Quilting the Thames Part Two: Samuel Pepys at the Lower Pool

Thames Quilt Panel Two - Samuel Pepys

Lower Pool – Thames Quilt Section Two

My quilted journey down the Thames continues at the Lower Pool, which runs from the Cherry Garden Pier to Limekiln Creek. And at the Lower Pool I am joined by celebrated Seventeenth Century diarist, Mr Samuel Pepys.

NPG D30958;  Samuel Pepys by Robert White, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt

Samuel Pepys by Robert White, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, line engraving, published 1690, National Portrait Gallery *

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) lived through turbulent times – the Civil War, the execution of one king (Charles I), and the coronation of another (Pepys was on the ship that brought Charles II home from exile in the Netherlands). He wrote his daily observations in diaries that lasted through the 1660s. Pepys wrote of events of great national import such as the Great Fire of London, the Plague, and the Anglo-Dutch war; and wrote more intimately of his career as a naval administrator, of his wife Elisabeth and his many extra-marital philanderings, his household servants, of concerts and the theatre, of playing the flageolet at home, and of being jealous of his wife’s dancing master.

Everybody's Pepys

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

As a London resident and employee of the Navy Board, Pepys naturally wrote about the Thames in his diaries – and of his working life around Greenwich, Woolwich, Tilbury, Deptford, and Rotherhithe, or, as he knew it, Redriffe or Redriff, which had been a centre of shipbuilding since Elizabethan times. He often travelled between different places on the Thames during the course of the day – taking boats up and down the river, or walking through the fields between the shipyards of Redriffe and Deptford. For example, on September 5 1662, he started his working day at 5.00am and travelled by boat to Woolwich: Here I staid and mustered the yard and looked into the storehouses; and so walked all alone to Greenwich, and thence by water to Deptford, and there examined some stores, and did some of my own business in hastening my work there, and so walked to Redriffe, being by this time pretty weary and all in a sweat; took boat there for the Tower, which made me a little fearful, it being a cold, windy morning.

Redriff Road

A glimpse of Redriff in Rotherhithe

Travelling by river in the 1660s was just part of life – often the only way of getting around London and the surrounding areas. Pepys usually simply notes his journeys, if he mentions them at all. But occasionally there were difficulties. On December 27 1665, Pepys dined with Sir W Warren at the Pope’s Head … and thence to the goldsmiths, I to examine the state of my matters there too, and so with him to my house, but my wife was gone abroad to Mrs Mercer’s, so we took boat, and it being darke and the thaw having broke the ice, but not carried it quite away, the boat did pass through so much of it all along, and that with the crackling and noise that it made me fearfull indeed. So I forced the watermen to land us on the Redriffe side, and so walked together till Sir W Warren and I parted near his house and thence I walked quite over the fields home by light of linke, one of my watermen carrying it, and I reading by the light of it, it being a very fine, clear, dry night. 

Redriffe Mud

Looking up towards Lower Pool and the Redriff Mud from Nelson Wharf

According to Pepys’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter, in very cold winters the Thames above London Bridge froze over. The gaps between the bridge piers, or starlings, were so narrow that they restricted the flow of water through them, creating relatively still water upstream … The river above the bridge froze over in six winters during the second half of the century. When it froze really hard fairs were held on the ice, such as during the severe winter of 1684, the worst of the century, when the Thames could be crossed by pedestrians for seven weeks between 2 January and 20 February.

Pepys’ crossing point below London Bridge was not frozen solid, but on that December evening the sound of the ice cracking at Rotherhithe was sufficiently frightening to make him want to get off the river as quickly as possible.

Thames Quilt Panel Two - joined

Lower Pool section, work in progress on the Thames Quilt, March 2016

The pictures of ice and darkness conjured by Pepys are very vivid – you can almost hear the ice cracking as you read his diary – and when I came to the Lower Pool in my quilt, I knew his experience had to be included. I quilted him in with the words Pepys took boat but was afeared of the cracking ice at Redriffe.

I like to think of him reaching the Rotherhithe shore in relief, then reading his book by the glow of a waterman’s light as he walked for the rest of his journey on a freezing cold night.

 

* Picture of Samuel Pepys, NPG D30958 reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence

Quilting the Thames Part One: Merchants at the Upper Pool

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Upper Pool – Thames Quilt Section One

The sewing of my Thames Quilt project has commenced. My quilted journey down the Thames begins at the Pool of London with five Fourteenth Century merchants.

Charles Dickens Jnr’s Dictionary of the Thames 1890 advises that the Pool of London is divided into the Upper and the Lower Pool, the point of division being the headquarter station of the Thames Police at Wapping. The Upper Pool stretches from London Bridge to Wapping or (on the other side) Cherry Garden Pier, Bermondsey.

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Looking under Tower Bridge at the Upper Pool

I associate the Upper Pool with trade, largely because of reading historical novels by Cynthia Harnett (1893-1981) when I was growing up. Harnett’s novels always felt slightly radical because they were about merchants and traders – people who seemed ordinary, familiar – rather than about royalty or grand people at court. Her protagonists were merchants’ sons who were learning their trade as apprentices; they would happen upon a mystery, and be sharp enough to expose miscreants engaged in wrongdoing.

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Harnett wove lots of social history into her plots. In The Woolpack (1951) she explained how cloth was made in 1493 – from sheep shearing to sale – as part of the story of Nicholas and his determination to discover the identity of the thief who was tampering with his father’s wool exports. Much of the action of The Load of Unicorn (1959) took place around the Thames of 1482, when Benedict discovered why paper intended for William Caxton’s printing press was being stolen. Along with Benedict, the reader is told how to set a page of type and is advised that the King’s Customs cannot protect the Thames:  Did you know that London Customs have charge only for a few miles down the river? Beyond Gravesend it is the duty of Sandwich. And likewise on the north bank from Tilbury onwards it belongs to Ipswich… Have you ever sailed the coast of Essex, my masters? The inlets are like weevil runs in a cheese – from Pennyhole Bay right round to Mucking Creek.

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Ring Out Bow Bells! (1953) is set in 1415 and is very much a novel of the Thames. Nan, Adam and Dickon spend their time by a river that looks like a big lake shut in on three sides by banks of houses. On the north side the buildings  … crowded down to the water’s edge, ending in a broken line of wharfs and warehouses and a jumble of roofs. Opposite on the south bank, there were gardens among the houses and a background of tree-tops to mark the open country.

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“The Tower from the river looked far more imposing than it did from the land. Dickon shaded his eyes and stared at it.” (Ring Out Bow Bells!)

Cynthia Harnett habitually added a postscript to her novels in which she explained which characters were purely fictional and which were based on real people; which plot elements came from historical records; and where the reader might be able to see an item featured in the novel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum for example) or visit a location. For Ring Out Bow Bells! she described a walk from Cannon Street Station to find the London of Nan, Adam and Dickon. This is doubly interesting today; Harnett was looking for Fifteenth Century locations in 1953 when London still had much visible bomb damage – so the reader of 2016 can find layer upon layer of historical meaning in the walk she describes. (There was a bomb crater just in front of me, and as I poked about I caught sight of some squared stones which had probably been part of the very house which was to be the centre of my story – for you see Grantham’s Inn was a real house.)

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I suppose Harnett’s novels might come across as being a bit worthy and education-heavy but I always liked them. Looking back, I suspect they awakened my interest in historical research – and the idea that there might be more to a story than meets the eye.

Why is this relevant to my Thames Quilt? Well, I wanted to include “real people” in the quilt so I was very excited to find the name of five merchants from the early Fourteenth Century who traded at the Pool of London in the Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, 1309-1314*.

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Benedict de Burgo, Henry de Banneberi and Arnald Picard

The Calendar includes the rules of trade at the Pool of London (la Pole):

That no broker in future presume to go to la Pole or elsewhere by land or by water to buy or attempt [to buy] any wines or other goods before they come to land and are exposed for sale, under penalty aforesaid. Also every broker shall tender good advice, that honest men of the trade in which he is a broker may sell their wares to trustworthy and sufficient buyers who have the wherewithal to satisfy their creditors: and if he shall put forward any insufficient purchaser to trustworthy men of the City or other merchants to purchase their wares, so that by reason of the fraud of such broker the purchaser (emptor) lose his wares, the broker shall answer therefor, if he have the wherewithal, and if he have not the wherewithal shall be committed to prison until, &c., and he shall no longer be a broker.

It also lists five men who had the necessary permission to act as brokers:

  • Arnald Picard admitted broker of wine before the Mayor and Aldermen
  • John de Rokesle admitted broker of woad before the Mayor and good men of that trade
  • Henry de Banneberi and Benedict de Burgo elected brokers of peltry by good men of the trade, and presented before John de Gysors, the Mayor, and Aldermen
  • Andrew de Salop elected loco the above Benedict, deceased, and sworn before Nicholas de Farendone, the Mayor, and Aldermen
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Andrew de Salop and John de Roksele

If I were a novelist like Cynthia Harnett, I would have been able to weave a story around these men who were brokers at the Upper Pool. Instead, I sewed them into my Thames Quilt.

* Folios ci – cx’, in Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: D, 1309-1314, ed. Reginald R Sharpe (London, 1902), pp. 218-238 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-letter-books/vold/pp218-238

Quilting the Thames

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High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

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The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

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Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

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Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

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Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

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Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

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I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

Seeking Nelson’s Victory

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Nelson’s Victory block, October 2015

Last year, when I was working on my Nelson Quilt, I came across an old quilt block called Nelson’s Victory. I made a number of these Nelson’s Victory blocks with the long term aim of designing a quilt with a Battle of Trafalgar theme. I absolutely loathe sewing triangles, so I was quite surprised to find I’d completed eight of these blocks over a month or so – I’d been inspired by the fabled “Nelson Touch” once again.

I have a feeling that the Nelson’s Victory block dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but I don’t have any real evidence to back up this feeling. However, once my interest is piqued, I can’t resist a research job, so I decided to see what I could find out about the history of this block.

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Old sewing books are a great source for old quilt blocks such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Birds-in-the-Air, The Little Giant and so on.  They also provide all sorts of interesting snippets about the making of quilts; regional and national variations in quilt style and culture; and show how the quilting tradition has been constantly evolving over centuries.

I started with Averil Colby’s Patchwork, first published by Batsford in 1958. I found no mention of Nelson’s Victory but the book’s index pointed me to a couple of Nelson references. According to Colby:

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile … the streets of Naples were decked with flags and streamers to welcome his return; among them were banners of blue-printed white cotton, on which the name NELSON was surrounded by a design of acorns and oak leaves. Pieces of this cloth were brought home by a young naval officer and used in a patchwork coverlet begun in the same year and finished in 1805, after Trafalgar. (page 31)

Other victories and occasions of the time do not seem to have been immortalised in patchwork patterns, except for the pieces of the Nelson print and an octagonal panel printed on the occasion of Princess Charlotte’s marriage to Prince Leopold in 1816 (page 112).

I would love to know what happened to that coverlet. Does it still survive? And where did Colby learn about it? Did she actually see it?

All truly fascinating stuff (and another research project for another day) but not quite what I was looking for. And Mavis Fitzrandolph’s Traditional Quilting: Its Story and its Practice (Batsford 1954) may have proved a fascinating read about quilters and rural industries but it didn’t provide any clues about Nelson’s Victory.

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Old Patchwork Quilts by Ruth E Finley

Then I stumbled across a copy of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E Finley published by J P Lippincott in 1929. And there, on page 75, was a diagram of the Nelson’s Victory block.

Finley provides a detailed analysis of different types of quilt blocks and their construction and says that:

The four-patch in general resolves itself into flock, star and wreath designs. But there are notable exceptions, like the Fly Foot and Bow Knot patterns and such well known blocks, based on the same idea yet distinctly different when made up in colour, such as The Pin Wheel and The Churn Dash. Nelson’s Victory, an old Connecticut pattern of the cross variety, is another exception … This pattern was widely used in every-day quilts.

Nelson's Victory Blocks

Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

So thanks to Finley’s book, I can trace Nelson’s Victory back to 1929. The reference to “an old Connecticut pattern” gives me a further clue and indicates that it was an established block by the time she was writing. So I will carry on searching for clues and hopefully will be able to find out whether my 1905 date is correct. Even if I can’t find the evidence, and even if I turn out to be wrong, I know I’ll learn lots of interesting things about quilts and their history along the way.

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905? Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

Quilting Nelson’s Column

Nelson's Column - sample block

Nelson’s Column – a sample block

Just over a year ago I visited the National Maritime Museum in London and saw what I thought was a quilt of Admiral Lord Nelson hanging in the Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition.

Nelson Banner

19th Century Nelson Banner

On closer inspection, the “quilt” turned out to be a banner celebrating Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile (1798) made of cotton, linen and wool, with a red silk border, and Nelson’s likeness painted directly on to the fabric. According to the Museum’s online catalogue, the maker of the banner is unknown.

The banner is one of many symbols of Nelson’s  popularity at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Despite growing scandal in his personal life (an affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, and separation from his wife, Fanny) the Battle of the Nile confirmed Nelson’s place as a national hero. His likeness appeared on jugs, furnishing fabrics, tankards, plant pots, pill boxes – almost anything could be decorated with a Nelson motif and sold to anyone who wanted to express their admiration through their belongings.

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A Sphinx regards my Nelson’s Column Quilt

And admiration was demonstrated publicly too. On a brief return to England in late 1800, Nelson was welcomed by cheering crowds. On 11 November 1800, The Times reported that: “Yesterday morning, Lord Nelson paid his respects to the Admiralty Board, and afterwards, accompanied by a friend, walked through the Adelphi Buildings, and along the Strand, to the Navy Office at Somerset House. His Lordship was in the half-dress uniform of an Admiral, and though in appearance somewhat thinner than when he was last in England, looked in perfect health. He was not recognised until he came into the Strand, where the curiosity of his countrymen became a little troublesome, the inconvenience of which he avoided by going into Somerset House. When his Lordship left Somerset House, a numerous crowd assembled, and accompanied him to Whitehall.”

I like to think that the unknown banner maker might have been amongst the “numerous crowd.”

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square

If you walk down the Strand from Somerset House to Whitehall today, you will pass through Trafalgar Square, where the best known monument to Nelson watches over London. Nelson’s Column is such an accepted part of the London landscape that it is easy to pass by without really looking at it. But if you stop and take a closer look, you will see four bronze panels at the base commemorating Nelson’s most celebrated victories – Cape St Vincent (1797), The Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805).

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Three of the four Nelson’s Column Quilt panels in progress – I made one for each of Nelson’s major victories.

The panels – designed by four different artists – are made from bronze that was melted down from captured French guns. John Edward Carew’s Death of Nelson at Trafalgar was installed in 1849, The Battle of the Nile by William F Woodington in 1850, John Ternouth’s Battle of Copenhagen in 1850, and, finally, Musgrave Watson’s Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1854. Watson, who died in 1847 did not see his work in a finished form: the installation of the Cape St Vincent panel was delayed when it was found that the company charged with making it had cut the bronze with iron. Those responsible were charged with fraud and imprisoned; and the panel had to be recast.

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Quilting in progress

High above the bronze panels stands Nelson himself, sculpted by Edward Hodges Baily RA. Although his statue is 18 feet and one inch tall, it is not possible to see much detail from the ground. However, we know that Nelson in dress uniform is far above us, reminding us that we are an island nation.

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Like Nelson’s Column itself, the quilt gives an impression of Nelson from a distance, with the detail becoming clearer the closer one gets

Having spent over a year studying Nelson’s face when working on my Nelson Quilt, I was curious to know what the face at the top of Nelson’s Column looked like. I spent hours hunting down and studying close up photographs of the statue and ended up with a much better sense of the detail. And then I pulled the Hero of the Nile banner concept and the detail of Nelson’s Column together into one quilt project. I wanted to recreate the banner’s use of Nelson’s face and combine it with the four victories of Nelson’s Column; after all, unlike the unknown banner maker who was sewing in 1798, I know what happened after the Battle of the Nile.

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Nelson’s Column via traditional needle turn applique and hand stitched detail

The resulting Nelson’s Column Quilt is a quilt of contradictions. It is a modern looking piece that features a deliberately repeated design but it has been made using old fashioned hand sewing techniques (needle turn applique, hand quilting, and a traditional rope design for the border). As with the face at the top of Nelson’s Column, at a distance, you see a deceptively outline-only shade of Nelson; close up, you see the detail. I love the contradictions of this quilt – and I love what I learned when I was making it.

The Magic of The Box of Delights

Box of Delights - overview

Quilting the Box of Delights

In the run up to Christmas, many people all around the UK watch a BBC Children’s television series first broadcast in 1984: The Box of Delights directed by Renny Rye and starring Devin Stanfield as Master Kay Harker, Robert Stephens as the villainous Abner Brown, and Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy Man who “dates from pagan times.” Some time their viewing so that they watch an episode a week to finish on Christmas Eve with Leave Us Not Little, Nor Yet Dark – just as the 1984 series was transmitted.

The outpouring of love for this series seems to start annually in November, as aficionados declare that Christmas won’t be Christmas without the Box of Delights, or that hearing the theme music (The First Nowell from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony) heralds the beginning of the festive season.

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The Box of Delights by John Masefield

The original book was written by John Masefield (1878-1967). He is now perhaps best remembered for The Box of Delights and another adventure featuring Kay Harker and Abner Brown, The Midnight Folk. The language of these books is so evocative – with possets, pirate tea, Oliver’s time, pudding time and pagan times, and the provisioning of toy boats to sail on the floods – and who can fail to be stirred when they hear that the Wolves are Running?

For me, one of the pleasures of reading Masefield is his knowledge of the sea, ships and sea lore – developed while he served on HMS Conway as a youth. His sea songs and shanties run through the Kay Harker stories and include the raucous pirate song from The Box of Delights, sung by the Wolves of the Gulf after much rum punch: We fly a banner all of black, With scarlet Skull and Boneses, And every merchantman we take, We send to Davey Jones’s. Masefield, who was Poet Laureate between 1930 and 1967, also wrote the much loved Sea Fever (I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by).

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Sea Fever by John Masefield, celebrated at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Box of Delights has been delighting children of all ages since its publication in 1935. Forty years before the much-loved television series, The Box of Delights was adapted for radio. As part of Children’s Hour, the BBC Home Service broadcast three six-part adaptations “for older listeners.” The book was adapted by Robert Holland and John Keir Cross in 1943 (with John Gilpin as Kay Harker and Hay Petrie as Cole Hawlings), in 1948 (with David Page as Kay and Harcourt Williams as Hawlings), and in 1955 (with Patricia Hayes as Kay and Deering Wells as Hawlings). Charles Hawtrey played Mouse in all three productions.

Over the years there have been multiple radio broadcasts of The Box of Delights, most of which were adapted by John Keir Cross (1914-1967) – a prolific writer, radio adaptor and broadcaster. He presented a radio book club in 1951, which suggested books for family reading, and Connoisseurs of Crime, which explored crime novels and real life cases with detective authors. He also wrote the first radio adaptations of Pamela Brown’s theatrical novels for children, The Swish of the Curtain and Maddy Alone in 1944. *

Box of Delights - The Wolves are Running

The Wolves are Running

In 1966, John Keir Cross told the Radio Times that “Some twenty years ago I wrote a serial version of The Box of Delights, and still, to this day, I am asked when it might be repeated. Recently, writing a script for The Archers, I made a passing reference to this unusual tale; and from all over the world came letters from its secret addicts who wanted to know if it was still in print – as in fact it is.”

It seems that The Box of Delights secret addicts club is still alive and thriving. Every year, the cry that The Wolves are Running goes up – and people join in the adventures of Kay Harker once again.

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Quilting a favourite section from the book: “First there were pagan times, then there were in-between times … then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time.”

* I found out about radio adaptations thanks to the wonderful BBC Genome Project which gives BBC listings information from the Radio Times between 1923-2009.

The Shanty Quilt Part Three – Letters Home

Kind Letters - detail

Kind Letters – detail

Swansea Town is probably my favourite sea song. It is related to an Irish folk song called The Holy Ground and is sometime known as The Lass of Swansea Town. As with many traditional sea songs and shanties there are variations in lyrics; sometimes the song is dedicated to Lovely Nancy and at other times to Lovely Dinah, the locations cited differ, and in some versions there is a storm that evokes the ever-present fear of the sea’s power.  In 1985, it was included in the now sadly discontinued BBC radio programme for schools, Singing Together and is now featured in the section of my Shanty Quilt that represents life at sea.

My sewn panel reads Kind letters I’ll write to you, you’re the girl I do adore. This paraphrases the full lyric:

Kind letters I will write to you / Of the secrets of my mind. / Of the secrets of my mind, fine girl! / You’re the girl I do adore / But still I live in hope to see old Swansea Town once more.

Swansea Town set me thinking about sailor’s letters. In Jack Tar (Abacus, 2008), Roy and Lesley Adkins note that “the number of seamen who could read inevitably varied from ship to ship, and there is evidence that where the majority were illiterate, some of those who could read and write pretended they could not, while others who were poor readers and writers lost what little skill they once had.” The sending and receiving of letters was intermittent and often delayed, so “when letters did arrive it was a cause for rejoicing … letters from home were precious items that were read and reread, and frequently treasured.”

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

The most famous sailor’s letter ever written is probably the last letter written by Horatio Nelson to his lover, Emma Hamilton, from HMS Victory on 19 October 1805, just before the Battle of Trafalgar:

My dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom … I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the battle …

Two days later, Nelson was dead. His letter was found amongst the papers on his desk, and was brought back to England and delivered to Emma by his friend Captain Hardy. It is now in the collection of the British Library.

To find out more, I have been reading two interesting books: Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar by Peter Warwick (David & Charles, 2005); and Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins (Little, Brown 2004). From these books I have learned about three letters home from men who were in positions of command at the battle.

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I'll write to you

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I’ll write to you

Before the battle, Captain Edward Codrington of the Orion wrote to his wife: “How would your heart beat for me, dearest Jane, did you but know that we are now under every stitch of sail we can set, steering for the enemy … And so, dear, I shall wish thee once more a good night, and that thy husband’s conduct in the hour of battle may prove worthy of thee and my children.” After the battle, he was to express concern that “we are all in distress about our poor wives hearing of the action and not knowing if we are dead or alive.”

On 28 September 1805, the 41-year-old Commander of the Mars, Captain George Duff, wrote to his “Dearest Sophia” to tell her he had met Nelson, “the pleasantest Admiral I ever served under,” and to “thank her for her picture; though I must  own I am not at all pleased with it, as I don’t think it does you any justice.” Captain Duff was killed at Trafalgar, and Sophia was left a widow. Their son, the thirteen-year-old Norwich who was serving as a midshipman on the same ship, wrote to Sophia to say that his father “died like a Hero, having gallantly led his ship into action, and his memory will ever be dear to his King, his Country, and his Friends.”

Captain Henry Blackwood of the Euryalus wrote to his wife on 19 October 1805: “You see also, my Harriet, I have time to write to you, and to assure you that to the last moment of my breath, I shall be as much attached to you as man can be.” And it was to Harriet he turned after the battle: “The first hour since yesterday morning to that I could call my own is now before me, to be devoted to my dearest wife … My heart, however, is sad, and penetrated with the deepest anguish … To any other person, my Harriet, but yourself, I could not and would not enter so much into detail, particularly of what I feel at this moment. But you, who know and enter into all my feelings, I do not, even at the risk of distressing you, hesitate to say that in my life, I never was so shocked or so completely upset as upon my flying to the Victory, even before the Action was over, to find Lord Nelson was then at the gasp of death.”

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

These letters must have been so precious to their recipients. From news of battle to the death of a national hero; from a determination to appear brave to breaking the sad news of a death; all these letters show the “secrets of the minds” of their writers. I’m glad the Shanty Quilt has prompted me to find out a little about them, and I hope to find out more as the project progresses.

Should you want to hear the song Swansea Town, there is an excellent recording on the 2005 album Cheer Up Me Lads! by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir