Daily Life ~ Through the Prism of The Great War

This is one of those blog posts I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now.  Like for well over a year.

Chiefly because writing it will mean that I might have to get up off my sorry backside and go look in a book or two to confirm a couple of details rather than just opening up my brain and allowing the contents to leak onto the page.  Which obviously is my preferred method.

English officersYou see, as I’ve observed the popular focus on the early 19th century in novels and because of the undimming interest in Austen, I’ve come to feel that–somehow–there’s this assumption from the few oblique references to it in Austen’s works that the long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France really didn’t impact on the lives of the ordinary and/or aristocratic British at this time.

But that’s a bit like inferring that Austen and her family didn’t eat eggs.  Or wouldn’t have known what they were. She never mentions them, does she?  Ergo…

Yet, like eggs or milk or bread, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, the ongoing war with France was so much a part of the fabric of daily life that–like her omitting to say that her characters had eggs for breakfast–it possibly didn’t occur to her to mention it.  Indeed, this period of war created the very weft and warp of their existence…And the daily reminders of it–they called it the Great War–were so constant, so ubiquitous in their daily lives, that Austen and all her readers took it as understood.

horationelson2The wars with France between 1793-1815 defined, changed and effected abso-blooming-lutely everything!  And they went on and on and on, world without end, amen…

And therefore I would contend that in order to truly understand the period–which some call the Regency (though that’s far from strictly accurate)–one must view it not through a rose-tinted lorgnette with an aristocratic mother-of-pearl handle, but rather through war-tinted spectacles.

Let me show you.

From the outset of the French Revolution, English eyes (and newspapers) had been riveted on the unfolding events in Paris.  Remember–France is right across that little arm of water called the Channel (or la Manche if you’re French)…a body of water so narrow, a person can swim it.  A small boat can sail it on a fine day…

Until just 250 years previously, at least a part of France had always been owned or ruled by England.  The ties, therefore, for all sorts of reasons, were very close.  So, it must have seemed like their French cousins and business partners/competition had plunged into a vortex of sanguinary madness such as had never before been seen…

warprintAnd then, in 1793, four years into this Revolution, the French declared war on Britain.  Viscount Castlereagh, when still a young man, was the in the Low Countries during the September Massacres…he daren’t enter France himself…and he read with mounting horror the newspaper accounts of the events that still today are nearly unreadable for their savagery.

By 1797, France was strong enough and cocksure enough to attempt invasions of both Ireland (then under British rule) and the British mainland…both, fortunately, fizzled out–Ireland’s due to a blizzard and heaving gale and the mainland’s due to the inferiority of the French troops and the welly of the Welsh they encountered at Fishguard.

martellotower But subsequently, all along the south coast, successive governments would embark on building a series of Martello towers to protect against the present threat on invasion.

Nor was invasion just a mythical nightmare of a threat.  Napoleon, in power since 1799, used the year of the Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) to establish one of the largest army camps at Boulogne–which again, is just across the Channel and which, on a clear day, one can see from the coast of Kent.  And what the English saw didn’t make for very reassuring viewing.

For at Boulogne, Napoleon was assembling his troops for invasion.  Some 500,000 of them. And often he was there himself, reviewing the troops in full view of the English telescopic lenses trained on the place.  Imagine it.

Bearing in mind that ever since the Commonwealth, Britain hadn’t had a standing army per se–or at least nothing on the scale of the European powers–this was pretty scary stuff.  If that Corsican upstart managed to get those troops across that tiny slip of water, the result would have been overwhelming.  Quite literally.

Thus, the army fellows spent weeks and months working out which were the most likely points of access and then, carving up Kent and Sussex with a series of water courses to hinder the French advance while they, in London, would get the King and royal family away to safety in Wheedon–where they built the early 19th century version of a royal bomb shelter.  As the whole of Kent and Sussex were carved up this way, the impact on transportation and even agriculture would have been immense–a daily reminder of the threat across the water.

It seems impossible to fathom, of course, but although he was pretty hot as a general on land, Napoleon never got the hang of water.  And that, of course, saved Britain time and again from his invading forces.

Those forces gathering and threatening in Boulogne were only held back as the French waited for a spell of calm in which to cross over. Because Napoleon, judging the difficulty of navigation solely on the width of the Channel, had opted for rafts–large wooden rafts, four feet deep–in which to transport his men, horses, artillery across to England.

And when the first troops were loaded onto these rafts for his inspection, they, er, tipped over.  Many soldiers–being unable to swim–drowned, the guns fell into the water and sank, and the horses swam for shore.  Whereupon, Napoleon stormed off in one of his classic rages…

The threat may have been lessened for the moment, but the Brits didn’t lose their sense of vulnerability.  Not ever.

semaphore towerImagine the disruption to daily life, there, along the south coast.  Also along the coast, just as in the weeks preceding the arrival of the Spanish Armada, huge woodpiles were erected to act as beacons should the French be sighted crossing.  Added to this, from 1796, there were the telegraph hills or semaphore towers, marring the skyline perhaps, but able to send coded messages inland (Deal to London) in a matter of minutes.

No wonder the militias in those southern counties were particularly active and always recruiting…and all the landed families of each county would have been expected to send their sons and husbands to be officers in the militia, if they hadn’t already bought commissions in the military or gone to sea…

Britain was indubitably on a war footing and that’s how things would remain until 1814…

Everywhere they went, everything they saw and experienced would have emphasised this, if ever they forgot…the newspapers churned out a daily diet of war coverage, and particularly naval coverage, because it was at sea that Britain truly excelled.

Between the years of 1793 and 1812, year upon year, Parliament voted to expand the size of the Royal Navy, taking its size from 135 vessels in 1793 to 584 ships in 1812, with an increase in seamen from 36,000 to 114,000 men.   Those seamen all had families, families who missed them whilst they were away, families who grieved if and when they were lost.

In 1792, the size of the merchant marine was already at 118,000, but this too expanded as the Continent was increasingly closed to British trade and British merchants had to seek farther afield for fresh markets.

nelson'stombAdmiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of the age–embodying the tenacity, the daring, the sea-savvy of Britons through the centuries, standing up to Continental aggression and aggrandisement alone.  He wasn’t just lionised, he was idolised.

Thousands upon thousands of British boys went to sea because of him–and he was known for treating the younkers well.  When he died at Trafalgar, the nation mourned, quite literally.  (Have a look at his catafalque in St. Paul’s if you doubt it.)

Again, along the south coast, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton were all swimming with sailors, and with all those industries which support a maritime war–from shipyards to rope-makers to munitions-makers…it was boom-time.

Encampment in St. James's Park 1780

Encampment in St. James’s Park 1780

Hyde Park and numerous other vast public tracts of land were covered with the tents and paraphernalia of military training camps for the army.

But it wasn’t just in the ubiquity of the military that one sees the war–the preferred and very available art form of this period was the cartoon, the satirical print.  The war and in particular, Napoleon, provided the fertile imaginations of the cartoonists with a veritable buffet of opportunities for their cynical art and wit.

printshopwindow1Given then some 40% of the population was illiterate, it was from these prints, every day displayed in print shop windows, that the British public, gawping and laughing, gathered much of its news and thereby formed its opinions.  (That’s every day for nearly 20 years!)

The theatres too invariably included a naval spectacle or re-enactment as part of each evening’s bill, in much the same way as during WWII wartime dramas starring John Mills were churned out by Pinewood Studios.

Plays about Nelson were the most popular and the plays of Charles Dibden (then popular, now forgot) reflected this with titles like Naval Pillars, a piece based on Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay.  Indeed, it was often joked that Dibden should be decorated by the Admiralty for the number of successful naval dramas he’d written…

As if that weren’t enough, the popularity of these maritime spectacles prompted the owners of Sadler’s Wells to create a lake of real water upon their stage as a more lifelike setting for all these pieces.  And when one considers that up to 20,000 Londoners attended the theatre each night–and that’s not including Vauxhall Gardens where they also produced martial spectacles or any of the smaller venues where the chief attraction was naval illuminations–that’s when you start to see this war as almost the emotional meat and potatoes of their daily lives.

militarystyleClothing design, especially for women, embraced the military influence–whether it was riding jackets a la militaire with double rows of buttons and frogging up the bodices and cuffs, or as lady’s head wear, taking its shape from the common shako or the caterpiller-crested helmets of the dragoons, there it is again.

For the underclasses, let’s call them, all along the coast from Cornwall up to East Anglia, the endless French wars led to an increase in smuggling activity upon an industrial scale.

Brandy, French silk, and all sorts were smuggled in, whilst wool for uniforms was smuggled from East Anglia, and just about everything else you can imagine was smuggled from the rest of the coast to European beaches…the organisation and size of these smuggling gangs grew proportionately more sophisticated as the wars raged on, and once Napoleon closed Europe’s borders to British trade, the size of these gangs just mushroomed.

As did the need for an increased presence of Preventive Officers and Revenue Cutters, patrolling the waters of the Solent, the Channel, and the North Sea…

And finally, these wars hit everyone where they’d feel it most, every day.  In their pockets.

The war itself, added to the agricultural consequences of years of terrible harvests, led to rampant inflation.  Food prices as well as the cost of common goods soared.  The lack of grain was so acute that in the years 1808-1812, the Government had been forced to buy thousands of tons of grain from the United States, to be shipped to feed the British troops on the Peninsula.

shako1Not only that, but within five years of its breaking out, the cost of the war had effectively drained the Treasury–the wretched conditions in the Royal Navy had in 1797 led to mutiny and the army was, not to put too fine a point on it, starving.  There was, as seen up above, a serious threat of French invasion and Ireland needed troops to ward off any French incursion there.

Pitt the Younger was both Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (a common combination of offices at that time) and he felt there was a need for an increase in ‘aid and contribution for the prosecution of the war.’  His solution?  Income tax.  Which was announced in 1798 and became part of every taxpayer’s nightmare from 1799.  As today’s Inland Revenue describes it, it was a fairly straightforward proposition:

“Income tax was to be applied in Great Britain (but not Ireland) at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200.  It was to be paid in six equal instalments from June 1799, with an expected return of £10 million in its first year. It actually realised less than £6 million, but the money was vital and a precedent had been set…”

It was, as it turned out, just a drop in the bucket when set against the vast costs of the war.  A detailed, country by country, analysis of the subsidies Britain paid to her allies over this twenty year period adds up to the eye-watering sum of £55,228,892.

(If you’d like that in today’s money, that’s £3.5 billion, using the retail price index.  Or if you prefer to calculate using average earnings, £55.1 billion.)

And if you think they weren’t constantly grumbling about it…think again.

Nor does that sum include the cost of maintaining a military force in the Peninsula under Wellington, the cost of the disastrous Walcheren expedition, nor the vast (and we’re talking millions) sums secretly paid out to the intelligence agents and spies…The total figure, therefore, is closer to £700 million or £44 billion in today’s dosh.

And none of this even hints at the private sadness and inconsolable losses of those who received, daily, from the Admiralty, from Horse Guards, from commanding officers in Spain, letters informing them that their loved ones would not be returning home…

The war, it was everywhere…it was the carefree laughter and the relief of peace that were missing. And for many had never been known.


Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.


So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.


And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812…

This is a bit awkward. 

On the one hand, it’s fair to say that I would have done just about anything to have on hand the information that Andrew Lambert brings to light in the aforementioned tome when I was writing my May 1812

I would have sold…well, maybe not my soul, but quite probably any number of cakes and mousse au chocolat for the happiness of having all of these documents and accounts so clearly and beautifully laid out before me relating to the three-way trade wars between Napoleonic Europe, Great Britain and the young United States. 

Instead, I spent months piecing together the history of the various Napoleonic and British acts and the American reactions to them.  It was always a case of two lines in this history providing a little information, another small paragraph in another history…

But even if it’s too late for me to include some of the juicier elements in my work, Andrew Lambert has now, at last, most concisely and exhaustively pulled together all the various strands of this messy historic sampler.  And it makes for eye-popping reading. 

(It doesn’t leave many of the American leaders of the time on their pedestals though.  Nor does it paint a very edifying picture of the American press at the time.  Napoleon doesn’t come out very different though–though Lambert did make my day when he called him a ‘fraudster’.  That was a truly happy moment for self.)

But perhaps the greatest challenge to modern American readers will be that Lambert unequivocally proves that the United States did not win the War of 1812. 

They lost.  They achieved none of their alleged aims.  Neither did they attain any of their genuine goals.

What they did achieve was the destruction of New England’s economy, the bankruptcy of their federal government, the burning of the capital, Washington, mass unemployment, destitution and…and…and…

For those who don’t know, who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, the whole thing got started when Napoleon came up with the cunning plan to wage economic warfare on Great Britain.  This he believed would economically cripple Britain so that she could no longer subsidise Continental powers to fight against him, thus allowing him to take the place over.  Very clever, eh? 

So he issued these decrees known as the Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 which were his attempt to exclude all British goods as well as the British ships that carried those goods from any and all Continental ports and markets. 

This was great!  It was going to screw British maritime power to the wall.  They were going to crumble.  Super-dooper, bring me a trooper!  (Well, he may have said words to that effect…who knows?)

Yet strangely, the Brits didn’t think having their economy or their naval power ruined by an upstart Mushroom Corsican, as they liked to call him, was such a good idea.  Nor did Napoleon have a navy with which to enforce his little programme–he’d lost that (oops) at Trafalgar. 

So they retaliated.  With the Orders in Council.  Which declared that all goods carried to the Continent had to be carried in ships which held a license from Britain, etc.  And most importantly, they stepped up their maritime campaign of stopping neutral ships and searching for British seamen who’d decided it was safer to go AWOL than to serve in the Royal Navy.  Which, given that this was a time of war, was both desertion and treason. 

This then, ostensibly, was what the Americans got hepped up about.  And the battle cry rang out, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” Because it was mostly American ships they were stopping, which had, a hefty contingent of said British sailors…

And this is where Lambert’s work shines so brilliantly.  

For he demonstrates, beyond cavil, that this was really nothing but a political feint.  And it was a propaganda war from the get-go.  As he writes it, “Americans believed that large numbers of American-born sailors were being impressed.  In fact rather less than 10% of the American maritime workforce suffered this fate…A project to surrender all British sailors in American ships in return for the British ending the impressment of Americans was quietly dropped because half of all skilled seamen in American merchant ships were British.” 

President Jefferson was–he who headed off the American reaction to this economic war–as Lambert illustrates over and over again, fiercely Anglophobic and naively, determinedly Francophile.  He was putty in Napoleon’s Froggie hands.

He was also no economist.  He produced his response to the situation even before Congress had received notice of the British Orders in Council. 

And his cunning plan?  The Embargo Act which blocked the American export trade.  As Lambert says, “To punish Britain Jefferson made war on American merchants.  The results were disastrous:  economic hardship obliged American merchants and seafarers to smuggle…Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act would be a useful adjunct to Napoleon’s war against Britain, and that in return a grateful Emperor would give him the prize he really wanted, Spanish Florida.” 

But of course, the Emperor wasn’t playing. 

Yet as Lambert argues, “Jefferson’s futile Embargo had long antecedents:  in 1785 he had argued that America should follow the commercial policy of China ‘to practice neither commerce or navigation’.  He…never changed his view that American merchants were corrupt and corruptible.  He dreamt of an agricultural America…” 

And James Madison, his successor to the Presidency was just as blinkered. 

Though the Federal Government was kept afloat by the taxes and excise they collected from the New England states’ import/export businesses, to the tune of some 98%, in order to pursue their land-grab of Canada while Britain had all her troops otherwise occupied, they played into the hands of Napoleon, wrecked their own trade and economic viability and eventually were cozened into declaring war on Britain.

Lambert also puts on display the extreme bile Madison and his cronies pumped into a press too eager to play the jingoistic tunes of their politicians.  The accounts of the various naval actions–accounts which shew that British gunners were out-firing their American counterparts by 3-1–which actions were then twisted into triumphs…in a way, well, it makes for sickening reading. 

The lack of honesty or honour, the deceit on display is just…Truthfully, it’s a bit gutting.  I’d always thought that Jefferson was this visionary ‘liberty for all’ fellow, you know.  Brilliant with a quill.  With an eternally great way with words.  The most idealistic of the Enlightened thinkers.  An ingenious inventor. 

Professor Lambert has shown him to be the opposite–to be vindictive, vituperative, economically idiotic, predatory, and base.  Denying and lying about Napoleon’s tyrannical reign over Europe, sending gentle good men over to ‘negotiate’ with the monster, who obviously didn’t stick around to be negotiated with…

And the battles.  Holy wow! 

Of course, they’re written with all the verve and derring-do of a Patrick O’Brian clash at sea. 

But these were real men, and the actions pitted the professional seamen of the Royal Navy–men who drilled and drilled and worked hard at being the best in all weathers–against blaggarts and braggadocios, some brave, but too many who initiated actions against ships much, much smaller than themselves and then who crowed victory and lied about the disparity in size. 

And when they really were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and outfought, such as when the HMS Shannon took the USS Chesapeake in one of the bloodiest actions of any naval war on 1 June 1813–in 13 minutes, the American press invented scapegoats and declared it a victory anyway.

The whole unfoldment of action which led to the burning of the capital makes for pretty gob-smacking reading too.  There’s always been this prim, self-righteous shock and horror professed over those meanie Brits who came and burned (can you imagine anything so demonic, so savage?) the charming, innocent, delightful little American capital. 

(Forgive me if I’m sounding sarky here.) 

But hang on a minute, one wants to say to Madison and his mates.  This was war.  You declared it on Britain.  Did you think it’d be a picnic?  A riparian entertainment with sparklers? 

Did you miss the part about there being a world war on?  Did Jefferson, in his Francophile gushing, not notice that one of the methods of military engagement was the occupation [and destruction] of the enemy’s capital?  Such as Napoleon did to Berlin.  And Vienna.  And Madrid.  And Moscow.  Or did he fail to read those parts of the news bulletins?  

And what happened really? 

It had needed only 4000 troops to capture the American capital and torch the various public buildings, including the White House and the Navy Yard, as Lambert says, “revealing the unimaginable folly of a government that deliberately picked a fight with a global power, allegedly about questions of principle, without bothering to raise an army or navy capable of defending the country.  By 1814 the only effective American armies were attempting to conquer Canada.”     

The war whimpered to a close in 1814 with the American negotiators quietly dropping all the demands for which they’d allegedly gone to war.  They just wanted out.  They couldn’t afford any more of it.  And Napoleon hadn’t won in Russia as they’d hoped he would.  In fact, he’d lost all of his Empire and been forced to abdicate. (Ouch.)

So, they stopped whinging about British deserters being removed from American ships, etc.  They stopped sending troops up to take Canada–they changed their song from we’ll get Canada and land, land, land, to isn’t it great we haven’t lost any territory…that kind of thing. 

At this point, I’m probably just babbling. 

What can I tell you?  Lambert has simply blown me out of the water with his searing account of this disastrous American war which they’ve somehow blagged into an iconic victory over a 19th century superpower.   

And there are so many reasons for recommending this book that I can only gawp at the sheer number of them.  So all I can honestly say is:  Buy it.  Read it.  Wonder at it.  Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge.  It really is that good.

At the heart of a great estate is…

This may come as a bit of a shock to some people, but despite having a reputation as a military firebrand of an historian and author, actually I began life as a social historian.

Which possibly sounds a bit girlie and light-minded.  Until I tell you that under that heading I studied things like rural poverty, child mortality, changes in legislation, taxation, wages, the price of wheat, land-use, laws governing apprenticeships, nutrition, that kind of thing.

(I know, you cannot conceive of anything more boring.  You thought, when I said social historian, it was going to be about society and cravats and banquets cooked by Careme with goldfish swimming in the ice sculpture centrepieces.  Er, no.  Not exactly.)

And as I was focusing at that time on the 15th century, my hero was the greatest demographer of the 20th century, Fernand Braudel.  His epic works, Capitalism and Material Life and the three volumes of The Wheels of Commerce were my favourite texts. (Stop yawning.)

Anyway, I was reminded of all this recently when I was writing a post for another blog about landscape gardens in the 18th century.

Because as I put it all together, I realised that, for the most part, when people look at any novel which speaks of the landed gentry–such as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy–or even when they visit a stately home here in the UK, there is little idea that the 18th century estate was a self-contained organic entity of agricultural industry.

For in the main, in our industrialised, urban society, we just don’t know what an estate was.  Or beyond looking pretty and impressing the neighbours–how it functioned nor what it accomplished.  We don’t even know what to look at in order to see it properly or as they would have done.

So when an estate is written about, it’s largely as a tablecloth setting for some story, proof that the owner had lots of dosh.  And not much else.  The workings (and the owner’s work) are unseen, unknown and uninvestigated.

So let’s start at the beginning.

When you look at estates, the big houses and the land or huge tracts of land surrounding them, including the landscaped gardens closest to the house, what you need to see is not just Nature wearing her best frock, but profitability and income.

Yes, the houses looked ravishing set amidst those glorious landscapes.  But even as these houses were sat there, radiating the aura of grandeur, influence and wealth which is certainly what they were intended for, they were equally the nerve-centres of their own individual communities and industry.

Think about it.

Often these estates are several or even many miles from the nearest town–this is particularly true in the counties and shires farthest from London.   There were no cars.  No lorries.  No trains.  So whatever was needed by that estate’s community had to be available there, on the spot.

So, if it’s daily dairy products–milk, cream, butter, cheese–there will need to be cows, a dairy, dairymaids, perhaps a cowman or three…

If there’s going to be daily exercise for the family, that too has to be provided within the confines of what is readily available.

There is nowhere else for the families in these big houses to go for entertainment or exercise, or even perhaps for food.  They must be self-sufficient.  They are their own entertainment.  They may invite guests for a week or a month to vary the interpersonal relationships, but they’re on their own for the most part.

So, for example, for the landowner and his family, who can’t nip off to the gym because the nearest thing to a gym is twenty miles away, riding the estate’s land becomes not only a great joy–they loved their horses and they loved riding as do many people today.  But it’s also good exercise, it gets one out of the house, and it’s a way of keeping track of the state of affairs, of their fences and fields.

Driving their carriages around the estate roads–ditto.  Walking…another good option.

So too, an estate undoubtedly has one or more large kitchen gardens and an orchard too, to provide fresh produce for the table–both for the family and the servants.  They’re very keen on this, having just discovered that fresh vegetables and fruit are the cure for scurvy.  But this also means there are of necessity several gardeners working and living on the estate.

And then there’s the surrounding acreage.

In England, land is king.  And unlike on the Continent where they have court centres such as Versailles, English landowners are fiercely devoted to the land and to their rural enterprises and for centuries the Tudors and Stuart monarchs have encouraged them so to be.

Remember too, that unlike on the Continent, particularly during the Seven Years’ War and Napoleonic Wars, there is no invading armed threat to the security of one’s land or property, no threat of ruination or pillage by marauding  troops…So there’s stability.  And this is key.

But land doesn’t manage itself.  Nor do farms left unattended produce their own crops.

Now, there are two significant types of great landowners in the 18th century–the aristocratic Whig grandees who pretty much spend their time running the country, but who are rather less hands-on in regards to their estates, and the vast majority of Tory land-owning gentry, who are very hands-on.

(Mr. Darcy, given what his housekeeper says about him being the best landlord and the best master, etc. is probably the latter. Likewise Mr Knightley, with his intimate knowledge of his tenants and concern for their welfare.)

And over the course of the 18th century, as these people seek to expand their estates and their political influence, more and more land was enclosed as these landowners consolidated and extended their holdings through Acts of  Enclosure–in layman’s terms, removed land from common or communal use.  Even roads or hamlets came under this change.

Before 1760, the rate of enclosures did not exceed 400,000 acres.  While over the next forty years, some 21 million acres were enclosed by statute.

(And if you’re thinking that’s an awful lot of land, and probably the smaller, poorer farmers lost out in all this, you’re right.)

Then too, the late 18th century was an era of substantial improvement in agricultural practice–much of it led by Thomas Coke of Holkham, in Norfolk.

Between the years of 1778 and 1793, he transformed his Norfolk holdings to the extent that the income of his estate grew from £5000 to £20,000 a year, mainly through his innovation of double-digging the underlying marl and spreading it over the sandy topsoil–and this process converted the land from heath to fertile cornfields.

His work fascinated the landowners of Britain and they copied his improvements and constantly applied to him for advice on what they should do.  Like I say, they were hands-on.  (George III was a frequent correspondent of Coke’s on matters agricultural…)

Subsequently then, as recent studies have shown, the landowners acquired more land, they used the land to its best ability, managing it as part of the home farm.  Or letting it out most often for grazing or mowing.

Chiefly because the rents from pasture were so much higher than the rents or income from arable land–the rate being as much as 50% greater for grazing than tillage.  (Which is a tremendous yield for any farmer watching his pennies.)

The income from pasture is steadier too, and less dependent on the weather–which given the mini-Ice Age which was holding forth at the end of the 18th century was no bad thing.  There were several bad harvests in the early years of the 19th century–the worst being 1811, when England had been forced to buy corn from enemy France.

But sheep are relatively unaffected by the weather–and the price of wool continued to hold steady–making them a safer farming bet.  They’re also multi-purpose–there’s the wool and then there’s the meat.  Cattle and deer are also less troublesome and prone to destruction by a fierce rainstorm or a late frost.

And this wholehearted engagement with the world of agriculture goes all the way to the top of society too.

I’ve mentioned George III already.  But Viscount Castlereagh’s letters to his father are full of his efforts to improve his herd of merino sheep at his farm in North Cray–you might have thought that being the Foreign Secretary he had more exciting things to discuss…but you’d be wrong.

Another vital element of the profitable estate was the production of timber.

Yes, the woodlands you see when you look out upon a landscaped park look lush and beautiful.

But most of the larger estates coppiced their vast woodlands and had their own sawmills (without the benefit of electric saws) which fed the constant demand for more and more lumber in the growing British economy.  Whether for shipbuilding for the Royal Navy or the merchant marine, or for housebuilding or furniture building.

Because you see, on an estate, everything is part of everything else.  The whole must work together in carefully managed harmony, and most things are multi-purpose.

So the woodlands served other purposes too.  They provided excellent cover for pheasant–which in turn fed the family after a good day’s shooting in the autumn.  And the woods usually had rides cut through them for the daily ride of the owner or his family, friends and visitors…(And the pheasants could usually be counted on to spook the horses, making for a little equestrian excitement.  Ha ha ha.)

Thus a stand of trees in the distance might provide a focal point for the panoramic vista as seen from the house, but it might shroud a cowman’s outbuildings, the pheasants raised by hand live amongst the trees, and one could have a riproaring zig-zag of a path cut through the wood for those who like their rides invigorating and perhaps a little edgy…

At the head of this business proposition then, this small world of agriculture and forestry, is the landowner himself.   The boss.

Yes, he collects rents which contribute to his income.  Yes, he sells the timber to the shipyards which again provides his income.  But when you weigh that in with his outgoings–keeping those big houses sound (and those tenants’ cottages too) with the roofs intact, meals on the table for himself, his family and all his staff, wages for his cowmen, his gardeners, his hands at the sawmill, his indoor servants…

Suddenly it looks like this chappie (call him Mr. Darcy if you like) is the head of a major agricultural venture, busily totting up how to keep afloat through the long years of war with the French (when taxes were very high, and income tax was first introduced), discussing the price of corn with his land agent or whether they should drain that field at Dander’s Bottom and use it as further pasture, worrying that rain will spoil the harvest and then they’ll all have a rough year ahead, assessing whether this year’s dry spring will indeed make for a good apple harvest and thus a good pressing of cider which will last the winter, and will he still manage to get away for a couple of weeks to Cornwall with his sister…

Oh, and the storm last week damaged the thatched roofs down on the tenants’ farms…and brought that old elm down right across Mrs. Baseley’s front doorstep.

Which brings me to my final and perhaps my most important point.  When the elm came down, it was the landowner and his agent, not Mrs Baseley, who would make good the damage.

With our urban viewpoint and a century of socialist history influencing us, it’s too easy to see the estate–and there are many who would like to force us to see it this way–as part of an iniquitous and unjust class system.

Yes, there were some bad landowners who treated their tenants and servants poorly and couldn’t farm for toffee.  But they were in the minority.  Frankly because the income of a badly managed property will hardly support the lavish lifestyle.  Or not for long.  And those who were bad landlords generally couldn’t hang on to their lands.  There’s also the inconvenient fact that managing a great estate properly is just too much constant hard work.

The great estates were not only whole communities but also the big local employers.  They provided the livelihood and the stability for both the landowner and a vast army of workers–tenant farmers, gardeners, cowmen, sawyers and shepherds alike.  (As well as providing employment for seasonal labourers like codders, harvesters, shearers…)

So the well-being of the landowner was inevitably and always bound up in the well-being of his staff, tenants and servants. (It’s no coincidence that Britain never experienced the kind of mindless and bloody class warfare of the French Revolution.)

And there was at base, in all their eyes, a sense of sanctity when they looked upon the acres and Downlands of “this sceptre’d Isle…this other Eden, demi-paradise…this blessed plot, this earth…this dear dear land…” 

This is therefore what they saw.  And it’s the reality of what Mr. Darcy and his father knew and lived.

London Bridge and shooting the rapids…


It’s Friday afternoon and I have now successfully procrastinated–for most of the day…

But obviously it is Friday afternoon and I haven’t deposited a blog in anyone’s general direction for over a week. 

And so I ask myself, what would you like to read about today?  And I shrug hopelessly, “I don’t know.”   And then I think, “Well, what do I know about…”  At which I roll my eyes.  There’s lots of stuff. 

However, for reasons I can’t explain, but probably Freud would enjoy analysing (good thing he’s not about then, isn’t it?) I’ve been thinking a lot about the River Thames as it was in early 19th century London and the fact that it only had three bridges across it:  London Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge. Continue reading

New technologies…

Recently, a small plate which hung on the wall of the drawing room came to an untimely end through a brief encounter with a log basket.

Now, before you think I am lamenting anyone’s clumsiness or casting blame, let me be perfectly clear.  It was, if truth be told, a rather ugly plate.  Though its date of origin was 1810 or thereabouts.

Nor was I particularly fond of it.  I wasn’t.

(I have several others from a similar date, and they’re much more garish and/or attractive…)

But I kept it because it served the purpose of reminding me that in 1810, china pottery, ceramic plates, tea services et al. were all new innovations, the result of the new technology of the Industrial Revolution.

Because you see, when writing of this period as I do, it’s vital to realise that life circa 1812 was not a BBC dramatic production.  They didn’t have all the amenities or even all the tableware that we think normal or even quotidienne.  Not at all.

Most or many households would still have been eating their meals off pewter.  The  new ‘china’ though very desirable and a must-have for those on the up, was breakable, impermanent and thus an unaffordable or even wasteful luxury for many.

Ditto glassware.

The most recent ITV production of Persuasion rightly had the characters drinking out of pewter cups when dining in Lyme–both privately and at the inn.  Because in all but the richest households, that’s what they continued to use–particularly if the family might have been semi-mobile, as a naval family might have expected to be.

I have among my collection of odd ‘artefacts’ several plates and cups from a tea service, purporting to shew scenes of Oriental life, though all were made in the Stoke on Trent area, by English potteries.

(Recall that at this time, the finer porcelein–Limoges or Meissen–was wholly inaccessible due to Napoleon’s Continental Blockade.)

The craze for Oriental and Chinese scenes on their tea services was huge at this time, but as most of the artisans producing these goods had never been to China, nor perhaps even seen a Chinese, they painted what they assumed they must look like:  the scenes are ‘Oriental’ garden scenes, and the figures are all dressed in the latest colours and fashions of 1812 London.

I love them.

Yet beyond the wry amusement or even modern smugness at how wrong they got it, these serve to remind me that life in 1812 wasn’t put together by the BBC Set department–it wasn’t uniform, it was odd, it was ill-informed, frequently uneducated and naive.  These were the new technologies–and they hadn’t quite worked out all the wrinkles yet.

And they didn’t have even half the amenities we take for granted today.  And I do like remembering that.

How many reasons could there be?

A while ago, someone asked me if I could explain Napoleon’s fall from power.  And I promised to think about it and come up with an answer. 

So, I’ve been thinking about it.  And whilst this isn’t by any means the full or final answer, what I’ve got below may go some way to explaining or outlining the contributing factors. 

Because as in most things of this nature, there isn’t one single reason–it’s more a combination of factors.  (And this isn’t the sexy, fun stuff–just so you’re warned.)

[Also, I should say, there are two superb books on the subject, How Far from Austerlitz? by Alistair Horne and The Roads to Waterloo by Gregor Dallas.  Both of which are not just fine histories, they’re also a pleasure to read.] 

But for what it’s worth, here’s an overview of one of the factors which I believe contributed to his necessary downfall:  the economics of the Napoleonic wars.  Which I’m calling Part I.

By 1803-4, France had become a military state.  That is to say, all its energies, economic and civil policy and administration were given over to supplying and supporting and celebrating its military. 

So, for example, when looking at Napoleon’s reorganisation of  the civil code, one sees that by placing all the landmark events in a person’s life under civil law, he is building a huge body of information about France’s citizens.  Hence, when marriage becomes a civil contract and is removed from the aegis of the church, this begins to keep track of the ages of all the young men–a young man who is of an age to marry is also of an age to serve. 

The introduction of the Continental Blockade is another example of this militarisation of civilian life. 

We think generally of the Continental Blockade in terms of denying Britain the large market for its goods that was Europe–that was Napoleon’s intent, certainly.   

But what we don’t think in terms of is the wartime shortages across the Continent.  Nor do we think in terms of the Europeans being cut off from their natural export markets.  Because economically, the Continental Blockade was a disaster for Europe.

To look at various industries:  sugar cane was imported from the Caribbean islands into Germany where Hamburg was chiefest in sugar processing.  Before the Continental Blockade was brought in by Napoleon in 1806, Hamburg had 400 sugar factories. 

By 1812, only 3 were still in existence.  They simply couldn’t get the raw materials. 

France, under Napoleon’s orders, was growing sugar beet–but the supply wasn’t anything like enough.  And in order to support French industry, the price of sugar beet to the other nations in the French Empire was astronomical.  The remaining sugar factories were only allowed to sell their sugar to France–but at a knock-down price which didn’t cover their costs. 

Then, the European navies and merchant navies had been first requisitioned by Napoleon for France’s use.  And these were subsequently, er, lost to the British during various naval battles.  And of course, the British were maintaining a world-wide blockade against France and its Empire.  So even if they had had goods to export, the European nations had no means of transporting the goods.

And this process was repeated across the Continent’s manufacturing spectrum. 

The weaving industry, without access to cotton from the Americas, failed.  The luxury velvet industry, also centred in Germany, also went under. 

Russia couldn’t sell its hemp or timber to Britain–its largest import market.  All of which led to unemployment on an unimaginable scale.  And the remaining manufacturers were only allowed to sell their goods to France and to the military…

So, by 1812, there are mass shortages of everything in Europe.  And this level of privation builds resentment, as many of us today have cause to know. 

But in 1812, it served to alienate the middle classes, the European bourgeoisie, who across Europe, but particularly in the German states, had generally thought the French Empire and its republican ideals a good thing–so much aristocratic power and privilege had been swept away in their favour. 

But economically, the Empire had failed to deliver.  Industrialisation, which was sweeping ahead in Britain, was wholly stunted in Europe by a lack of raw materials, lack of markets, lack of investment, and lack of manpower. 

In the Low Countries, Napoleon’s own brother, whom he’d set up as king, actively encouraged smuggling and the breaking of the blockade–that’s how bad the shortages of everyday goods were.  It was a case of allow smuggling or face open rebellion, so he went for the safer (to his health) option.

Russia quietly reopened its ports to Britain in 1811, so badly was their economy hit by being unable to sell their hemp and timber…mass bankruptcy does not lead to political stability.

Then again, after twenty years, Europe was tired of war.  Exhausted in every sense. 

War is expensive.  And I’m not just talking in terms of manpower.  Although it was Napoleon who famously said, “I have an income of 85,000 men a year.” 

It’s expensive to feed, clothe, and supply a standing army.  And France couldn’t afford it.  No one could. 

So Napoleon had to keep that army on the move, quartered in other countries so that someone else was paying the room and board of that 300,000+ men.  And he had to keep them in the field, winning new battles and therefore entitled to prize money and whatever they could pillage and loot, which satisfied their self-interest, but also made up for all the times when they didn’t get paid.   

But, Napoleon also made a habit of demanding vast ongoing reparation payments from any country or principality which had the temerity to oppose him. 

Prussia in particular was badly hit.  Though of course their economy has been destroyed by the Continental System, making it harder and harder for them to raise the money to pay…

But war itself also destroys economies.  And so, when you’re hearing that Napoleon marched his armies through whatever country it was–Spain, Prussia, the German states, Austria–you have to understand that in terms of almost an army of locusts eating everything that country had. 

If the French army marched through your countryside, there would be no livestock left–they would have requisitioned or stolen all your cows, goats, pigs, horses, sheep and chickens.  They would have left nothing behind. 

So not only could you not feed yourself and your family that year, you had no hope for recovery.  The chickens won’t be there to lay another few eggs which could in turn hatch and help rebuild your fragile micro-economy.  There will be no cows or goats for milk, cheese production, butter…and no calves, kids or lambs…

And they will also have taken all your grain to feed their horses and mules.  So, no bread, no meal, no brewing…And your neighbours won’t have anything left either.

And this will have been going on, as I say, for twenty years in Continental Europe. 

So essentially, by the time Napoleon invades Russia, in the summer of 1812, Europe was bankrupt and with every country facing shortages similar or worse to those experienced during WWII. 

And whilst privation was perhaps acceptable when France was winning, and adding country after country to her Empire, it started to look as though it was all for nothing once Napoleon’s winning streak faltered.

For in 1812 the unthinkable happened.  Napoleon was defeated (and admitted it) and lost some 90% of the Grande Armee.  That’s defeat on a scale such as no one can imagine.  Not then, not today. 

On paper, he took some 550,000-600,000 men to Russia.  Probably no more than 350,000-400,000 crossed the border on their way, they thought, to glory and Moscow. 

But that number does not include the nearly 100,000 (that’s a guestimate) of the civilians who accompanied him–camp followers, cooks, grooms and servents, brandy women, wives and children…

Yet only some 30,000 veterans of the Russian campaign survived to make it back to Paris. 

And so, for the first time across France, whole towns had lost all their young men.  And when Napoleon’s recruitment officers went to try and raise a new army, to stave off the invasion of France in 1813, they found they could not do it.  And they wrote about the resentment in the towns where over half the families are now wearing black, in deepest mourning for their sons and fathers…

So, er, that’s the economics of the thing…pretty disastrous by any reckoning.  And probably enough to think about for the moment.

And, er, in another couple of weeks, I’ll consider Part II, another aspect of this…the new nationalism in Germany?  Maybe Spain?  Or perhaps Napoleon himself…