Monday, 25 November 2013

Visiting Chatham

To be honest I don't get out much; well, not locally at least, and certainly rarely visit the many places of interest in my part of England. I spent a few days in Portsmouth two years ago: paid my respects to Victory, and Warrior and wandered round the various museums. Last year, on a cold winter's day, I also trudged through the ruins of Newhaven's Tide Mills while researching Turn a Blind Eye, but that's about it. Visiting local attractions is something you do when you travel to another part of the country, not on your home turf, so when two readers from Australia dropped by last month I was at a loss as to know where to take them. Then I remembered the Historic Dockyard at Chatham; I'd been there three times in the past, although the last time was several years ago; still I thought it would be a safe bet.
And we were not disappointed; it was a cracking day, and my guests, who I only knew from email correspondence, soon became firm friends. The place is easy to find, being well signposted, parking right outside – far better than Portsmouth – and free! Ticket prices are lower as well, and there is the added advantage that they effectively act as a season pass, allowing as many visits as you wish for a year (certain special events excluded). This is especially useful as to cram everything into one day would be difficult, and a waste of what are some fascinating exhibits.

We started with an indoor exhibition of The RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection. This I remember from past visits, but it still took a good hour. Platforms and walkways are set at different levels, allowing some of the interiors to be seen, and there are information phones, as well as one large craft that can actually be entered. From there one of the newer exhibits to me was a covered workshop area, evocatively named The Big Space that contained various locomotives (steam and diesel), industrial machinery, a mixture of ordinance from the past, and the only XE midget sub I have seen. There are also various smaller vessels, including a newly restored “admiral's barge”.

Moving on, HMS Gannet is a sloop, built in 1878 at nearby Sheerness and now on permanent display at Chatham. Powered by both sail and steam, she was used throughout the world where she carried out several anti-slavery patrols and generally flew the flag. Gannet has just emerged following a three million pound restoration, and is in splendid order. Sadly there are few furnishings, which would have made it easier to imagine life on board, and her engine is missing, but free access is allowed, and there are helpful guides on hand if any explanation is needed. At the break of the poop, just above the binnacle, there is the legend: “Deeds Not Words” (very Victorian). By the way, you can also get married on board, but I understand it is not obligatory.

Next to her is Ocelot, an O class sub and the last warship built at Chatham for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1962 and served through the height of the Cold War until finally being paid off in 1991, (when the O's were replaced by the Upholder/Victoria class). The boat is open by guided tour, and on every occasion I have visited this has been conducted by an ex submariner, which certainly adds colour – if any were needed. By nature it is cramped, and there are three small hatches to negotiate, but it is an experience not to be missed. Incidentally I note that Ocelot can now also be visited remotely, via Google Street maps.

Beyond the sub. is for me the star of the dockyard. Cavalier is a C class destroyer that saw service during WW2 – she has been designated as the official National Destroyer Memorial and her 70th Anniversary will be commemorated in April next year. She has classic lines, and is a joy to look at. I have seen her several times, (and once, at a different location, when looking at her was pretty much all you could do), but in the present berth she has been totally
opened up, and free access is available to the wardroom, bridge, forecastle, engine rooms: just about everywhere.
There is music of the period playing as you wander about, plenty of ephemera to set the scene and, once again, a good deal of explanation. To my mind visiting this ship is worth the entry price alone – the atmosphere is tangible.

The last time I visited the Victorian Ropery was just a large, old building; steeped in history, of course, but a good deal of imagination was needed to envisage it as a busy manufacturer of naval line. Much has changed since then – not the structure of course (apparently it is the longest building in Europe), but there is a new exploration centre, as well as a costumed guide who gives an informed and entertaining insight into the workings of a ropery. Rope is still made on original machinery, and you are invited to try; a true hands on experience.

The above took us all the morning and most of the afternoon. There was time then to grab a quick meal at the on site restaurant (good food, well presented and not expensive, and with the bonus of eating in yet another historic building), before taking the Hearts of Oak “guided” tour.
Now these automated tours can be very good, or very bad; Chatham's is the former. You are led through a series of galleries depicting the dockyard of old by back projected films, telling the (unlikely) story of a potential apprentice being taken to meet Sir Robert Seppings, the master shipwright responsible for so many important innovations in ship construction and repair. The presentation is effectively portrayed, gives a good overall impression of the dockyard at the turn of the nineteenth century, and closes with a small museum of ordinance and shipwreck finds. Okay, it is a bit “Disney”, but gets the story across well.

And that was about all we had time for – apart from a quick rush round the Smithery, which contains a good display of ship models, many on loan from both the NMM (now known as Royal Museums Greenwich) and Imperial War Museums, as well as art work, and a demonstration of pipe bending (more interesting than it sounds). There were other galleries, a bookshop specialising in rare nautical books, plus the ubiquitous play and picnic areas and a souvenir shop (no, my books were not on offer, so the least said about that the better). We were lucky, it was a quiet day in October, but I have been at busier times, and the sheer vastness of the place means it is rarely crowded. I think the one year ticket is an excellent draw; we have further guests due in the spring and I understand more exhibits and displays are being planned. It is good to see a truly historic site being used in a way that is both educational and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Full details of The Historic Dockyard, Chatham
are available here:

Monday, 9 September 2013

On Smugglers, Free Traders and other Fake Heroes...

In the early 'sixties my parents took me to see a film about smuggling. Dr Syn, alias the Scarecrow was the rousing story of a Kentish parson who led a double life as a dashing “free trader”. Of course I was terrified – no surprise there: previously another Disney film, this time the cartoon 101 Dalmatians, had given me sleepless nights for a month, (although how anyone can consider skinning puppies to make a fur coat children’s entertainment is still beyond me – but I digress). Besides a temporary mistrust of anyone who sold religion for a living, the film also left me with one major impression: that smuggling was somehow right, and the perpetrators brave, resourceful and possibly even romantic heroes who could only be admired. Taxes are, after all, inherently unfair and anyone who evades them is doing a good job, and should be encouraged.
Today most of us grudgingly accept that some degree of taxation is necessary, but the levels to which levies rose during the turn of the nineteenth century was really quite excessive. And not only were the rates high, so many seemingly random items became affected, from playing cards to hair powder; even such basic essentials as light and air, as demonstrated by the Window Tax (1696-1851), cost money to enjoy.
The revenue raised was partially used to fund a succession of wars. Some carried public support but, whether approved of or not, there was no choice when it came to paying for, or fighting them. Taxation also financed the monarchy and at a time when France was busy executing their royal family, this might have been a dangerous move. However, despite many attributes that might have made him less so, George III remained popular with Britain's tax payers. Once, on a trip to the South Coast, he was even followed by a crowd continually singing God Save the King. But with taxes so high and pretty much universal, who could blame anyone if they evaded a little duty now and then? And inevitably the folk who made such deception possible – initially fishermen looking to earn more on the side – found themselves held in high regard and even affection by the many who benefited from their exploits.
Unfortunately it did not end there. During the Golden Age of Smuggling (roughly 1750 – 1830) organised gangs, similar to that of the fictitious clergyman's, began to appear. A few might have been founded on purely altruistic lines, providing a public service at negligible gain, but most were far more greedy and quickly grew rich from the high profits available. With wealth came power and even status – the latter heightened by contact with prominent people in the local community who frequently supported smuggling, both as customers and backers.
It soon became apparent that the activity took place at little personal risk. Statistically a smuggler was more likely to be shipwrecked than caught by the impressment men while the financiers (or “venturers”, as they were known) were almost totally safe, and had the added bonus of access to a regular supply of highly taxed or unavailable items for their own use. Were a gang member captured, influence could be usually brought to bear on a magistrate, whilst few local juries would convict for fear of repercussions. Of course some were caught and convicted; a few hanged, their bodies later to be gibbeted as a stern warning, but most suffered nothing worse than a fine, while more than a few found themselves in the Navy, where they usually prospered remarkably well.
The illicit trading progressed, and soon proved to be two sided: not content with openly buying from the enemy, the smuggling gangs also began to sell. Britain's woollen trade was then an essential industry and protected by various laws (including one that levied a £5.00 fine if a corpse were not laid to rest in a woollen shroud). Consequently the export of wool was forbidden, even to Britain's few remaining allies. This restriction was seen as a business opportunity to the smuggling community and soon specialist groups, known as Owlers, began running regular trips to France, and providing the raw material that Napoleon needed to clothe his armies. That this should be done when their own country lay in imminent danger of invasion is surprising enough, but the free traders' later exploits financed the French war machine far more effectively.
From just before the turn of the nineteenth century gold attracted a high premium on the continent, leading to the creation of a special type of smuggling craft. Guinea Boats were large, oared vessels that could quickly cross the Channel, often being rowed directly into the wind to evade pursuit by sail. Quick and cheap to make, they could be abandoned after one trip; the profits achieved more than offsetting construction costs. The nett result of this activity was upwards of £10,000 a week being delivered to directly to the French, just at a time when Britain was bracing itself for defeat.
Seemingly lacking in any form of compunction, the gangs continued to grow, and soon extended their activities to land based crime, practising extortion and intimidation on a civil population already worn down by many years of conflict. Eventually there were areas of Britain where, rather than evade the law, the smugglers all but implemented it.
Poorly equipped and heavily outnumbered, the Customs and Excise services (both separate, and often competing bodies at that time) fought a desperate battle. There were successes, such as when the notorious Hawkhurst gang was finally defeated, but rather more failures, all too frequently brought about by the corruption that even infiltrated the preventive forces themselves. In fact it was not until a lasting peace with France was finally achieved, taxes reduced, and the revenue service started to be properly manned and funded, that any reasonable control could be exerted on what had become a major industry.
And as for those dashing characters who fought so bravely against the spoilsport revenue officers: the local heroes who brought wickedly expensive items into the reach of the working man – they might have appeared like latter-day Robin Hoods, but in reality were nothing more than treacherous criminals. Forget any impressions of valour or romance, few were adverse to any form of crime if it produced a profit and their activities caused untold damage to both the morale and economy of a country that was deep in the miseries of war. Smugglers might have been bold, and even enterprising, but as heroes they deserve a place slightly behind the likes of Cruella de Vil.

My new novel, Turn a Blind Eye explores the effect of smuggling on a small British community during the turn of the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Naming Names

Finding a suitable title for a character can be a problem. Unless you are searching for irony, it should bear some resemblance or clue to the person's identity, as well as their class and origin. Care must be taken not to drift too close to someone of prominence or notoriety (unless you intend to depict a fictitious relative, such as the beastly lieutenant Pigot, in The Jackass Frigate), and it is also important that you do not copy any attributes of a person with the same name. Westwood, the marine officer in The Patriot's Face was named after my dentist who, as far as I know, has no special interest in air rifles, and is a far more gentle, and indeed gentile, soul than the obsessive captain. Sometimes a character will begin with one name, only to find the moniker changing as they develop – often several times – and their rank or social standing might also be adjusted at the same time.
The name for one of my first principle characters, Shepherd, captain of HMS Vigilant, was taken from a man I was privileged to know for only a short while. I depicted no physical likeness, and the personality was also very different, but they did share the same rank, as the original Captain Shepherd was also a Royal Navy officer. Let me tell you the story...
It was over twenty years ago, on our first holiday as a family; we had rented the guard room of a castle set on the Somerset / Devon boarder. A splendid place certainly, and steeped in history, although the owner turned out to be every bit as fascinating as any building. We soon discovered a shared interest in the Georgian Navy and Mr Shepherd, as he chose to be known, leant me a copy of A Social History of the Navy, Michael Lewis' seminal work, a first edition of which now sits in my reference library. It was when he was showing me about his private museum that we discovered the common link.

File:Cuthbert Collingwood, Baron Collingwood by Henry Howard.jpg

On the wall was a picture of Collingwood, Nelson's friend, second in command at Trafalgar, successor to him in captaining Badger, and the subject of one of the young admiral's first letters after the loss of his right arm at Tenerife (Dear Coll, do not expect long letters from me...). Collingwood belonged to a small group of men who were particularly conscious of the toll our ships were taking on the oaks of England's forests – up to forty acres to build the frame of a third rate ship of the line. They took it upon themselves to help provide for the next generation by carrying acorns, and scattering them wherever they went. Nowadays such folk would be labelled “green” and probably derided and even in the period they may have suffered a degree of mocking, (although the fact remains that we did not run out of oaks!). Whatever, I mentioned this to Mr Shepherd who agreed, laughed quietly, then brought out a handful of acorns from his own pocket.

I later discovered that, when promoted to post captain rank, and commanding HMS Argonaut he served in the Far East, and saw his ship through several kamikaze attacks, although he spent longer telling me, with evident pleasure, how he had been able to equip the entire cruiser with refrigerators, so that his men could enjoy an almost constant supply of ice cream. Before then, he mentioned briefly, he had been a commander aboard King George V.
When I returned home I sent him one of my most precious books, an early biography of Nelson, to borrow. He returned it with a long letter that I still keep. Written in impeccable copperplate one paragraph begins. “It is blowing a proper sou'westerly at the moment. Reminds me of the time we were limping back to Ireland, desperately short of fuel in KGV after sinking the Bismark.”
I was proud to name my first principle naval captain after him, and since then wherever I go,
whenever I can, I carry acorns.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Shaking Hands with History

Recently, and quite by chance, I found myself speaking to a relative of Adam Duncan; a man I respect greatly. As a bonus he bore a remarkable resemblance, both physical and in personality, to his glorious ancestor, (and was kind enough to buy a copy of True Colours). My day was made.
The following is a short bio I wrote about Duncan, and originally published in Chronicles

Duncan of Camperdown
forgotten man, forgotten battle?

1797 was an eventful year in an eventful war. The Battle of Cape St Vincent had raised morale, and with it a new hero was launched upon the public (although the publicity was to a great extent engineered by the subject). But Nelson was to go on to lose a campaign and an arm, at Tenerife, a few months later, and the year had opened with an attempted invasion of Ireland that was defeated more by the weather, and incompetence on behalf of the French, than any British warship. It was also the time of the Spithead mutiny when men, tired of wages and conditions that had hardly altered in 150 years, and urged on by the recent increase in “intellectual” recruits, raised by the Quota Act, rose up and demanded change.

At this time Adam Duncan, a tall and strikingly charismatic Scotsman, who had served with Rodney and Keppel, had charge of the North Sea Fleet. It was his responsibility to keep the Eastern approaches safe for British shipping, and to blockade and eventually destroy the powerful Dutch fleet that was set to mount an invasion of England. To achieve this he was allowed a motley collection of tired ships, several of which had been converted from merchants, manned by men to whom promises made by a desperate Admiralty following Spithead seemed likely to be broken.

On the 12th of May the inevitable happened; the Nore rose up in revolt; the North Sea Fleet refused to sail, and England was left undefended. In his own flagship Duncan had met with a rebellious crew, although his understanding, reassurance and pure strength of character proved sufficient to quell an outright rebellion. It was left to him to maintain the watch over the Dutch base with only his flagship Adamant (74) and the smaller Venerable (50) plus an assortment of lighter craft, while the rest of his ships lay at anchor, under the command of Richard Parker's “Floating Republic”. Not for the first, or last, time Britain was open to invasion.

The Dutch fleet was a powerful one, mainly consisting of line of battleships specifically designed with a low draft, for the shallow waters off their coast. In addition there were several powerful frigates, and over one hundred transport vessels and supply ships ready to carry the mighty French army based nearby. The two British warships supported by a handful of smaller craft were no match for such a force. However Duncan was able to fool the enemy into thinking his ships were just the inshore squadron of a far superior fleet.

Anchoring his flagship outside the Dutch harbour, he began to signal to a non existent battle-fleet that was seemingly sailing just out of sight of land, while his supporting vessels sailed to and fro, carrying “messages”, and alternating their appearance and colours to bolster the ruse. For a few desperate days all shipping, including small craft and fishing vessels, were prevented from sailing, Duncan being well aware that firm news of Britain’s vulnerable state would see the enemy fleet at sea, and wiping his scant squadron away without a thought.

In time the situation on shore stared to ease; the first British ships rejoined Duncan on June 4th. with more following on the 9th. By October the fleet was back under full control, although the men were still disturbed by the events of the previous months. Then, on October 9th, news arrived that the Dutch battle-fleet had finally sailed.

Duncan went to meet them with eleven sail, seven of which were crewed by men who, only months before, had been mutineers. The Dutch force consisted of sixteen line of battleships, five frigates and five brigs. Duncan’s fleet was soon reinforced but still remained outnumbered.

The action took place to the south of the Texel. The Dutch, conforming to conventional tactics, formed a line of battle. Duncan had no preformed plan, although he trusted his officers in the same way that Nelson would later in the wars. By 12.30 the British were bearing down on the Dutch in a two column formation that anticipated Trafalgar by several years. Despite the poorer quality of his ships, the men of the North Sea Fleet were eager to prove their loyalty and fought well; one man, John Crawford of the Venerable, achieving immortality by literally nailing the colours to the mast, after they had been shot away.

The battle that ensued was one of the bloodiest of the wars. Both navies were highly professional, and the British, although fewer in number, and equipped in the main with worn out ships, were clearly in the underdogs. One of the more interesting aspects of the action was the mutual respect shown by each force, and it is significant to note that the two opposing admirals survived the battle, and remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Now, more than two centuries later, the memory of Duncan has fallen into decline. On the bi-centennial of the battle, Dundee City Council published a volume of essays about the man and his times. This included an excellent appraisal by Brian Lavery, although the title is now out of print. Neil Duncan also produced a biography in 1995 which has suffered a similar fate. Christopher Lloyd brought out St Vincent and Camperdown, a study of the two actions, in 1963 and two other biographies were written, one in 1898 and one in 1900. Considering the plethora of Nelson related volumes that have appeared on the market recently (one figure quoted is 40 biographies in the last ten years), it seems unfair that such a fascinating character who achieved so much should not be better remembered.

Alaric Bond's novel True Colours is a fictionalised account of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, and covers Adam Duncan's heroic defence of Great Britain, and the pivotal Battle of Camperdown.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Turn a Blind Eye: Research

My sixth book, Turn a Blind Eye was released on August 1st. Although not in the Fighting Sail series - I have new characters, and am basing this one in a revenue cutter - it does include fighting (and indeed, sail!). Last winter I spent an interesting day at the Tide Mills, Newhaven carrying out research. The Tide Mills, which are one of the locations featured in the novel, were in operation from the middle of the eighteenth century and were set almost on the beach to the East of Newhaven harbour. At their peak sixteen mill wheels were being turned for up to ten hours in any tide, and over a hundred workers employed, many living on the site. All that is left of a very green form of energy is foundations, and a few remaining walls, although it is still possible to trace many of the buildings.

William Catt 1776 - 1853

William Catt was responsible for the expansion of the site, and was clearly quite a character. He laid in wait for any workers returning to the village from the nearby inn 'The Buckle', and was reasonably successful in growing fruit trees and vegetables in an area that at best can only be called bleak. It was strangely satisfying to find his house and stand in what would have been his kitchen.

A contemporary map of the area.

Turn a Blind Eye is certainly nautical, but it would have been too long a stretch to include it in the Fighting Sail series. I have wanted to write about the fast and fragile cutters for some while. They waged their own private war on smugglers during the French wars, and there is certainly no shortage of action. The Fighting Sail series, with many of the established characters, will return once this project is completed.

Some photographs taken during my visit are shown below: