history

Shoes and Ships, but no Sealing Wax

The last couple of evenings I’ve been reading a small volume produced in 1965 by the Sussex Record Society. It’s by Richard F Dell and titled Rye Port Books; it documents shipping in and out of Rye in East Sussex between 1566 and 1590, ie. a large part of the reign of Elizabeth I. Rye, at this date, had a large harbour which irrevocably silted up around 1600.

While this might sound somewhat dull, they were interesting times (to say the least) when there was essentially a “cold war” between Protestant England and Catholic Europe. Understandably no-one was permitted to leave (or enter) the country without government permission, although many did and not a few were either Catholics fleeing to France or Italy or they were spies for one side or the other (or indeed both).

Rye at that time was one of the major ports for both passengers and freight between England and France and the Low Countries. Regrettably there is little detail of people movements in these records, apart from the occasional note of a boat carrying “20 passengers”. This is a shame because even at this date there were immigration officers stationed at every port such as Rye. Their job, as today, was to interrogate and determine the bona fides of all travellers and naturally to detain any they thought might be Catholic insurgents or spies. From reading elsewhere about the spy rings of Elizabethan England (masterminded by Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham) it is clear there was also a large amount of mail travelling back and forth, mostly being hand-carried by couriers. [For more on this see Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. Review when I’ve finished reading it.]

This book is more about the trade which was happening. Although there are several vessels logged which seem to do nothing but ply back and forth between Rye and Dieppe (the preferred route to France) carrying what today would be called “stuff”, there is also a large amount of goods travelling round the coast of the country, especially between Rye and London, but also as far afield as Newcastle, Spain and Portugal. Remember these are times when the roads were poor, if they existed at all, and a journey from Rye to London by cart carrying goods would take a week or more whereas in good weather a boat could sail between Rye and London in a couple of days. None of the ships involved are of any size; the largest I saw mentioned was 70 tons and they go down to tiny boats of 10 tons; the average is probably around 25-30 tons. These really are tiny boats; the Mary Rose by contrast was rated at 500 tons.

A large section of the book is a line by line summary of every ship which enters or departs Rye over this 35 year period (give or take a few gaps), all constructed from the surviving Elizabethan records in the Sussex County Archive, the National Archives and the Rye Town Records.

Most of the cargo was quite mundane, and perhaps what one might expect: grain of various sorts, wood (ship upon ship full of wood), coal, wool, cloth of various types, wine; and there were many loads which are just recorded as “mixed” so who knows what they contained. Iron appears fairly regularly, and in significant quantities too (the Sussex Downs were an iron smelting centre at this date) and there are several shipments of ordnance including the occasional iron cannon.

But there are some surprising (at least to me) things, such as: lupins, vinegar, apples (from France), oranges and lemons (yes even so; they come in from Spain and Portugal), hops (being traded in both directions), horses (strangely mostly out-bound), cony skins, wolf skins, bricks (being imported from the Low Countries; a single 40 ton ship can carry at least 10,000). And it goes on with nuts, spices, lead, paper, hosiery, cochineal, woad (presumably for use as a dyestuff), herrings (red and white), codfish, quails and scrap brass. Another ship brings in “6 asses”. All of this is, of course, taxed.

But there were several entries which really caught my eye. One cargo is documented as “Mixed inc. tennys bawles”; another contains “French playing cards”. Then there’s a mixed shipment which includes hawks (“6 Tassell hawks, 7 Falcon hawks, 3 Martin hawks, imported by Walter Libon, alien”). Lastlly, there are several shipments of old shoes to London! One can only guess that scrap leather had a value, but for what?

We think we live in interesting times, ship strange goods around in containers, using humongous amounts of oil. But all this was being done by the power of man, horse, tide and wind.

Who said history is dull!

Your Interesting Links

As usual our monthly list of links to interesting items you may have missed the first time around. There’s a lot in this month’s edition, so let’s get going …

Science & Medicine

Here are 101 ridiculous science “facts” which are mostly myth and need to die.

Researchers have worked out the genealogy of our dog breeds, and it isn’t as simple as you might think.

Meanwhile scientists have discovered the world’s largest canary on an isolated island of giants and dwarfs off west Africa.

Changing tack, it turns out the new £5 note isn’t so indestructible – if you’re a determined enough mad scientist.

Wow! A photographer has used black light (ie. UV) to photograph the luminescence emitted by plants. And it is amazing!

Another sort of discovery has led to the finding of lost research notes which undermine dietary advice we’ve been given for the last several decades.

Looking at even older “research” it seems that some of the medical recipes in medieval books may actually work and point the way to new antibiotics.

Sexuality

I wasn’t sure whether to put this here or under “science” but it turns out that unprotected sex may disrupt the microbiome of the vagina. Now there’s a surprise!

A Victorian ivory dildo, with an interesting story, has generated a lot of excitement at an auction in Ireland.

Environment

Max Hooper, the man who worked out how to date old hedgerows, has died at the age of 82.

History

Here’s another which could easily have gone in the science section … Scientists have now worked out how to extract the DNA of ancient hominids from the surrounding dirt.

Turns out we aren’t the first people to be scared of zombies; it seems the mediaevals were too and they did some barbaric things as a result.

It’s well known that the Tudors bathed only about once a year and were very smelly the rest of the time. Turns out that may be another myth as it is possible to go months without bathing and not be smelly. Yes, an intrepid researcher has tried it!

They’ve found, quite by chance, the remains of five lost Archbishops of Canterbury in a small London church. Harry Mount, new editor of The Oldie, was first on the scene.

Lifestyle

Are you a devotee of nail polish? If so here’s a piece on some of the chemistry which makes them work.

Food & Drink

Cheese. That microbial concoction of from milk. Well here’s a guide to the natural microbiology of cheese rind.

Why is ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk so stable that it is a shelf staple, especially in tropical climes where milk easily spoils?
[Incidentally, UHT milk is always known in our house as “UFO milk” but I have no idea how you might milk a UFO!]

So what really does give beer its bitterness and flavour? While some of it is down to the malt, most seems to originate with the hops.

Why are we masochists? Why is it we love chilli so much when it burns like it does? And how does the burn work?

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … someone thought it was a good idea to teach a computer to write cookbooks and invent cocktails. Its recipe ideas are hilariously brilliant. Chocolate pickle sauce anyone?

The Ancestors’ Commandments

I came across these a few days ago in a family history society magazine. I’ve tidied them up a bit.

The Ancestors’ Commandments

  1. Thou shalt use the same forenames for at least one person for every generation, preferably at least once in every family, just to cause confusion.
  2. Thou shalt wait the maximum amount of time before registering births and deaths, or better still somehow forget to get them registered at all.
  3. Thou shalt have two forenames, and use them both separately on official documents, but never together.
  4. Thou shalt change your forename at least once during your lifetime.
  5. Thou shalt use every conceivable spelling for your surname, and make up a few others as well.
  6. Thou shalt never use the same year of birth or birth date and always vary it adding a couple of years here and taking away a couple of years there.
  7. Thou shalt use the house name and country as your place of birth and not the village or town.
  8. Thou shalt completely disappear without trace for at least 15 years of your life and suddenly turn up again.
  9. Thou shalt use at least two different versions of your father’s name.
  10. Thou shalt not use family members as witnesses at your wedding(s).
  11. Thou shalt get married somewhere where neither of you live.
  12. Thou shalt not have all of your children baptised and shalt not always use the same church.
  13. Thou shalt move between counties at least once every ten years.
  14. Thou shalt move hundreds of miles from your home at least once.

Brilliant, aren’t they. And so, so true. I think Noreen and I each have a full house in our family trees.

Ten Things

This month we have an historical Ten Things

Ten Interesting Historical Figures

  1. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)
  2. William Byrd (c.1540-1623)
  3. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
  4. Lewis Carroll, aka. Charles Dodgson (1832-1898)
  5. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
  6. Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)
  7. Sir Francis Walsingham (1532–1590) (shown right)
  8. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
  9. John Aubrey (1626-1697)
  10. Dr John Dee (1527-c.1608)

Your Interesting Links

OK, so here goes with this month’s selection of links to interesting items you might have missed the first time around …

Science & Medicine

Those of you with youngish children … they might like the science magazine Whizz Pop Bang. I wish there had been such a thing when I was young.

Since the 1950s we’ve had the nuclear technology to provide power for perhaps millions of years, without creating humongous, and ever increasing, quantities of radioactive waste. So why aren’t we using it? [VERY LONG READ]

Most of us hate ironing clothes, but you’ll be glad to know that there’s some science which does make it a bit easier.

Changing tack … What is the world’s top predator? Well apart from humans it seems the answer is spiders!

New research suggests that fish evolved in a surprising way before they invaded the land – and it all started with their eyes.

The Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, has been extinct for almost 100 years – or so we think. But there are some new, and credible sounding, sightings in northern Australia (not Tasmania as one would expect). They are sufficiently credible that researchers are following up on them with camera traps. Watch his space; we might get some exciting news.

Those of us who have close relationships with cats know they have wonderful rasp-like tongues. And it turns out those tongues are indeed rather special. [VIDEO]

In a different study researchers are suggesting that cats sailed with the Vikings to conquer the world. As someone commented, I didn’t even know the Vikings had cats!

Still with cats, scientists are doing DNA sequencing on their faecal output to try to understand their gut microbiome. It turns out it is just as variable as the human microbiome.

It’s very unlikely the Neanderthals had domestic cats, but they did share one thing in common with us: dental plaque. By looking at their dental plaque researchers are working out the Neanderthal diet – and again it is highly variable.

While we’re on diet, it’s well known that eating asparagus makes your pee smelly. But not all of us can smell it, because genetics.

Now here’s another real oddball … it seems there is a connection between synesthesia and having absolute musical pitch.

And finally in this section, two posts about things feminine. Firstly Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel talk about their experiences of going through the menopause.

Secondly, news that scientists have created a “lab on a chip” device which mimics the female menstrual cycle, something which could help enormously with research.

Environment

Here’s a look at the environmental impact of pet food manufacture.

History

I love it when new work changes our assumptions about what we know. Here’s news of the archaeological discovery of a Greek tomb which did just that. [LONG READ]

Archaeologists in Egypt have found an unknown statue of Pharaoh Ramses II in the mud under a Cairo slum. Except they haven’t, because it turned out not to be Ramses II but another Pharaoh altogether.

An academic is suggesting that the writings of mediaeval mystic Margery Kempe contain an early recipe for medicinal sweets to cure her religious mania.

In another case of turning what we think we know upside down it looks likely that late medieval (ie. post Black Death) peasant houses survive much more often than we thought, at least in the English Midlands.

While on housing, here’s a potted history of the British bathroom.

Harry Mount, the newly appointed Editor of The Oldie magazine, writes indignantly in the Spectator about how he sees the National Trust dumbing down and spoiling its treasures.

Meanwhile a Dutch researcher has discovered a wonderful collection of 16th-century drawings and watercolours of animals hidden away in the library of the University of Amsterdam.

London

The Londonist takes a look back at photographs of London in 1907.

400 years ago this month Pocahontas died in Gravesend. Our favourite London cabbie, Robert Lordan, looks at six places in the capital which are associated with her.

And Robert Lordan is one of the people featured in a new book For the Love of London on what makes London great by the people who make it great.

Lifestyle

It has long been known that London cabbies have an expanded area of brain associated with mapping, but now it’s been shown that using a satnav switches off the brain’s mapping ability leaving users unable to navigate without their device.

OK, so it is American, but here are eleven everyday objects with unsuspected uses.

On the importance of public loos, and knowing where they are.

People

London Bridge is falling down. What happens when the Queen dies.

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally, from the School of Shock Horror … enormous insects and where to find avoid them.

Phew, that was a bit of a marathon! More next month.

Your Monthly Links

They’re off! … On the quest for this month’s links to items you really didn’t want to miss the first time.

Science & Medicine

Many statistics are lies compounded by misleading graphics. Here’s a quick guide to spotting lies in visuals.

Queueing is quite complex, both psychologically and mathematically, so no wonder there are old wives tales about how to queue. But many are wrong, and the right answers are non-intuitive. The Guardian gives us some clues.

We don’t normally think of Winston Churchill as a scientist, but he certainly had a passionate interest in, and knowledge of, the science of his day, even down to writing with great foresight about astrobiology and extra-terrestrial life.

Black chickens. Not just black feathers, but black all the way through: meat, bones and organs. No wonder they’re a special, and expensive, breed. It just seems wrong that so many are bred purely for divination.

Social Sciences & Business

In 1944 the CIA wrote a manual on how dissidents can surreptitiously sabotage an organisation’s productivity and gradually undermine it. Now it has been declassified and released.

Language

So who was Gordon Bennett? The BBC looks at a few of the people behind famous phrases.

Writers, improve your text. Here are a number of filler words and phrases which are superfluous and serve only to bulk out your word count.

Polari is a British slang dating back to at least the 19th century. Used by a number of tightly knit cultures it is perhaps best known for its use by sex workers and the gay subculture. As you might guess the Bible in Polari is quite a hoot; here’s my blog post about it.

Art & Literature

Book blogger Karen Langley has rediscovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Here’s her blog post about it.

History

Construction of London’s Crossrail has unearthed a vast amount of archaeology. Here are two very different reports on the same Clerkenwell site which includes a completely lost river and a curious pair of plague victims: the first report is from IanVisits and the second from the Guardian.

London

Apart from the above item on Crossrail archaeology there is only one snippet on London this month …

Canals are well known for carrying water not electricity, but IanVisits, again, brings the story of how the Regent’s Canal ended up safely carrying both.

Lifestyle

Life is stressful. Things are continually conspiring against us. We all know that if we get too stressed we get sick. So it’s useful to have a list of major life stressors, with their relative values, so you can work out your likelihood of a stress-related illness.

Unsurprisingly the second most highly-rated stress is divorce. Here are four behaviours which appear to be the most reliable predictors of divorce.

Finally in this section is our favourite zen master talking about immigration and tribalism. It’s a perspective worth reading.

Food & Drink

And finally, finally … Garlic. Whether you love it or hate it trying to supress the resulting odour is far from obvious.

Be good until next month!

Book Review: Map Stories

Francisca Mattéoli
Map Stories: The Art of Discovery
(Ilex, 2015)

bookThis is, in the words of the Preface, “a book that invites the reader on a journey from map to map, to let their imagination run free”. It is a curious collection of historical maps, around which the author tells the stories the places and voyages which gave birth to the maps.

Now I love maps, and I love stories of history and the discovery of new worlds. However I found this a very difficult book to engage with, for a number of reasons.

  1. While I love maps I do find old, multi-coloured, shaded maps with tiny print/calligraphy difficult and off-putting.
  2. The stories I dipped into didn’t engage me; I found them dull; which is in part down to the author’s style.
  3. The stories major heavily on the Americas and SE Asia. Europe hardly gets a look in.
  4. This is a large, oversize, atlas-sized book; and quite heavy. It needs to be to make the most of the maps. But this does make it almost impossible to read in bed.

As a consequence I did no more than leaf through the book and dip into it from time to time. I just found it was asking too much of me, especially when I was reading it late at night in bed. I’m sure I’m missing a lot, and I may well return to it in due course – it would be a shame not to.

Overall Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Book Review: London in Fragments

Ted Sandling
London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
Frances Lincoln, 2016

I was given this book at Christmas – well what else do you give a Londoner who is interested in the history and eccentricity of the city? I’ve been reading it in small chunks, which is why I’ve only just finished it.

Sandling is a mudlark; someone who when the tide is low wanders the beaches and foreshores of the River Thames hunting for objects trouvés. Now you might think that such a mighty river would wash away any and every artefact dropped into it. But not a bit of it. There is a surprising amount to be found: everything from Roman tiles through remnants of ships and shipbuilding right up to a twentieth-century Sri Lankan talisman.

What Sandling does in this book is to put on display images of many of the artefacts he’s found over the years. Each is identified, as best one can. Along with many there are the stories; some about the artefacts themselves but many about the history surrounding how they might have gotten into the river.

The stories give us some surprising insights into London’s history. Like why are so many pins found? Apparently in Tudor times many clothes were pinned together; the pins fell off in the street and were washed down a sewer and into the river. It sounds unlikely, and I must say I have my doubts, but over the course of a couple of hundred years it could well be what happened.

And why is there so much cullet – glass which has been broken into small pieces for recycling? Well, apparently in medieval times there was a big market in cullet and it was shipped around between Europe and Asia. And it doesn’t take many shipwrecks to seed the whole of a coastline with cullet and sea glass. That’s something I would never have guessed.

The whole book is broken up into sections for things like “Adornment”, “Industry” and “Pleasure and Vice”. Each section has a short overview introduction before the artefacts themselves make their appearance. This, with the information about the artefacts, makes the book a fascinating read, and along the way there is some excellent photography, often of tiny things, to be admired.

It is a small format book of some 250 pages, printed on good paper to bring out the best in the photographs. I cannot fault the production.

Where I was less happy was that all too often the text with an artefact is very general and not nearly as specific as I would like: how big is the item, where was it found; how was it identified? Yes, we do get some of that; but for me, not enough. This is though a rather unfair criticism as many of the items are so fragmentary there isn’t much which can be divined about them.

But overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London and its history. And I would say it is a must read for anyone who is thinking of having a go at mudlarking.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Monthly Links

Apologies that due to an incursion of lurgy this month’s collection of links is somewhat late. Anyway here goes …

Science & Medicine

Unlike most other animals, roughly 90% of humans are right-handed. But why?

Another peculiarity of humans is that we are one of only a handful of species which has an appendix. Again, why?

Evidence is emerging that women with severe PMS, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), really do have an aberrant cellular response to their hormones.

How do doctors measure pain? Answer: inconsistently. And they’re trying to understand this better. [Long read]

I suspect most people don’t notice the pigeons around them, but there are three which are common in the UK: the feral pigeon (rock dove), wood pigeon, and collared dove. The first two are genuine natives, but the collard dove is a recent arrival from Asia which set out to conquer Europe.

Sexuality

Ten things you probably didn’t know about the clitoris.
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The here and there of (female) pubic hair through the ages.

On attitudes to masturbation in a relationship.

The BFI now has an archive of erotic films covering the late nineteenth century to around 1960s.

History

And bridging seamlessly into the really historical, it seems the Ancient Chinese were into sex toys, just as much as modern generations.

Researchers are getting really quite good at dating ancient objects and events. An ancient volcanic eruption has now been firmly dated using fossilised tree rings.

The myth of Medieval Small Beer — no, everyone didn’t drink beer, rather than water, in olden days.

Someone has found what is alleged to be the long-lost skirt from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses being used as a church alter cloth.

A research student has been able to uncover the movements and exploits of a Renaissance spy, who successfully masqueraded as a garden designer to the rich and powerful.

London

Each year IanVisits provides a calendar of the gun salutes in London for the year.
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Crossrail have unearthed yet more archaeology in an unexpected place: jammed and pickled under the old Astoria nightclub.

There’s a section of tunnel under the Thames on the Northern line tube which was bombed and flooded in 1940. And it is still sealed shut.

To go with the previous item, here are a few vintage pictures of London tube stations.

And, just in time for your next pub quiz, here are a few things you may not know about London buses.

Lifestyle

Some thoughts on how to talk meaningfully with children. And not just children, I suggest.

Even the most macho bloke has his bit of feminine. Here are some on the feminine things men would do if they thought they wouldn’t be judged for it.

Unless you’re doing a really dirty job (like down a coal mine) it’s likely you’re showering much too often for the good of your skin.

And finally … Just what did those prudish Victorians have to hide?

More next month.

Your Monthly Links

Here’s this month’s instalment of links to items of interest, or amusement, you may have missed he first time round.

Science & Medicine

Who thought leprosy was only a biblical and medieval affliction? Well it ain’t, ‘cos it seems British red squirrels carry leprosy — only the third known species after humans and nine-banded armadillos.

Who’d be a scientist’s cat? Not content with abuse by Schrödinger, scientists continue to drop cats in aid properly understanding their self-righting mechanism.

Trees do it in secret. Communicate, that is. Ecologist Peter Wohlleben thinks he knows what trees feel and how they communicate. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The Guardian has a very interesting page which (goes some way) to showing you how visually impaired people see the world.

So why is it that French mothers don’t suffer from bladder incontinence? It sounds deeply dodgy, but it does appear to be a thing.

So there was this contemporary of Isaac Newton who produced the foundations of the current Information Age. Yes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Sexuality

So here’s yet another article suggesting that women don’t actually know what orgasm is. I had hoped we’d got past all this by now!

Environment

So here are ten things about our cutest invasive species: cats. If they weren’t so cute they’d not get away with half what they do.

There’s an interesting new theory about how the brown rat has conquered every city around the globe.

Language

Oxford University Press have recently published a massive new dictionary. It lists every surname found in the UK (including imported ones like Patel) which is held by 100 or more people. That’s almost 50,000. Not just that, but the OUP and academics have done deep research into all these names to determine their origins, often finding previously unknown documentary evidence. Want a copy? OK, well it’s four volumes and will set you back £400. But they reckon there will be an online accessible version.

Art & Literature

Prepare to be amazed. Artist Charles Young has created a complete animated metropolis from paper.

History

It seems the Romans really were ahead of the game. Researchers have discovered metallic ink used on some of the scrolls from Herculaneum (neighbour of Pompeii). That’s around 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Birth by C-section is rather (too?) common these days. But in days of yore, before modern medicine, C-sections were only performed in order to save a child by sacrificing the mother. It was rare for the mother to survive. But new evidence suggests that Beatrice of Bourbon survived a C-section as early as 1337. The previous record was of a Swiss case in 1500.

London

London blogger IanVisits walks the route London’s Roman Wall.

In which Diamond Geezer considers becoming a London cabbie.

Many pubs have dutiful dogs to look after them, but there are London pubs with characterful cats too.

Lifestyle

Just in case you hadn’t realised, there are actually good scientific reasons why you should always be naked. What’s more I can vouch for this from personal experience.

It seems we have it all wrong about addiction. We need to build “rat heaven” for humans rather than prison cells, as this video explains.

To quote poet Philip Larkin: They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you. So yes, here are 30 ways in which your childhood can affect your success as an adult. Which explains a lot.

I have a dream that one day the medical profession will make up their minds about alcohol consumption. Now some new research suggests a beer a day helps prevent stroke and heart disease.

Not content with London, Diamond Geezer takes an away-day to Lowestoft, Mrs M’s home town.

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … it seems that in the Middle Ages witches stole penises and kept them as pets or even grew them on trees as fruit. [The mind boggles over whether the fruit would be sold by the butcher or the greengrocer!]

More next month …