Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Coppices: Materials for Home and Heat in the Dark Ages

By Kim Rendfeld

An early medieval commoner might chop down a young willow for timber, but that was not the end of the tree’s usefulness. Far from it. A peasant could use the shoots emerging from the stump to build a home or heat it.

Coppicing—cutting down a tree and harvesting the shoots from the stump four to eight years later—goes back to the Neolithic, about 10,000 years. The practice allows people to take advantage of a tree’s established root system to produce timber rather than starting all over from seed. In the forest, coppices coexisted with standard trees and other flora and fauna. Woodlands could be coppiced for hundreds or thousands of years. With the added sunlight, plants and animals that typically lived at the forest’s edge would have a little more space.

Coppicing reminds us of how resourceful our ancestors were. While it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the discovery of coppices as accidental, the folks’ lack of education as we know it was not a lack of intelligence, skills, or discipline.

Not all trees made good coppices, but ash, oak, hazel, birch, and willow were among the species that were used. Some coppiced trees, like hazel, live much longer if their shoots are collected on a regular basis.

A sweet chestnut coppice (Clive Perrin,
CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Early medieval Britain especially needed resources close to home, like coppices. With the departure of the Romans around 410, the economy had collapsed. Instead of growing food and making factory goods for export to customers throughout the empire, Britons needed to become self-reliant. The forest had a lot of resources such as food and herbs, acorns for pigs, and lumber.

Coppices provided raw materials for wattle-and-daub houses, barns, and sheds. Wattle-and-daub has been around for 6,000 years, and its materials were free and easily acquired in Britain and on the Continent. Stone, by contrast, was expensive and required workers for a quarry. If stones were scavenged from an abandoned structure, transporting them far from the site would be a challenge.

For a wattle-and-daub shelter, the builder could weave coppice shoots between stakes and create rigid wattle panels for the walls, supported by posts. Timing was essential. The best season to cut coppice shoots was winter, when the wood had less sap and was less susceptible to insects and fungi. But the builder need to use the shoots before they stiffened and would snap when bent. Warming the shoots over a fire would soften them.

Hazel shoots that had grown for six to 10 years were supple and a popular choice. Willow, which can be harvested every one to three years, was another possibility as were slender rods of birch and ash. The woven wooden rods—called withies—would have been one-half to one-inch thick.

Once the panels were in place, a builder could push handfuls of daub—a mix of earth, clay, sand, hay, and dung—into both side of the wattle. People could patch the cracks in the dried daub with more of the mixture (perhaps making the structure less drafty than a stone building) and finish the walls with a limewash (a paint from limestone). Thatch was often used for the roof, and strips of hazel could secure it to the dwelling.

By Jiel Beaumadier (CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL,
via Wikimedia Commons)
The people living in those homes required fires for cooking and to keep warm in winter. They could use the sticks, twigs, and branches from the forest floor, but charcoal was a better fuel, burning hotter and slower than ordinary wood. Again, the folk looked to coppices, even though the process to convert a freshly cut shoot to charcoal was long and complicated.

The shoots need to be dried for six months, not an easy thing in early medieval Britain, where the climate had turned cooler and wetter. Perhaps oiled, tanned skins protected the shoots.

Kilns often were often built near coppices. Using the same site for repeated firings improved the ground foundation and made the kilns work better. When the shoots were dry enough, they were cut into three- to four-foot lengths and packed tightly around a central timber in a mound or cone, about 10 feet in diameter. The mound was covered with dirt, with a few vents in the bottom. The charcoal-makers removed the central timber and dropped a hot ember into the space, which formed a chimney.

The trick was to keep the fire burning for several weeks, using as little air as possible while it extracted the moisture, saps, and resins (a byproduct was tar). Some kilns were shielded by wind breaks. Still the kiln needed constant tending to ensure it remained intact and the fire was just the right temperature. The wood inside the kiln would be charred but not burned. An experience charcoal burner could gauge the process by the smell. Medieval people often made charcoal for their own homes, but by the early modern period, this craft had become a specialty, and it was easier to buy the product, rather than make it.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Charcoal had more uses than warming homes. Iron smelters relied on the fuel for fires hot enough to extract iron from rock. Smiths need the fuel to create weapons and tools.

Coppices supplied wood for other needs. The shoots could be made into stools to furnish the home. Supple wood could be woven into fences. Thin strips could be made into baskets.

With changes in forestry, agriculture, and river management, coppices fell out of favor in the 20th century and have become neglected. In many modern eyes, a stump with emerging shoots doesn’t seem to be good for much. Our ancestors would beg to differ.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Ecology and Management of Coppice Woodlands, edited by G.P. Buckley

Wattle and Daub: Craft, Conservation and Wiltshire Case Study,” by
Tony Graham


Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in early medieval times and is working on a third.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Treasures of the Norse and Old English Gods

by Richard Denning

Before the coming of Christianity to the English lands the English shared a common mythology and belief structure to the peoples that would later be called Vikings and the Germanic tribes from which they themselves sprang. They believed in the many gods and goddesses (over 40 possibly) that included Woden (Odin), Thunor (Thor), Heimdall, Freya and Loki. These god and goddess owned and used marvelous treasures.

I take a look at some of them in this article.

Megingjörð (the Old Norse words mean “power-belt”) is a belt worn by the god Thor. The Prose Edda lists this as one of Thor’s three main possessions, along with the hammer Mjölnir and the iron gloves Járngreipr. When worn, the belt doubled Thor’s already immense strength.

Mjölnir (the name derived from Old German for “grinder” or “crusher”) is one of the most fearsome weapons, capable of leveling mountains. Snorri Sturluson relates how the hammer was made by the dwarven brothers Eitri and Brokkr. Due to a mishap in its manufacturing it had a characteristically short handle. The pendants and icons of the hammer were a common symbol of the god of thunder in North European mythologies and are found in burials and other locations.

Járngreipr (Old Norse “iron grippers”) are the iron gloves of the god Thor. Thor requires the gloves to handle his powerful hammer. The reason for this may come from the forging of the hammer, when the dwarf working the bellows was bitten in his eye by a gadfly (secretly Loki in disguise) which caused the handle of the hammer to be shortened.

Gungnir (Old Norse for “Swaying;”) is the name of the mighty spear that belongs to the god Odin. Images of the god often depict Odin bearing a spear. Such images date back all the way back to Bronze Age rock carvings of a spear god. As with most of the treasures it was created by the dwarves and had runes carved on its point. The real historical Norse and other Germanic peoples did in fact carve runes into some of their spears, presumably to call upon the same powers that made this weapon so fearsome.

Gjallarhorn (Old Norse for “yelling horn”) is a horn associated with the god Heimdall. Its use is mentioned three times in the Poetic Edda. Heimdall uses the horn to drink from Mímir’s well at the root of Yggdrasil and gains much wisdom. Elsewhere it is said that Heimdall is the owner of the “trumpet” and that “its blast can be heard in all worlds”. Finally it is foretold that in Ragnarök, Heimdall will blow into Gjallarhorn and the the gods will assemble. A figure holding a large horn to his lips appears on a stone cross from the Isle of Man. Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, England depicts a figure holding a horn and a sword standing in front of two beasts. Both of these figures have been theorized as depicting Heimdall with Gjallarhorn.

Draupnir (Old Norse for “the dripper”) is a gold ring made by the dwarves for Odin. It has the ability to multiply itself so that every ninth night, eight new rings ‘drip’ from Draupnir, Odin laid the ring on the funeral pyre of his son, Baldur.

Brísingamen (It might mean Fire Necklace or Amber Necklace) is the necklace of the goddess Freya. At one point Thor borrows Brísingamen when he dresses up as Freya to infiltrate a wedding in Jotunheim. On another occasion Loki steals the necklace and is pursued by Heimdall. The necklace is also possibly mentioned in the Old English Beowulf saga: Hama bore off to the shining city the Brosings’ necklace. 

Helskór ( which means “hel-shoes”) were given to the dead so that they could walk to Valhalla. In one saga these shoes are hanging from a large and beautiful linden-tree. Only travelers that had exercised mercy during their lives were given these. The significance became apparent to the dead because after they had passed this tree they had to cross a heath two miles wide in which thorns grew. This was followed by a river full of irons with sharp edges. Whilst the just could use the shoes to avoid theses perils those deemed unjust suffered immensely.


Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

The Nine Worlds series is a Historical Fantasy Adventure for Ages 9+. The historical world of Anglo-Saxon England meets the mysterious world of myths and legends, gods and monsters our ancestors believed in. This is the world as it might have been had those stories been true…

The first e-book is available free on many e-book sites.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sir John Soane: Georgian Neo-Classical Architect

by Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, Grace Elliot explored the remarkable London home (now a museum) of the Georgian architect, Sir John Soane (1753-1837). I have visited the museum many times, sometimes with friends, sometimes with my students, and, each time, have discovered something new, but my intention here is rather to explore his life and the buildings he designed, some of which are still standing, some of which have subsequently been demolished, and some of which were never built at all. At some point in the next few weeks, I will visit the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, where, among the paintings and the sculptures, I will see designs by some of our greatest living architects. Soane was there before them; he was Professor at the Royal Academy and regularly exhibited his designs at the Summer Exhibition.

Sir John Soane, in the regalia of the
Masonic Grand Lodge of England

Soane's father has sometimes been described as a bricklayer, but it is probably more accurate to think of him as a builder. He was wealthy enough to secure for his son a private education, albeit not at one of England's great public schools. Soane went on to serve his apprenticeship as an architect with George Dance the Younger, and then, at the age of 25, embarked on a Grand Tour, travelling via Versailles to Rome and Naples and returning via Switzerland after three years.

A Grand Tour would not normally have been a possibility for a man of limited means, such as John Soane, but he had a travelling scholarship, courtesy of the Royal Academy. Travelling with another young architect, Robert Furze Brettingham, he seems to have approached the experience with rather more seriousness than many of his wealthier contemporaries, earnestly sketching the ruins of the Forum Romanum, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the recently excavated buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

During his travels, he also proved himself an effective networker, meeting a number of influential men who would later become his clients and patrons and would recommend him to their friends. On his return to England, he struggled, at first, to win commissions, but he landed a particularly important one in 1788 with the Bank of England. His scheme for the bank was executed, but almost nothing of it survives. Inspired, however, by the ruins that he had seen in Italy, he even considered how his own buildings might appear as ruins, many centuries after his death.

Lothbury Court, part of Soane's design for the
Bank of England, by Thomas Malton Junior, 1801

Soane's ground-plan for the Bank of England

Soane's Bank of England,
imagined as a ruin, by J.M. Gandy, 1830 

One commission led to another; he designed private homes, churches (although he was not, personally, religious), and even, at Dulwich, in South London, one of Europe's very first purpose-designed art-galleries. He designed an extension to the Freemasons' Hall in central London, having been initiated into the craft in 1813 (this was built, but no longer survives), and he drew up plans for a new royal palace (probably on the site of London's Green Park), which was never built. All of his designs show the influence of the Roman and Renaissance buildings that he had seen in Italy in his formative years.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery. Soane's use of skylights to light the building was inspired by Roman "cryptoportico" structures. Photo: Bridgeman (licensed under GNU).

The Mausoleum of the Bourgeois and Desenfans families, Soane's patrons at the Dulwich Picture Gallery: Soane's use of coloured glass to create light effects was a characteristic and innovative element of his design. Photo: Fae (licensed under CCA). 

Soane's design for a royal palace, 1821

Unlike his aristocratic contemporaries, Soane had not returned from his Grand Tour with a large collection of antiquities, but he made up for this, as a successful architect, by buying up the Greek vases and sculptures brought back by younger tourists, who had (after the fashion of many Grand Tourists), overstretched their budgets.

When his beloved wife, Elizabeth, died, Soane designed a funerary monument at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, which would, in time, become his own sepulchre, as well as hers. It would also become his most ubiquitous and visible legacy, since it inspired a much later architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, in his (1935) design for a telephone kiosk, which was rolled out across the British Isles.

The burial vault of the Soane family, at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard.
Photo: David Edgar (licensed under CCA).

Telephone kiosks designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,
Covent Garden, London.
Photo: Enzo Plazzotta (licensed under GNU).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Editor's Weekly Round-Up, June 18, 2017

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy these wonderful articles from the blog.

by Mike Williams

by Antoine Vanner
(Editor's Choice, from the archives)

Friday, June 16, 2017

King John’s Castle – Medieval Stronghold

by Antoine Vanner

The term “medieval castle” brings immediately to mind images of high castellated walls, massive gatehouses and vast keeps, and many such fortresses did indeed exist. The vast majority of castles were however much smaller structures – “strongholds” – built for local defence, even if on occasion they did serve as royal residences. One such is King John’s Castle, near Odiham, Hampshire. Though it is little more than a ruined shell today it has a most spectacular history and provides insights into what many more like it looked like.

The remains of King John's Castle today

The castle consisted of a single massive octagonal keep of three stories and was surrounded by one or possibly more deep moats, which survive today only as dry, overgrown ditches. The walls, with cores of flint boulders held together by mortar, were externally clad with stone. This has however been stripped away over the centuries since here, as elsewhere in Britain, neighbouring communities exploited it as a quarry after it had been abandoned.

Now only the cores remain and indeed two sides of the octagon are gone completely. The site is preserved by Hampshire County Council as well as is possible given the castle’s ruined condition. A number of very informative notices are provided, each featuring delightful illustrations in the medieval style by the artist Andy Bardell. Some are shown here.

The structure was built in the 1207-1214 period on the orders of King John, a monarch who has had a deservedly bad reputation, as compared with his older brother Richard, who had an undeservedly good one. John’s entire reign consisted of conflicts with the Church, with the French and with his own barons. The castle at Odiham is associated with the single most important event of John’s reign, as it was from here in 1215 that he rode to Runnymede, under pressure from his rebellious barons, to sign the Magna Carta, and thereby to lay the foundation for the liberties of the English-speaking world in centuries to come.

King John rides out to Runneymede

A year later invading French troops besieged the castle for two weeks. The defenders were allowed to surrender with honour and were found, to the amazement of the French, to consist of fourteen men only. This is a commentary on just how invulnerable such structures were in the days before gunpowder and when hunger and thirst were the most effective weapons against determined defenders.

King John’s young son, Henry III, ordered repairs to the castle in 1225, the refurbished roof being of lead and weighing some 22 tons. It was supported by the outer walls and by a central column that no longer exists. On each of the two floors above ground level, beams extended from this central beam, like spokes of a wheel, to joist holes in the outer walls.

Eleven years later Henry III gave the castle to his younger sister, Eleanor, who was married to the powerful French nobleman, Simon de Montfort. He in due course became Earl of Leicester and was a key figure in the “Barons’ War” against his royal brother-in-law. While a residence in this period, the castle’s interior was likely to have been richly furnished. It can only however have been very cramped by modern standards and one assumes that most of the retainers and servants were lodged in smaller dwellings, of which no trace now remains, in the area between the castle walls and the moat.

Eleanor and Simon prepare for a banquet (note Eleanor's household roll)

This period ended when Simon de Montfort was killed in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham, in which he was fighting the future King Edward I, son of Henry III. Family ties notwithstanding, Eleanor was exiled to France, where she spent the rest of her days, taking with her the household rolls, which give an insight to life at the castle and which can be seen in Andy Bardell’s illustration. 

Edward succeeded his father in due course and spent Christmas 1302 there. His own son, Edward II, proved to be one of the most disastrous kings in English history and his reign was not only marred by civil war but by his ultimate overthrow by his wife, Isabella, abetted by her lover. Odiham Castle was once more besieged in 1322, but again survived.

Edward III, unlike his father, proved to be perhaps the most powerful English king of the medieval period and he not only initiated the Hundred Years War against France but scored notable victories over the Scots, Scotland at that time still being an independent kingdom, and almost invariable an ally of France. Edward granted Odiham Castle to his queen, Phillippa of Hainault, and it appears that she may have had a garden planted around it, an indication that its role was no longer primarily military.

Edward III and Phillippa prepare for bed

The castle was to play its last significant role in history in this period. In 1346 Edward’s army smashed an invading Scots force at Neville’s Cross (today a suburb of Durham) and in the process captured the Scottish king, David II. Held captive until an enormous ransom of 100,000 marks was paid, Davis was held for part of the time at the Tower of London, and for three years at Odiham. Here, in the agreeable rural surroundings of East Hampshire, he was provided with a well-furnished room and with good food, wine and other luxuries. The nature of his detention was unlikely to have been rigorous since honour would forbid escape prior to payment of ransom and one can well imagine David hunting in the surrounding area.

With David’s release Odiham Castle, now relegated to the status of a hunting lodge, started to fade from history. By 1600 it seems to have been in ruins and the process of quarrying it for stone seems to have started. Its day had however been a long one and despite its small size it was witness to some of the most dramatic events of England’s Middle Ages.

Odiham Castle today

A particularly attractive way to reach the castle today is by barge from the nearby modern village of Odiham, and the photograph  below shows a lucky group en route to King John's Castle in August 2013.

In preparing this article I am indebted to the splendid notices posted by Hampshire County Council at the site and which are so beautifully enhanced by Andy Bardell’s illustrations.
An Editor's Choice, originally published on September 9, 2013
Antoine Vanner had had an adventurous and rewarding life, living and working long-term in eight countries and doing short-term assignments in many more. He is fascinated by history, especially of the nineteenth century, and this provides the foundation for his Dawlish Chronicles novels, the first of which, Britannia's Wolf was published early in 2013. Volume 5, Britannia's Amazon, was published in November 2016. He maintains a very extensive website:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The 'Mystery Boats' of Tresco Island

By Mike Williams

Five inhabited islands of outstanding beauty, together with over one hundred islets and large rocks rising out of the Atlantic make up the Isles of Scilly. Lying some 28 miles west of Lands End, they provide an ideal anchorage for flotillas of small boats engaged in covert operations. During the English Civil War Royalist privateers operating out of Scilly became the scourge of both Parliamentarian and foreign merchant ships - especially the Dutch. It eventually took an uneasy alliance between Cromwell’s General-at-Sea Monk and the Dutch admiral van Tromp to bring the piratical Royalists to heel.

Almost 300 years later, Churchill’s rallying cry to “Set Europe ablaze!” did much to galvanise both SOE (the Special Operations Executive) and the SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service) into action, following the fall of France in 1940. One immediate result was the emergence of many so-called small “Special Forces” units. While SOE quickly began to regard itself as a striking force, attacking the enemy wherever it could, SIS was intended to be responsible for the infiltration and exfiltration of Allied agents and vital intelligence, between Great Britain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

Working under Commander Slocum RN, who had been tasked with re-establishing direct communications with Resistance groups in Nazi-occupied Europe, RNVR Officers- Stephen Mackenzie, Daniel Lomenech - a Breton - and others began exploring the use of converted fishing boats to convey both agents and intelligence to and from Brittany.

The idea quickly turned into workable reality as two such “spy-boats” were quickly developed with the professional help of British marine architects and small boat manufacturers. The traditional style of fishing boat was chosen because they were accepted by the Germans who allowed them to remain at sea for up to three nights at a time. This relaxation of rules played right into the hands of British intelligence.

A major issue was the need for far greater speed than the usual plodding pace of a genuine fishing boat. In order to enter the coastal waters of occupied France and mingle with the large fleets of Breton fishing boats, without raising suspicion, the British boats would need to race from Scilly across approximately 100 miles of sea, under cover of darkness, to arrive off the Breton coast by early dawn. Coded radio messages and mast-head pennants of pre-arranged colours would identify which of the local Breton boats would be the contact vessel for the inshore transfer of agents, crucial intelligence, or weapons and explosives, off the Breton coast.

Lomenech who was familiar with the Breton fishing industry personally oversaw much of the conversion work to ensure as much authenticity as possible in the transformations He knew that the real test was not to convince the Germans, but to avoid raising questions in the minds of the patrol boat crews of the French Harbour Gendarmerie.

In consultation with Lomenech and other RNVR Officers, British boat designers cleverly re-configured the boats’ underwater hulls and fitted new far more powerful engines, giving the boats a top speed in excess of 30 knots. Because of its remoteness, privacy from prying eyes and sheltered waters, Tresco Island’s New Grimsby Sound was chosen as the base for the new secret flotilla. The former World War One flying boat base also conveniently situated at Tresco provided storage facilities, workshops and also some accommodation. . . .

One of the secret flotilla’s first tasks was to deliver two key French agents to the Resistance movement, close to Concarneau, during April 1941.The French Resistance had talked about using a submarine for the job, but were over-ruled by the British Admiralty who viewed such craft as pure gold. Instead it was agreed to deliver the agent by Angele Rouge one of the two “doctored” fishing boats newly arrived in Tresco’s New Grimsby harbour anchorage, under the shelter of Braiden Rock.

The boats were delivered to Tresco painted British “Pusser’s grey” so that they blended in with other RN boats at anchor, giving the impression to curious observers that they were some sort of minor naval auxiliary vessel. It was at the eleventh hour, before a cross-Channel operation into enemy waters that, under Daniel Lomenech’s expert direction, the boats were painted in the garish colours typical of Breton fishing vessels. One trick devised by the crews painting the boats was to mix iron filings in with the paint. On contact with the sea the fresh paint quickly took on a convincing weathered appearance. Locals quickly dubbed them “The mystery boats”.

Aerial View of the Scilly Isles (Public Domain Image)

Lobsters, crabs and other fish freshly caught in Scillonian waters were packed in barrels, in ice, to add a touch of authenticity and crew members filled the strategically placed “operations boxes” with their personal weapons also covered with fish. These ensured that should they be stopped and fail to convince the Authorities that they were Breton fishermen, they could call upon significant firepower in a fire-fight. Adding to the illusion of Breton fishermen, RNVR personnel wore similar working rig to their French counterparts. All boats carried at least one Breton who could speak his native tongue, as well as French.

A model of a Breton fishing boat, built & photographed by the author

At midnight Angele Rouge, slipped her moorings at Braiden Rock, the secret flotilla’s anchorage below Cromwell’s Castle, on Tresco’s western shore, heading south. The incoming tide saw her cautiously navigate the shallow waters of Tresco Flats, before she opened up her two 500 hp Hall Scott engines and began punching her way, at over 20 knots, through the rolling whitecaps of St Mary’s Road. Once through St Mary’s Sound and with St Agnes astern to starboard, her youthful skipper ordered his coxswain to maintain maximum revolutions, to arrive off the Breton coast in time to mingle with the French fishing fleets around dawn.

Below decks, each with their private thoughts and fears, the two agents sat huddled in silence, sipping steaming mugs of “kye”, the Royal Navy’s own glutinous chocolate nectar. Both were SOE French Section recruits. One was a former French army lieutenant, code-named “Antoine”, who had escaped from France in the evacuation from Dunkirk. The other, “Marie-Claude”, a young woman of Anglo-French parents, had been selected for espionage operations by SOE’s formidable Vera Atkins.

Vera Atkins (Public Domain Image)

SOE’s creative technologists - the real-live versions of James Bond’s “Q” - developed the weaponry and kit essential in covert operations - some of them so bizarre as to beggar belief. One such example was that of ingeniously crafted dummy lobsters, to be used for carrying secret intelligence.

Unfortunately the design team had only ever seen cooked lobsters, which turn pink as a result of boiling. It was a fisherman who told them in no uncertain terms that lobsters, as caught in the sea, are dark blue! Many an SOE face turned bright red when the error was spotted. On this trip, Angele Rouge carried no fanciful confections from the “Gadgets” Section - only radios packed in tobacco and sealed in French petrol drums, for the Resistance.

With the first signs of dawn beginning to lighten the sky, Angel Rouge was some 12 miles north of Ushant. To preserve the anonymity essential to her cover, her skipper ordered “Reduce speed to six knots, we’ll shortly be joining the locals.” Poring over their charts, with Ushant astern, the skipper and coxswain navigated Angele Rouge through the scattered islands and rock outcrops west of the Brittany coast, maintaining a course due south.

The entrance to the sheltered waters of Brest on her port bow, Angele Rouge flying her yellow mutual recognition pennant, slowly turned heading for Camaret, the RV with the local crabber, Monique, which would take the agents ashore. Almost right on the ETA of 07.30 hours, the crabber appeared, flying a similar yellow pennant. Three miles offshore, under the guns of the German coastal batteries, the two boats drew alongside feigning a noisy chance meeting, of old fishing colleagues. Under the pretence of energetically hauling in nets, the crew slipped the agents from one vessel to the other. The confidential intelligence and radios in the fuel drums were also transferred and after more boisterous exchanges the two boats appeared to resume their fishing. Later, under cover of darkness, mission accomplished, Angele Rouge returned to her anchorage at Braiden Rock - and a fresh coat of Admiralty grey paint, minus iron-filings, securing around 23.00.

Map showing Brest and Camaret (See Commons attribution here)

Shortly after the transfer of the two agents, the Tresco flotilla was called upon to bring to England a leading Resistance Leader - Colonel Gilbert Rénault a.k.a. Colonel “Remy” - who had been betrayed and was in immediate danger of capture, inevitable torture and execution, by the Gestapo. The operation to rescue Colonel “Remy” and his family took the fishing boat Le Dinan to the remote Îles de Glénan, lying some twenty miles west of L’Orient.

65 feet in length, Le Dinan was longer than Angele Rouge and offered slightly more civilised accommodation for the Colonel, his wife and their children - including a 6-month-old baby. Because the waters around Brittany are among the most dangerous in the world - especially at night - the date of the pick-up was influenced by the weather, as well as the risks to Remy. Up-to-date weather forecasts were relayed to the crew on Tresco via a “scrambler” telephone, hidden in the heather at New Grimsby - as were top secret calls from SOE in London, and Government Communications at Bletchley Park. Inevitably it was the Gestapo’s imminent arrest of Remy which ultimately decided the date and RV of the rescue at sea.

Until three hours before nightfall, Le Dinan was given air cover by Beaufighters which, with a farewell waggle of wings, peeled off just north of Ushant, to return to Cornwall. This time, there would be no masthead recognition pennant, to look out for, but simply a white sail above a green hull. By 10 am the following morning, with the sea unusually calm, Le Dinan was plodding slowly through the Concarneau crabbing fleets. Skirting the towering Penmarc’h lighthouse she set course east and headed for the Îles de Glénan, her RV with the small fishing vessel bringing Remy and with him, vital up-to-date intelligence about the latest German coastal defences along the Normandy coast. Some 30 minutes ahead of schedule, Le Dinan’s crew sailed in among the islands to wait.

Map showing Ushant (See here for Commons attribution)

After an hour-and-a-half, lurking between the scattered islands, while awaiting the now well overdue lone white sail of the Colonel’s small boat to appear, the crew of Le Dinan were horrified to see a flotilla of five German corvettes belching black smoke and heading straight for them. Had the Colonel been picked up by the Kriegsmarine? Had the mission been compromised? Under the guise of hauling in their nets, the British held their nerve as the Germans steamed past them, at less than a cable’s distance, binoculars trained on them.

Shortly after the corvettes passed them in line astern, the awaited green hull and white sail appeared from behind one of the islands. Minutes later the Colonel - complete with German top secret intelligence of “Festung Europa”, his wife and children - including the tiny baby was safely onboard Le Dinan. After transferring supplies of tobacco, food and much needed oil and petrol, to the fishermen who brought Colonel “Remy”, she set course for Tresco.

Some 36 hours later and with their passengers now enjoying the fresh air, on deck, after the cramped conditions below, Le Dinan sailed into New Grimsby Sound and hove-to off Braiden Rock. Colonel Remy and his family were safe and British Intelligence had top secret German plans of the Normandy beach defences, so vital for planning the forthcoming D-Day invasion. Many more such hazardous operations were to take place before peace in Europe arrived in May 1945.

At a moving ceremony in July 2000 a commemorative plaque, honouring these gallant men was unveiled at Braiden Rock anchorage. Today, over 70 years later, the “mystery boats” and their crews are still remembered by Tresco’s older inhabitants.


Mike Williams MSc. is the published author of a trilogy of novels, based on a clandestine naval unit which operated out of the Isles of Scilly, during World War 2. Its role was to take secret agents and intelligence to and from Brittany, under the noses of the Nazis.
Published by Thorogood Publishing, London, titles are -
The Secret Channel
The Channel of Invasion
The Channel to Freedom
In September 2011 he presented his trilogy at the Marlborough LitFest. Available on Amazon.                                                  
His Cold War sequel -The Judas Trap -   is a story of counter-intelligence in response to a the insertion of Soviet spies in the Uk .
Available from the author:
Currently he is undertaking research for a novel about espionage in the English Civil War (In Treachery’s Shadow) set in the western counties,
Mike is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Did Behavior make a Gentleman?

by Maria Grace

The concept of a gentleman runs back to medieval times, but its meaning has changed over the centuries.  Today, most regard a gentleman to be a cultured, courteous, well-educated man with a code of honor and high standards of behavior. Those ideas though, came into vogue during the Victorian era. Prior to that, being a gentleman reflected birth and wealth as much as it did one’s behavior.

The Georgian era gentleman, the precursor to the Victorian gentleman, established a code of conduct based on the three R’s considered fundamental to gentlemanly conduct: Restraint, Refinement and Religion. After the French Revolution (and quite possibly because of it), in the reign of George III, the British began to distinguish themselves with their restraint and reserve from the more hot-headed peoples of southern Europe. The move also increased the social distance between the English aristocracy (and eventually the upper class in general) and the lower and serving classes. The shift happened slowly, though, over decades, as the British Empire expanded. (Mason, 1982) This is where the change to defining the gentleman by his manners rather than his birth or fortune began. (Cornick, 2015)

The regency era gentlemen were caught in this shift, still interacting cordially with those not of their class, including their servants and professionals under their employ, but at the same time becoming a bit more reserved in their dealing with them. (Kane, March 2009) So, if a man of this era was haughty and dismissive of his servants, it was more a matter of his personality than of a social expectation of arrogance toward the lower classes. This suggests Mrs. Reynold’s praise of Mr. Darcy as a considerate and caring master in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is more a statement meant to correct Elizabeth Bennet’s opinion of Darcy than it is to suggest that Darcy is an aberration amongst his class.

A young gentleman’s behavior would have been dramatically shaped by his schooling. Most young gentlemen would begin their schooling under a governess. By the age of six, he would often have a private tutor or be sent to study a few days a week with the local curate, vicar or resident scholar. (Kane, August, 2012) Some families would send boys this young to boarding school, others waited until closer to ten years old. During these years of primary, secondary and university education spent with other young men of their social class, gentlemanly behavior would be both caught and taught.

Gentlemanly behavior 

So then, what did this ‘gentlemanly behavior’ (sometimes referred to as ‘good breeding’) entail? Through the centuries, numerous writers attempted to describe it.
Philosopher John Locke (1693) suggested a young man of good breeding:
was decent and graceful in his looks, voice, words, gestures and general demeanor.
was pleasing in company, taking care not to offend others or demonstrating “sheepish bashfulness”
showed no excess of ceremony; did not flatter or dissimulate; was not mean.
In conversation displayed respect, esteem, good manners and goodwill to everyone.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by William HoareIn the mid-1700’s Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his illegitimate son on the issue of that which would make a man “welcome and agreeable in conversation and common life.” (Chesterfield, 1984) His advice echoed Locke’s including:
“One of the most important points in life is decency; which is to do what is proper and where it is proper.”  (Chesterfield, 1984) Do not be ashamed of doing what is right.
Do not be distracted, rude or thoughtless during a conversation.
You should always endeavor to procure all the conveniences you can to the people you are with.” (Chesterfield, 1984) (In other words, think of others first and make them comfortable when they are with you.

Mason (1982) helps to sum up the overall English notion of a gentleman suggesting that the true English gentleman was a combination of both good birth and a sterling character. In addition to coming from a good family:
A gentleman knew his place in society and the world
While it was convenient for the gentleman to have money, he should never be one to be seen to count pennies
A gentleman was a man of principle, careful of his reputation, fulfilling his obligations, and behaving with integrity and honor in every situation
Gentlemen weren’t awkwardly bashful or formal; they didn’t put themselves forward in social settings, but rather stylish and elegant and considerate of others
Gentlemen show consideration for women and would never insult those below them be they servant or beggar.

The limits of Gentlemanly Behavior

As interesting as is it is to consider what made a gentleman in the regency era, it is perhaps more interesting to examine what behaviors seemed to have little impact on one’s status as a gentleman.
Gentlemen of the regency were not particularly religious as a group, many were not regular church-goers. Mason (1982) suggests that many of these substituted the gentlemanly behavior Christian tenets since the former were easier to uphold. (Mason, 1982) These men included much of the clergy who were younger sons of the aristocracy who went into the church only because it was expected of them. Often these vicars hired a curate to minister to the parish whilst they continued in the social life of the season, hunting, gambling, and dallying with women all without particular scandal. They could not be faulted for living the life of an aristocratic gentlemen.

Perhaps this preference for easier to follow guidelines of behavior explains why there are a few principles that are noticeably absent in the behavioral rules for gentlemen. Sexual morals are nowhere addressed. Faithfulness to one’s marriage is not related to being a gentleman. Nor does being a gentleman preclude visiting prostitutes. Many, if not most, high society gentlemen supported mistresses and frequented brothels.

Issues of gaming, debt and financial management are not directly addressed by any ‘gentlemanly code’, only tangentially in matters of reputation and principles. Similarly any sort of reference to a ‘work ethic’ is absent from tenets of gentlemanly behavior. Remember, a gentleman was first defined as one who did not actually dirty his hands with work for his income.

In short, being a proper Regency era gentleman did not mean many of the things we assume of the term today. That is not to say there were no gentlemen who were faithful to their wives, hardworking and conscientious with their money, only that those traits were not actually considered a necessary part of gentlemanly behavior.


Cornick, Nicola. "What Makes a Gentleman? - A historical post." Historical and Regency Romance UK. August, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Kane, Kathryn. "Boy to Man:   The Breeching Ceremony." The Regency Redingote. August 31, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2017. .
Kane, Kathryn. "The Regency Gentleman." The Regency Redingote. March 20, 2009. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Locke, John. Some thoughts concerning education. London: A. and J. Churchill, 1693.
Mason, Philip. The english gentleman: the rise and fall of an ideal. London: André Deutsch, 1982.
Morris, Diane H.  “A True Regency Gentleman Had Good Breeding” Moorgate Books. Thursday, October 22nd, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Morris, Diane H.  “Good Breeding: The Regency Principle of Decency.” Moorgate Books. November 10th, 2016 Accessed May 22, 2017.
 Morris, Diane H. "Is Mr. Darcy the Ideal Regency Gentleman?" Moorgate Books. September 24, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017. .
Morris, Diane H. “Mr. Darcy’s Breeding Problem” Moorgate Books. November 5th, 2015 Accessed May 22, 2017.
Stanhope, Philip Dormer. Lord Chesterfield letters to his son and others. London and Melburne: Dent, 1984.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Full Steam Ahead: the Overland Route Home from India

by Caroline Warfield

Before 1830, travelers between England and India and the rest of East Asia had two choices. One way, the overland route known as long ago as ancient Rome, consisted of travel overland across the Ottoman Empire, through Persia and the Kingdom of Kabul (known today as Afghanistan), over mountains or through the Khyber Pass, and across the Punjab. Of limited use for trade in the 19th century, it appealed only to the most adventurous travelers.

But, of course, Britain ruled the sea. The primary route to India involved a four and a half to six month sail around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. That journey usually took closer to six months than four, depending as it did on prevailing winds, weather, ship design, tides, port conditions, time of year, and even skill. There were few, if any, dedicated passenger companies, and travelers booked passage on crowded merchant or East India Company ships. Conditions could be harrowing, and they didn't always make it!

Steam power came into use early in the century. Early efforts were impractical for ocean travel, however. Navies and merchants were reluctant to use steam engines for fear of fire, engine failure, and issues with fuel. In 1819 the Savannah, a hybrid vessel, crossed the Atlantic but only 1/8 of the voyage involved steam. In 1838 a ship of the British and American Navigation Company managed to cross the Atlantic in only eighteen days with forty passengers, but it ran out of coal part way and had to burn furniture. Still, by 1830 sufficient progress made the dream of a faster route between India and England possible.

Thomas Waghorn by Sir George Hayter, 1847. NPG 974,
National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Thomas Waghorn, a former navy lieutenant employed as a river pilot in Calcutta, failed to persuade the government to support steamer service around the Cape in 1825. The Bengal Steam Fund had sent him to London for that purpose. Two years later, still in London, he obtained an interview with Lord Ellenborough, Chairman of the East India Company, in which Waghorn supposedly told the man he could set up a passenger and mail service that would take just 90 days. He envisioned steamers in the Red Sea and an overland route through Egypt to Alexandria. Ellenborough told him about the planned inaugural run of the steamship Enterprise through the Red Sea from Suez to Bombay and commissioned him to deliver a packet of dispatches to the Governor of Bengal. Ellenborough failed to mention that at least one other competing entity planned to make the run. The race to create overland service was on.

Waghorn left London in October 1829 determined to prove his point. He actually went by coach to Trieste, setting a record when he arrived in nine days. He delivered the London Times to the British Counsel, who soon was demanding to know why the mail typically took fourteen days. Speed had become a central issue. He then begged, borrowed, and patched together transport to Suez via Alexandria, the Nile, and Cairo, but arrived in Suez to find that the Enterprise had not arrived. It had broken down. He persisted, embarking down the Red Sea in an open boat. He arrived in Bombay four months and twenty-one days after he left London. It was a record, but not 90 days. He would not give up.

Waghorn lobbied for steam service in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, but both the government and the EIC were content to sit on the sidelines and watch private enterprise put together such a service. Neither wanted to deal with the political complications involving the Ottoman Emperor and Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt. There was concern about Ali, an ambitious Ottoman official originally from Albania, and fear that he could destabilize the Ottoman Empire, something the government very much wanted to avoid. The Eastern Question, concern about Russia's ambitions in the Middle East and India, dominated foreign affairs. The collapse of the Ottomans would cause a vacuum and chaos. When the chairman of the East India Company sent Waghorn a formal letter telling him to return to his position with the Pilot Service in Calcutta, he sent his resignation in reply.

 Mohammud Ali Pasha, 1805 artist unknown

Waghorn proceeded to form a partnership with the Pasha and lived with Arabs for three years, convincing all and sundry of the benefits of his scheme. Waghorn shipped coal for steamships from England to Alexandria, down the Mahmudieh canal to the Nile on native vessels and from there to Cairo where it went by caravan to Suez. It drove the cost of coal at Suez down from £20 to just over £4 per ton. He sent the mail—and eventually passengers—back the same way. His friendship with the Pasha benefited the local economy and enabled him to resolve myriad issues, from how to store and ship mail in that environment to how to feed and house passengers in the 84-mile journey from Suez to Cairo.

By 1835 the Company sent its mail via the overland route through Egypt. Waghorn's 90 days was a reality. The overland portion, involving as it did an 84-mile journey across the desert and tiny paddle steamers and barges from Cairo to Alexandria, wasn't particularly comfortable at first. Passengers needed rest stops. The mail didn't.

Care of Mr. Waghorn, May 2, 1839. via Wiki commons

In 1837 the company initiated steam packet service from Bombay to Suez and passenger travel became more of a reality. In 1840 the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Company won the Bombay contract and three years later began service from Calcutta as well. Passenger amenities improved. The storied Hotel des Anglais, later called Shepheard's Hotel opened in 1841, providing an oasis of England in the midst of Cairo.

Bivouac in the Desert, from Mrs. G.L. Dawson Damer. "Diary of A Tour in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and The Holy Land, Volume 2." (Henry Colburn, London: 1841). p f05

In the 1840s ads for passenger travel, parcel delivery, agents, and services "with regularity," via "The Overland Route" filled the journal Allen's India Mail. By the 1850s the P&O had 170 coal ships servicing the route and a herd of 3500 camels carried coal across the desert. In 1858 rail service from Alexandria to Suez superseded the beasts.

Other schemes abounded; one dominated. The Company tried service along the Euphrates. It failed. While Waghorn was working out details of his overland route, Muhammad Ali Pasha hired the Frenchman Linant de Bellefonds as chief engineer of public works. He almost immediately began a survey to create a canal at Suez. Concession to build such a canal took until 1854, but in 1869 the Suez Canal opened, effectively eliminating the overland route, and driving the Age of Steam forward. Speed indeed.

SS Farforshire, 1835


Caroline Warfield writes historical romance and contributes regularly to History Imagined, a blog at the intersection of history and fiction, and to The Teatime Tattler, a fictional Regency gossip news sheet.

The characters in her latest novel, The Reluctant Wife take The Overland Route, or as Meghal Wheatly age six called it "the way with camels" for their return to England. Sometimes doing the right thing results in failure in the eyes of others. Forced to take two daughters home and start over, Fred Wheatly, the hero of the book, knows failure is not an option this time. The book is part of Caroline's series, Children of Empire, stories of two brothers and their cousin torn apart by lies and deception, who struggle to find their way home from the far reaches of the Empire.