Category Archives: Military

An English Poet in Georgian Malta

On my holidays this year I seem to have been bumping into the long arm of the Georgian navy at every turn. In August and September I wrote about encounters in Canada with Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, and uncle, William IV when he was a naval officer. Last month I visited Malta and, standing in front of the Grand Master’s Palace in the heart of Valletta, found myself looking up at an unmistakable coat of arms on the opposite side of St George’s Square.

Even without seeing the date of 1814, this is clearly a Georgian coat of arms with the white horse of the house of Hanover as the other supporter with the British lion. So what was it doing there? I should have remembered that Malta was one of the Mediterranean islands that fell to the British after the defeat of the French navy at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Translated the motto reads: “The love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe assigned these Islands to great and unconquered Britain. A.D. 1814.” No shortage of self-confidence there…

The Grand Harbour is one of the greatest harbours of the world, as the Knights of St John who had governed Malta for hundreds of years appreciated. In 1798 the French ousted the Knights and took over the supremely strategic island and even after the Battle of the Nile the French clung on to Malta, with some of the surviving ships of the fleet sheltering in the harbour. The British navy promptly blockaded the island. They were helped by the Maltese population who, although they were weary of the Knights’ rule, seem to have liked the French even less. In September 1800 the French ships tried to break out and were captured and the island fell. In 1814, the date on the coat of arms, Malta became a British colony, finally achieving independence in 1964.

Throughout history Malta has been of huge strategic importance in the Mediterranean which has made it all too often the target of fierce fighting – notably under the Knights and during the Second World War where its population endured the most appalling conditions and were awarded the George Cross as a tribute to their courage. With the arrival of the British in 1800 the island found an unexpected peace and prosperity. British merchants came in droves and it became an invaluable distribution point for British exports and the harbour and the presence of the fleet created huge commercial and employment opportunities. Not all was sweetness and light – the history of Anglo-Maltese relations is too complex to explore here – but the British presence for over 160 years has left a deep impression on the island.

The Grand Master’s Palace (below) became the seat of government and the residence of the British Governor.

Opposite is the Main Guard Building (below) which was built by the Knights in 1603 as the guardhouse for the Palace. The neo-classical portico was added, along with the coat of arms, in 1814.

So what was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, perhaps now most famous for his poems The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, to do with this? To my surprise I found a plaque to him on a building on the corner of St George’s Square. Apparently, in 1804, despite health problems and an increasing opium addiction, he travelled to Sicily and then to Malta where he found a post as Acting Public Secretary under the Civil Commissioner, Sir Alexander Bell. Despite being successful in the role he resigned and returned to England in 1806.

 

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From India to Fulham – On the Track of a Love Story

Some time ago I bought a battered little book from an on-line auction site for a few pounds. It measures approximately 8 x 6.5 inches (10 x 6 cm), the cover was battered and the thin spine had given way completely. The pages inside were loose and covered in handwriting in ink that, in places, had faded badly.

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Many pages were difficult to read but I saw at a glance that it was what I had hoped – a book of household recipes and hints  that some careful 19th century housewife had collected. But who was she and when did she keep her notebook?

Inside one cover was “9, High Row 60£” and “G.G.Mills Esq, North End Terrace, Fulham”.  Somehow I didn’t think that Mr Mills himself was carefully collecting recipes for raspberry vinegar or fish sauce. The other cover, amidst various scribbled notes, had, “Mrs Bernard Ryan”, the date 31st August 1812 and “Kensington Wilds Library Hornton St.” There was also a strip that had been torn from a letter and stuck in with instructions for restoring the lustre to silverware written on it. The letter had been addressed to Mrs Mills. The glue obscures the notes in the top left hand corner of the inside cover but it is possible to read “1819 Sept 21st”, “G.G.M 10th Dec 1819” and very faintly below that “To make good curry.”

inside cover

So, I had a Regency housewife’s notebook – but if this belonged to Mrs Mills, who was Mrs Bernard Ryan? And why had someone apparently tried to copy Mrs Bernard Ryan’s name in wobbly handwriting above it as “Mrs Renard Ry”? A child, perhaps?

I began with the library by digging in on-line newspaper indexes and soon found that F. P. Wild’s Library at 8, Hornton Street, Kensington appears in newspaper advertisements for newly-published books  between 1816 and 1825. It seemed I was definitely dealing with someone living in London

Then I turned to genealogy websites and discovered that a George Gillam Mills was resident at North End Terrace, Fulham when he died in May 1844 aged 74. He was buried in the District Chapel of the Parish of St Mary’s, North End, Fulham on 17th May. I tried to find North End Terrace on maps but could not pin-point it but but North End Road joins Hammersmith Road just where St Mary’s Chapel, now a church, stands. It seems likely that it was at the northern end of the road that Jean and George lived. Until the late 19th century North End was a scattered hamlet of houses along North End Road surrounded by fields and market gardens and included many substantial properties and villas owned by prosperous middle class and aristocratic families.

Now I knew Mr Mills’ first names I could chase him further and found that on the 15th May 1815 he had married Jean Ryan, a widow, at St Luke’s, Chelsea. They had married by licence and on the bond which he signed to obtain the licence George stated that he was over twenty one years of age, unmarried and living in the parish. It seemed highly likely that Jean Ryan was the Mrs Bernard Ryan named on the inside cover of the book.

I was able to find George’s christening record at St Alfege’s church in Greenwich on 24th November 1771 with the note that he had been born that month. His parents were Samuel Gillam Mills, a surgeon, and Catherine. So George was from a middle class home and was forty four when he married Jean Ryan.

Could I find ‘Jean’ marrying a Barnard Ryan? To my delight I found that on 26 August 1805 Lieutenant Bernard Ryan married Miss Jean Forbes in Secunderabad in British controlled India. But sadly the marriage lasted only six years. He died, a Captain in the 12th Regiment of Native Infantry of the Honourable East India Company, aged twenty eight and was buried 17th October 1811 at Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His will leaves everything to his wife Jean.

This image of the fort is from 1754, but it must have looked very much like this when the Ryans knew it, and having seen it when in Kolkata myself, it is still recognisable today.

Fort_William 1754

In September 1812 the records of the Lord Clive Military Fund Pensions Committee in the Madras (now Chennai) Presidency show that a pension of two shillings and four pence a day was granted to Mrs Jean Ryan, widow. Soon after this she must have set sail for England, a voyage of perhaps a year unless she was very lucky with the weather.

How did the widowed Mrs Ryan meet Mr Mills? How old was she? That at least I could answer because her burial record for 19th March 1825 gives her age as only forty. She had been twenty when she married Bernard and thirty when she married George. But her second marriage to a man fourteen years her senior seems to have been a happy one  because below a recipe for stewing flounders she wrote: “13th April 1820 – recd. a New Crown Piece from Darling Husband. Keep Sake.”

What happened to George? He was a prosperous businessman and civil servant, it seems. In 1815 he was Cashier of Half-Pay at the Army Pay Office in Whitehall and in 1819 had been promoted two steps up to Ledger Keeper. The Royal Kalendar and Court and City Register for 1817 and 1819 lists him as one of the directors and an auditor of the British Fire Office, “for assuring Houses, Goods and Ships” located at Cornhill in the City. How did he pass the nineteen years of widowerhood? I hope he had a good housekeeper who cooked him some of the familiar recipes from Jean’s notebook.

The notebook itself has a wide selection of recipes with notes on who gave them to her, a good selection of curries – not surprisingly perhaps – and notes on everything from making mistletoe grow to polishing a mahogany table. I transcribed the whole book and Mock Oyster Sauce and a Cure For Corns: A Regency Lady’s Receipt Book is out in April but available to pre-order now.

Cover 2

 

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The Earl of Wittering Plans His Summer

This May morning in 1816 the Gatwick family gather around the breakfast table in the Small Dining Room of their vast Mayfair mansion. It is obvious that the head of the family, the Earl of Wittering, has something on his mind, although the Countess of Wittering supposes it is only his bowels troubling him again. Like most of the upper classes of his age his diet – heavy on meat and alcohol, low on fruit and vegetables – means that his lordship frequently feels liverish, or to put it more bluntly, he’s appallingly constipated. She makes a mental note to send off another order to Savory & Moore, chemists (by Royal Appointment) in New Bond Street. (Shown below) Thomas Field Savory is making his fortune after acquiring the patent for internationally best-selling laxative, Seidlitz powders but, naturally, she does not mention such a subject at the meal table.

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The Countess would much rather finish her toast and return to her sitting room where she is putting the final touches to a highly imaginative, and exceedingly dramatic, sketch of an Alpine pass. What she would really like would be to paint the sea. Ever since she read Edmund Burke’s tract On the Sublime and the Beautiful and learned that the ocean was “an object of no small terror” she has been fascinated by it.

On either side of the breakfast table sit the Earl’s heir, the Viscount Ditherstone (coughing, as is his irritating habit at breakfast) and his wife, flanked by their children, seventeen year old Emily and twelve year old Arthur. Ditherstone, ever tactless, enquires if there is anything on his father’s mind.

Porrett, the earl’s secretary has, it transpires, been making enquiries about his lordship’s intentions for the summer so that he can begin to put in place the arrangements and, for once, Lord Wittering is undecided. Normally, after the London Season the family embark on a lengthy round of summer visits to the far-flung branches of the family, their travels greatly eased by the splendid condition of the network of turnpike roads across the country. The tour would always culminate in two weeks spent toadying to his elderly, terrifying and exceedingly wealthy aunts. But the aunts had died that winter, their money left, as he had always desired, to their godson, Master Gatwick, the future earl. Now his lordship wonders if he really wants to spend three months travelling about before he can retire to his country estate for the autumn and set about slaughtering anything with fur, feathers or fins. What he would like to do is recover his health in a spa, as his father would have done, but Bath is hopelessly dull these days, quite out of fashion.

“Perhaps we should take a house at a seaside resort,” ventures his daughter-in-law. “I am sure the pure air would be a benefit to Ditherstone’s lungs.” Ever since she read that amusing novel Emma she has not been able to forget the phrase, The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. And was it not the case that the great Mr Wordsworth was only able to write his beautiful verses “Upon Westminster Bridge” The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air… because he was amazed to find, for once, the atmosphere free of polluting smoke?

Ditherstone himself perks up. He rather fancies a dip or two in the briny. He’s heard exciting stories about the ladies bathing and what they might, or might not wear, to say nothing of amorous encounters in bathing rooms. And all kinds of dashers visit the seaside, so his bachelor friends tell him.

“Oh, Grandpapa,” Emily breathes. “I would love to go to the seaside.” She bats her eyelashes. “The south coast, they say, is so warm and quite delightful.” And, facing the enemy France, as it does, it is stuffed with troops. All those officers in scarlet coats. Oh, the opportunities for flirtation. (Below: tourists admire the militia parading at Cromer in Norfolk)

Cromer militia

Young Arthur extracts his nose from a scientific journal – he is showing an alarming tendency (in his grandfather’s opinion) towards natural philosophy and not manly sports. “The south coast, it said in a paper I was reading the other day, has much of interest to the fossilist and the mineralogist. I would like to go.”

The Earl glowers down the table. He doesn’t like change. On the other The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEBhand the sea-water cure sounds as though it would be helpful for what ails him. His wife keeps leaving prints of craggy cliffs and tossing waves about, so he supposes it would keep her happy and the rest of the family seemed keen enough. He would think on it.

What will the earl decide? Will the Gatwicks go to the seaside and, if so, to which resort? You can follow their summer adventures here over the next few months and read about the vibrant world of the early English seaside holiday (definitely not a Victorian invention!) in  The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railways came.

Meanwhile, now the smog has gone, you can find Savory & Moore’s shop for yourself in Walk 2, Walking Jane vis1Band admire Wordsworth’s view in Walk 6, of Walking Jane Austen’s London

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Protecting the Hanoverian Kings From the Jacobites

 

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My blog today is set a very long way north of London, but its subject – Fort George on Scotland’s Moray Firth – must have represented a great comfort to Londoners recovering from the shock of the ’45, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt to regain the throne of his grandfather, James VII of Scotland, II of England.
Charles, known as the Young Pretender or, more romantically as Bonnie Prince Charlie, had led his troops as far south as Derbyshire, causing widespread panic throughout England before he retreated back to Scotland with the realisation that the expected English support was not going to be forthcoming.
The forces of George II in London reacted with brutal force. Charles’s army was slaughtered in the Battle of Culloden in less than an hour on 16th April 1746 and the Young Pretender fled, the hopes of the Stuarts fleeing with him.
The government was not going to take any more chances with Jacobite sympathies in Scotland and put in place an ambitious plan to extend the military roads across the country and to build fortifications that would ensure a rising could never happen again.

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The old Fort George in Inverness had proved inadequate against the Jacobites and the town council was objecting strongly to having two thousand “wild and licentious” soldiery located in the heart of their respectable town, so the new fort was eventually located on a spit of land jutting out into the Moray Firth at Ardesier, a safe eleven miles away from Inverness’s citizens and commanding an excellent strategic position guarding the mouth of the Firth.
Fort George was begun in 1748, planned by Lieutenant-General William Skinner and built under the direction of the architectural dynasty of the Adams family – father William (who had worked on Edinburgh Castle), then son John and eventually even John’s brother Robert Adam, one of Britain’s most famous and fashionable architects.15-DSCN9504
The 42 acre fort cost £200,000, equivalent to £20 million now and more than Scotland’s entire GNP for 1750. It only ever saw one shot fired in anger – and that was by a panicky night-time guard firing on a cow that was approaching the outer defences. As a result the fort appears almost exactly as it did when it was completed and it is one of the most impressive fortifications of the period in Europe. To add to the atmosphere for the modern visitor it is still in use for troops who have been accommodated into the historic fort without adding to, or damaging, the original building.

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Today one can view the complex and seemingly impregnable series of outer walls, bastions and moats, designed to put any attacker under withering cross-fire.

22-DSCN9537Inside the walls the buildings are handsome and impressive, from the Governor’s house to the barracks (still in use for their original purpose, although with fewer men in each large room and more modern heating and plumbing!) to the gunpowder magazine, the stores and the simple chapel.

20-DSCN9523The recreated corner of one of the barrack rooms shows the draped blanket that was the only privacy a married couple had in a room sleeping eight men. In contrast one of the senior officers enjoys a room to himself with larger window panes and a smart fireplace. 21-DSCN9525

24-DSCN9540 The chapel contains many standards of regiments who have been stationed at Fort George, some of them from the early 19th century. The icing on the cake for me was the re-enactor in the dress of the original Scottish regiments garrisoned there who allowed me to try out all his weapons, including his musket and whose tales of the fort really brought it to life.

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