Saturday, December 27, 2014

Released - THE UNFORTUNATE ISLES - Book 4 in Under Admiralty Orders series.

Having set the goal of publishing the latest nautical fiction book before Christmas, I'm pleased to announce that THE UNFORTUNATE ISLES was released, as an e-book on Amazon, 3 days before Xmas.
The paperback edition will follow in a few weeks.

The day after Christmas the following 5 star review appeared on Amazon:

 "Muir has become a favourite author and I have enjoyed this latest work thoroughly. Well researched and written in a style which suits my tastes perfectly, this book fulfils exactly what I expected from this author and this fourth in the series is a work of perfection.
You will NOT be disappointed in this book and it will keep you reading. I could hardly put it down and admit I read it too quickly the first time around and am now going back for a second more careful enjoyment. The only criticism I can offer is that I want more! I would prefer a much longer book by this author who has clearly mastered the craft of nautical fiction.
How could we ever get enough of the magic of shipmates so perfectly portrayed which fits even into modern era? If you are a sailor or have ever been in the military on long lonely deployments this author will keep you reading. A FINE JOB."

Thank you, HMB, for taking the time to post a review.
I hope others readers will also enjoy this story.

Here are the Amazon links:
For US readers:
For the Brits, here is the UK link


Friday, November 21, 2014

In 1802 ‘Santísima Trinidad’ was the largest*** warship in the world.

Designed by an Irish naval architect, the Spanish first-rate, Santísima Trinidad (Holy Trinity) was built in Havana, Cuba in 1769. Originally designed with three gun decks she bore 112 cannon. Twenty five years later, 18 more guns were added when a fourth deck was created by closing in the spar-deck between the quarterdeck and the forecastle. 

In 1802 her guns were increased and with 4-gundecks bearing 140 guns the ‘Santísima Trinidad’ was reputed to be the largest warship in the world,
Her original armament of 112 guns consisted of 30 × 36 pdrs, 32 × 24 pdrs, 32 × 12 pdrs and 18 × 8 pdrs. She had a displacement of 4950  tons, was 61.3 m long (201 ft) with a beam 16.2 m (53 ft) and  carried a complement of 1050 crew.

When Santísima Trinidad, sailed for Trafalgar in October 1805 with the combined Franco/Spanish fleet she carried more guns than any other ship-of-the line outfitted in the Age-of-sail but ‘due to her great bulk, her helm was unresponsive in the light winds of the day’ and she was targetted by ships of the British fleet.
Having lost her mast she eventually surrendered and was taken in tow. In the devastating storm which blew in the day after the battle, she sank.
Today a full-size representation of Santísima Trinidad sits on the wharf in Alicante, in Spain. This is not a true replica, but was constructed over the steel hull of a merchant ship.

The stern galleries are particularly impressive.

Today the ship is a popular pub, disco and restaurant.
Ref: Wikipedia and pics in public domain.
1) The Spanish warship Holy Trinity (Santísima Trinidad). Known as "El Escorial of the seas", it was the only ship in the Battle of Trafalgar that had four decks and 136 cannon.
2) Plans of Spanish ship Santísima Trinidad, before conversion to four-decker
4) Infante don Pelayo going to rescue Santisima Trinidad at Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797.
Replica/Representation of Spanish ship Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad (Alicante) by MM (2012)

I have been advised by an informed reader that Santisima Trinidad was not the largest ship in the world at the time. 
Evidence of this fact is substantiated in the comments posted below by: Nautique.
As the detailed evidence is specific and quite extensive I have not included those facts in this post but trust that readers will seek out this information to update their knowledge.
I extend my thanks to the writer of the comment for this.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Celebrating World Toilet Day - with a topical post

SH*T - Did you know 19th November is World Toilet Day?

Celebrated in 53 countries the World Toilet Association (WTO) is working towards eliminating the toilet taboo, improving toilet and sanitation conditions and delivering sustainable sanitation worldwide.
It was news to me. But to celebrate, I have included part of an appropriate scene from the forthcoming novel, THE UNFORTUNATE ISLES by M.C. Muir (due before Christmas).

Being surprised by a mermaid-like apparition while sitting on the ship’s head – here are the responses from some of the crew of His Majesty’s frigate, 'Perpetual'.
Excerpt from Chapter 16: The translucent water off the islands of Fernando de Norohna.

A dull thud vibrated from the forward strakes and jolted everyone’s senses.
  ‘What was that?’ Captain Quintrell called, haring up the companion from the gun deck. It was the sound made when a 4lb shot hits the hull, but there had been no calls and he had heard no cannon fire.
  ‘Don’t know,’ Mr Parry replied. ‘It was from the bow.’
  Hurrying for’ard the pair scanned the water expecting to see another ship or submerged rocks, but there was neither. The six fathoms of water beneath the keel were crystal clear revealing a smooth sandy bottom beneath the keel. Bare feet padded along the deck, as sailors ran around the ship peering from the rails to port and starboard, but nothing could be seen.
  ‘Mast head, ahoy. Do you see any ships or boats?’
  The lookout turned a full 360 degrees. ‘No, Capt’n.’
   ‘On your feet, Smithers,’ Mr Tully bellowed after almost tripping over the legs of the sailor sitting on the deck. ‘Get out of the way!’
   ‘You there!’ Mr Parry called to another sailor who had leapt off the head in such a hurry his breeches were still wrinkled around his ankles. ‘For goodness sake, man, attend to your dress. The captain is talking to you.’
   The captain continued. ‘From where you were perched you must have seen something.’
   Prescott hitched up his breeches but didn’t answer. His face was drained and his hands were shaking.
   ‘What is wrong with him?’ Oliver asked his lieutenant.
   Smithers answered. ‘Stupid dawcock said he saw a mermaid. I told him he was as barmy as Bungs. Then he changed his mind and said it wasn’t a mermaid, it was an angel.’
   ‘Mind your tongue!’ Mr Parry reminded.
   Oliver raised his eyebrows and exchanged a puzzled look with his first lieutenant.
   But Smithers hadn’t finished. ‘The oaf said he heard it knocking like it wanted to come aboard, and when he leaned over to see what it was and it rose up from the water and tried to bite him. If you ask me, I think it was trying to kiss him.’
   The men standing nearby smirked, but Prescott’s expression did not change.
   ‘Thank you, Smithers,’ Mr Tully said sarcastically. ‘We don’t need any of your stupid remarks.’
   The captain turned back to the sailor. ‘Enough of this cock-and-bull rubbish, Prescott, what exactly was it you saw?’
   ‘It’s just what Smithers told you, Capt’n. And it scared the livin’ daylights out of me.’
   ‘Just as well he was sitting on the head!’
   ‘Smithers! Get below this instant!’
   Mumbling and dragging his feet, the old topman left the deck.
   The captain continued. ‘And what did this mermaid do after it popped up out of the water?’
   ‘It sank back down and I didn’t wait around to see if it would come up again.’
   Oliver turned to the other members of the fo’c’sle division who were standing within earshot. ‘Did anyone else see this apparition?’
   Murmurs about mermaids and sea monsters ran round the foredeck, but no one had seen anything, although several admitted to hearing the sound of knocking.
   ‘Sounded like the carpenter in the hold with a wooden mallet,’ one said.
   ‘It was no bloody apparition,’ Prescott claimed. ‘I tell you it was real and I don’t ever want to see it again.’
The answer to what Prescott’s apparition is will be revealed when the book is published.
 Pics: HMS 'Endeavour' replica, The 'Star of Greece' figurehead is located at the Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide, South Australia. Fernando de Norohna image from Wiki Commons.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Over 9,000 drown when MV Wilhelm Gustloff was deliberately sunk

We remember the tragedy that was the Titanic and the 1,500 casualties - and of the iceberg and the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
But imagine a liner going down in the ice strewn water of the Baltic. taking 9,400 victims to a freezing watery grave - including 5,000 children.

"The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at this time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes... covering the surface.
"Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic."

It happened in war time and the ship was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. She was carrying civilian evacuees as well as military personnel.

Was it because the ship was less glamorous than Titanic?

Or that this was an inexcusable man-made tragedy we would rather forget?
Or that the people did not count as much as the rich and wealthy and glamorous who travelled on the White Star Line?

Note: There have been several documentaries made about this event - to read more see Wikipedia page:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The George Hotel and its patrons - Lord Nelson, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower

The George hotel in Portsmouth was long regarded as a prestigious establishment providing rooms and meals for weary travellers arriving by coach from London. It was frequented by admirals and sea captains alike, including Horatio Nelson who visited on several occasions - most notably on his last day on English soil before embarking on HMS Victory and heading for Trafalgar.

While factual events fix The George on the history map, nautical fiction authors, Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester used the venue to colour the exploits of their heroes, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower respectively. Patrick O’Brian refers to The George at least 10 times in the canon.

CS Forester not only made several mentions of the famous coaching inn but, in Hornblower and the Hotspur chose the hotel’s coffee-room to host the wedding breakfast following Horatio's marriage to Maria.

Because of the intriguing connections existing in both fact and fiction, when I planned a 5-day visit to Portsmouth (from Australia), there was only one hotel I wanted to stay at – The George. But in the words of Robert Burns, The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley. 

On arrival at a hotel named The George Hotel, full of anticipation, I was confronted by a building dating back to 1781. And for a visitor, it was ideally located only a stone’s throw from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. But this was neither the original George Hotel, nor the one I had come looking for. I soon learned that the famous coaching house had been severely damaged by German bombs on 10 January 1941 and subsequently demolished. Disappointed but not undaunted, I set about to locate the site where the George Hotel in question had stood and, if possible, secure an image of the old hotel.

Having ascertained the coaching house was located near Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, I headed for the High Street and found a pair of post-war lamp posts gracing the curb where a pair of gas lamps had one stood. They marked the spot where the London coaches came to a halt outside the original George Hotel’s front entrance. It was here Lord Nelson had stepped from his post-chaise from Merton and entered the building. It was here, in fiction, that Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower had entered the premises to spend many a happy hour.

Today, on the pavement between the two lamp posts is a bronze plaque that reads:  Lord Nelson rested at this old Posting House on 14th September 1805 before embarking on his flagship H.M.S. Victory.

Because of the devastation caused by the WW11 air raids, the site was levelled and, in 1954, an uninspiring block of flats arose in its place. It was named, George’s Court. On the wall of the latter-day building is another plaque paying tribute to Nelson’s visit.

But my search had not been for the ghosts of the past but for the building that had accommodated them. While, the first hotel on this site had been a thatched-roofed house called the Waggon and Lamb, I can only presume the name George Hotel was adopted during the reign of George 1, when the new building, with its Georgian façade, was constructed.
The original George Hotel - note the two lamp posts on the pavement

At that time, High Street was a busy thoroughfare, not only with horse-drawn carriages, coaches and carts, but sailors, soldiers, local traders and pedestrians.

In 1739 a Town Hall and Market House had been constructed in the centre of the road only a stone's throw from the George Hotel. This, seemingly odd location, created a thriving hive of shops, stalls and offices, but it also created a massive bottleneck to the traffic passing along the street. For that reason, it was eventually demolished in 1837.

Also situated on High Street, only a cable’s length from the hotel was the Church of St Thomas à Becket or St Thomas of Canterbury (now Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral). It was here CS Forester’s characters, Horatio Hornblower and Maria were married before repairing to The George for the wedding breakfast. 

Continuing along to the end of High Street brings the visitor to the fortifications that had defended the town since the reign of Henry V111, to one of the sally ports and to the beach. But when Nelson left The George, in the early afternoon of the 14th, he did not head down the High Street, instead, to avoid the already congested thoroughfare and the well-wishers who were eager to accompany him, he slipped out of the hotel’s back entrance into Farthing Street.

As a further means of avoiding attention, from Fighting Cock Lane (Pembroke Road), he detoured across the garden of the Governor’s residence. At the time, this was part of the complex occupied by the Garrison Church – a building dating back to 1212. Sadly, the Church’s nave was also badly damaged in the war-time bombings.
The Spur Redoubt

Accompanied by George Rose, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and George Canning, The Treasurer of the Navy, Nelson headed across a narrow bridge over the moat to the triangular shaped fortification – the Spur Redoubt, which protruded into the sea, and to the beachfront beyond. Here, with pebbles crunching under his feet, he was able to gaze across Spithead and see the fleet gathering for departure.

Nelson’s diary entry of Saturday Sept 14th 1805 reads, “… embarked at the Bathing Machines with Mr Rose and Mr Canning at 2: got on board Victory at St Helen’s; who dined with me; preparing for sea.”

As an aside – I find it hard to imagine bathing machines, normally associate with the Victorian era, being present on the beach in Nelson’s time. They are described in Outon’s Traveller’s Guide of 1805 as:
 “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Fred Roe’s 1905 stylized painting Good bye, my lads depicts Lord Nelson, with a ship-of-the-line in the background, waving farewell when he departed Portsmouth. This, however, is a far cry from the image I conjure in my mind of a senior naval officer standing on a shingle beach with bathing machines close by and swimmers splashing about in the water.

 Nelson’s final hours on English soil had been busy and included two visits to the George Hotel. But they were to be his last. The hotel long remembered the Admiral’s visit with pride, and preserved his room for the next 136 years until the hotel, like the British admiral, fell to enemy fire during unforgettable conflicts that would long be remembered.

 Note: this follows an earlier post – “The Portsmouth Road aka the Sailor’s Highway

References: The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Portsmouth Road and Its Tributaries”, by Charles G. Harper, 1895 AND “The Story of Nelson’s Portsmouth” by Jane Smith

THE TRAFALGAR SAIL - a legacy of the Battle

Referred to as The Trafalgar Sail, HMS Victory’s foretopsail (the second largest on the ship’s 37 sails) is the largest single surviving object from the Battle of Trafalgar (apart from the ship itself). It reveals the 90 shot holes it suffered on 21st October, 1805.

Though Victory was launched in 1765, the sail was only two years old, having been made at Chatham in 1803. It would have taken around 1,200 man-hours for the sailmakers to stitch it. Measuring the size of a tennis court (80ft at its base, 54ft at its head and 54ft deep), it weighs a third of a ton.

Following the immense damage the ship sustained at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was towed into Gibraltar for temporary repairs. After a week, she was returned to Portsmouth and later to the Chatham Dockyard for a complete refit. Here, the sail remained and was displayed at the yard for almost a century before being returned to the ship in 1905.

After becoming lost for three decades, the dilapidated sail was re-discovered in 1962 in a naval gymnasium hidden beneath a pile of mats. It was returned to Victory but signs of deterioration were evident and a decision to preserve it was made. Conservation began in 1993, a process which took twelve years.

Today, The Trafalgar Sail is on display to the public under environmentally-controlled conditions in Storehouse 10 at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It is regarded as Britain’s most important marine historic textile.
HMS Victory continues to be flagship of the Second Sea Lord and is the oldest naval ship still in commission.

Refs: National Museum and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Images include:  Hand-stitching a sail in a sail loft in the late 18th century and The Trafalgar sail at the 1891 London Naval Exhibition. Other sources supplied on request.

HMS Victory and the aftermath of Trafalgar

Seven days after the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was towed into Gibraltar Bay for sufficient repairs to be undertaken to enable her to return to English waters. The first-rate was in a sad and sorry state, but at least she was still afloat. 

 "The hull is much damaged with shot in a number of places, several along the water line. Several beams and riders, knees shot through, and a broken starboard cathead. Timbers of the Head and Stem full of shot with lots of parts damaged. Chains and Channels shot away, the Mizzen mast shot away nine foot above the deck, bulwarks shot away, the main mast was full of shot and sprung, the Main Yard gone, the main Top-Mast cap shot away. The Main Topsail mast yard shot away. The Foremast shot through in many places, the Foreyard shot away, Bowsprit, Jib Boom and cap shot-away. Spritsail yards and Flying-jib boom gone. Fore and Main Tops shot away and the ship taking in 12 inches of water an hour."
After a difficult journey, Victory arrived back in Portsmouth on 4th December. From here she was destined to sail to her birthplace, Chatham Naval Dockyard for the second major refit of her long career.

Victory’s fore topsail accompanied the ship home and had been preserved to this day. (see The Trafalgar Sail blog post)
The wheel, which was shot away during the battle, was replaced with one bearing the words of Nelson's famous signal: ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY.

 Ref The Contemporary Sculptor: Image:  Portsmouth Historic Dockyard - 2012 (MM)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Early European exploration and the legacy of Zheng He

In December 1497, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed into the Indian Ocean, he met little opposition. Instead, he discovered a sea of enormous potential. Fortunately for the Europeans, the great Chinese armada of Admiral Zheng He no longer existed, though it had left a lasting legacy. That legacy was the sea-routes, markets and ports of a functioning trading system first established by the Arabs and reinforced by the Ming dynasty.

If China’s maritime might had still ruled the waves, Vasco da Gama and the European adventurers who followed him would have faced fierce opposition from the massive Chinese fleets and the history of European globalization in the Indian Ocean would have been very different.

Why did the Chinese embark on maritime trade?

Drought, floods and famine, combined with the rule of a ruthless Mongol dynasty, saw fourteenth century China wilting under the effect of on-going economic misery. But in 1368 the Ming dynasty emerged ousting the Mongol rule. Having lost some of its overland trade routes, the new Emperor turned his attention to the sea and the trading opportunities it offered and, from 1405 a period of Chinese maritime expansion began.

 Zheng He
Emperor Zhú Di nominated the eunuch, Zheng He, to command his fleet. Standing seven feet tall, the admiral was a Chinese Muslim who could speak both Arabic and Chinese.  It was a judicious choice ‘to send a Muslim to lead expeditions into sea-lanes dominated by Arab merchant sailors and into countries that were in many cases Muslim’.

But the fleet’s purpose was neither discovery nor warfare because, ‘Ming Confucians preferred persuasion to coercion’. The fleet’s mission was one of diplomacy, to establish foreign relations, exchange gifts and impress other lands with Chinese produce and technology. It achieved this, through enforcing a system of tributes on the countries bordering the Indian Ocean including West Africa.

The Treasure Fleet
The Chinese fleet numbered over 300 vessels. Compared to the tiny carracks of the Portuguese explorers, Zheng He's treasure ships were mammoth ships, the largest measuring 440 feet in length with nine masts and four decks. Each ship was capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, including navigators, sailors, doctors and soldiers, as well as a massive amount of cargo in its huge hold. It is not surprising that for thirty years the might of the Middle Kingdom dominated the sea-lanes of the Western Sea.

Inside a reconstruction of a treasure ship (Vmenkov) 
But besides acts of diplomacy, the fleet was also an armada, transporting a mighty force of soldiers that could be landed at any port. It was written that the fleet was a terrifying sight to behold, striking terror into those who witnessed it and creating such fear that the enemy would capitulate without conflict.

Fighting, however, was occasionally inevitable with a Treasure ship carrying up to 24 cast-bronze cannons with a maximum range of 240 to 275m (800–900ft). However, the ships were primarily considered luxury trading vessels rather than warships. But in one battle, Zheng He destroyed the pirate fleet of Chen Zuyi killing 5000 men. He also established a network of military allies.

Model of treasure ship at Nanjing (Vmenkov)
The end of an era

Suddenly, in 1433, the Chinese fleet was withdrawn and all evidence of it and the ships and its voyages were erased. The Emperor had decided it was time to halt the enormous costs being spent on the Treasure Fleet. It was time to consolidate, to secure China’s frontiers and to concentrate on an agrarian economy in order to feed a rapidly growing population. The Emperor succeeded in making the Ming dynasty one of the wealthiest economies on earth.

From 1405 to 1433, the Chinese fleet had dominated the Indian Ocean but the disappearance of the largest and most powerful naval force ever seen left a lasting legacy. When China withdrew from its mercantile trade to concentrate on a purely domestic economy, it left the established sea-routes and commercial ports wide open to the emerging maritime nations of Western Europe. The Portuguese were the first to take advantage of it.

References supplied if required

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Portsmouth Road aka The Sailors' Highway

Old Portsmouth - Thomas Rowlandson the British caricaturist (1756–1827)
The Portsmouth road was the direct link between London and England’s greatest naval port and, because it was frequented by seaman from foremast Jacks to Admirals, it was dubbed The Sailors' Highway.

In 1805, there was no glamour or romance attached to coach travel. Being ‘cabin’d, cribb’d or confin’d’ in a wooden box on wheels that rolled, pitched and creaked like a ship at sea, and being ‘hauled by four horses, charging along an uneven road at the breakneck-speed of 8 mph’, was regarded as an evil best avoided.

But for those who were obliged to travel, the tedious journey began at Stone’s End (Southwark) – literally the place where the paved streets of the London Borough ended and the unmetalled country roads began. The distance of 71 miles and 7 furlongs was interrupted by six toll-houses and turnpike bars, and at least one stop at a coaching inn for a change of horses, and a chance for the passengers to eat a meal and catch a little sleep.

'The Jolly Tars of Old England’ Cruickshank
While images such as those of caricaturist, Isaac Cruickshank represent a jolly coach load of inebriated passengers, the biting cold, the inclement weather and the likelihood of falling in with thieves and robbers along the way dulled many a spirit.

Passenger had little choice but to accept the various minor miseries of the journey. For example, it was not unusual to arrive at the coach, having booked a seat in advance, only to find the coach full. Also, having to ‘ease the horses’ at the bottom of a steep hill, meant getting out and walking. And if driving through torrential rain, it was not unusual for an passenger seated outside, who was dripping wet, to take shelter by climbing into the already crowded cabin. The bad language and aggressive behaviour of drunks and beggars, who descended on the coach when it arrived at a coaching stop, could not be avoided.
The Royal Mail coach in a thunderstorm - James Pollard - 1827

Prior to 1784 and the establishment of mail coaches, the journey from London to Portsmouth took 14 hours – depending on the condition of the road. But from the turn of the century, services increased and several coaches departed London every day including the Regulator, which left at 8 am and reached Portsmouth at five in the afternoon. The Rocket and Light Post also travelled in daylight. The Royal Mail, picked up passengers at The Angel in the Strand at 7.15 pm and arrived, ‘with God’s good Grace’ at The George in Portsmouth at 6.10 the following morning. The Night Post coach, as its name indicated, also travelled through the night.

Of the hundreds of naval officers and common sailors heading to the seaport to join a ship, admirals and captains usually made use of their private carriages or hired a post chaise. These conveyances not only allowed for faster travel but offered a greater degree of privacy and comfort than the regular services. It also allowed the passenger to decide which inn he wished to stop at along the way. Lower ranked naval officers travelled by the regular coaches, whereas common sailors often covered the distance on foot or in the back of an open stage-wagon hauled by eight horses. These conveyances took three days to cover the 72 miles travelling with the ‘tripping step of a tortoise’.

The Royal Anchor Inn - Liphook

Breaking the journey at a coaching house such as The Anchor (later renamed The Royal Anchor) at Liphook offered the opportunity for a meal and a bed for those who could afford it. For sailors, clean straw on the floor of the outhouses was made available.
But apart from the minor discomforts, journeying along the Portsmouth Road was considered a dangerous venture especially if travelling at night. Because of the fear factor, fellow passengers regarded each other suspiciously and sat ‘glum and nervous – with their money in their boots, their watches in the lining of their hats, and other light valuables secreted in unlikely parts of their persons, in the fond hope that the fine fellow, mounted on a mettlesome horse, and bristling with weapons, who would presently bring the coach to a stop in some gloomy bend of the road, might be either too unpractised or in too great a hurry to think of those very obvious hiding-places.’

'Rogues 1883' by F.Dodd 1859-1929 from Illustrated London News
The threat of the rope’s end did little to deter the highwaymen, who, since the 17th century, had preyed on coaches travelling the lonely roads after nightfall. Sitting in the mail-coach’s dickey seat, the guard was armed with a musket, sword or blunderbuss.

Those passengers seated up-top were afforded the best views and when the coach neared Portsmouth, the sight of the British fleet at anchor would serve to remind them of what lay ahead. Occasionally, however, due to his excited or inebriated state, a sailor would tumble from the coach and break his leg, head, or arm, but that, in the circumstances, was not unexpected.

The Landport Gate
Arriving safely at the Landport Gate in the early hours of the morning, passengers breathed a sigh of relief – though perhaps it was unwise to inhale too deeply! Being a fortified town, the entry points to Portsmouth were locked every night from midnight to 4.00 am, so if the London coach arrived at that hour it would be obliged to wait for a line of night-soil wagons to pass out of the gate before it could enter. 

On 14th September, 1805, the post chaise carrying Admiral Lord Nelson drove through the Landport Gate and allowed him to alight at The George on High Street at 6.00 am. From there the coach continued for a further mile through the streets to its final destination at Victoria Pier.
After eating breakfast at The George, Lord Nelson proceeded to the naval dockyard where he spent several hours assessing the ships being readied for sea and visiting the Block Mill ( ).

 Lord Nelson statue- Portsmouth
Nelson’s journey from his home at Merton in south London was the last coach journey he ever took. At 2.00 o’clock that afternoon, he was rowed across Spithead to St Helens where he climbed aboard HMS Victory, the ship that would carry him to his final fateful battle at Trafalgar.

References: The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Portsmouth Road and Its Tributaries”, by Charles G. Harper, 1895 AND “The Story of Nelson’s Portsmouth” by Jane Smith
Note: This blog post, by Margaret Muir, first appeared on the pages of English Historical Fiction Authors thanks to Deborah Brown

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bagot Goats linked to Richard the Lionheart

The little known history of the Bagot goat is interlaced with images of knights on horseback, Kings and coats of arms, a story spanning 800 years where fact, legend and folklore are closely intertwined.

    This rare and ancient breed, probably England’s oldest, survived for centuries under the protection of one aristocratic family. However, half a century ago, because the breed was deemed to be of little intrinsic value, attempts were made to exterminate it. In 1979 only 12 goats remained in the herd. Without the help of a dedicated group of enthusiasts the pure Bagot goat and its intriguing story could have been lost forever.
Fact and folklore behind the legend

   When Richard the Lionheart returned from the Holy Land in 1194, the evil Prince John was Regent of England and Robin Hood and his Merry Men championed the poor of Sherwood Forest. This legend is well known. But almost unknown is that when Richard returned to England from the Crusades he brought back a few black headed goats reputedly to be from the Rhone Valley of Switzerland.

   Two hundred years later, in 1380, a young King Richard 11 presented the herd of black and white goats to Sir John Bagot at Blithfield Hall in Staffordshire. These were released into Bagots Park, 800 acres of woodland on the edge of the great Needlewood Forest. Here beneath the majestic oaks the goats ran freely. With the Lord’s wild deer, they provided sport for the royal hunting parties. This was their home for 600 years.
   For centuries legend and folklore allowed the long haired goat to live a protected life. One story tells that long ago a poacher killed a Bagot goat and ate it. Immediately, he fell ill with a mysterious illness. After that the goats were never touched despite the poachers still stealing the Lord’s deer.
   Unlike the deer, however, by law the goats were not classed as wild. If the goats strayed onto local farmland, the Estate had to pay for any damage to the crops. It is said the farmers may have encouraged the goats to escape onto their land in order to claim compensation.

   In 1380, Sir John incorporated a goat’s head into the Bagot coat of arms. It became the family’s mascot. Sir John’s helmet, which rests in the Blithfield Church, has a goat’s head on the top of it. Displayed at Blithfield Hall is a magnificent set of goat horns. These measure almost 4 feet across. But the legend, which closely unites the goats with the Bagot family from which they take their name, is that if ever the Bagot goat dies out, the House of Bagot will fall. This belief possibly ensured the survival of the breed.
   Over the years the size of the herd fluctuated. As numbers increased some culling was done. In 1920 and 1954 a few Bagot bucks were sent to the Rhinog Mountains in Wales. Today some of the wild goats of the Rhinog have distinctive Bagot markings.

   By 1939 it appeared that the fate of the Bagot herd was sealed. The Staffordshire Water Authority bought the Blithfield Estate. The old forest and grazing land was to be drowned to become a massive reservoir. The Bagot goat was considered to be of no commercial value and was to be exterminated. Fortunately, with the outbreak of the Second World War construction of the reservoir was postponed. The following year, the War Agriculture Executive issued the extermination order. Lord Bagot disputed this and the goats were given a reprieve, but the Court stipulated that the herd must not exceed 60.
   At the end of the war, work on the reservoir resumed and in 1953 most of the land was flooded. The remaining forest was cleared for farming. The Water Authority had allowed the 5th Lord Bagot to continue living in Blithfield Hall but the stately home had fallen into disrepair. When he died, the 6th Lord and his wife, Nancy Lady Bagot decided to buy it back together with some of the surrounding land. After considerable expense and extensive restoration, Blithfield Hall was opened to the public in 1956.

   Of the hundred goats which had roamed the woodland, only twenty were kept. These were brought to the Hall by Nancy Lady Bagot. The remaining wild goats were caught and sold. A few went to private farms or zoos, others were killed. A group was sent to Hal Bagot, in Cumbria.
   But the Estate's goats were destined to live in a walled garden and small paddock near the house. Gone was the natural cover of the primeval forest. By 1979 only 12 goats remained and their survival was in doubt. This gave the Bagot breed the dubious distinction of being, not only on the critical list of British endangered breeds, but featuring as the rarest of the rare breeds by the British Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
   Nancy Baroness Bagot felt she had no option but to entrust the remaining animals to the RBST in a hope that they would ensure the survival of the breed. Perhaps the old legend prompted her do this.  The Trust decided the only way to protect the species was to increase their numbers as quickly as possible so embarked on a grading-up program using base stock of various breeds and crossing them with pure Bagots. But a handful of enthusiasts could see that the true bloodline of the ancient breed was in danger of being lost. 
  As a result, the Bagot Goat Breeders Study Group was formed in 1987. Their aim was to promote the breed and maintain its integrity. Their approach was different to that taken by the Trust. Over the previous 80 years culled animals had been relocated around England and Wales. It was to these sources of pure lines that the Study Group directed their attention. By tracing the history of the animals and selecting from the small closed herds, a breed register of pure stock was compiled. As a result of the hard work undertaken by dedicated enthusiasts, hopefully the Bagot goat will never come close to extinction again.      

   Although there are no Bagot goats at Blithfield Hall today, Nancy Baroness Bagot wrote, “I count myself very privileged to have known Bagots Park and to have seen the goats in their natural surroundings. It is very heartening that so many goat lovers are caring for these unique and historic animals.”
   Nancy Baroness Bagot who was Honorary President of the Bagot Goat Society for many years passed away in 2014. 

 Note: When I visited England several years ago I came across a handsome Bagot buck on a farm in the south. I noted in my diary “What a magnificent animal”. Last year, I published a short story for boys, ‘King Richard and the Mountain Goat,’ – a purely fictitious tale based on the myth surrounding the Bagot breed.

Note 2: This article by Margaret Muir was first published in The Goat Farmer Magazine – June 2000   
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