Collingwood Society: Collingwood Lecture 2018

The Collingwood Society Lecture is always quite fun, because you get to go and sit in the fancy theatre in the RGS, and there is a bar. And it’s always interesting!

This year’s lecture was given by Richard Woodman, a prolific author of both naval history and historic novels. Answering a question at the end, he said that it was an interest in the details of the work going on between and behind the scenes of major events which led him to write novels, and this was a theme running through the whole talk.

Although he had called his talk ‘The Age of Collingwood’, he said that he could just as well have called it the Age of Pellew or of Saumarez, both of whom lived to enjoy the fruits of their labour – the main thing he objected to was the oversimplification of history which saw only Nelson and Trafalgar and let them overshadow everything else (a statement which he hoped would be less controversial for us than it had been in the south!).

Without denying Nelson his good qualities, he didn’t see him as a paragon – in particular, he thought that there were far better practical seamen – Pellew, Hood and Keats, to name a few – and that Nelson’s attack on Tenerife in particular was a foolhardy action which showed a real lack of understanding about the operation of small boats in heavy seas.

And Trafalgar, although significant, was equally not a single great event which prevented the invasion of Britain or destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, or a brilliant new strategy never seen before.

The threat of invasion was already past before Trafalgar – it had been over since Calder met a French and Spanish fleet in the Atlantic in June and preventing them joining the fleet at Brest, and the Armée d’Angleterre had already become the Grande Armée and started the campaign which would lead to the battle at Austerlitz – the high point of the French campaign, despite their losses at sea.

Although many Spanish and French ships were destroyed at or after Trafalgar, it wasn’t a case of straightforward annihilation – Nelson claimed that he had hoped for more prizes, and some ships were destroyed in the storm rather than the battle, or were retaken, while others were captured by Strachan’s cruising fleet rather than Nelson’s. And the ‘brilliant new strategy’ of breaking the line had already been used at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and Camperdown in 1797, if not earlier.

Where he did think Trafalgar was important was psychologically – the British navy had got what he called a ‘habit of victory’ which carried them through the next years. There were no more great naval battles, and after Duckworth’s victory in the Caribbean in early 1806 the French navy made no real attempt to come out in force.

From 1805 the shape of the war shifted, with an increasing focus on diplomacy and the building up of various coalitions – the work that Collingwood was doing in the Mediterranean was also being done on a smaller scale by Saumarez in the Baltic and a succession of people off Brest. (Saumarez apparently had the best posting in the navy, as he got to come home for the winter!)

One of his great interests is the merchant navy, and he thought that the support from the mercantile marine during the Napoleonic wars was very much underappreciated. As well as providing seamen, willingly or unwillingly, they brought in luxury goods from outside Europe to undermine Napoleon’s European blockade, traded with Russia in the Baltic in spite of Napoleon, brought saltpetre from India for gunpowder, transported troops, and provided logistical support for the Peninsular war – France’s resource were internal, or at least from within Europe, but Britain’s were brought from across the world.

Merchant ships, and the East India Company in particular, had had a raw deal from the navy at the time, as well as being forgotten now. Sailors were pressed ruthlessly from company ships, and there was little protection for ships travelling to the east, unlike the Atlantic convoys, although the French were now most active in the Indian Ocean – in fact he blamed Pellew for deliberately using EIC ships to try to tempt the French out. French corsairs were very active from Mauritius in this period, something which continued until Britain took the island from France in 1810.

Really – in spite of any effects of Trafalgar – he thought that if this was the age of any one man, it was Napoleon’s. France was at its highest point around 1806, having defeated the combined armies of Austria and Russia at Tilsit – and as well as having added the Russian navy to their own, they also controlled the Turkish, Danish and Portuguese fleets.

But things were about to start swinging the other way – the British made a preemptive strike on the Danish fleet to prevent it coming out in French support (although the Danish have never forgiven us for the collateral damage to Copenhagen itself, he believes), and took Heligoland, which allowed for an active smuggling trade and access to the British market for European countries under Napoleon’s control. The Portuguese fleet went off to Brazil with the exiled royal family, and by 1808 the Spanish were rising against the French, with British support.

The British army was rehabilitated with victories at Albuera and Talavera, after coming to grief in South America, the blockades of the French ports never let up, despite the debacle of the Brest roads, and by 1812 the Grande Armée was coming to grief in the Russian winter, while British gold had swayed Prussia and Austria, and the Swedish opportunists had followed. The eventual battle at Waterloo was another spectacular set piece, but although the French loss confirmed their defeat, a victory couldn’t have sustained the empire.

Overall, he thought it a shame that 10 years of bloody fighting between 1805 and 1815 was hidden by the shadow of Nelson, as a process of attrition rather than a series of great battles – the French influence eroded ‘as the sea always does erode the land’, with the British famously active wherever there was water to float a ship.

I really enjoyed the talk – so often the focus is on one person or one event or one area, and I found it very interesting to have the naval events fitted into the wider context of the war.


Throwback: Thomas Telford


It’s not exactly difficult to chase Thomas Telford in Scotland – you just fall over him everywhere you go. But I was a bit more aware of him than usual last summer, while I waited for the book to turn up, and I did keep finding him.

The first time wasn’t in Scotland at all, and was mid-May, so either I’d been waiting for the book for even longer than I thought, or this one was pre-emptive.

This is the ‘new’ bridge over the Wansbeck at Morpeth, built around 1830 apparently as part of a bigger plan for improving the Edinburgh to London road. (Photo taken from the old bridge, or at least the Victorian footbridge which uses the medieval central pier.)

Morpeth Telford Bridge

The next was something I didn’t have to go hunting for at all – the harbour walls at Tarbert are possibly the first place I heard Telford’s name (or possibly not). There probably wasn’t much personal involvement from him in them – he was in charge of a huge project to improve harbours across the western Highlands – but he seems to have spent most of his time dashing from one to another of the projects carried out under his name, so he’ll have visited at some point.

I’ve always loved the harbour walls, with their big old stones – worn smooth, and very good for walking along the edge of. And I do like the mismatched but perfectly sized arches for the burns which run into the top end of the harbour.

Harbour walls

The artificial island in the harbour known as the Beilding was built at the same time, and used to put a line onto boats which were struggling to turn in the harbour.

The Bielding

The little cottage built into the harbour walls – now a giftshop – was for the weightbridge for the fish. It has its own little slipway beside it.

Old weighbridge cottage
Weighbridge cottage from the water

The last was more of an adventure – I was staying on Skye later in the summer, and on a damp day when the hills were covered in mist decided to set out to walk down to Stein from the bus stop at the Fairy Bridge.

This was part of an earlier plan for improving highland harbours, under the auspices of the British Fisheries Society – the plan for Stein failed, but planned villages at Ullapool and Pultneytown in Wick were much more successful.

Telford’s plan was a grand one, with terraces on the hillside leading to a central church and school house. Very little was built, but the rows of white buildings at Stein are still noticeably different from the scattered croft houses behind.

Approaching Stein

The one row of houses which were built are a few years later than the original plan, but basically on part of the planned layout.

Rows of houses

The one part which was definitely Telford’s was a storehouse and pier built to the north of the village – the storehouse is now a modern house, but the site was obvious, and although there’s no direct access by road it was fairly easy to walk along the beach.

Old storehouse

The pier, with a kind of walled pool behind it, is half ruined now, but obviously the right kind of work from the right period.

Telford pier

There will probably be more Telford about – I need to go and have another look at the Dean Bridge, and I know I’m going to fall over him again in Newburgh and Cowal, never mind all the places further afield I want to go to…

Alexander Selkirk


An earlier Age of Sail story than usual this week – my wanderings round Fife have taken me as far as Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, one of the main inspirations for the story of Robinson Crusoe.

There’s a monument to him on the houses which now stand on the site of his childhood home.

Alexander Selkirk monument

The statue is the standard Crusoe image, with the goatskin clothes – an image which was definitely taken from Selkirk’s story, wherever the actual story came from!

Selkirk statue
Selkirk inscription

In memory of Alexander Selkirk, mariner, the original of Robinson Crusoe, who lived on the island of Juan Fernandez in complete isolation for four years and four months. He died 1723, lieutenant of HMS Weymouth, aged 47 years. This state is erected by David Gillies, net manufacturer, on the site of the cottage in which Selkirk was born.

Originally sailing on privateers, he had joined the Royal Navy after his return from the island. ‘Lieutenant’ on the inscription is doubtful although possible – he had served on several non-naval ships as sailing master, and although he seems to have been a bit of a dubious character, must have been a skilled sailor and navigator.

The local hotel has gone for the better known name, but with a sign pointing to the Juan Fernandez islands rather than to Crusoe’s Atlantic island.

Crusoe Hotel
Juan Fernandez Island sign

Book of the Month: February – Thomas Telford

Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain
Julian Glover

This was a long awaited book – I think I put in a library request for it sometime around last June, and then slowly made my way down what seemed to be an almost endless reservation list.

I was excited to get hold of it, because Telford’s was a name I knew long before I had any idea of when he had lived or who he was – before I’d taken any interest in the history behind his work, or heard of Rennie or General Wade or any of the Stevensons except RLS – he was just always there. For me he was definitely the character who Max Adams described as being to us what the Romans were to the Dark Ages, in the sense that if all the documentation was lost and later works had crumbled, we would believe these were the works of giants.

So I was surprised to find that this was a book about a very different kind of person – one who was neglected and forgotten and had to be championed to the modern world. It might just be geographical – Telford worked in the West Country, in Scotland, in Wales, but not much, I think, in London or even the Home Counties, although he was based there later on – rather than the crusading fervour that requires you to show the world how much the person you’re trying to save needs *you*, but it surprised me just the same.

I found it a bit of an odd book overall – after reading the introductory chapters I described it to a friend as Whig history written by a Tory, and I never quite lost that odd dissonance. Of course, Telford’s life simply *is* Whig history – his drive is always is improve things, to make new things, to leave things better than he found them – and that’s not something which can be avoided, or which you would want to avoid. But it’s very much a book with a message, possibly more unionist than conservative – about the building of Britain and the linking of different parts of it to provide easier access to the centre, and how this is the only true and valuable aim that anyone should have. It never loses sight of the author’s own modern, southern, views – on various topics – and my preference is definitely for history which does its best to detach itself from that, and to show how people of the time might have thought.

However, what it does, it does fairly well.

The book starts in rural Eskdale, where Telford was born, and notes the various families from the area who made a mark on the world in different ways, particularly the Pasleys and Malcolm. Telford seems to have always felt a strong connection to the area, at least until his mother and his closest friend, Andrew Little, died, but he soon moved away, first to nearby Langholm where he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and then to Edinburgh to work on the growing new town.

He soon left Scotland for London, where he took on his first jobs as an architect rather than simply a mason, including works on Portsmouth dockyard, and then in Shrewsbury where he worked on the castle for another Eskdale native, William Pulteney, and became the county surveyor for Shropshire. Shrewsbury at the time seems to have been a thriving Georgian town – not just socially active, but busy discussing every subject under the sun, and Telford was in the thick of it with a circle of close friends – the closest he came to a settled home until many years later.

It was in this area that he first worked with iron, building a bridge at Buildwas to replace one washed away in a great flood in 1795 – the original iron bridge at Ironbridge had been standing for several years, but Telford’s was a much more efficient version, as he began to really grasp what made building in iron different from wood or stone. It was also where he first worked with several colleagues and suppliers who followed him to later projects. His first major work, the aqueduct at Pontcyssyllte with William Jessop, followed, and he was next involved in a plan for replacing the medieval London Bridge with an iron one (possibly too ambitious a plan, but it came to nothing due to the start of the Napoleonic wars, and the bridge was eventually replaced with a more traditional stone one 30 years later).

The next part was what really interested me – the grand plan for improving highland roads, where Telford seems to have simply been sent to the highlands to work out what was needed where, on a grand scale. His first work was for the British Fisheries Commission, producing a new fishing village at Ullapool, and failing to establish one at Lochbay, now Stein, on Skye – a later attempt at Wick, called Pulteneytown after William Pulteney, who was involved with the commission, was far more successful. The work on the roads saw major bridges built at Dunkeld, Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge, together with many miles of standardised road and smaller bridges, and Telford was also working at the same time, but in a different capacity, on the Caledonian Canal.

I felt this stage was rushed over a bit, but I don’t think it was deliberate, just that there was so much to tell – that I possibly actually wanted a book about Telford in the highlands is not this book’s fault.

Telford always seems to have been working on half a dozen things at once, and while the supervisors on site got on with the Caledonian Canal, he was off to Sweden to start work on the Göta Canal – an interlude which introduces my favourite character of the book, the engaging Count von Platen, who never seems to have let his slightly erratic knowledge of English get in the way of his desire to communicate. Here he is writing to Telford about a theodolite which no one in the Swedish team seems to know how to work:

After looking at the levelling instrument I found I had better take advices of you about it than standing talking nonsens last evening up stairs.

Telford’s focus then seems to have shifted south – after the union of 1801 transport links between London and Dublin became more important, and his works in Wales were mainly to improve access to the ferry port at Holyhead, rather than improving links within Wales itself. The Menai bridge was his great achievement of this period – the first suspension bridge built on a large scale for traffic, although there has been smaller pedestrian versions (and the Union bridge on the Tweed was started later but finished first!)

Telford was over 60 by now, and seemed to have finally felt a desire for a settled home, because he bought a house in London, where various assistants and apprentices lodged to study with him. He also became president of the Society of Civil Engineers, originally started to encourage young members of the profession.

By now railways were beginning to come on the scene – something that Telford never seems to have been much in favour of, possibly because of the monopoly business of running your own trains on your own line (unlike canals and roads which can be used by anyone), or possibly just because it wasn’t his area of expertise. He became involved in trials of a steam powered road vehicle, and more successfully in the building of more efficient canals, which were still useful for goods transport at that stage. But there was a definite change under way, with great Victorian names beginning to come on the scene.

After letting me warm to it, the book then veered away again with an oddly patronising final chapter – ‘come and look at the old man failing’, essentially. Asked to judge entries in a competition to design a suspension bridge over the Severn at Clifton Gorge, he seems to have decided that it couldn’t be done in a single span, and suggested a more conventional bridge with stone piers. Brunel’s design was eventually chosen, but since it took another 30 years to finally build the bridge, to a revised plan, I’m not sure it’s obvious that Telford was wrong at the time. He does seem to have made a more definite mess of trying to write his autobiography, getting badly bogged down in it in a way that he never did when writing on technical subjects, and eventually leaving it to his executors to salvage the mess.

But oh well. I learnt a lot, and I have a whole new list of places I want to visit – Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge and Wick, never mind Conwy and Pontcyssyllte and the Menai Straits!

Throwback – the southwest coast of Fife


I’ve written before about the two main Age of Sail links along this coast, which I walked a year ago – Keith at Kincardine and Cochrane at Culross. But although the rest of the coast is definitely age-rather-than-sail – no particular naval or nautical connections – there were still some interesting remains of Georgian period activity. I think what I found particularly interesting was the contrast – it’s the ends of the earth now, half industrial wasteland and half post-industrial wasteland, but it was obviously a busy place then, with all kinds of local industry going on.

The first grand industrial design along this coast was probably Sir George Bruce‘s Moat Pit at Culross, the first coal mine in the word to extend under the sea, constructed in 1595. Two hundred or so years later, Sir George Preston took inspiration from this and began producing salt on reclaimed land which became Preston Island. It’s now part of a much larger area of reclaimed land, made with waste from Longannet power station, but you can still see where the original island was, and the remains of the buildings put up around 1800.

Salt works, Preston Island

Preston’s house at Valleyfield, just inland, has a different claim to fame, as the botanist David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) worked as a gardener there as a young man.

David Douglas

Apparently there are still odd ruined remains of the garden, but didn’t go hunting – the house itself was demolished in 1941. Torrie House, another Georgian mansion further along the village, has also fallen into ruin, but still has an impressive gateway on the main road.

Torrie House gate

Further round the coast, Charlestown is a Georgian planned village, laid out about 1770 by the Earl of Elgin (who used his own initials, CE, in the layout, which can just about still be seen on the map). It was another industial plan, mainly lime production and shipping of coal mined on the Elgin estate, with a new harbour and a wooden railway line built to ease transport.

Old granary, Charlestown

Age of Sail in Everything – North Queensferry


I can’t seem to help finding Waterloo or Trafalgar monuments – among other things – wherever I go. Heading back onto the Fife Coastal Path at North Queensferry, after nearly a year away from it, I knew I would find a Waterloo Well, built by local sailors to celebrate the victory.

Waterloo Well

The well is decorated with a carving of an old sail ferry – the main reason for the existence of the village in those days.

Old ferry

I knew that the well was dated 1816, but it took me quite a bit of hunting to work out where.

Waterloo Well date

The Victorian Lion’s Head well just behind, with a proper pump, is decorated with an image apparently of a sailor and a fishwife fighting over the water!

Lion’s Head Well

Apart from that, North Queensferry is not a particularly Georgian place – like most of Fife, it tends to little old houses, and much newer ones. But it has all the right things for a Scottish sea port – a pier built by Rennie in 1810 and extended by Telford in 1828, and a little light tower built by one of the Stevensons in 1817.

Town Pier
North Queensferry light tower

The grounds of the little medieval chapel, destroyed by Cromwell’s troops in 1651, was walled in 1752 by the local seamen to form their graveyard, and they made sure to leave their mark on it.

Graveyard wall

The gates were locked, but apparently one of the stones has an inscription that would do for Jack Aubrey:

Now here we lay at anchor
With many in our fleet
In hopes to weigh at the last day
Our Admiral Christ to meet

Inverkeithing, a couple of miles up the road, produced an even better story – one house on the main street there, now a pub, was the birthplace of Samuel Greig, who started off as a local seaman and ended up – via the Royal Navy – as an Admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy.

Samuel Greig

(According to the information boards, he was born in what became the Royal Hotel – but half of the Royal Hotel seems to have closed down, and the other half has become the Half Crown pub – a play on words which amused me!)

Half Crown

Book of the Month: January – the census

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its census since 1801
Roger Hutchinson

This was a book which a friend on LJ had read and reviewed, and which sounded interesting, the census having definitely Georgian roots.

Although there had been censuses at many times and in many places (in the bible, in the Roman empire, the Norman census known as the Domesday book), mainly of taxpayers and potential soldiers, the modern British census is essentially a creation of the Napoleonic Wars, when two problems became important – the size of the population compared to the population of France, and the need to know how many people had to be fed, in order to know how much food was needed for them, in an age of wildly fluctuating grain prices.

The book is particularly good on these early censuses, overseen by John Rickman, and still figuring out exactly what is to be done. The first census, in 1801, is a count of households and of people, of births, deaths and marriages and of those employed in various categories of work, but it is not the record of individuals that it later becomes. The 1821 census is the first to record at least rough ages, as well as the first to cover Ireland, and it is 1841 before the census records individual names.

The second half of the book is more thematic, looking at changing occupations, population movement within Britain, the speakers of various languages, immigration and emigration, including those who came and left, or went and came back, and attempts to survey the population of various other parts of the empire.

In a way, a book which was more focused on the early days might have been even better, particularly for me, but it was still a very interesting books covering a wide variety of topics.

Collingwood Society: Lt William Landless

This month’s talk to the Collingwood Society was given by Tony Barrow, who has managed to give up being secretary of the society, but has not been allowed to give up doing talks. He was speaking about William Landless, who came from Northumberland and was a lieutenant in several of Collingwood’s ships, following him about in the years before Trafalgar.

The talk started with a quote from NAM Rodger:

The Navy was the only profession for a gentleman which did not require – indeed did not admit – the application of money or influence.

‘Did not require’ might be true, and money could not be as directly applied as in e.g. the purchase of an army commission, but influence, particularly from senior naval figures, was still very important, and Tony wanted to look at four different aspects which might lead to a sucessful naval career – influence, timing, skill and temperament, and plain luck.

The Landless family – some of whom were spelt Landles – had appeared in Northumberland in the late 17th century, and were rumoured to have been formerly MacGregors (now landless after proscription!), but there doesn’t seem to be any certain evidence of this.

William Landless was born at Easington near Belford in 1762, and in 1777 became an apprentice in the coal trade, before joining the navy at Leith, where George Younghusband, part of a neighbouring Northumberland family, was the impress officer. He was then sent to Chatham, where Roddam was port admiral, becoming straight away part of a Northumbrian network, and was sent to North America on the frigate Richmond where he was present as a prisoner at the fall of Yorktown. After being exchanged and sent home he was sent to the West indies in Royal Oak, where he took part in the battle of the Saintes.

Landless passed for lieutenant in 1786, but with little chance of promotion in peacetime he then joined the East India company, where he spent the next 10 years, rising to Chief Mate, with a brief return to the Royal Navy on Roddam’s flagship around the time of the Nootka Sound crisis in 1790.

In 1796 Landless returned to the navy for good, probably because he did not have the money required to purchase an East India Company captaincy, but possibly also because the country was again at war. He was at the Nore at the time of the mutiny, and was one of the officers appointed to replace unpopular officers who had been removed, and then spent time in the North Sea, where he met and dined with Nelson.

During the Peace of Amiens he was at home in Northumberland, helping to sort out his father’s tangled affairs, and then joined Collingwood’s flagship Venerable, before moving with him to Dreadnought. He then declined a transfer to Royal Sovereign which would have made him second lieutenant, ‘pretending a complaint in his eyes’, according to Collingwood, because he believed that Dreadnought, which was badly in need of a refit, was about to be sent home – but instead she stayed, and so Landless fought on Dreadnought at Trafalgar.

This failure to move probably got in the way of his later promotion, despite Roddam’s strong interest in it, and although he was given command of an armed merchant ship in early 1806, letters from Collingwood to the Admiralty urging his promotion (and grumbling generally about lack of promotion for his protégès) came to nothing until that August when Lord Barham was replaced as First Lord of the Admiralty by Lord Howick, another Northumbrian.

At that point Landless was promoted to commander and appointed to the sloop Morgiana, where he took a prize with a valuable cargo. Combined with the money he had made in the East India Company, which allowed private trade, this made him well enough off that when he was offered another commission in 1808 he refused, preferring to stay and build up his estate at Easington, which he had now bought.

So all four influences were at work in Landless’s career – the personal patronage of Roddam and later Collingwood, the timing issues which meant he had little chance of promotion in the peacetime navy and the skill which saw him rise through first the EIC and then the navy in spite of this, and finally the plain luck which saw him take a valuable prize.

Age of Sail in Everything – Kendal


I’ve said before that you can find a Georgian story, and usually even a Napoleonic war story, everywhere if you look for it – it’s a bit like a treasure hunt. In Kendal, I wanted to go and have a look at a monument a bit outside the town – one which I’ve described elsewhere as a slightly comedy monument, as it was erected to celebrate Napoleon’s confinement on Elba, but before the plaque could be added he had escaped and was off again!

Elba monument

Sadly you can’t get right up to it to read the plaque which was finally added a hundred years later, but there’s a picture of it in the link above – apparently the original inscription was to have been:

In honour of William Pitt, the pilot that weathered the storm Elba

Elba monument closeup

The Elba monument was apparently a response to an earlier Whig monument on Castle Howe in the middle of the town, erected in 1788 to celebrate the centenary of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ – if they can have an obelisk why can’t we style – so I thought I better go and have a look at it as well.

Castle Howe obelisk
Obelisk inscription

Castle Howe itself is the motte – or mound – of the first castle in Kendal, so much older than the monument, and is just up behind the main street, on the other side of the river from the later castle whose ruins are still visible.

Castle Howe

Collingwood Society 2018

The full programme for this year wasn’t ready by the AGM, but has now been published. So we have:

  • William Landless, a Northumbrian lieutenant, in January
  • a lecture which turns out not to be about the Merchant Navy after all in March
  • nautical pub names in April
  • Northumberland archives in May
  • The logistics of supplying a fleet in June
  • ‘Why Naval Battles don’t Matter’ in September
  • the various Trafalgar events in October
  • the AGM and a ‘Pickle Night’ in November
  • Small boats, as already announced, in December

But it doesn’t seem to be online yet, so I can’t link to it!