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Jan 032019

In November 2018 Pen & Sword published my latest book, Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century – the Final Flourish. It is available direct from the publishers here and at and at

My previous book, on female pioneers in the Eighteenth Century, was published in March 2018 (to mark International Women’s Day) and is available from the publishers Pen & Sword here and in the UK on Amazon  (in the States at )

In Bed with the GeorgiansAn earlier book, from the same publisher, was In Bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal & Satire and it can be found (here) and of course at and



Next up will be Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail, due out in April 2019 to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It looks at some of the stories which inspired Defoe and also considers some of the other wrecks, storms and stories of castaways which peppered the Georgian era.




To find earlier blogs please put the title (or part of it) in the search box in the sidebar and that will take you to the appropriate post. Thanks!

Jan 152019

  Today (15th January) is supposed to have been the date when, in 1797, a haberdasher called John Hetherington caused a sensation by wearing a top hat in the streets of London. Legend has it that he caused a riot. The story goes that when he “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people) … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected, and had his right arm broken.” It doesn’t sound really plausible, with the unfortunate hat-wearer allegedly being bound-over in the sum of £500 to keep the peace, particularly as the tale does not look as though it appeared in print until another one hundred years had elapsed, with doubtful provenance then being given as an authority.

More to the point, the top hat (a name which was not to appear until the nineteenth century) had been in existence for many years. The only thing ‘new’ was that by the 1790s they were being made of silk rather than beaver pelts – but the whole thing about this was that the silk was made to look like beaver using a fabric called silk shag (a form of hatters’ plush, which had a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap). It is highly unlikely that the uninitiated would have noticed the difference. In any event a more likely candidate for the first use of a silken substitute for fur was George Dunnage, who advertised just such a hat in 1793 calling it ‘an imitation of beaver’. Why would anyone have been astonished at it – unless the whole story was a fabrication put about by Mr Hetherington as a sales puff?

In the time of Richard Hall any such item of headwear would have been known as a beaver hat (topper, stovepipe, high hat, cylinder hat or chimney pot hat were all later appellations). But tall, towering, absurd structures had been around for centuries. Have a look at this one:

(as worn by the French king Henry IV 1552-99 ).










But don’t think  such absurdities were confined to the French side of the Channel. Here, painted in 1595 is the man who was to become our own James I (at the time, just plain James VI of Scotland. Well, not exactly plain.) Now that hat would have frightened the pigeons…







The fashion disease spread to nobles as well – here is the first Earl of Exeter, Thomas Cecil, painted in 1605 .








And when a certain Guido Fawkes ventured to blow up the Houses of Parliament history recorded him wearing a singular structure on his head.  

O.K. it had a floppy brim, but it wasn’t exactly a close fitting skull cap was it?




Through into the Eighteenth Century William Hogarth shows the Lord Mayor wearing a fine beaver in 1749,  and by the end of the century tall hats were commonplace as in this 1796 water colour by the French artist Carl Veney. He made a specialty  of painting les incroyables (the French equivalent of the Regency dandies).

James Gillray was also showing the monarch and his family in straight-sided beaver hats. Whether the popularity of the new silk versions caused the collapse in the fur trade, or whether the collapse in the fur trade forced manufacturers to become more inventive with their alternatives, is not clear. The new methods were quite complicated and two different weights evolved, one for ‘Town’ and a heavier one, more suitable for riding, known as ‘country weight’.

Wikipedia gives the method of construction: ” A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking a piece of cheesecloth that has been coated with shellac on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several inter-connecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than top of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has more or less dried but is still a bit sticky, the block is removed and the silk plush, which comes in several different pieces, is cut to the correct pattern, then stuck onto the shell. The top flat part of the crown uses a single flat disc of silk plush that has a circular nap. The sides consist of one or two rectangular pieces with the ends cut at a diagonal. The edge of the crown where the side pieces and the flat disc meet are carefully hand stitched together. The side pieces where the seams meet at the sides are not stitched as the silk nap conceals the seams.

The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk petersham (a ribbed silk). The under-brim is also covered with either cloth or silk. After the hat has fully dried, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.”  The country weight hat is heavier because it starts with extra layers of shellac and calico.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a fine chimney-pot hat.

Other famous wearers were Abraham Lincoln,  with the good luck topper as worn to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865…

The Mad Hatter,          Dr Seuss,         Uncle Sam

Boy George      Fred Astaire       Madonna

Marelene Dietrich         Also the much lamented Screaming Lord Sutch

 (longest running British political party leader 1963 -1999, Monster Raving Loony Party).

Princess Diana with her take on the topper:

So, forget about John Hetherington: it seems fairly clear that the top hat has been with us for over four hundred years. It had its heyday in the Victorian era, and remains today with vestiges of its former glory – outside posh hotels, at Royal gatherings, and as a fashion statement.

 And so, in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen as Lt Frank Drebin in Naked Gun:

 “Nice beaver”

Jan 072019

 Thomas Lawrence, 1769 – 1830

One of the people I am considering including in my next-book-but-one (about 18th Century heroes who  have missed out on the spotlight of fame) is Thomas Lawrence.    At first sight the inclusion of Thomas Lawrence, knight of the realm, painter in ordinary to His Majesty King George III, and a President of the Royal Academy, may seem somewhat incongruous. But his inclusion is justified just in order to show that the spotlight of fame can be turned off as well as on – Lawrence enjoyed fame in his lifetime but fell out of favour during the Victorian era, largely as a result of his perceived immoral lifestyle. Nowadays, we have come to expect that our painters  lead a bohemian lifestyle – to drink, experiment with drugs, fornicate and generally set a bad example. It is seen, no doubt, as being part of the artist ‘exploring the inner self’. But Lawrence had the misfortune to be followed almost immediately by the moralising Victorians, who tut-tutted at his indiscretions, and deemed him unsuitable and unworthy of praise. And so, the spotlight was turned off, and this magnificent artist has never quite regained his place alongside the British Greats of the world of painting.

Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

It was not always thus: after Gainsborough died in 1788 and Reynolds died in 1792 Lawrence seemed to have taken over their mantle (although many would argue that he was a far finer portrait painter than Reynolds). He became the artist of his generation, the one commissioned to paint the portraits of all the movers and shakers of the Regency era. And all this from a man who was largely self-taught.

He was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, one of only five out of sixteen children in the family to survive childhood. His father moved from Bristol to run the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, and the precocious young Thomas was already proving something of an artist and an entertainer. Father would apparently ask the tavern’s customers ‘Which would you rather, young Tom recite a verse or paint your likeness?’

The tavern-keeping venture was a failure and his father was declared bankrupt. This left Thomas, then ten years of age, as the family bread-winner. He moved to Bath, aged eleven, and exhibited a precocious talent for portraiture, charging three guineas a sitting. He was entirely self-taught, using pastels at first before graduating to oils. His reputation soon spread and, still in his teens, he moved to London and installed his parents in a house in Greek Street and opened a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. Not bad for an eighteen-year old!

He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy but that sojourn did not last long – portrait painting was his only real interest. Over the ensuing thirty years he became the pre-eminent artist of his generation. His portraits of Nelson, Wellington and George IV are iconic representations of some of the great figures of Regency England.

Here are a few more which I admire.  Left to right, Frederic Lock, Margaret Countess of Blessington and Lady Selena Meade:





Lawrence had a fairly alarming habit – at least, alarming for young and impressionable female sitters – of starting a commission by invading their personal space, coming right up alongside them and, from a distance of just a few inches, sketching a specific detail such as the nose or eyes. It must have been unnerving for anyone not used to feeling on their neck the warm breath of an adult male! No wonder half the female sitters look as though they have something very specific on their minds…

And here is Sarah Siddons (a regular sitter, even though he was knocking off both her daughters!) and a splendid portrait of Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby).


With Lawrence it seems that it was not so much a case of falling in love, so much as falling in love too often, famously with two of the daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons at much the same time. He alternated between the two sisters, Sally and Maria, and on different occasions proposed marriage to them both. The affairs caused enormous hurt to the family and at one stage this led him to have a complete nervous breakdown. In all likelihood Sarah Siddons herself held a torch for the charming artist, and certainly Lawrence seemed enraptured by her as well, painting her portrait in at least fourteen occasions. The rumours got so bad that in 1804 Mr Siddons felt compelled to take out an advertisement in the newspapers of the day, expressly denying that his wife was having an affair with Lawrence. It is perhaps odd that the denial came from Mr Siddons, rather than from his wife – or indeed from Lawrence himself. Some years later, Lawrence was to fall head over heels in love with Sarah’s niece, Fanny Kemble, a girl who, more than any other, closely resembled Sarah Siddons in her youth. Curious, n’est ce pas?

Some of the pain and anguish, and burning sadness, appears in the portraits he painted. By and large he seemed to excel at painting beautiful people, male or female. He knew how to bring out the best in good-looking sitters. However, he was hopeless at finishing projects; on one occasion taking twelve years to complete a commission and, on his death, his studio was found to be littered with unfinished paintings, started and then abandoned.

Unfinished portrait of William Wilberforce


Over the years he painted portraits of royalty, including the one on the right of Queen Charlotte. She hated it so much she refused to accept delivery of it and it remained in his studio until he died. Why didn’t she like it? Probably because it captured something of the sadness of the woman behind the royal mask – and maybe she just didn’t like being shown as a sort of Snow Queen, locked away inside her palace.

In time Lawrence was admitted to the Royal Academy, and in 1820 was made President of that august body. He had previously been appointed ‘painter-in-ordinary’ to George III, was knighted in 1814, and travelled through Europe at the request of the Prince Regent painting foreign leaders such as Napoleon ll, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia and miscellaneous Arch-Dukes, Kings and Emperors.

At the time of his death, Lawrence appears to have been at the height of his powers (but was nevertheless heavily in debt). He died on 7th January 1830 and almost immediately seems to have been airbrushed from history. Perhaps it was the Victorian reaction to the excesses and immorality of the Regency era, but the fact remains that from a height of popularity which far exceeded Constable and Turner, he then slumped into relative obscurity. Today, we may know his paintings, but we rarely see his name.

Lawrence was buried two weeks after his death, in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The artist Turner was one of the mourners, and he painted this sketch of the funeral from memory. Almost immediately there was a reaction against Thomas and his legacy. He went out of fashion totally, and the repugnance felt by society over his behaviour towards Sarah Siddons and her daughters was re-ignited in 1904 when his personal letters were published. The correspondence shows a highly emotional side to Lawrence, and he writes of his uncontrollable feelings and his anguish, while Mrs Siddons talks of ‘this wretched madman’s frenzy’ and of his ‘flying off in ANOTHER whirlwind’.

On the anniversary of his death, spare a thought for poor Tom: a much underrated artist! Yes, I think he will get a place in ‘Georgian Giants – the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution’.  Pen & Sword Books are due to publish it later in the year.

Meanwhile a break from blogging for a couple of weeks – I am off on a  tour to Vietnam via Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on board the Good Ship Diamond (Princess Line) lecturing on a few more novel aspects of 17th and 18th century history. Well, novel for me: The maiden voyage of the Batavia (a tale of  mass murder, mutiny and rape); Piracy in the Indian Ocean; the race between Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Australia and to map the coastline of the entire continent; castaways in the Pacific Ocean; and finally, the true story of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. Why hello, sailors, here I come!

Jan 012019

Having been commissioned to write a book on sex and sexuality in the eighteenth century, I started, as is my universal habit, by looking through the works of Gillray, Rowlandson and other caricaturists for inspiration.Here are two which caught my eye – definitely from the top shelf. The first is interesting in not relating to life in the capital, but suggesting, shock horror, that people in the country had sex. It is Rowlandson’s picture of ‘Sex around a country cottage’, and shows the irate old lady of the house, brandishing her broom at two dogs who have already engaged in coitus and are locked end-to-end. On the roof,  a pair of cats are at it like … cats, and no-one is taking any notice of the two sets of lovers having it off in the garden.

The second came to my attention as an interesting variation of a duet on the piano….

It is by Rowlandson,  and was probably etched some time after 1790 and before 1810, and bears the title ‘A music master tuning his instrument.’

I wish an indecently splendid New Year to everyone. Now excuse me, I must get down to some more research for next year’s book….

Dec 312018

To mark the end of the year, a snippet repeated from Richard’s diary for 1790:aa2

I have not come across a record of the disaster – although the century seems to have been marked by a number of catastrophic drownings in the canals around Amsterdam, often linked to fog. The Gallery of Natural Phenomena refers to a general disaster on  14th December 1783

“Holland – Fog. Fatal accidents, Amsterdam; coaches fell into canals”

and presumably this was repeated at the end of the century. Meanwhile Richard did love his entries about extreme weather – it must have rounded off his year nicely! What is sad is to see that people are still drowning in considerable numbers in the Dutch capital – though probably this was as a result of drink rather than fog. Fifty one deaths by drowning occurred in the three years, between 2009 and 2011, only one of them as a result of crime… presumably the other fifty were accidents, or suicide. Since that date an average of 400 people a year have fallen into the Amsterdam canals – with  an average of 18 deaths occurring in every year. But for 230 to perish in a single night of dense fog, as in 1790, was truly tragic.

Post Script:   Since this wasoriginally  published I received corroboration of the events of 31st December 1790 from the ever-so-helpful Baldwin Hamey, who does a fascinating blog called London Details here. He referred me to this engraving. The caption apparently reads “In the heavy fog several people and a coach have gone into the water. Torches produce more light to see.”

It appears on this Dutch site  and copyright belongs to Amsterdam City Archives. Thanks Baldwin!


Dec 262018

 A post dedicated to Stephen:

26th December marks the feast of St Stephen, named in honour of the first Christian stoned to death. It is not to be confused with ‘Boxing Day’ which may, or may not, fall on this day but is correctly the name given to the public holiday occurring immediately after Christmas Day. For instance where Christmas falls on a Friday, Boxing Day (a day when traditionally a Christmas Box would be given, containing coins) will fall on Monday 28th December. St Stephen’s Day is therefore a non-movable religious festival whereas Boxing Day is a movable, secular, one.

Today’s post looks at three different traditions associated with this day, starting with the horse. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses and in some parts of Northern Europe it is traditional to take the horses, suitably bedecked, to church to be blessed. Traditionally the Christmas break meant a ‘holiday’ for all working animals (of which the horse was the most important) and in some areas the horse was therefore awarded a special meal to mark the start of its ‘time off’. In other areas the equine connection is preserved in horse racing, where The King George VI Chase is the second-most important race in the jump-racing calendar (after the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and is held at Kempton Park today.


It is also the most important day in the fox-hunting calendar, with meets taking place across the country, despite the ban on hunting live animals.

                        A set of English stamps (1973) based upon the story of Wenceslas.

Secondly the day is always associated with ‘Good King Wenceslas’, who, as we all know, went out on the Feast of Stephen. And yes, there was a Wenceslas, who was pretty good by tenth century standards, though in truth he was a duke in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – not a king. He was born in 907 into a family wracked by religious and political in-fighting. His grandparents had converted to Christianity and when Grandpa (Duke Borivoy the First) died he was succeeded by Ratislav. Borivoy’s widow Ludmila was entrusted to bring up Ratislav’s son Wenceslas, much to the chagrin of the boy’s own mother Drahomira. who had never converted to Christianity. When Ratislav died he was succeeded by young Wenceslas, a mere 13 year old, and the wicked Drahomira seized her chance, taking power as Regent. She ordered the death by strangulation of dear old Ludmila (well, that is what you did to mothers-in-law in those days) and a period of religious persecution followed. But when he reached the age of 18 Wenceslas saw off his wicked mother and took power for himself (I do hope you are following this at the back, questions will be asked later). He was a good but fair leader, ended the persecution of priests, and was generally a thoroughly good egg. His popularity didn’t go down too well with his duplicitous brother Boleslav, who had his own circle of followers opposed to the spread of Christianity. Boleslav invited his brother Wenceslas round for a cup of tea (or maybe something stronger) and then attacked him as he was going in to Mass. The rest of the dissidents piled in, and the hapless Wenceslas was killed, aged just 28. He quickly became Bohemia’s patron saint and most famous martyr.



In 1853 the English hymn writer John Mason Neale composed the now-familiar carol, setting the words to a medieval tune known as “Tempus adest floridum” (‘the time is near for flowering’) first published in the year 1582. And if you feel the need to hear it, put this in your browser:                           

Thirdly let us look at the oddest tradition of all, linked to that tiny little bird the wren, since today is also known as Wren Day in many areas of Ireland, and where traditions linked to stoning this smallest of birds to death are still to be found across the country. Echoes of the tradition are to be found on the Isle of Man and, centuries ago, on the English mainland and in particular in Wales. The tradition is so ancient it may well be druidic (the gaelic word for wren is dreolín, which possibly derives from draoi ean, or ‘Druid bird’). Why kill the bird? Well, perhaps the tradition simply marked the end of the year with a mid-winter sacrifice, or commemorated the early Christian attempts to drive out paganism, who knows for certain?

The wren has a reputation which its tiny frame belies. One story has it that the wren is the king of the birds, by virtue of a contest in the bird kingdom to find who could fly the highest: the mighty eagle soared into the skies, leaving all beneath him, except the wren which had hitched a ride on the eagle’s back. When the eagle tired and could ascend no more the wren flew a few feet above it, and landed to the acclamation that he was indeed the king of birds. In Druid lore the birds were a link between heaven and earth – it is possible the druids worshipped the wren and for this reason the Christians opposed it and celebrated the killing of the bird at Christmas time as a symbol of their new order.

But the bird also has a name for treachery, for betraying your whereabouts to your enemies. Legend has that it was a wren which alerted the Jews to where St Stephen was hiding, leading to his capture and death by stoning. And was it not the case that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wing beats? Had the same thing not happened when the Viking invaders arrived eight centuries before?

There are a number of such myths and superstitions about the wren and for centuries the Wrenboys would spend the weeks leading up to Christmas either stoning and killing the wrens, or collecting them and tying them alive to a holly (or other evergreen) bush. The Wrenboys would then parade through the town on St Stephen’s Day, knocking on doors. Householders would be asked to give a penny ‘to pay for the funeral of the wren’ – anyone refusing would run the risk of the Wrenboys burying the bird outside their home, a certain way of bringing bad fortune for the year ahead. Anyone making a gift of money would be rewarded with a feather from the bird. This way the Wrenboys collected enough money to finance an evening of liquid revelry at the local hostelry… with singing and dancing. The wren on its decorated pole had pride of place.

Daniel Maclise illustration for S.C. Hall’s Ireland: Its Scenery and Character (1841).

Traditions varied: in some the Wren Boys dressed as mummers in straw costumes; in others they blackened their faces with cork and dressed in old clothes (sometimes women’s clothes). Meanwhile in West Kerry tradition has it that the dancers paraded with a wooden horse’s head – harking back to the time of pre-Christian horse worship. The introduction of Christianity meant that the horse effigy also had to be burnt, and it is this that the dancers commemorate.

The wren was also known as a wran and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. The most popular one (this, based upon a variant used in Cork)  goes:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St Stephens’s Day was caught in the furze.                                                                                      
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us a penny to bury the wran.

Nowadays of course there is no bird killing – either a stuffed bird is tied to the holly pole, or a model of one, and this is decorated with ribbons and holly and used for the parade. One particular group of mummers from South West Fermanagh known as the Aughakillymaude Mummers, keeps alive the tradition of such celebrations:


Dec 252018

OK, so I know I am being lazy, but it is Christmas  and I am therefore once more ‘lifting’ a lovely George Cruikshank print from the Lewis Walpole site, and adding to it the description of what goes on, based on the information shown by the British Museum. The print is entitled “At home in the nursery, or, The Masters & Misses Twoshoes Christmas party”, and was published on 3rd January 1826.

1 xmasAccording to the British Museum site: “Fourteen small children amuse themselves uproariously in a small space. Four little girls in party-dresses, dance holding hands round a lady who tosses an infant; two of them hold up dolls. A fat and grinning cook stands in the doorway with a tray of jelly-glasses, cake, and fruit. The biggest boy rides a rocking-horse, giving a view-hallo; another boy with an overturned chair for horses, drives in a professional manner a high-slung rectangular cradle (left) in which sits a little girl holding a doll and an open umbrella. A little boy with a wooden sword tries to storm a table, defended by two others, with drum, trumpet, and Union Jack. These children are dressed up to suit their parts. In the foreground (right) two children build a card-house on the floor, with skipping-rope, toy soldiers, and horse and cart beside them. On the left are a top and whip, and an Eaton Latin Grammar. On the wall is pinned a caricature of Dr Syntax.”

I rather like it because it shows the excitement of Christmas in times gone by – it is noisy, exuberant, full of kids, lots of food, and everyone having fun. No computer games, no TV, no total lack of social interaction. And with that thought in mind: HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!

Dec 242018

Richard Trevithick by John Linnell, Science Museum, London 

It was Christmas Eve, 1801 and a large crowd had gathered in the Cornish town of Camborne. The stretch of road running up from Tehidy Road and along Fore Street was known as Camborne Hill, and the crowds watched in amazement as a noisy, steam-belching leviathan called ‘Puffing Devil’ moved slowly up the ascent, turned round, and then came back down again. The excitement of the occasion was described by a local cooper, Stephen Williams, who was to write later:
‘Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Camborne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird. When she had gone about a quarter of a mile, there was a roughish piece of road covered with loose stones; she didn’t go quite so fast, and as it was flood of rain and we were very squeezed together, I jumped off. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther, when they turned her and came back again to the shop.’

The event was commemorated in the song ‘Camborne Hill’:
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still;
The wheels went around;
Going up Camborne Hill coming down

It is a song still associated with Cornish prowess – especially on the Rugby field – and is one of the most lasting tributes to a man who died a pauper, and yet was a real pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. His name – Richard Trevithick – is little known nowadays, and as any schoolboy will tell you, the inventor of steam locomotion was not Trevithick but father-and-son George and Robert Stephenson.

Actually, that is not correct. The Stephenson ’Rocket’ may be renowned the world over, whereas Trevithick’s ‘Catch me who can’ engine is hardly remembered. And yet it was the first in the world to carry fee-paying passengers, in 1808. The ‘Rocket’ is rightly famous for having won the Rainhill Trials held to decide the best design for an engine to run along the Liverpool-Manchester line. Yet that was in 1829, a quarter of a century after Trevithick had pioneered the use of a high-pressure steam engine to provide locomotive power. Trevithick’s invention came first, and he deserves far more credit for his inventiveness and his dogged determination. Indeed, he can be seen as one of the first of that breed of heroic failures which litter the story of modern progress.

I am featuring him as one of my ‘forgotten heroes’ in a book to be published by Pen & Sword, probably under the title of “Georgian Greats – Unsung Heroes of the (Industrial) Revolution” – or some such. I intend to showcase a couple of dozen individuals who, but for a quirk of fate, would have been household names in the vein of Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt et al. The spotlight often dazzles us, but in doing so hides the achievements of men on the side-lines – men like Trevithick. Nowadays we may talk about ‘first mover advantage’ whereas history tells us that it is not the man who is first with his ideas who wins – it is the man who can market them.

Dec 022018

Just got back from a splendid fortnight cruising in the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar). Unfortunately, the riots on Reunion meant that we had to give that island a miss – but against that, the weather was great and there cannot be many better places to spend a November day than afloat in the Indian Ocean.

I gave four talks – the first on Piracy in that part of the world 250 years ago (Olivier Levasseur et al). As luck would have it my book  ‘Piracy and Privateering’ came out just as we sailed – and my ‘author’s copies’ were held up in the post. Never mind, they greeted me on the doorstep when I got back. I had forgotten that it was going to be available in hardback format!

The second talk was on Royal shenanigans – the randy Regent and his entire family, with tales of murder, rape, incest and imprisonment (making straight-forward adultery seem somewhat tame). The audience seemed to like that, so I did anther ‘mini-talk’ on courtesans and hookers of the 18th Century. I paired it up, slightly incongruously, with the remarkable story of survival in the face of adversity by seven women abandoned on an island close to Reunion in the 1770s. No running water, no trees, no vegetation – but those seven survived fifteen years before being rescued. Incredible story. I give more details of it in the book ‘Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks’ which comes out in April to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Finally, I gave a talk on my old favourite – everyday life in Georgian England, looking at ancestor Richard Hall and his experiences as a hosier at One London Bridge. It is good practice for the presentation I will be giving when I do a USA tour in February – with talks in New York and Colonial Williamsburg. Before then I fancy doing another lecture cruise – possibly involving Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Watch this space – but quite when I can find time to finish the two books I have contracted to give Pen & Sword is something of an unknown! An end-January deadline is looming large…


Nov 212018

21st November 1918 saw the Royal Assent being given to a Bill which  became known as the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) 1918.

In a way it was an inevitable consequence of women (in certain circumstances) having been given the right to vote. The Act meant that they could also be voted for – in other words to stand for election as an M.P. Interestingly, the British Parliament was by no means the last to permit female voting – the Dutch did so in 1920, and the United States of America passed the 19th Amendment (allowing women to vote) on 26 August 1920.

On the other hand the Nordic countries were the early runners in Europe, with Finland leading the way in 1907. Norway gave women the vote in 1913 and Denmark followed in 1915. Portugal dipped a toe in the water in 1931 but with numerous restrictions, which were only removed so as to give full equality with the men in 1976. Spain allowed full suffrage in 1933, France in 1944, Italy in 1946,  and Greece in 1952. The Swiss got going a bit late in the day – with Federal voting by women being introduced in 1971

Good old New Zealand got there in 1895. Full suffrage, to include female aborigines, was not permitted in Australia until as recently as 1962.

Following the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women Act)  seventeen female candidates stood for election to the House of Commons including the well-known suffragette Christabel Pankhurst (representing the Women’s Party in Smethwick). She failed to get elected and indeed the only woman to top the vote was  Constance Markievicz, representing Sinn Fein. Her party always abstained and instead of taking her seat in the Commons preferred to sit in the Dáil in Dublin. So, it was left for Nancy Astor to be the first woman to take her seat in the Commons  (December 1, 1919).


The slow progress in the intervening century is  curious: here we are a hundred years later and women still represent less than a third of elected M.P.s. But in a way that is true of the whole story of the struggle for female equality – one door opens and it looks as though there will be a breakthrough – and guess what, things stall and nothing very much happens. You only have to look at Mary Wollstonecraft – who published   A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.  When she died the public were for the first time made aware of her ‘scandalous’ lifestyle, her attempted suicide, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her mothering of an illegitimate daughter. The public condemnation of her behaviour totally drowned out the message which Mary had been so forcefully trying to get across. Horace Walpole had branded her as  ” a hyena in a petticoat” and for nearly a century her ideas were almost totally disregarded.

Mary features in my book “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World” which Pen & Sword published earlier this year. Like many of the other women featured in the book, she would be astonished to hear what little progress had been made through the Victorian period. It is amazing to think that even after 200 years equality is still a mirage in many areas of everyday life.