Jan 302018

Exterior of the coffee plantation building

Landing at Santiago de Cuba (on the southern side of the island of Cuba) I must admit that I was at a loss to decide what to see – memorials to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are not really my cup of tea. Somewhat unenthusiastically I signed up on a taxi trip to see the Gran Piedra – a large rock on top of a big hill, which necessitates climbing some 500-plus  steps. The tour was also to take in a coffee plantation. Now, that did not really fire the imagination – been there, bought the T shirt, tasted the coffee. …  But this was different – although not billed as such it was an evocative and effective explanation of the lives lived by slaves working on a coffee plantation on the island two centuries ago.

Coffee drying area

Until the slave revolution on Haiti, which overthrew French colonial rule in 1804, no-one realized the economic significance of growing coffee on Cuba. Coffee grows in the mountains – and the land was dirt cheap because it was considered unproductive. So, when the French fled Haiti they bought up large tracts of mountainous woodland, and dragged their slaves across from Haiti to provide the labour.

The plantation house we visited was at Cafetal la Isabelica, and it was especially poignant to see all the slaving memorabilia in the context of the actual house where they served. This was no dry exhibition behind glass cabinets, with lengthy written explanations. This was a slave plantation house recently restored and with UNESCO status   – and the slavery exhibits were not shut away but rather, left lying around.

The tools of the trade….

The guide rang the brass bell on the porch. The sound of the bell could apparently be heard for several miles – one chime to send the slaves out to the fields, another single chime to bring them back in, and a continuous chime to alert neighbours to fetch their dogs and join a man-hunt for any slave escaping into the hinterland. You could see where the beatings took place – even the shallow hollow where pregnant slaves could lie face down (to protect their unborn child) while being flogged across the back.




Slave quarters

Inside took visitors to a room where all the instruments of slavery were hanging on a wall – the manacles, the shackles, the neck irons. You could see the tiny cramped quarters where the slaves lived, see the kitchens where the slave cooks worked – and where they were required to eat the same supper as the Master, but one hour before he ate his meal, to ensure that the food was not poisoned. Another display was of iron objects found in the fields and forest  – adzes, hoes and so on. The drying bays, the areas for getting rid of the outer skin from the coffee beans, the area where the beans were washed, weighed, bagged and shipped out were all there to see. And upstairs you could walk round the Masters living quarters, and see the bed where the Master would enjoy the company of whichever female slave took his fancy. It was a fascinating display. Even if it was reached by possibly the most appalling piece of mud-track I have ever had the misfortune to be driven down – it really had to be seen to be believed! The place echoed its sad past – it was eerily quiet, rather damp, and with enough neglect to make it interesting – restoration had not taken away its power as a memorial to past horrors.

His Master’s bedroom…

Part of the machinery turned by slaves to wash and peel the outer skin of the coffee beans…









All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia (on account of the fact that the museum charges for cameras to be used, and I am too stingy to pay when I have already bought my entrance ticket….).

Jan 172018

There will be a distinct lack of blogs for the rest of the month – I am delighted to have been asked to join the Braemar as a lecturer for its cruise around the Caribbean, starting and ending in Barbados. The trip takes in St Lucia, Aruba, Jamaica, Cuba and the BVI, and I will be giving talks on topics relating to the places we will be visiting. So, a talk on castaways (ship wrecks, mutinies, and the background to Robinson Crusoe) and another one on Captain Morgan – the man and the myth. To end with I will give a talk on the golden age of piracy. I am looking forward to it! Especially as the research for the talks linked in happily with writing my next book on life in the Eighteenth Century – under the provisional title of ‘Piracy and Privateering’. I have just handed in the manuscript for the book to Pen & Sword, and hopefully it will come out towards the end of the year. First up though will be ‘Trailblazing Women’, which I hope to see in the shops before Easter …. so, no time for blogs, ‘cos I’m off on my hols!

Jan 112018

I see that there is an auction next week under the umbrella of the Sotheby’s series “Of Royal and Nobel Descent” – and with a whole host of Nelson memorabilia on offer it is bound to be of interest. The highlight, picked up in the national press, is a piece of the Union flag flown from the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. This  is expected to reach £100,000. *

The catalogue calls it an “evocative and impressive relic of Nelson and Trafalgar” and  gives the following explanation:

“Nelson’s ships sailed into battle at Trafalgar flying the national flag rather than just their squadron colours, as a result of an order issued by Nelson in the days before the battle: “When in the presence of an Enemy, all the Ships under my command are to bear white Colours [i.e. St George’s Ensign], and a Union Jack is to be suspended from the fore top-gallant stay” (10 October 1805). HMS Victory consequently flew two Union flags and a St George’s Ensign, which were returned to England with the ship and the body of Nelson.”

The catalogue continues “… battle ensigns, unique patriotic mementoes of Nelson’s final and greatest victory, were later woven into the solemn and dignified series of ceremonials that marked his state funeral in January 1806. The body lay in state at the Painted Hall at Greenwich for four days before processing upriver in a funeral barge with a flotilla of naval escorts, disembarking at Whitehall Stairs and resting overnight in the Admiralty. The following day, 9 January, a vast procession followed Nelson’s remains to St Paul’s Cathedral, the site of the funeral. Incorporated into the funeral cortege was a group of 48 seamen and Marines from HMS Victory, who bore with them the ship’s three battle ensigns and were, according to one eyewitness, “repeatedly and almost continually cheered as they passed along”.

They did rather more than cheer – they then shredded the various flags and kept them as souvenirs, and over the years several have come up for sale.

Also in the auction are some impressive paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar and a plethora of Nelson memorabilia – everything from medals commemorating Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile, to dinner plates and pill boxes….






There are also printed ephemera and pieces of jewellery…


and enough statues, sculptures and portraits to satisfy any enthusiast.


I will be interested to see what some of the Lots reach on 17th January – you can see the Sotheby’s catalogue online here or you can buy the catalogue itself  from Sotheby’s for just under £30 here. All images shown here  are provided courtesy of the auctioneers.


*Post script: the piece of flag actually sold for an unbelievable £297,000 – nearly three times the estimate placed on it by the auctioneers! Given that the piece measured 36 inches by 34 inches, that is one very expensive piece of material…

Jan 082018

Today I am delighted to offer Naomi Clifford, one of my favourite  authors who writes about life (and particularly crime) in Georgian Britain, a guest post. Her chosen subject: Five  husband murderers. Over to you Naomi !


At just after eight in the morning on Monday 17 September 1827, 40-year-old Mary Wittenback was taken from the condemned cell at Newgate in London where she had passed a restless night. Horace Cotton, the prison’s Anglican chaplain and Mr Baker, a Dissenting minister, had persuaded her to confess to her crime, poisoning her abusive and unfaithful husband, she had attended the condemned sermon and she had said her final goodbyes to her three daughters, but now as her death came near she became highly distressed, calling out to God, moaning and groaning.

She was half-carried by the Sheriff’s men to a chamber and here she was tied into a small black chair-like “machine” to which two long ropes were attached. This was part of her special pre-mortem punishment, being dragged to the place of execution, was additional to her hanging, and was given only to those guilty of the most heinous of crimes, treason.

She had not challenged the authority of the king, but of her husband. By murdering him she was up-ended the natural order of society. Women owed obedience to their husbands – their lords and masters – in the same way that subjects owed it to the monarch. And whereas a threat to the king was high treason, Mary’s crime was petty treason. Almost needless to say, a man could not be charged with treason against his wife; although servants of either gender could be charged for murdering an employer and clerics, always men, for murdering an ecclesiastical superior. In practice, women were the usual recipients of this special charge and its punishment and until 1790 they were also burnt at the stake, mercifully usually after they had been discreetly strangled.

Gallows, once sited outside towns as a warning to thieves and murderers, were increasingly, through the late 18th century and until public hanging was ended in 1868, moved near to the place of incarceration. Some gallows, as at Newgate, were temporary structures built right up against its walls, erected when required and taken down and stored until needed again. This close proximity of prison and gallows meant that there was no distance over which to drag the condemned prisoner. The more usual practice was to tie the prisoner to a hurdle or wicker fence and pull this behind a horse. The prisoner’s final journey, low to the ground and facing backwards, was not just ignominious, a word used often to describe the shame of execution, but abject. Those guilty of petty treason were the lowest of the low.

As Mary was placed upright in the black chair for this approximation of the act of dragging, Mr. Baker, the Dissenting minister, offered her religious consolation. She couldn’t answer, shouting only “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, oh!” while her arms were pinioned – bound to her body – at the elbow, a configuration that was designed to allow her to raise her hands in prayer but not to struggle. After this the hangman and his assistant each took a rope and pulled her, on the machine, out of the room into the lobby leading the scaffold and from there lifted her up the stairs to the platform.

Hangings outside Newgate
                              An execution scene outside Newgate, after Thomas Rowlandson.                                                               Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

A massive crowd assembled in Old Bailey, the lane by Newgate, watched as a white cap was drawn over Mary’s head. Then the rope was adjusted, the signal given, the lever pulled, and she dropped. Her violently convulsions lasted for a full two minutes, after which her body was left for the usual hour to ensure life was extinguished and cut down, stripped and delivered to the Royal College of Surgeons. This final post-mortem punishment, abolished in 1832, was also special, applied only to murderers.

Petty treason, denounced as a double standard by William Wilberforce among others, was abolished in 1828. From then on the courts, ostensibly at least, treated murder as murder.

My new book Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches includes chapters on some of the capital crimes women committed, and it also gives all the stories of women who were hanged. Here, I have chosen the cases of five husband murderers, four of whom were charged with petty treason.


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Norwich Castle on 31 July 1807, for the murder of her husband Samuel (petty treason).

Samuel Alden’s body was found by his neighbours in a pond on the common at Attleborough in Norfolk. One of them saw ‘the two hands of a man appear, with the arms of a shirt stained with blood… His face was dreadfully chopped and his head cut nearly off.’ Martha had taken up a billhook and attacked her husband, who was comatose after an evening in the pub, because he had threatened to beat her during an argument earlier that evening. She offered no defence at her trial. Her house was destroyed by villagers after her death.

Condemned sermon
Prisoners under sentence of death were obliged to attend a Condemned Sermon, for which tickets were sold to the public. They sat around a black empty coffin. Thomas Rowlandson’s print shows the Rev Horace Cotton giving the sermon. Image © Naomi Clifford


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged in Winchester, Hampshire on 8 March 1819, for the murder of her husband Thomas (petty treason).

On the night of 23 October 1818 71-year-old Thomas Huntingford, a man of ‘remarkably quiet and inoffensive disposition’ who had worked for 60 years in the Royal dockyard at Portsmouth, and his 62-year-old wife Sarah, who ran a grocers shop, went to bed in their garret in Orange Street, Portsea as normal. In the middle of the night another resident, Samuel Bately, saw Sarah Huntingford, visibly shaking, going up to her room with a lighted candle. ‘I am murdered and robbed,’ she told him. With the landlady, Bately and Sarah opened the door to the Huntingfords’ room. Thomas Huntingford was on the bed ‘covered in clotted blood’. Blood spatters were all over the floor and the wall above his head. His skull had been caved in. Sarah claimed that two men, their faces blackened with soot, had been there and demanded money but no residents had heard them and the doors had not been forced. It was obvious that Sarah was lying. A bloody billhook was found at the foot of the stairs, her pockets and petticoats were bloodstained, and Thomas’s body showed signs of rigor mortis – he had died some hours before Bately heard the noise on the stairs. There was evidence that Sarah was an alcoholic and had pawned Thomas’s best coats. Before her hanging she refused to speak of the crime, and although she was ‘fully alive to the consolations of religion’ she declined to confess, saying that ‘she would confess to God alone – and the act of dying was only momentary’. She was reported to have displayed ‘firmness’ at her execution. A crowd of over 10,000 watched her die at Gallows Hill, where the old-fashioned horse and cart method was used, during which the victim is slowly strangled after the horse pulls the cart from under her. The unruliness of the spectators led to a decision to draw up plans for a New Drop, a stable structure that can be dismantled and stored. The couple had been married for 40 years, and Sarah had borne sixteen children, only two of whom survived.


Hanged in Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland on 26 July 1823, for murdering her husband John.

Grace and John Griffin kept an unlicensed house in Berwick selling small beer and spirits. Their marriage was known to be unhappy and Grace had previously threatened to kill her husband. John died after a drunken night during which Grace had described him to her neighbours as a ‘beast’. The next morning he was found groaning and retching, but managed to say that his wife had murdered him before dying. An autopsy found no visible external injuries but his bladder was ruptured and there was a black mark near the sacrum. Grace was accused of assaulting him with a fire poker. After a trial lasting into the early hours, Grace was cleared of petty treason but found guilty of murder. She greeted the death sentence with no display of emotion.


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Newgate, London on 17 September 1827, for the poisoning murder of her husband Frederick (petty treason).

On 21 July 1827 at Brill Place, Somers Town in north London, Frederick Wittenback, a builder’s labourer, ate most of the suet pudding Mary, his wife of 20 years, had prepared for lunch and soon became very ill. Mary showed the remainder of the pudding to a neighbour and asked if she thought it had been poisoned. Despite this, shortly afterwards, she ate some of it herself and also became ill. A doctor pumped Frederick and Mary’s stomachs but Frederick was in a severe condition and died a short time later. His symptoms – sickness, pain in his legs and blindness – were consistent with arsenic but a postmortem examination did not conclusively identify this as the cause. Nevertheless, after the inquest, Mary was taken to Newgate to await trial. The Wittenbacks’ marriage had been unhappy and erratic. Frederick had often ‘misconducted’ himself and the couple had split several times, with Frederick going off to live with other women. After a period of relative stability, they had been once more on the verge of parting. When sentenced, Mary fainted and her ‘violent, hysterical screams’ could be heard throughout the sessions building after she was removed from court. The couple had had seven children, three surviving, all girls in their teens and twenties. They visited her the day before her hanging: ‘the scene of parting was affecting in the extreme.’ On 17 September she was tied into a ‘machine’ (the equivalent of a hurdle) in a passage leading to the vestibule outside which the scaffold had been erected. This was then dragged outside, where she was transferred to the gallows. A huge crowd, mainly of women, had gathered. At that moment, a temporary stand collapsed and eleven spectators fell on to the people below, although no one was seriously injured. After she dropped, Mary’s ‘convulsive struggles’ lasted for two minutes.

Gallows at Newgate.     Mary Wittenback exited Newgate through Debtor’s Door (behind the screen on the right) and was carried up to the platform on a chair. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.


Hanged in Lancaster on 19 March 1834, for the poisoning murder of her husband Rodger.

Trapped in an unhappy marriage to Rodger Holden, a weaver, and possibly involved in an affair, 27-year-old Mary Holden took a reckless course. She ordered sixpence worth of ‘flea powder’ from a local shopkeeper and put it in the teapot. When Rodger came home from work and said he was thirsty, she pointed at the teapot. She may have thought that the fact that she had not given him tea or told him to drink it was a defence. At least one witness gave evidence that Rodger had treated Mary badly but the judge did not accept that as an excuse and admonished her for sending her husband ‘out of the world unprepared to meet his maker, with all his sins upon him’. After sentencing, Mary said, ‘My Lord, have mercy on me’ but walked out of court ‘with a firm step’; she later broke down and was ‘overcome with grief’. Mary, a Roman Catholic, was attended by a priest and while awaiting her hanging ‘behaved herself in a very becoming manner’. On the morning of the execution she was taken in a sedan chair to chapel to ‘prevent the rude gaze of the debtors, as she had to pass through their yard’ and then became ‘suffocated with grief, and was dreadfully agitated’. On the scaffold she was ‘calm and collected’. After the rope had been fastened to the chain around the beam, she said, ‘Lord relieve me out of my misery!’ She was praying aloud with the priest when the drop fell and thereafter ‘struggled violently for some minutes’. The Liverpool Mercury described her as a ‘decent-looking person of middle stature, rather of muscular frame, and though not of prepossessing appearance, yet there was nothing in her countenance indicating a ferocious disposition’. Mary’s body was removed for interment within the precincts of the prison. The hanging did not attract a large crowd but it was observed that many spectators were women and that there were a ‘great number of children’.


Naomi Clifford is blissfully happy rooting around in libraries and archives for human stories from the late Georgian era.

Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches is her second book for Pen & Sword. The first, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, a true crime story from the Regency era, was published in 2016. The Murder of Mary Ashford will be released in May 2018.

She blogs at naomiclifford.com and tweets as @naomiclifford.

© Naomi Clifford

Jan 052018

The announcement in the national newspapers yesterday that Colman’s are closing its main mustard-production in Norwich made me think that I would dust off an earlier blog I had written about mustard.  Nowadays Colman’s Mustard is owned by Unilever, and they have decided to close the Norwich factory at the end of 2019, although apparently they wish to preserve something of the connection with the city by continuing to mill mustard seeds, and to package dried mustard, somewhere around Norwich. Anyway, here was the story:


Samuel Pepys, writing on Saturday 25th October 1662 entered the following in his diary:

“Up and to the office, and there with Mr. Coventry sat all the morning, only we two, the rest being absent or sick. Dined at home with my wife upon a good dish of neats’ feet* and mustard, of which I made a good meal.”

*as in Cow Heel Pie

There was of course nothing new about mustard – the Romans probably brought it here, but it was a weedy concoction obtained by grinding leaf and seed alike in a pestle and mortar. Nevertheless it had its admirers, because it helped disguise the smell of rotten meat… It probably got its name from the way the early versions consisted of seeds mixed with the must, the left-over product from fermenting grapes in the wine-making process.

The English  manufacture of mustard had long been centred in Tewkesbury. Then along came Mrs Clements, from Durham. Discarding the pestle-and-mortar approach of crushing everything, she instead treated the mustard to the full works i.e. the same as the way wheat was milled before being turned into flour. It was finely milled, separated from the stems etc and the resulting fine powder contained all the flavour you could possibly wish for.

The story goes that on 10th June 1720 she trotted off to see her neighbours and to flog them a jar or two of her ‘new improved’ mustard. Word spread and before long she headed for London and introduced the new King (George Ist) to the delights of her condiment. Royal admirers were quick to emulate the King’s good taste, and her success was assured. You can still buy a jar of mustard which carries her name from the East India Company (yes, there is still a business trading under that name).

George III mustard pot, c. 1792

Others followed – particularly  a Mr Keen, who was responsible for the slogan ‘Keen as mustard’ and who set up his business in London in 1742 supplying taverns and chop-houses. And then of course Mr Jeremiah Colman came along and cornered the market with his bright yellow square tins with the bull’s head. He took over the business of Keen and Sons and quickly established his base in Norwich as the centre of ‘all things mustard’. He started his mustard and flour business on the outskirts of the town in 1814, and his commitment to the area included building a school and housing for employees. I think we can take it that today old Jeremiah is turning in his grave at the idea that the business is moving elsewhere.


And to show how quickly ‘Durham Mustard’ became synonymous with ‘hot and fiery’ here is a Cruikshank cartoon from 1798 entitled ‘Durham MUSTARD too Powerful for Italian Capers’.

It shows the Bishop of Durham striding on to the stage to protest at the antics of the opera chorus girls. Crossing over the (candle) footlights  and wearing a mitre and holding his crozier as if to strike the pirouetting dancers he shouts:

“Avaunt the Satan, I fear thee not. Assume whatever shape or form thou wilt. I am determined to lay thee, thou black Fiend!”

Against the wall (left) are a carved satyr and a play-bill: ‘The Divil of a Lover – He’s much tlame’ [to blame] and ‘Peeping Tom’ (by O’Keefe, 1784). The first was a musical farce played once only on 17 March 1798, the second was first played on 13 February 1798, so this play-bill gives a good clue of the date of the episcopal outburst.