It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the Victorians.
Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor – Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.
The holidays: The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Father Christmas / Santa Claus: Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.
Christmas Cards: The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Turkey Time: Turkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two. By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas!
The Christmas Tree: The Victorian age placed great importance on family, so it follows that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones. Family life was epitomised by the popular Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and their nine children. One of the most important Christmas traditions, the decorated Christmas tree, was a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert.
The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight. Mechanisation and the improved printing process meant decorations could be mass-produced and advertised to eager buyers. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1853. Victorians would often combine their sparkly bought decorations with candles and homemade edible treats, tied to the branches with ribbon.
Today, candles on the Christmas tree have been replaced by fairy lights, printed cards may be substituted with e-cards and we’re more likely to find plastic knick-knacks in our crackers than jewellery. Our Christmas customs continue to be shaped by technological advancements and modern changes in society. How many of us do our Christmas shopping online, or Skype our families across the world on Christmas Day? But these new traditions are still rooted in the spirit of the Victorian Christmas – an integral part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
The Crackers: Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Christmas Cards: One of the most significant seasonal traditions to emerge from the Victorian era is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned the artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene for his seasonal greeting cards and had 1000 printed – those he didn’t use himself were sold to the public. Later in the century, improvements to the chromolithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone.
Carol Singers: Carol Singers and Musicians “The Waits” visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger
It was often assumed that during the Georgian period (1714-1830) Christmas was not celebrated with as much gusto as during the Victorian era. Although traditions, foods and celebrations differed, Christmas was, in fact, actively celebrated by the Georgians. We know that Christmas was banned by the Puritans in 1644, Christmas completely abolished and shops and markets kept open during the 25th of December. People were expected to continue going about their normal business and not partake in holiday celebrations or face fines and imprisonment. Puritans disliked Christmas because of its heathen origins and because of its association with extravagance and excess. This gave rise to the belief that Christmas fun and frivolity was not rekindled until the Victorian period. This was not stictly true for with the restoration of Charles II, Christmas was, in fact, re-instated – albeit in a more subdued manner. By the Georgian period (1714 to 1830), it was once again a very popular celebration.
When searching for information on a Georgian or Regency (late Georgian) Christmas, who better to consult than Jane Austen? In her novel, ‘Mansfield Park’, Sir Thomas gives a ball for Fanny and William. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the Bennets play host to relatives. In ‘Sense and Sensibility’, John Willoughby dances the night away, from eight o’clock until four in the morning. In ‘Emma’, the Westons give a party. And so it would appear that a Georgian Christmas was very much all about parties, balls and family get-togethers. The Georgian Christmas season ran from December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night). On St. Nicholas Day, it was traditional for friends to exchange presents; this marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
Christmas Day was a national holiday, spent by the gentry in their country houses and estates. People went to church and returned to a celebratory Christmas dinner. But what of the food? Well, agriculture had come a long way since the Tudors, and so it was more likely than ever that every house could afford some kind of bird for the table. For the wealthy, venison was still the order of the day and a real indicator of status to show off to those invited to dinner. Another departure from Tudor tradition was mince pies which, under the Tudors, contained real mutton to honour the shepherds. During the Georgian era the mince pie recipe would include spices, dried fruit and suet, essentially a mixture we’d recognise today. Food indeed played a very important part in a Georgian Christmas. Guests and parties meant that a tremendous amount of food had to be prepared, and dishes that could be prepared ahead of time and served cold were popular.
For Christmas dinner, there was always a turkey or goose, though venison was the meat of choice for the gentry. This was followed by Christmas pudding. In 1664 the Puritans banned it, calling it a ‘lewd custom’ and ‘unfit for God-fearing people’. Christmas Puddings were also called plum puddings because one of the main ingredients was dried plums or prunes.
In 1714, King George I was apparently served plum pudding as part of his first Christmas dinner as a newly crowned monarch, thus re-introducing it as a traditional part of Christmas dinner. Unfortunately there are no contemporary sources to confirm this, but it is a good story and led to his being nicknamed ‘the pudding king’.
Traditional decorations included holly and evergreens. The decoration of homes was not just for the gentry: poor families also brought greenery indoors to decorate their homes, but not until Christmas Eve. It was considered unlucky to bring greenery into the house before then. By the late 18th century, kissing boughs and balls were popular, usually made from holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary. These were often also decorated with spices, apples, oranges, candles or ribbons. In very religious households, the mistletoe was omitted.
The tradition of a Christmas tree in the house was a German custom and apparently brought to Court in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. However it was not until the Victorian era that the British people adopted the tradition, after the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.
A great blazing fire was the centerpiece of a family Christmas. The Yule log was chosen on Christmas Eve. It was wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home, to burn in the fireplace as long as possible through the Christmas season. The tradition was to keep back a piece of the Yule log to light the following year’s Yule log. Nowadays in most households the Yule log has been replaced by an edible chocolate variety!
The day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, was the day when people gave to charity and the gentry presented their servants and staff with their ‘Christmas Boxes’. This is why today St Stephen’s Day is called ‘Boxing Day’. Then there was the popular drink at assemblies of the Wassail bowl. This was similar to punch or mulled wine, prepared from spiced and sweetened wine or brandy, and served in a large bowl garnished with apples.
January 6th or Twelfth Night signalled the end of the Christmas season and was marked in the 18th and 19th centuries by a Twelfth Night party. Games such as ‘bob apple’ and ‘snapdragon’ were popular at these events, as well as more dancing, drinking and eating.
A forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, the ‘Twelfth Cake’ was the centrepiece of the party and a slice was given to all members of the household. Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected king for the night; the woman who found a pea elected queen. By Georgian times the pea and bean had disappeared from the cake.
Once Twelfth Night was over, all the decorations were taken down and the greenery burned, or the house risked bad luck. Even today, many people take down all their Christmas decorations on or before 6th January to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately the extended Christmas season was to disappear after the Regency period, brought to an end by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of the rural way of life that had existed for centuries. Employers needed workers to continue working throughout the festive period and so the ‘modern’ shortened Christmas period came into being.
To finish, it seems only fitting to give Jane Austen the last word:
“I wish you a cheerful and at times even a Merry Christmas.” Jane Austen
Some 500 years ago, Christmas was the time where communities outside of politics came together to celebrate; in the Tudor court, greater emphasis was placed on what we call today – networking! Generally however, it was a time to be with the family, visit neighbours and entertain your tenants or social equals. It was also a time for fasting and on Christmas Eve you were not permitted to eat meat, cheese or eggs. On Christmas day, after three masses were said, the genealogy of Christ was sung and all present would hold lighted tapers before departing for home and enjoying “their first unrestricted meal since Advent Sunday, which was four weeks earlier”. It was also a time for rest when all work on the land stopped, with the only exception being to look after the animals. Spinning, the prime occupation for women at the time, was banned and ceremonial flowers were placed on the wheels to prevent their use. All Work recommenced on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
However, the root of this particular midwinter ritual go back long before the birth of Christ for midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. We have to go back to the shortest day, which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’.
For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in the sixth century by Dionysius, an ‘innumerate’ Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.
Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice appears both logical and shrewd – blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.
One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.
The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the period starting with St Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop’s regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII abolished Boy Bishops, however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.
The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word ‘Yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative term for Christmas. Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.
Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same – a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories, normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the Boars Head Carol.
Carols became very popular during Tudor time and were seen as a way of celebrating Christmas and spreading the word of the nativity. Winken de Worde’s ‘Christmasse Carolles’, published in 1521, is the earliest recorded published collection and includes the Boars Head Carol describing the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a yuletide feast; the head being garnished with rosemary and bay before being presented to diners. However, celebrations came to an abrupt end in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits – Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem – to mention but a few.
Twelve Days of Christmas:
The twelve days of Christmas themselves (25th December- 6th January) were all celebrated but not equally. The main three days of celebration being Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, these twelve days would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels to prevent their use. During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional ‘minced pye’. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds.
Serious feasting would have been the reserve of royalty and the gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.
A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.
Wassailing: This popular Christmas tradition was practiced throughout all levels of society and derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. Essentially it involved a wassail bowl and a communal drink.
Although most of the descriptions of how wassail was performed date from post Tudor times, there is one surviving description from the reign of Henry VII. It paints a very formal picture; the steward and treasurer were present with their staves of office and then the steward enters with the wassail bowl, calling out “wassell, wassell, wassell” and the court responds with a song. The bowl was a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples with a crust of bread at the bottom. The most important person in the household would take a drink and then pass it on. The crust of bread at the bottom of the wassail bowl was reserved for the most important person in the room, the origin of a modern day ‘toast’ when celebrating. Some believe that most wassails of the time were probably more fun and less grand. Today, communal drinking may sound alien, but it was very common in Tudor times.
Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly less exotic gifts!
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
It was on the 4th December 1830, some say it was a Saturday morning, when the Town Clerk of Norwich City Council issued a Proclamation from the Guildhall on behalf of the City’s Mayor and Magistrates. It announced that the lawbreaking ‘Swing’ Rioters would be suitably punished; a message that the authorities considered the public should be clearly told about:
“A paramount duty which they owe to their Sovereign and their Country at this moment of general disturbance, to declare that, whilst in common with the rest of their Fellow Citizens, they are on the one hand ready to do all which sympathy and benevolence can suggest for the relief of distressed operatives in this populous place, so on the other hand it is their full determination to act with the promptitude, decision, and vigour, which circumstances imperatively demand in prohibiting tumultuous assemblies, and suppressing riotous proceedings, in opposing every kind of open outrage, and actively endeavouring to detect secret attacks on either person or property……..”
The authorities were also anxious that their ‘Fellow Citizens’ should know and understand that:
“……. Persons who are guilty of these lawless proceedings, are liable on conviction to suffer Death, and that the loss incurred by individuals by the destruction of their property must be paid for by the Public, and will consequently tend to increase the County Rate”
The lawless proceedings that the authorities referred to broke out on the morning of the 27th of November 1830 at Lyng Mill, a few miles north of Norwich. Unrest amongst workers had been festering for some time and came to head when a group of some 200 rioters gathered there. Because the mill owners had received notice of pending trouble, but not its size, only a certain Richard Tolladay had been taken on at the mill to provide extra security. It was somewhat inevitable that being alone Tolladay would fail to protect the paper-making machinery from being destroyed once the mob had decided to break into the Lyng Mill.
No sooner had they completed their task, they proceeded towards their second objective, the paper-mill at Taverham, which they reached in the afternoon. Their intention this time was to destroy the highly productive ‘Fourdrinier’ paper-making machine. In the 1820s the principal paper maker at Taverham mill, John Burgess, was making a considerable amount of money from this revolutionary and highly productive machine. He was one of the few men in the country who knew how to use it to supply not only the local Norwich printers but also customers as far afield as Cambridge University Press. The paper mill was certainly doing well and so was Burgess who went on to buy property and cottages in Norwich and Costessey. He not only bought the White Hart in 1819, but by 1830 he had rebuilt it.
The ‘machine-breakers’ visit to Taverham was, again, not entirely unexpected. Some precautions had been taken by extra manpower being employed to guard the premises and machinery against attack. Doors were, of course, locked but this was totally ineffective against some 200 rioters who were mostly armed with hatchets and pick-axes. None of the workers at the Mill was hurt or even threatened, but the ‘Fourdrinier’ was put out of production when its breast-board was broken with an axe. Such a piece of the equipment supported the canvas apron along which the pulp was carried on to the wire belt at the beginning of the paper-making process.
It should be said that these rioters had been inspired by the ‘Swing’ riots that had started in Kent but very soon spread through several counties, particularly in southern England. Farm life was far from easy in the 19th Century, but it really began to deteriorate from the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. From then, machinery was gradually introduced into farming and factories, and this meant that less workers were needed and this, in turn, led to unemployment and increased poverty. At that time, Labourers did not have the vote or any way of protesting lawfully. Frustrations grew. The final straw came with the introduction of the threshing machine (used to separate grain from stalks and husks) which labourers knew would deprive them of their winter work. In August 1830 farm workers set fire to a threshing machine, in Kent, in a desperate bid to highlight their plight and need for fairer wages. This was the first reported incident of the Swing Riots – the aim was to destroy machines.
The name “Swing Riots” had been derived from ‘Captain Swing’, the fictitious name often signed on threatening letters which were sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. ‘Swing’ was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement; apparently, the word was a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing. The Swing letters were first mentioned by The Times newspaper on 21 October 1830. In Norfolk, many agricultural and factory labourers caught the mood that had spread from the south and formed themselves into their form of ‘machine-breakers’, the sort who assembled at Lyng and Taverham. They too were involved in the destruction of threshing machines, and in this they had targeted Taverham’s Squire Micklethwait and farmer Joby at Weston Longville.
Richard Tolladay of Lyng Mill, anxious to make amends for his failure that morning, followed the rioters at a safe distance and concealed himself amongst some trees and bushes. From the shadows he recognised who he thought was the ring leader from that morning – Robert West and duely seized him with the help of a handful of accomplices. It was a move that was impulsive and with little regard to the fact that Tolladay’s group were badly outnumbered. Before West could be spirited away, he managed to wrestle free and escape, much to the delight of the rioters, whose cry of “There goes old Bob” was clear and unmistakable. Although he might well have congratulated himself on making what had been a lucky escape, West was to be at large long enough to miss the January 1831 Quarter Sessions in Norwich where he would have been more leniently treated.
As it was at the time, when the riots were taking place, an urgent message had already been sent to Norwich requesting help from the military. In response, a detachment of the 1st Dragoon Guards was dispatched to Taverham. It was almost dark by the time they arrived, and the rioters had already moved on – with the exception of one man, named Richard Dawson. He was found and arrested on the Fakenham Road; the rest of the rioters had made their way back towards the Lyng area where, probably thinking they were safe, lit a fire; however, unbeknown to them, they were being watched!
One must mention that, apart from the County’s landed gentry and business owners, there was a great amount of sympathy for the rioters from among the poor and working-class people of Norfolk. It was only a few days before the riot at Taverham when the Justices of North Walsham put out proclamations begging employers to accede to the machine-breakers’ demands. Much to the annoyance of the Government, particularly the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, this sympathy extended to the jurors at the subsequent trials of the rioters. The only person to be charged with offences connected with the event in Taverham was the lone Richard Dawson, the young man arrested on the Fakenham road. As it turned out, he could not be implicated in the attack on the Mills, but was charged with destroying Squire Micklethwait’s threshing machine in Taverham Hall’s bullock yard. The only witness against Dawson was one of the Squire’s employees, a Mr. D. Rose!
It followed that, at the January 1831 Assizes, the jury acquitted Dawson on the grounds that there was only one witness; this, apparently, caused the Chairman to rather forcible informed them that ‘one witness was as good as a hundred’ – and directed the jury to reconsider their verdict. Such was the sympathy towards the rioters that, despite this official direction which came to almost an order for the jurors to convict, they returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict to what was said to be ‘great applause from the public gallery’. From this, the Home Office concluded that local people could not be trusted to take a firm line; they also were well aware that they could do nothing about those already acquitted or those who had received light sentences. Unlike today, there was no process of appeal against a ‘not guilty’ verdict and there was no such thing as double jeopardy.
Robert West was formerly arrested on the 6th June 1831 which, unfortunately for him, meant that he had missed the earlier court of January. By summer time the Norfolk Circuit Judges had also ‘got the message’ from the Home Office, which meant that the forthcoming Summer Assize would be quite a different affair. Far from being acquitted as Richard Dawson had been in January, West was, at first, condemned to death but later spared the noose when he was sentenced to be transported to New South Wale. He was never to see his wife and family again
Robert West found himself on board the Portland, along with 177 other convicts from throughout England, parts of Scotland, Jamaica and Gibraltar. Their crimes included various forms of stealing, house robbery, forgery, passing base coin, embezzlement, poaching, picking pockets etc…. There were few if any violent criminals amongst them. Most of the ‘Swing’ rioters sentenced to exile in New South Wales had been transported on the Eleanor in 1831, however at least three prisoners on the Portland had also been involved in Swing Riots……Robert West was one of them.
Prior to the 178 prisoners embarking at Spithead on 14 November 1831, they had been held in the prison hulks ‘Captivity’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘York’ where the men had worked in the Dock-yard from seven o’clock until, twelve, in the mornings, and from a quarter past one o’clock until half past five, in the afternoons. Most of these prisoners were young men in a good state of health with the exception of a few who suffered chronic leg ulcers. The Portland’s prison guards consisted of two non-commissioned Officers, 27 Privates of the 4th and 39th regiments who were commanded by Lieutenant Archer of the 16th regiment. He travelled as a cabin passenger whilst two women and four children travelled in steerage.
Joseph Cook, the Portland’s surgeon, kept a Journal from 21st October 1831 to 11 April 1832. In it, he stated that:
“the Portland did not depart Spithead until 27 November 1832; after when, the winds and weather were variable. Catarrh appeared as an epidemic during these days and continued to recur during the whole of the voyage, almost all on board having been affected with it more or less, but in the greater number of instances so slight as not to require confinement or medical treatment. The prisoners were also much affected with costiveness induced by sea sickness and change of diet but the general state of health on board during the voyage was good. The leg ulcers they had suffered with on arrival on the Portland speedily recovered under the surgeon’s treatment of adhesive straps and a change of air and better diet”.
During the voyage the convicts were admitted on deck daily as much as the state of weather and other circumstances permitted, one half taking their meals on deck alternatively. Attention was paid to cleanliness and the between decks kept as dry as possible. The Portland was off the coast of Brazil on 14th January 1832 and no heavy rain was reported until the Portland was off the coast of Australia when they also experienced strong westerly winds. The temperature occasionally reached 89° in the prison at nights while passing through the tropics. The Portland arrived in Port Jackson on 26th March 1832 and a Muster was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29th March. There had been no deaths during the voyage and the 178 male convicts were landed at Sydney on 6th April 1832. All except one, William Toll who had suffered scurvy, were fit for immediate employment.
Tocal (meaning ‘plenty’ in the local Aboriginal language) is located in the lower Hunter Valley, of New South Wales, Australia, approximately 7 miles north of Maitland and about 110 miles north of Sydney at the junction of the Paterson River and Webbers Creek. It was there that Robert West was set to work on a farm until failing health caused him to be removed to Port Macquarie. He died in 1837 and today, his name is recorded on a memorial in the town which also has a reference to Lyng in Norfolk.
Postscript: By a strange coincidence one of the partners who operated Taverham mill after the riots also ended up in New South Wales. It would appear that the experience of Norfolk’s version of the Swing Riots had discouraged the then Mill’s owner, Robert Hawkes; and despite the fact that his company was compensated for the damage he still decided to sell his share of the business and retire. The new partners with whom John Burgess found himself saddled with were two young men from wealthy local families, Henry Robberds and Starling Day. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they seemed not to have many business interests and they may have tried to ‘meddle’ at the Mill. This would not have pleased Burgess who was used to having a free hand to run the business and, whatever was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, Burgess left the partnership in 1832 to take the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper in which he was so experienced. However, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss again, and he continued to make money. But back at Taverham Mill things went from bad to worse. Firstly, Henry Robberds and Starling Day had lost John Burgess, the one partner who was an experienced paper-maker and instrumental in making a lot of money for the company. Then in 1839 two employees were killed when part of the mill collapsed and by 1842 both Henry Robberds and Starling Day were declared bankrupt. It was Robberds who emigrated from Liverpool with his family and no sooner was he settled in Sydney when, it was said, he became very involved in raising money for the construction of the new St James Cathedral there. A scan of the present-day directories seems to show that the Robberds name is still prominent in the life of Sydney.
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Background: The late 18th century was a problem period for the British Government insofar as industrialisation was fanning the growth of city-slums and there was much unemployment of soldiers and sailors following the American War of Independence. The crime rate was high, the prisons were overcrowded and there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.
In response the government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. It was a time when many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women; certainly between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts by six to one. But also included in Government policy was a wish to see that women convicts being sent to Australia were of “marriageable” age; a policy aimed at promoting family development for emancipated convicts, free settlers and to develop the penal outpost of New South Wales into a viable colony.
A myth that prevailed at the time was that convict women were all prostitutes; no they were not! The fact was that the majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences – such as petty theft and most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Of course, many women were driven to prostitution following their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding of their own. These women indeed faced extreme difficulty in achieving freedom, solvency and respectability. They would go on to be employed in ‘factories’ (equivalent of the English workhouse) but often had to find their own accommodation, and would be under great pressure to pay for it with sexual services. This was why women convicts tended to be regarded as prostitutes. But it is a popular misconception that they had originally been convicted of prostitution, for this was not a transportable offence.
Amongst the women convicts who would be subjected to many of the problems associated with transportation into exile was a Mary Ann Adams, aged 23, a dairymaid from Norfolk who in later Australian records described as being 5ft 1in in height, of pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes and with a scar over her left eyebrow. Mary had been committed to the 1834 Spring Norwich Assizes to face a charge of stealing a purse containing four sovereigns. She was found guilty of that charge on the 22 March of that year and, at first, was sentenced to death; but this was later commuted to life in the colonies – an alternative particularly favoured by the Norwich courts at that time. Was this also a reflection of the Government wish to increase the number of ‘marriageable’ women needed for the Australian colony? – Mary, for one, would never have known.
Following her sentence, Mary Adams spent approximately 3 months in Nowich Gaol, which, at that time, was located at the end of St Giles’ Street by the Earlham Road & Unthank Road junctions on a site now accupied by St John the Baptist Cathedral and built 1882-1910. While in Norwich Goal, Mary made a keepsake token from a worn-down two-pence coin. On it she inscribed:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
This keepsake still remains on display at the Norwich Castle Museum to serve as a reminder as intended. Mary was transported to Woolwich, along with a Sarah Sharrods, servant, who had received a similar life sentence and a Ann Burke who had been sentenced to 14 years of exile at the previous December Assizes in Norwich. How and in what conditions these three travelled is unknown but, generally, prisoners destined to be transported for exile would have been secured in heavy chains and riding in open coaches, irrespective of weather conditions. It is unknown whether, on the way, the coach that carried them also picked up a further five prisoners in Suffolk – all of whom had been sentenced to 7 years each to exile. It may have been of some comfort that they travelled during the summer, at the same time when 136 other female convicts were travelling from cities and counties throughout England, Scotland and Wales to board the 1804 built George Hibbert at Woolwich.– all were chained for that journey. The ship, controlled by the Master, Captain George N. Livesay and ship’s Surgeon Superintendent, John Tarn, was scheduled to sail on 27 July 1834.
This would be John Tarn’s second voyage as surgeon superintendent on a convict ship. As was his normal practice, he would keep a Medical Journal – this time between 7 June and 18 December 1834. It was for the 3rd to 17th of July 1834, that he would place on record the following general remarks, throwing light on the general health situation on board the George Hibbert, both prior to sailing and for the voyage:
“……. There were 144 female convicts, 11 free women and 64 children who were received on board at Woolwich, having been forwarded in parties from the different counties of Great Britain’. Most of the women were below middle age and in sufficient good health to make the journey without much risk of disease. The vessel was very crowded but the usual precautions to reduce risk of disease made for a healthy voyage. The convicts and children were on deck whenever possible and stoves were used to reduce dampness. Most complaints were affections of the bowels, catarrhal and dyspeptic attacks and diseases of the uterine system and were generally not severe. Bowel complaints appeared during the close, sultry weather and were mostly connected with hepatic secretions. Calomel and purgatives removed the symptoms. The voyage was longer than usual, taking 130 days, and there were numerous slight symptoms of scurvy for some weeks before arriving in Sydney. Lemon juice had been regularly issued and when it ran out it was replaced with [concrete] citric acid and a solution of nitre in vinegar. These remedies produced good effects particularly in the dysenteric cases. Among the children, only 11 were subjects for vaccination, 10 successfully and the other unsuccessful although the virus was taken from the arm of a healthy subject. –
Signed, John Tarn
It was during both the period when the ship was preparing to sail and also during the voyage that Mary Ann Adams was placed on a sick list on two occasions; the first being on the 14 July 1834 when her condition was recorded as “Convict; disease or hurt, amenorrhoea. Discharged, 25 July 1834. Had suffered suppression of the menses for several months and had dyspeptic symptoms, debility and languor.” As things turned out, many women were treated for illnesses whilst the George Hibbert was in port, and no less than 60 were treated for illnesses during the voyage; again, Mary Ann Adams was amongst these.
The George Hibbert was the first convict ship to have a Matron on board and credit here must be given to Norfolk’s Elizabeth Fry. Amongst many other things associated with Mrs Fry, she was the one who actively campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journeys. She also was to arrange for each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell when they reached their destination. Being religious, she gave bibles and useful items, such as string, knives and forks. During her time when she pushed for reforms, Elizabeth Fry visited over 106 transport ships and saw some 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation which was to come about in 1837; however, Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships up to 1843. Throughout, she saw the need to communicate with Lord Melbourne on matters connected with the Ladies’ British Society; these chiefly covered that of transportation, female convicts on board ship and their treatment when they arrive in the colony. It also covered the need for matrons for convict ships……
The first Matron who undertook the office, sanctioned by both the Government and the Ladies’ British Society, was Mrs. Saunders, the wife of a missionary named John Saunders. Both were on board the George Hibbert; their passages paid for by the Government on condition that Mr Saunders administered his religious responsibilities amongst the ship’s convicts and passengers. In this he was almost alone since his wife was to suffer so much sickness which impeded her support for her husband during the voyage. Nevertheless, the authorities seemed well pleased with their efforts. Of the position of Mrs Saunders as Matron, Elizabeth Fry said “This is the only one we have sent out as a Matron. The British Society aided in the Expense and so did the Government; they allowed them the food of the ship”.
Another consequence of Elizabeth Fry’s and The British Society’s deliberations was the creation of a ‘Convict Ship Committee’, which was to visit the George Hibbert on no less than four occasions, prior to its sailing, to investigate conditions. Its conclusion was that:
”The ship was found to be much crowded, and serious inconveniences were felt, and were to be apprehended, during the voyage, from this circumstance. It is however to be noticed, with thankfulness, that both the captain and surgeon superintendent appeared to be peculiarly well qualified for the offices to which they were appointed.”
The Reverend John Saunders was to compile his own notes about both the voyage to New South Wales and his religious efforts during that voyage – understandably since that was a condition of a free passage for both him and his wife and he, no doubt, felt obliged to present a positive picture of his efforts. His Notes were dated 10 December 1834 :
“Divine Providence opened the way for service that evening; and I went down into the prisons, and had a pleasant season to my soul; and so of the succeeding days, till Sunday, when I envied the tranquillity of the Isle of Thanet: however, we had services between decks, and I trust they were not without their influence upon my own and the prisoners’ souls.
On Sunday or Monday night we had a smart breeze, and I felt myself a coward. It was then I discovered how the busy time of the last few months had eaten away faith and fortitude; it led me to prayer— which I trust was progressively answered during the voyage……We skirted the Bay of Biscay very pleasantly; and when we had got within the latitude of Africa, I felt myself away from Europe and my old world;—yet neither the expanse of ocean, nor the fact of absence, at all proved desolate. I was happy in my duties, and had a sufficiency of business in attending to a sick wife……
“Disappointed in not being able to touch at Madeira, we made for the Canaries, a beautiful group of islands. They are of volcanic origin; and seemed to be so many sweet spots to remind man of the presence of God in the midst of the deep; and as if placed there to refresh his eye, wearied with the unvarying sight of the blue wave. Here we were favoured with a glimpse of the highest cone of Tenerife: the next day we anchored off Palma, so named, I believe, from its palms……..
Soon after leaving Faeroe, we got into the North East Trade winds, and nothing could be more beautiful than our sailing a good regular breeze, with clear weather. We maintained regular services both daily and weekly—the Sabbath services being conducted on the poop. Soon afterwards, we were on the verge of the Line: and here we lost a man named Davis, overboard: he had committed a flagrant breach of propriety, and seemed determined to drown his soul in perdition; accordingly, he got tipsy, vented most horrid blasphemies, and, unseen by others, fell overboard: when missed, most diligent search was made, but the boat returned without any trace of him…….
Our passage between the Trades was most merciful: instead of being scorched by the heat and lying rolling under calms, we had a pleasant wind, although contrary, which kept us cool, and was the messenger of health to our relaxed frames. After we entered the South East Trade winds, we ran on with great celerity; and sometimes, as I preached on the poop, I was obliged to hold on, while the water ever and anon rushed over the lee-gunwale, and the spray came splashing over the weather-bow………
When off Tristan D’Cunha we had a gale which much alarmed me. I was not well: we had again commenced services between decks, which amounted in the whole to six……… but shuddered at the prospective calamities which might arise to the passengers and crew……… before Monday night we had moderate weather; and Tuesday the 7th, my birthday, was most splendid, the air serene, cool, and clear. This was a happy commencement of my new year. I thought Heaven smiled upon me………We now ran pleasantly on, with very variable weather, until 24th November, when we had the happiness of seeing land, after having lost it for ninety-nine days. I felt it now my duty to redouble my exertions; and in addition to the services I have previously mentioned, I gave a lecture every evening, on some point of morality, such as Truth, Charity etc. Our hearts were all exultation: we were, however, kept both humble and patient; so that when we had baffling or fight winds, we took it gratefully, as part of all things.
Sunday 30th November, the last Sabbath at sea…….and I trust the service had a beneficial effect. Monday, we arrived (at Port Jackson), to deplore the sin and vileness everywhere manifest around. I preached on board, to the women who were not yet landed”.
The George Hibbert arrived in Port Jackson on 1 December 1834 with the 144 female prisoners being mustered on board on 5th December for the purpose of compiling indents which would include the name, age, religion, education, marital status, family, native place, trade, offence, when and where tried, sentence, prior convictions and physical description. No information was included in the indents as to where the women were to be assigned. According to the Rev. Saunders, the women disembarked on 15th December 1834. Those with children were probably taken by water directly to the Female Factory at Parramatta. Some may have been assigned to family members. Those with relatives already in the colony or about to arrive included Sarah Sharrod from Norfolk whose brother, Edward Sharwood, had arrived 18 months previously.
On the 16th December 1834, Captain G.N. Livesay of the George Hibbert wrote to the owners of the George Hibbert in London.
“I have been very highly favoured in having an excellent Surgeon, and likewise a most excellent and worthy Man who has come over as a Baptist Missionary, Mr. John Saunders; he has proved a very great Acquisition; his kind attentions to the unfortunate Criminals has been unceasing, and many of them I hope will retain the grateful Remembrance of his Kindness to them; some of them who when they came into the ship could neither read nor write have left her well capable of doing both. His wife, a most amiable young woman was also very attentive and kind to them. The whole of them will have to acknowledge to the End of their Days that the George Hibbert has been a comfortable home to them; there were some few very bad spirits among them, but I am happy to say they made a small part of the whole……”
It was John Saunders who wrote to the Colonist in January 1835:
“His Majesty’s Government was pleased to grant myself and wife a free passage in order that I might exercise the ministration of the gospel on board: but such free passage consisted in an allowance to enter on the vessel – the necessary pecuniary arrangements having to be made with the captain. In common with yourself, I deplore the unfortunate circumstances attendant upon the female emigration vessels, and perceived the salutary influence which the regular performance of Divine worship had upon the prisoners on board the George Hibbert. I cannot but hope that government in future will grant free passages (in the full sense of the phrase) to sincere men of every denomination. It is a wise economy in any nation to expend her wealth on the religious advancement of her children. And here, I desire to acknowledge the zealous and efficient co-operation of the surgeon, superintendent and commander, gentlemen to whom not only I, but the members of the Ladies Prison Association in Britain and all friends to the diminution of crime, the reformation of the profane and the amelioration of human misery stand deeply indebted.”
Those who found themselves residing in the Hunter Valley region thereafter were Mary Ann Adams, and Sarah Sharrod……. As early as January 1835 some of the prisoners from the George Hibbert were already in trouble. The Sydney Herald reported:
” The female prisoners who lately arrived on the George Hibbert, seem fully equal to the task of rivalling in bad conduct those renowned damsels who arrived in the Colony a few years ago by the ‘Roslin Castle’ and ‘Lucy Davidson’, and who were so noted at the time for their bad behaviour. Scarce a day passes without a batch from George Hibbert being placed at the bar of the Sydney Police.”
As for our two Norfolk women, it is worth noting their early records for a taste of what they went through:
Mary Ann Adams: A dairymaid from Norfolk age 24. Tried 22 March 1834 and sentenced to transportation for life for man robbery. She was 5ft 1in pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes. Scar over left eyebrow.
1837, Parramatta Application from Thomas Richardson per Florentia, ticket of leave holder, to marry Mary Ann Adams per George Hibbert
1 June 1842: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. No offence. Returned to government service. Thomas Richardson admitted to the gaol on the same day on suspicion of theft.
7 February 1843: Richardson (Adams), Mary, late of George Hibbert 1834, Admitted to Newcastle gaol. Sentenced to 1 month hard labour for disorderly conduct
25 January 1845: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann, Wollombi. Obtained Ticket of Leave.
Sarah Sharrod: Maid of All work (Servant). Aged 26 from Norfolk
15 July1835: Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Patrick Plains. Returned to government service. Re-assigned to Rev. Wilton at Newcastle 12 August.
29 December 1835: Newcastle. Assigned to Rev. Wilton. Accused Harrison, Earl, Johnson, Armstrong and Andrews of robbing her while in Church
October 1836. Newcastle. Register Book of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. p. 66. Marriage of Sarah Sharrod aged 31 and Dennis Whythe (White) aged 38. Witnesses Anne and Benjamin Cox of Maitland.
1837.Newcastle. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Age 28. Assigned to the gaol at Newcastle.
27 June 1840 Newcastle Gaol Entrance Book. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sentenced to 3rd class female factory. Returned to her husband 24 August 1840.
25 March 1846. Newcastle Gaol Entrance Books. Sharrod (White) Sarah, Laundress from Norfolk. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sent to Hyde Park Barracks.
27 May 1846. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Ticket of leave cancelled for being a prostitute.
6 November 1850. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Granted conditional pardon.
Thereafter, we lose touch with both the former Mary Ann Adams and Sarah Sharrods, both of whom married and maybe thereafter settled down, having experienced a ‘colourful existence’ during their early years in the colony. One, nowadays, would like to think that both had been victims of the circumstances of the time. A clue to Mary’s true nature may well still lay hidden behind the words she inscribed on that coin which resides in Norwich Castle Museum:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
 Sydney Herald 4 December 1834
 Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry: By Thomas Timpson.
 The Pilot, or Sailors’ magazine – Notes of the Labours of Rev. John Saunders on his Voyage to New South Wales
 The Colonist 15 January 1835
 Sydney Gazette 15 January 1835
 Perth Gazette 21 March 1835
 Sydney Herald 29 February 1836
 Journal of John Tarn. Ancestry.com. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857 Original data: The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
 Bateson, Charles & Library of Australian History (1983). The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 (Australian ed). Library of Australian History, Sydney : pp.352-53.
 Convict Indents. Ancestry.com. State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12188; Item: [4/4019]; Microfiche: 693.
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
The Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth was the home-port of HMS Lutine, a 32-gun frigate that had been captured from the French in 1793 and incorporated into the British Fleet. For the rest of 1790’s, she served with the North Sea Fleet and was responsible for keeping an eye on the Dutch coast and the French, ever since they invaded the Netherland in 1795. It was in the springtime 1799 the Britons and Russians began to make preparations for their own invasion of the Netherlands; this was to finally take place in the August. During the planning and implementation stages of this invasion, HMS Lutine was active in the North Sea and at the Waddenzee; her duties at first was to watch the Dutch coast, look out for French ships, and guide friendly ships through the dangerous waters of the Waddenzee and the Zuiderzee. During the invasion and afterwards, her duties also included the ferrying of supplies, troops, messages and instructions to other British ships in the area. The Lutine must have known the area like the back of its hand – you might think!
In late September of 1799, HMS Lutine was again back in Great Yarmouth and lay at anchor waiting, along with her Captain Lancelot Skynner, to receive further orders; normal practice of course. The Captain knew it would be a short respite but, in all honesty, expected the next voyage to be one of helping to relieve the backlog of passengers, mail and supplies that had stacked high as a direct result of the bad weather that had persisted during the summer, placing the British trade with the continent at a standstill. The regular packet boats had failed to arrive in Yarmouth for such a long time. This situation was compounded by the Government’s own blocking policy against some continental ports, leaving Cuxhaven, the only harbour reachable for the British. All this had enormous economic consequences for both the British and the Hanoverian traders who were deprived of profits and caused the Hanover and London Exchanges to close down on several occasions whilst hostilities were in progress. Many Hamburg trade houses were, in fact, threatened with bankruptcy and the Bank of England felt obliged to support the Hamburg trade whilst ensuring that the British troops who were now on Dutch soil were payed. The Bank of Englan decided to send loads of money as a matter of urgency! This decision had a direct influence on the orders that were communicated to HMS Lutine. She would not be transporting troops and provisions, but gold bullion and coinage of considerable value! This also meant that the Lutine would not be pursuing any form of hostile action.
The destination for this valuable cargo was Hamburg, via the port of Cuxhaven, where the Lutine would drop anchor, unload and routinely return to Great Yarmouth to await yet further orders. Compared with the hectic battle-actions during the proceeding months, this voyage was expected to be more like a holiday cruise now that 30 passengers had also been booked on board, despite the Lutine being a ship of war and, supposedly, still required to be on active readiness. Clearly, normal procedure was being dispensed with, and bear in mind that these passengers were not common steerage class; most were, in fact of high standing including, as has been rumoured since, an element of European nobility in the mix. It was this concoction which guaranteed that, once everyone had settled comfortably aboard, spirits would rise and a pleasant party would ensue, safe in the knowledge that they would be cruising in comfort and not likely to be hostages of war.
On the other side of the social class system that existed at the time were those who were expected to work and know their place in the scheme of things. Amongst these were the Yarmouth fishermen who happened to be in close proximity to HMS Lutine and later expressed their surprise of what they had seen aboard and around the ship that night of the 8th of October – a ship of war no less which was fully lit and with an animated party going on in the Captain’s cabin; their view was that it was absolutely unacceptable in times of war. They were also around to witness the final touches being made to loading the Lutine with ‘unidentifiable’ cargo which, unseen to their eyes, would be secured below as best it could, bearing in mind that the gold was apparently stored in flimsy casks bound with weak iron hoops and the silver in casks with wooden hoops.
If common sense prevailed during the planning and loading of this valuable cargo then, surely, it would not have been stowed amidships in the shot lockers, adjacent to the main-cable room, with cannon balls being placed on top for an element of security. Yes, the midship section with its cable-room and shot lockers did occupy a large space, but this was freely open to the crew by reason of the exigencies of service. It would have been difficult to justify the placing of such riches in such an exposed place. On the other hand, the after Magazine of a frigate was a carefully guarded room; so one must assume nowadays that either than compartment, or one of the divisions lying in the same after section of the ship would have been the likeliest place to hold valuables that called for continual surveillance.
In the early hours of the 9th of October 1799 HMS Lutine set sail from Great Yarmouth, taking a north-easterly course to the Northern islands of The Netherlands with the intention of changing course from there in a more easterly direction towards the Elbemouth. During the day the weather began to change for the worst and, in the evening, as the ship approached the Dutch islands, the wind turned into a strong gale that blew from a north-westerly direction. At about 11 PM, in complete darkness, the Lutine sailed under considerable speed on a half-wind course on to the outer banks west of Terschelling. The damage to the ship was considerable and the crew understood immediately that it was lost. The heavy breakers that develop on these banks in stormy weather, particular with Northerly winds, were known to be notorious. In just a few hours the HMS Lutine was totally wrecked, but within this time the crew managed to fire a few cannons and launch emergency rockets. These signals were noticed on the islands but such things were not really a surprise to the population – this was just another shipwreck in a long line of tragedies in the area between Terschelling and Vlieland. As it was, the difficult position of the ship, about 4 miles from the beach, together with the gale made immediate rescue impossible. The inevitable outcome was that all the crewmembers and passengers, totalling 270 souls, were drowned – except for one crewmember. He was found alive the next morning when the wind had eased off and rescue-ships had been able to approach the area of the wreck.
Captain Portlock, commander of the English squadron at Vlieland wrote the Admiralty in London:
”Sir, It is with extreme pain that I have to state to you the melancholy fate of his majesty’s Ship Lutine, which ship ran onto the outer banks of the Fly Island Passage on the night of the 9th. Instant heavy gale of wind from the NNW and I am much afraid the crew except one man, which was saved from the wreck, have perished……This man when taken up was almost exhausted. He is of present tolerably recovered, and relates that the Lutine left Yarmouth Roads on the Morning of the 9th instant, bound to Texel, and she had on board Considerable quantity of Money…..”
Both the media of the day and the official conclusion of the British was that a heavy storm had caused the loss of the ship and, on that basis, Lloyd’s paid out a huge sum of insurance money. The case was closed, however, in the case of HMS Lutine, things were not as simple as they looked.
In 1997, during the planning stage for a 200 year commemoration event on Terschelling and Vlieland the organisers revisited the subject of what really caused the Lutine tragedy; they did this by analysing past records and publications. It soon became evident that the story was far from complete. In fact, the relevant details about the shipwreck itself and the official enquiry that followed were remarkably limited in what was revealed; so much so that suspicions were inevitably raised. These suspicions were followed by the conclusion that the storm alone could not have caused the HMS Lutine to sink. The facts were these: – The ship herself was in a perfect state of maintenance, following a complete overall twelve months previously when even the rigging was renewed. Also, the crew was highly experienced, both in handling of the ship and in the navigation in the coastal waters of the Dutch and German islands. In fact, the area of the North Sea just off the Dutch coast had been a primary patrol-area for HMS Lutine before she became involved in the British and Russian invasion of the Netherlands. A storm such as the one which hit this ship, when sailing half-wind, was certainly not a problem for a large frigate; handling it would have been a routine procedure. The conclusion was that the cause of the accident was human failure.
Interest then fell on what the only survivor had to tell; surely this crown-witness would have been interviewed? But, not even his name could be found in the files. The only item that was found was just a brief note in the Logbook of Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow, the ship where the man was subsequently placed. It stated that the man had recovered with the help of the ships-surgeon and gave some information about the Lutine and her destination. But then the information stops, not even his name was mentioned. The relevant files of the Admiralty archives did indicate that a period of intensive correspondence started directly after the accident, this was between the Admiralty in London, Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow and the commander of the invasion-fleet Vice-Admiral Mitchell who was aboard the HMS Isis. But all their correspondence had been subsequently removed from the archives and no records of any further investigation, such as a court-martial, even existed. It seemed self-evident that the absence of such documents, which may have proved exactly what had happened aboard the Lutine leading up to its sinking, pointed to another cause which the authorities chose to hide? Did the only survivor have had an unpleasant story to tell, and could his account have shown that human error had caused the accident?
However, all was not lost in the 1997 investigation into the possible real cause which led to the sinking of HMS Lutine. A small, but valuable, piece of evidence came to light in the form of a Muster List of the HMS Isis no less; this list had recorded the names of newly arrived crewmembers. It also showed that on the 18th of October, nine days after the wreck of the HMS Lutine, a certain Able Seaman John Rogers, came aboard the Isis where the ships-clerk wrote a small note near his name: “from the Arrow, the late Lutine”. When compared with the last existing Muster List of HMS Lutine, it confirmed that not only had John Rogers sailed on the ship, but that he was also, up to that point, the only survivor of the Lutine’s sinking. Although this man’s legs had been seriously wounded, he had been kept on HMS Isis for an exorbitant length of time. Then, when the invasion-campaign was over and the Isis had returned to British waters, in January 1800, this man was sent to the Hospital ship Spanker. However, after treatment he was still not allowed to go ashore but was placed on HMS Grana, moored near Sheerness. Thereafter he disappeared silently from the records and was never heard of again! Someone, or other, seemed to have kept him out of sight and far away from the media of the day. Was it possible that his story would have embarrass the Admiralty and proved negligence for which they would have been responsible. If that had been the case, Lloyd’s would have refused to pay out the insurance money. Then, there were the drowned passengers! Among them was the group of high-standing civilians and nobility from England, France and Luxembourg. One would think that, had the Admiralty been to blame, the relatives of those drowned would have demanded some degree of satisfaction for their losses.
Immediately after the wreckage salvage actions were organised by the Captains of the nearby moored British warships, the Arrow, Swinger and Pelter. They were not the alone. Dutch fisherman also showed much interest, considering the note in the Logbook of the Swinger on the 11th of October: “Sent the Cutter manned and armed with Lieut. Braddel to the wreck to Prevent the Dutch from Robbing Her”. During the few weeks that the English ships stayed near the islands all kind of objects was salvaged from the wreck, like weapons and food. Remarkably however was that nothing is said about the gold or silver.
What happened next was an exercise in salvage and sophisticated reclamation of assets – or, if you like, wrecking – which still attracts scholars to this day. To think that all this started as soon as the vessel hit the seabed and the bed began to eat her up, piling sand up around her and for the coming decades that remained the pattern – the ship being revealed and reburied, revealed and reburied as the sands moved around her. Several companies and groups have made attempts to salvage the cargo. Some have been lucky and some have failed. They were all after a treasure which some have estimated as being as much as ₤10.000.000. If true, then there must still be a huge fortune at the bottom of the IJzergat.
But what then is the difficulty? In such a place, wind, tide and everlasting currents can play freely with everything. In no time at all following the sinking, the Lutine’s remains had been covered with sand and nothing in the Waddenzee ever keeps its position, so the ship was really lost – for a long long time. Modern archaeological research has showed that, within a few hours after the ship ran aground, the rear part of the hull broke off and drifted away, with wind and currents in south-easterly direction, crossed the Ijzergat channel and ran aground again on the banks on the south side. The attention of the first salvers was directed to the main-section of the ship and so the rear-end of the ship was left alone and forgotten. The fact that all the gold and silver bars and most of the coinage so far recovered have been found buried about the remains of the Lutine’s stern, bearing out the belief that the its treasure had, indeed, been originally housed in the Magazine – or nearby. Maybe, at this very moment, new excavations are under way? If so then those undertaking the most recent salvage will be armed with the knowledge that ‘special‘ cargoes were usually stored in the rear section of these old sailing ships. It should not come as a surprise when some shiny bars eventually surface in the not too distant future. Perhaps then, we will finally witness the end of this story.
FOOTNOTE: Anyone familiar with Lloyd’s of London, the insurance underwriting exchange, may also be familiar with this chap, or more specifically the thing he is ringing:
That is the Lutine Bell, in the Underwriting Room. Traditionally, it was rung to announce the fate of a ship which had been late at its destination port. If the ship had arrived safely, the bell was rung twice; if it was sunk, it was rung once, to immediately stop the sale of any further reinsurance on the downed vessel by unscrupulous insiders. These days, the two rings mean there is a distinguished visitor to Lloyd’s. One ring is used to note events or anniversaries, such as Remembrance Day.