2 Perry Street Oast, 2011

    For those researching malthouses there are pre nineteenth century references in leases, marriage settlements and legal documents which give sparse information, usually the parish, name of owner, and sometimes, of the occupier. Locations are vague such as to the north of the London road. Identifying the locations in the field is difficult to impossible. As illustrated by the photographs in the book redundant malthouses were often converted into dwellings and have lost all features such as kilns. In nineteenth century newspaper sales advertisements for malthouses it was often stressed that they were suitable for conversion into cottages. Unfortunately many, particularly later eighteenth century and nineteenth century malthouses stood in urban areas, became valuable redevelopment sites, and have been demolished.

    The book is not intended to be a compendium of all that is known about malthouses in Kent. There were one or two malthouses in almost every parish over the centuries, and their enumeration would be tedious. The book sets out to describe the floor malting process as utilised in Kent (as distinct from pneumatic malting which is currently employed in Norfolk and elsewhere) and the buildings employed, and to try to explain the decline and disappearance of the industry from Kent. It also lists and illustrates those malthouses which remain, showing a progression in building form.

    I hope those with an interest in Kent’s industrial history will find the book a useful guide to this neglected area of our past and will use it to visit some of the sites. I have to caution though that access to the inside of buildings is only possible at Faversham at Tescos, Canterbury if buying a car and at Hythe, and even in these places most features have been removed.


    James Preston's Malting and Malthouses in Kent is available for purchase now.

  • James Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater by Victoria Owens

    2016 will see the tercentenary of the birth of James Brindley, the eighteenth-century canal engineer whom Thomas Carlyle once described as a ‘transcendent human beaver’ and whose fame first derived from his association with Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. Documentation of their dealings is sparse. Fortunately, a few accounts books for the Duke’s Estates survive, as do four of the thin paper-covered notebooks in which James Brindley kept his accounts, records of site visits and day-to-day memoranda. These materials, together with Canal Company minutes books, occasional letters to newspapers and the probate inventory of James Brindley’s estate, have been the major sources for my book, although it is fair to say that the record of events that they provide has many gaps and unexplained silences.

    Brindley's record of visits to Worsley reproduced by courtesy of the Institutuion of Civil Engineers Brindley's record of visits to Worsley reproduced by courtesy of the Institutuion of Civil Engineers

    A certain amount of the story is well-known. Although the two men came from radically different backgrounds, both showed their inclination to stubborn independence at an early age. In 1733 when he was seventeen, Brindley, eldest son of a small landowner and heir to the family farm, apprenticed himself to a drunken millwright of Macclesfield named Abraham Bennett. Having succeeded to the title of Duke of Bridgewater at the age of fourteen, one of Francis Egerton’s earliest action was to bring a suit in chancery against his mother and his detested step-father Sir Richard Lyttelton, on the grounds that they had mis-appropriated the estate of his late father, Scrope, the 1st Duke.

    By the early 1750s, the two of them were following paths proper to their respective callings. The young Duke made his grand tour in the company of his tutor Robert Wood, scholarly author of a best-selling travel book entitled The Ruins of Palmyra, who may have been somewhat nonplussed by the fascination which the locks, docks and bridges of the seventeenth-century Canal du Midi held for his charge. Brindley, meanwhile, in the English midlands divided his time between designing a silk mill in Congleton, a corn mill in Leek and a drainage scheme for a notoriously flood-prone colliery near Manchester, aptly known as Wet Earth Pit.

    The Duke came home from his travels in 1755. He settled in London and amused himself by gambling, riding in races, and falling in love with beautiful Elizabeth Gunning, daughter of an impoverished Irish peer. Shortly after they got engaged, malicious gossip alleged that Elizabeth’s sister Maria, the Countess of Coventry, was pursuing an affaire. When the scrupulous young Duke of Bridgewater suggested that Elizabeth might distance herself from her adored sister, Elizabeth was understandably appalled and ended her engagement.

    The Duke retreated to his Lancashire home of Worsley, where he sought solace in planning a canal to convey the coal from his mines to its market. In March 1759, he obtained an Act of Parliament authorising him to cut from Worsley Mill to Salford and three months later, in June 1759, his agent John Gilbert noted expenditure of 9s on levelling staves – graduated rods used to gauge differences in the height of ground –and 7s 6d for the estate employee who had been despatched to Derby to buy a spirit level.

    Worsley Old Hall now a welcoming pub May 2015 (2) Worsley Old Hall now a welcoming pub May 2015

    Gilbert certainly knew of Brindley’s mill-work, and how it called for a useful combination of the skills of joiner, mason, blacksmith, surveyor, besides an understanding of the behaviour of water as a source of motive power. Although the exact circumstances in which he introduced Brindley to the Duke’s canal venture are unknown, whatever conversation may have passed between them had the result that from July 1759 on, Brindley was a regular visitor to the site and recorded the time he spent ‘at Worsley Hall’ in his Notebook. When Sir Joseph Banks came to Worsley in 1767, he observed in his Journal that Brindley ‘was recommended to the duke by Mr Gilbert who found him in Staffordshire, where he was only famous for being the Best Millwright in the Countrey.’ Brindley, he added, was ‘a man of no education, but of extremely strong natural parts.’

    The ‘no education’ remark calls for some clarification. While Brindley’s surviving manuscript notebooks give the lie to the tradition that he was illiterate, it is not unfair to say that he was never on entirely easy terms with the written language. Neither, for that matter, was the Duke, who detested writing letters and was always reluctant to commit anything to paper. Although we have no indication of what these two taciturn men made of one another, the consequences of their meeting were immense. Not only did Brindley make short work of ironing out any problems that the canal’s construction may have encountered in its early stages, but his involvement in the venture had the effect of encouraging the Duke to think in ever more ambitious terms. Before long, he applied for a new Act of Parliament which, rather than follow the unadventurous option of building only as far as Salford, would authorise him to take his canal into the heart of Manchester, crossing the River Irwell upon a navigable aqueduct.

    James Brindley's Bible - a gift from the Duke  Image  courtesy of Dominic Winter auctioneers James Brindley's Bible - a gift from the Duke Image courtesy of Dominic Winter auctioneers

    Stories about Brindley’s skill in enabling the uncomprehending members of parliament to grasp what form the structure would take have passed into engineering folklore. To give the bemused Parliamentarians an idea of what it would look like, for instance, he allegedly carved a small-scale replica from a Cheshire cheese. To demonstrate how he proposed to ensure that the canal should be water-tight, he provided himself with a trough of wet clay and a jug of water, and gave a practical demonstration on the floor of the House of how to work up clay puddle. Even when building had begun, people still could not believe that the bridge could actually carry a canal over a river, and the battle to win hearts and minds continued. One infamous tale claims that the Duke rashly took an unnamed ‘Gentleman of Eminence’ on a site inspection in the hope that he might give the enterprise his blessing and spare its promoters some word of encouragement. On his departure, the grand visitor scathingly observed that although he had often heard of castles in the air, he had never before seen where one was to be erected.

    By this time, Brindley, Gilbert and the Duke were all based at Worsley Old Hall. Perseverance in the face of the nay-sayers’ scorn drew them into increasing if unlikely intimacy. It was not precisely friendship, but more the reluctant fellow-feeling of cross-grained allies bound on the same course. Gilbert - always the Duke’s loyal man – and the independent Brindley were, perhaps predictably, prone to quarrel. There were setbacks, notably when the bridge threatened to collapse shortly before completion. On this occasion, folklore maintains that Brindley had a total breakdown and only John Gilbert’s prompt action in redistributing the weight between the arch and the abutments saved the day. In the absence of documentary evidence, it is hard to know how much trust to place upon this version of events.

    What is clear is that whatever misadventures attended its building, on 17 July 1761 the Barton Aqueduct opened to traffic and swiftly became a source of fairground thrill to the visitors who came to view it. Earnest clergymen took the dare of walking across it, all of thirty nine feet above the river Irwell. The poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld celebrated it in couplets, remarking how

    The traveller with pleasing wonder sees

    The white sail gleaming thro’ the dusky trees;

    And views the alter’d landscape with surprise,

    And doubts the magic scenes which round him rise.

    Meanwhile in the sober prose of his Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester, her brother John Aikin promised that travellers to Barton upon Irwell would be ‘gratified with the extraordinary sight, never before beheld in this country, of one vessel sailing over the top of another.’ Both the Duke and Brindley included it in their portraits, each man enshrining its completion as the defining achievements of his life.

    The illustration on my book’s cover shows an engraving made around 1860 by Percival Skelton. His depiction of the aqueduct against a background of the mills of Victorian Manchester may not have much geographical precision, but perhaps his artistic licence is justified. In his picture, the aqueduct together with the smoke from their chimneys, serves as a sign of the city’s prosperity – the emblem of all that the combined endeavours of the Duke and Brindley had brought about.

    Sir Edward Leader-Williams' swing bridge Barton-upon-Irwell May 2015 Sir Edward Leader-Williams' swing bridge Barton-upon-Irwell May 2015

    With the building of the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1890s much of the old Barton Aqueduct was demolished. In its place Sir Edward Leader Williams’ Barton Swing Bridge would carry the venerable Bridgewater Canal over the vast new waterway – an instance of progress quite literally shouldering history aside. Nevertheless, affection for the old bridge was strong and at the behest of local people, a fragment of the dismantled structure was reassembled and set in a wall at the side of the road as a memento of the work of Brindley and the Duke. Men of immense ambition, the story of the way in which they nurtured the canal network and with it, a new industrial age straddles the realms of engineering history and engineering myth. I’ve enormously enjoyed writing about them; I hope you’ll enjoy reading my book.


    Victoria's book James Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater is available for purchase now

  • Agincourt - October 1415: The Long March by W. B. Bartlett

    The English army set out for Calais. No doubt there was much grumbling in the ranks. Thousands had been invalided home through the effects of dysentery and the expedition would have to survive on the rations it could carry with it and those that they could obtain from the lands through which they passed. Enough food was carried to last the men for eight days which was how long it was expected to complete the march if it was unimpeded. This turned out to be a hopelessly optimistic assumption.

    To add to the dangers, it was now very likely that a French army was waiting to intercept the English force. Even early on during the march there were skirmishes between French and English forces though these were minor. Henry managed to negotiate passage past several important local towns, Arques and Eu. There was no time for a siege so the English had to do what they could to negotiate their way past these places unimpeded.

    They had one specific target in mind, a crossing of the River Somme at Blanchetaque. This was a crucial destination, a ford which had been forced successfully by the invading armies of Edward III during his Crecy campaign over half a century before to his great glory; it was an action that resonated in recent English history. If Henry V could get across here then there was every chance of making it to Calais and then England without a fight.

    Then disturbing news came in. A Frenchman was captured and interviewed. He told the English that an army lay ready and waiting for them at Blanchetaque. It has taken up a strong defensive position to block the way ahead. Henry pondered on the news, realising that a powerful army opposing him here could lead to disaster. Eventually he decided on his move: another way across the Somme must be sought.

    So the English army diverted inland, moving along the southern bank of the Somme seeking in vain for a way over. Each mile they moved away from the coast was a mile further from Calais. Each day that passed extinguished another day’s rations. There was only a very limited supply of provisions easily available from the areas through which the army journeyed and it was no position to involve itself in a fight. Morale began to plummet and petty pilfering broke out. In one incident that deeply disturbed the pious English king a church was robbed. The offending archer was discovered and promptly hanged as an example to his comrades.

    But then, a glimmer of hope. The army was thinking that it would have to make its way to the very source of the Somme before they could cross it. However, spies came in with the news that a crossing had at last been found. The French had taken steps to damage it beyond repair but had failed to do so. The army crossed gingerly over, just in time for French cavalry rode up to impede them but in insufficient numbers to successfully do so.

    The English army advanced towards Calais once more, the Duke of York in the lead. His men reached the village of Blagny where a small river was traversed. They climbed the hill that hid the way ahead from them. As they crested it, they drew up their horses in a state of shock. Before them they saw a huge army barring the way. Many of the men had hoped desperately to reach Calais without a fight. It was now clear that this was unlikely to happen. Few can have had any hope that the result would be in their favour.

    This must have been a blow to King Henry. His march across France had been a huge gamble and it is probable that he did not want to provoke a fight. The outcome of medieval battles was uncertain and defeat could destroy not only his claims to the throne of France but also his powerbase in England. He was young and inexperienced and, although he had fought in battle before, never in a position where the stakes were so high. The days ahead would provide the sternest test he was ever likely to face and the outcome of the battle that loomed would determine his place in history.


    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt is available for purchase now

  • Evesham, for battle it was none by Darren Baker

    The battle of Evesham, which was fought under a dark, rainless cloud 750 years ago, truly changed everything. It put an end to England’s fledgling constitutional monarchy and wiped out the Montfortian leadership that had imposed it upon the king. The years of strife and uncertainty ushered in by the reforming Provisions of Oxford of 1258 culminated in a slaughter of the nobility on this field not seen since the Norman Conquest. In its own time Evesham was lamented not as a battle of any sort, only murder, and the particularly gruesome mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body when it was over makes recalling it with any fanfare a rather dubious prospect. But the English are nothing if not inured to harsh experience, so the festivities will go on.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 Greenhill

    The basic facts are these: in May 1265 Montfort led his caretaker court to Gloucester to try and appease his disaffected partner in the new government Gilbert de Clare, not realizing that Clare had already put a plan of betrayal in motion. It called for the landing of royalist exiles, making allies of the Marcher insurgents, and organizing the escape of the king’s son Edward. Within a month they had Montfort, with Henry III still at his side, on the run. Their last hope was to cross the River Avon at the vale of Evesham and link up with reinforcements coming in from the north, but Edward cut them off at Greenhill. Montfort led a desperate charge to break through, but outnumbered and exhausted, they were beaten back, hemmed in, and massacred.

    That date of 4 August 1265 started off with Montfort anxious to get his troops moving, but Henry insisted on having breakfast and attending Mass at the Evesham abbey church. Montfort had always been deferential to Henry’s personal needs and agreed to a halt despite knowing that Edward was shadowing their movements. This raises the question of why Montfort simply didn’t leave the king behind and continue on their way.

    The easiest answer is Henry was his surety. If he lost the king and his son, it would be only a matter of time before they reclaimed the government under their terms, much the way they did in 1263 after Montfort first swept into power. Only this time there would be no arbitration, rather retribution. Setting the king loose would also deprive them of their feudal advantage. Whoever marched into battle against the king was the rebel, so in this case Edward and Clare. Simon, however, was keen not to advertise Henry’s presence, lest Edward’s men snatched him in the course of the battle, and had him accoutered without any emblem distinguishing his royal rank.

    It was said at the time that he did this because he knew they were doomed and wished the king to die with them. A higher explanation might be that this was the Simon de Montfort imbued with the idea of justice for all that heralded in the reform movement. His army consisted mostly of peasants and freeholders, men trying to eke out a living in that difficult age, who saw hope for a better life under the Provisions. They would have known about them because, unlike Magna Carta, they were written and proclaimed in English, the first instance of a political initiative aimed directly at the people. If they had to put their lives on the line for better government, it was only fair the king should do the same.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 Looking down from Greenhill

    An equally intriguing question is what if any last words passed between Simon and Henry on that fateful morning. Their history went back three and a half decades when Simon, born and raised in France, stepped ashore and brazenly asked Henry to grant his tenuous claim to the earldom of Leicester. Each man was pious, shrewd, and very conscious of his place in the world, and they became great friends until court politics and family squabbles drove a gulf between them. They had always meant the other well, but all the troubles had now made them seem more like an old married couple whose relationship had soured for good. As they rode off together to meet Edward’s army, they probably had nothing more to say to each other.

    Late research has revealed that before the battle Edward assembled a hit squad to find Montfort and kill him. Legend credits Roger Mortimer with delivering the actual death blow for no other reason than the two men were feuding (about what has never been made clear) and he got Simon’s head from among the spoils. On the other hand, a contemporary source says he was felled by an unnamed knight who later met a ridiculous end by drowning at the court of Edward’s sister in Scotland.

    No doubt Simon got special attention one way or another, but we can safely assume that Edward did in fact order his men to kill whoever they got their hands on. That was no incentive for medieval warriors who counted on collecting ransoms from the prisoners they took, but he had a greater prize, their land and property. Admirers of the chivalric Edward who loved tournaments and King Arthur will find this disreputable action disturbing and may hope that it was thrust upon him by the likes of Clare and Mortimer. Remembering the earlier reforming spirit in Edward, when he joined his uncle Simon in the showdown with Henry over control of Parliament in 1260, an argument can be made that his order mirrored Simon’s opinion about justice for all, namely that knights would have to take the same chances as ordinary foot soldiers. Hm, wishful thinking.

    However it came to pass, the slaughter was horrific, with Simon, his son Henry, and top lieutenants Hugh Despenser and Peter de Montfort among those cut down. Just like at Lewes, Edward got into the killing and carried it all the way into the church. He was sadly mistaken if he hoped to find his father alive in there. In all probability, Henry had been behind Montfort with a bodyguard of young knights consisting of Simon’s son Guy and the younger Peter de Montfort. The fact that all three were wounded suggests that they were each a stroke or two away from death when Henry cried out in the din of battle that he was the king. His attackers verified that was indeed the case and, unsure about the identity of the knights with him, chose to play it safe and take them prisoner. The survival of Guy de Montfort would go on to haunt Edward for many a day.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 The battle in medieval rendering

    In a contemporary source, Henry is made to look like a cowering fool as Edward’s men move in on him. ‘Don’t hit me,’ he supposedly keeps crying out, ‘I’m Henry your king, I’m too old to fight.’ This seems to reflect the need to want to see the king in such a pathetic state, as the mere shadow of his former self. That would pave the way for the Edward of later legend, the great warrior who saved his father from the clutches of that other great warrior Simon de Montfort. The problem is it doesn’t square with the description of Henry at Lewes the previous year, when he had two horses killed from under him and had to be forced off the field by his attendants. It was his brother Richard who did the cowering then, in a nearby windmill, this after Edward cost them the battle by going off on a murderous joyride after it began.

    The act of disinheritance that followed Evesham may have been the lure that enabled Edward to build up a large army in so short a time span, but the decision was ultimately Henry’s and he may have decided to go that course whatever his son might think. Certainly his actions in the run-up to Lewes show rebellion had hardened him, made him determined not to put up with it anymore as he had done on no less than four occasions (1227, 33, 38, 58). When the perennially grumpy Clare occupied London after a spat with Edward, it took the intervention of the papal legate to save him from the king’s wrath.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 The fabled Battlewell

    The last major question about the events at Evesham goes to the climax itself, the mutilation of Montfort’s body. It’s the one feature that anyone coming into contact with the battle for the first time is guaranteed to take away from it. Even if it was the hit squad’s work, it seems unlikely that Edward had anything to do with it. His later reign demonstrated that he was quite capable of committing such atrocities, but he had to know that his uncle King Louis of France, for one, would be aghast at the disgraceful treatment of a man who had once been his good friend. He was astute enough to know, moreover, that it would leave him with a blood feud with the Montfort family, whose political reach stretched from France to the Holy Land. That would explain his later attempts to make amends, at least with money. Alas, there was no buying his way out of this one and Guy de Montfort exacted a brutal revenge that destroyed any hope of reconciliation between the families.

    The other consequence to be expected from chopping up Montfort on the field was making a martyr out of him. It was the last thing Henry needed for clamping down on the disinherited rebels, and he was forced to outlaw any talk about miracles to be had at Battlewell, the spring that supposedly arose on the spot where his adversary fell. He was probably justified in being angry at Simon for all he had put him through, though. After all, he was the lone magnate who refused to be cowed into accepting an emasculated form of the Provisions. Had Simon fell in line with the others, there wouldn’t have been any war or the nightmare of Evesham. It’s possible the evolution of government begun by Magna Carta in 1215 would have stayed the same course without Simon’s almost fanatical need to impose the Provisions that he swore an oath to uphold at that solemn ceremony in Oxford in 1258. Just like Henry and Edward.

    Evesham - 9781445645742

    Darren Baker's With All For All: The Life of Simon de Montfort is available for purchase now.

  • Looking at the Women of Ancient Roman by Iain Ferris

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Lifesize bronze statue of Victory from the Capitolium, Brescia, Northern Italy

    Today's visitors to the archaeological museums of Rome will see many statues of the imperial and elite women of ancient Rome and of Roman goddesses on display and numerous other kinds of Roman objects such as reliefs, tombstones, coins, and mosaics adorned with images of women of many sorts. Some of these images were intended to be taken at face value by their ancient, contemporary viewers, but others were imbued with more subtle and nuanced meanings depending on their original context of display.

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Statue of the empress Sabina in the guise of Ceres

    In my latest book for Amberley Publishing The Mirror of Venus: Women in Roman Art I attempt to make sense of this plethora of images of women and to explain their original meaning and significance in what was a male-dominated society and a highly visual culture. As well as looking at such images in Rome itself I also examine their occurrence in provincial contexts in places like Roman Britain.

    Particular attention is paid to analysing the images of the Roman imperial women and the elite women who often emulated their portrayals, to consideration of the significance of imagery on funerary monuments, and to the investigation of the remarkable phenomenon of the portrayal of working women from Rome, Ostia and Pompeii and elsewhere in the Roman world and of barbarian women.

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Mummy-portrait of a Romanised woman from Hawara, Fayum, Egypt (Photo copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum)

    I also look at the widespread use of images of goddesses, common personifications such as Victory, and mythological women such as the war-like Amazons in various contexts, including their appearances on major civic monuments in Rome. Finally, I try to come to grips with the concept of the Roman male gaze and its relationship to male power in Roman society and how this may have impacted on the reception of the many sexualised or erotic images discussed in the book.

    My book is intended to counteract the old cliché that the vast majority of women in the ancient world could be classified either as goddesses, whores, wives, or slaves and to illustrate the multiplicity of positive and sometimes complex identities revealed by a careful analysis of images of Roman women.

    Rome - 9781445633725

    Iain Ferris' The Mirror of Venus is available for purchase now.

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