Online Talk on Napoleonic Prisoners of War

Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.

Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.

The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.

If you would like to get hold of a ticket, then it is free to book using the following link, https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/napoleonic-prisoners-of-war-in-chesterfield-tickets-510819714517.

St Mary and All Saints Church, St Mary’s Gate, Chesterfield, as it would have looked in 1793, from the King’s Topographical Collection, British Library

My Top 5 History Reads of 2022

As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.

The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.

Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez

This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.

The Man Who Invented Christmas:

This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!

Giovanni Belzoni and the Rediscovery of Seti I‘s tomb

Two anniversaries have inspired this blog post, first of all, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the steps leading to Tutankhamun, probably the world’s greatest and most famous archaeological discovery, but today also marks the 244th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Belzoni. At the moment, you may be wondering how these two things are connected, but it’s a closer connection than you may at first think. Giovanni Belzoni found a similarly exciting discovery in the Valley of the Kings, just a little over a hundred years before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun. The discovery he made was the fantastic tomb of Seti I, which is the largest of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.[1]

Image of Giovanni Belzoni taken from his Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, Third Edition (1822), British Library

Giovanni Belzoni was one of fourteen children. He was born in Padua, Italy, in 1778. As a teenager, he attempted to go into holy orders, where he learnt about engineering. From this engineering experience, he began to exhibit some hydraulic engines he had made.[2] When Napoleon’s forces invaded Italy, he moved to the Netherlands, before again moving to England in 1803, to escape going to prison.[3] Following the move, he joined the circus as a strongman, helped by his 6 ft 7 inch height and muscly build. He toured with this around Britain and Europe, until he heard the Pasha of Egypt was looking for a new irrigation system.

In 1815, Belzoni made his way to Egypt to offer his hydraulic engines for use as an irrigation system. Despite a good pitch, the Pasha wasn’t entirely impressed and didn’t take up the offer. Instead, Belzoni was offered a small allowance that allowed him to stay in Egypt a little longer.[4] It was during this time that Belzoni became fascinated with the European efforts to excavate Ancient Egyptian sites. Officials on these digs saw him as a valuable asset thanks to his strength and engineering knowledge and so by 1817, he was officially employed by the British to help with these types of excavations.

Plate showing a Colossal Head of Red Granite from Belzoni’s Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia (1820), Wikimedia Commons

Belzoni built up a reputation for getting things done, even if his methods don’t match up to modern archaeology. He was notorious for using his strength, bribery and ingenuity to plunder items from Egypt, to send them to Britain.[5] One of the most famous artifacts he helped unearth was a sculpture of Ramses II, which had been notoriously difficult to move, and was fought over by the British and the French, is now held in the British Museum. He also cleared the entrance of the famous Abu Simbel temple and was the first to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza.[6] Whilst he made these discoveries and more, there is one discovery he is most famous for; the tomb of Seti I.

Tomb of Seti I (2020), Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons

The tomb was discovered on 16 October 1817 and up to that point, it was viewed as the finest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Its walls were highly decorated and looked as if they had just been painted yesterday, rather than many thousands of years ago. Most importantly, it still contained the sarcophagus, which was made of fine alabaster. This was sent back to London, initially to the British Museum, but was later brought by the Sir John Soane Museum.[7] Belzoni and his team spent just over a year drawing and taking wax impressions of the decorated walls. Unfortunately, when they left, there as a flash flood that caused damage to the paintwork. This meant the tomb would never quite be the same again. Even today the tomb is closed because of issues of damage and issues around conservation.

Belzoni continued to make discoveries after Seti’s tomb, but he returned to England in 1819, saying it was becoming too dangerous after the French had taken an obelisk from him at gunpoint.[8] A year later, he published his account of the many discoveries he had made in the four years he had been excavating in Egypt. This was then followed in 1821 by a fantastic life-size exhibition held in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. At this exhibition, called The Egyptian Tomb, many artifacts were on display alongside a recreation of Seti’s tomb (including the sarcophagus) which was based on the original drawings and wax impressions taken not long after the discovery. The exhibition aimed to showcase Belzoni and his work, but also to educate visitors about ‘authentic’ Ancient Egypt.[9] There was also a catalogue produced for visitors, which emphasised the educational aspects of the exhibition, but also explained the reproduced royal tombs on display.[10] After the exhibition closed, the items on display, including the replicas, were auctioned off at the Egyptian Hall in June 1822. Exhibitions still continued to be held after Belzoni’s death in 1823 during an expedition to Timbuktu. In 1825, his widow showcased his original drawings, alongside the models of the royal tombs, in both Paris and London.[11]

Bullock’s Museum, (Egyptian Hall or London Museum), Piccadilly. Coloured aquatint, attributed to T. H. Shepherd, 1815. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Whilst there is no doubt that Giovanni Belzoni acquired his artifacts in dubious circumstances that definitely don’t match up to current ethics about museum collections, he was not the only one working in this way. I am in no way condoning his actions, but recognise that many people were doing the same thing around this time. What his work, and the exhibition that followed, do show is that it sparked a renewed interest in Egypt, much like the discovery of Tutankhamun did a century later.[12] The difference was that in Belzoni’s time, the idea of Ancient Egypt was still fairly new. Hieroglyphics had still not yet been deciphered but the French and British had been writing and investigating Egyptian history and culture ever since Napoleon’s invasion or so called ‘expedition’ in 1798. These French investigations famously produced the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by academics following their return to France in 1801. You can find out more about that and Napoleon’s expedition in a previous blog post, found here. As has been noted, all of these discoveries, including those involving Belzoni, despite their dubious nature, helped to open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt”.[13]


[1] Jane Austen Centre, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/uncategorized/giovanni-battista-belzoni

[2] Britannica, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Battista-Belzoni

[3] Jane Austen Centre, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’

[4] Marie Parsons, ‘Giovanni Belzoni Circus Giant and Collector of Egyptian Antiquities’, Tour Egypt, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/belzoni.htm

[5] Hyungji Park, ‘”Going to Wake up Egypt”: Exhibiting Empire in Edwin Drood’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 30.2 (2002), p. 537

[6] Britannica, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’

[7] Marie Parsons, ‘Giovanni Belzoni Circus Giant and Collector of Egyptian Antiquities’

[8] Britannica, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’

[9] Hyungji Park, ‘”Going to Wake up Egypt”’, p. 529

[10] Ibid, p. 542

[11] Britannica, ‘Giovanni Battista Belzoni’

[12] Hyungji Park, ‘”Going to Wake up Egypt”’, p. 538

[13] C. Gillespie Coulston, ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447

Book Review of Queens of Georgian Britain by Catherine Curzon

If you are a regular follower of the blog, you will have probably guessed that I have an interest in the Georgian period. However, I knew very little about the Georgian Queens. Perhaps part of that is that as the Georgian period is named after its kings, they have been pushed to the side somewhat. I wished to learn more, so that is what first attracted me to this book. As this book is written by an author I have not read before, I must admit I was a little apprehensive, but also excited, to see what this book would bring. I was definitely not disappointed with this book in anyway.

The women covered in the book are Sophia Dorothea of Celle, Caroline of Ansbach, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Streliz and Caroline of Ansbach. Each of the women featured have their own intriguing life stories to tell, which the author writes in an accessible and exciting way. I found this made it an easy read and despite the trials and tribulations all of the women went through, there were some light-hearted and entertaining moments throughout. The book certainly highlights how downtrodden the women were because of their husbands and the courts they lived in. This makes the reader empathetic with the lives the women lived, and showed that whilst covered in jewels, they were not necessarily as happy as modern readers may perhaps think.

All of the Queens, whilst mentioned individually, were placed into the context of the royal court they lived in. This gave a fascinating insight into the cycle of how they were influenced by the court and how the individual Queens in turn influenced the court. In doing this, it shows that the author has clearly done a good amount of research, not only into the lives of the Queens and their Georges, but also the wider context of society in Britain (and the German states where they all hailed from) at the time.

The occasional addition of extracts from letters about the Queens and other events also provided a good insight, as it felt like reading about more personal matters. The same could be said about the inclusion of newspaper articles, in order to gauge possible public opinion. This was particularly useful for considering the media war between George IV and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, who actively disliked one another. With the retelling of this, it was clear that there were so many modern day parallels in. Again, moments like this provided a good context to the times, but also highlighted the wide range of research conducted by the author.

With the amount of women involved in this book, there is of course some skimming of their lives. I feel that doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall experience of the book. Instead it allows the book to be light and not so stuffy as other history books can sometimes be. I can understand how this may put some readers off, but it is fine to use, as I did, as an introduction to either the Georgian period, or to the Georgian Queens themselves. As the book covers so many people and has a large timespan, I can also understand that that may be confusing to some readers, especially as the people mentioned have similar names. Sadly that is what happens a lot in history, so please don’t let that put you off giving this a read.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. Not only is it written in a witty and engaging style, but the Catherine Curzon manages to make the Queens feel like real people that the reader can connect with, rather than figures from the distant past. It highlights the human side to royalty, that can so often be forgotten. As said above, this is the perfect book to introduce the topic and I hope it would encourage anyone who reads it to find out more about the Queens who would help define an era, although the era is clearly given its name by their husbands.

Thomas Cook: the Inventor of the Package Tour

When the travel operator Thomas Cook sadly went bankrupt in 2019, it was the world’s longest running tour operator. It had been running for nearly 180 years. With so many years in operation, Thomas Cook, the founder of the original company and who it was named after, has been somewhat forgotten. In reality, Cook has been dubbed by scholars as the inventor of modern mass tourism as he was the first to use the idea of a package tour.[1] From humble beginnings, Thomas, and his son, John Mason, were able to transform how travel was perceived during the nineteenth century. With the company now no longer in existence, it could mean that the history of those beginnings could easily be lost. I hope that this post goes some way to stopping that origin story from being lost to the general public. Thomas Cook was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1808. Even though I’m from Derbyshire, I must admit that I don’t think it’s particularly well-known that the famous travel man actually was born in the county, which is a real shame. Still hopefully this helps to tell his story.

He left school at the age of 10, which was around average for the time, so would not have necessarily hindered him. After leaving school, he managed to find employment in various jobs until he became a Baptist missionary in 1828 and later a printer.[2] It was these two roles that he particularly excelled in. Both Christianity and printing would also very much go on to influence how he conducted his famous travel business, particularly in those early years.

Photograph of Thomas Cook, c. 1880, National Library of Wales

The first tour Thomas Cook conducted had a religious theme to it. In 1841, Cook persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting. The meeting consisted of promoting the ideas of religious temperance, which put simply meant the Christian promotion of consuming no alcohol. Cook managed to persuade the company to offer reduced fares for the excursion because the amount of people promised to use this train if it was put on was around 500.[3] Considering rail travel was still in its infancy, the very fact Cook had manage to organise such a trip was extraordinary. At the time, most people still didn’t travel by train, largely down to the expensive nature and ‘novelty’ aspect of this form of transport. To travel in such a way, as well as with a large amount of people, meant that the religious and temperance movement also gained public attention. The popularity of such trips certainly proved popular following this first excursion as Cook organised them for the next four years.[4]

The majority of these temperance trips were not run to make profit. They were simply to help those who wished to partake in the ideas around these conferences and meetings get there, although spreading the word via these excursions also helped. Eventually these trips became large enough to become economically viable. The first of these excursions for profit was an organised trip to Liverpool, with travellers from across the Midlands, mostly from Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.[5] Cook created a handbook for this trip, which would be a similar to a modern day guidebook, explaining the itinerary for the trip. These would become a staple for all of Cook’s travellers.

A later example of a handbook used by the company. Cook’s Handbook for London With Two Maps (1893), British Library

By the 1850s, the business had grown enough for Cook to finally become a full-time travel operator and leave the printing trade. This decision was also fuelled by the sad loss of his mother. Loss sometimes has the funny way of making us see what we really want or need and in this instance, Thomas Cook was no different. It also helped that one of his biggest successes in those early years came in 1851 with the Great Exhibition held at London’s Crystal Palace (and no not the football team). The exhibition featured exhibits meant to showcase the industry and ingenuity of the British Empire, but also offered people an opportunity to glimpse the world in just one exhibition. In total, it’s been estimated that Cook gave 100,000 people discounted travel to the Great Exhibition.[6]

Following on from this success, in 1855, the ambition grew to organising trips to Europe, starting with the 1855 Paris Exposition. A cynic would probably say it was money and profit that fuelled this decision. In fact it again was really fuelled by his Christian beliefs. At the time, Britain had seen France as a threat and enemy, largely down to the Napoleonic wars. Cook was a pacifist and instead thought offering tours to Paris could help promote peace. He thought it would make English people more tolerant towards foreigners and reduce the kind of “hatred and narrow-minded attitudes that led to wars”.[7] Of course the logistics of organising trips to Europe would be much more difficult than arranging ones in England. For a start different companies and currencies were involved during these trips, meaning a lot more complications. After the first trip these problems were eventually ironed out, as any business would do after starting something new.

During these early days, Thomas Cook himself personally guided the tours. He would stay at the helm for many decades, until his son, John Mason, took over primary control in the 1870s, ensuring all was well for his customers. Not only did he offer them ‘working men’s excursions’, which were mainly day trips in England, but his foreign tours were promoted to the middle classes, who now could afford the discounted rates that Cook provided. Cook was able to change the way that travel was viewed as it was now something more people outside the aristocracy could do for leisure, all thanks to Cook’s guided tour, transport, accommodation and meals now becoming a whole package.[8]

Thomas Cook Memorial Cottages, © Copyright Trevor Rickard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cook’s business success is indicative of his drive to allow tourism to open up to wider society. His previous skills in printing press allowed him to advertise his tours, as well as create guidebooks needed by his travellers. Most importantly, his Christian values drove him to share the world that God had created. Whilst of course we may not understand that now, there is no denying that was a huge motivation to him. This motivation can still be seen in his birthplace of Melbourne, Derbyshire. A selection of pretty almshouses built at the end of Cook’s life still survive there. They were meant as a place specifically designed to house the poor and include a caretakers house and a chapel.[9]

Whilst all of the achievements of Thomas Cook are hard to put into a single post, I hope that the genuine enthusiasm and business mind of the man have been shown. I know he would have been sad if he knew how his business came to an abrupt holt in 2019, but that doesn’t detract from the peace and love of the world he wanted to share with others during his early days as a travel operator. These were what drove the company to exist not just under his son, but were what the entire company had been originally founded upon.


[1] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism in Victorian Britain’, History Hit, 3 March 2022, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[2] Britannica, Thomas Cook, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cook

[3] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit: Thomas Cook & Son and the Origins of the International Tourism Industry in Egypt’, in Philip Scranton and Janet F. Davidson (eds), The Business of Tourism: Place, Faith and History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 9

[4] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[5] Ibid

[6] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit’, p. 9

[7] History Press, Thomas Cook’s First Tours to the Continent, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/thomas-cook-s-first-tours-to-the-continent/

[8] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[9] British Listed Buildings, Thomas Cook Almshouses, Chapel and Railings, https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101096389-thomas-cook-almshouses-chapel-and-railings-melbourne#.YwX1qXbMK3B

Napoleonic Prisoners of War Talk

During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.

One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

General Exelmans changing horses at the Battle of Wertingen in October 1805, Wikimedia Commons

Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.

As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.

If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!

The Conditions onboard Prison Hulks

In the opening chapters of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Magwitch was incarcerated on a prison hulk, a disused ship used to house prisoners, situated around the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was after he escaped from one that he first encountered the main character, Pip, along the foggy marshes near this part of Kent. The mention of these hulks during the opening scenes of the book was meant to play on pre-existing ideas about the harsh conditions that those on board endured. Were these ideas really true and what exactly was a prison hulk?

A prison ship in the River Thames at Deptford: rowing boats convey prisoners between land and the ship. Engraving by George Cooke after Samuel Prout. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Hulks were first used after the American War of Independence in order to solve the issue of ever increasing prisoner numbers.[1] Prior to the war, many prisoners were sent out to America, but during the War of Independence and after, this was no longer a viable option for the government. Something else had to be done as there was no space to hold them inside prisons. The idea of using decommissioned and unseaworthy ships, known as prison hulks, was born out of this need. They were officially made legal by the ‘Hulks Act’ of 1776, which was meant to create a temporary fix, although the hulks would be in action for the next 80 years.[2] As the hulks were designed to be organised by contractors, it made them an easier and cheaper option that building new prisons to hold people in. The first few were located close to London in the Thames, but when need increased, more were placed along the Medway Estuary in Kent and near the dockyards at Portsmouth.

One of the first ships to be brought used from August 1776 was the Justitia, which was previously owned by the wealthy East India Company. A total of 632 prisoners were initially placed on the ship, of which 176 had died by March 1778, showing just how insanitary the ships were.[3] Insanitary conditions were an issue throughout the lives of the prison hulks, although there were some attempts at improvement. The cramped conditions were the main cause of disease being rife on board as this meant disease could travel easier. The small amount of rations given also made the men weak and more susceptible to the diseases onboard. Instructions meant that prisoners were given little more than bread, other than some meat and potatoes for their evening meal.[4] These rations were not enough to cover the hard labour of the prisoners, who were expected to work in chain gangs, either at nearby dockyards or along river banks. Any insubordinate behaviour was punished with heavier chains for work or whilst on board. These would have made already backbreaking work a lot harder. Those who were either too old or too infirm for this kind of work instead stayed on the ship to cook, clean and mend clothes and shoes.[5]

Gallery of a Prison Hulk, London Illustrated News, 21 February 1846

The only upside to the work was that there was the opportunity to gain money. Although whilst a prisoner men were only entitled to keep a penny of every shilling they earned, funds were saved so that they could be given money upon their release. In general, this amounted to between £10 and £15, or between £670 and £1,000 in today’s money.[6] The prisoners also had the opportunity to gain some education whilst on board, if they so wished. After their evening meal, there was the option of attending to school work, giving them the chance to learn to read and write.[7] This was certainly more skills than most of the prisoners would have had before entering the hulk. It was hoped that with this education, as well as the backbreaking labour, that criminality could be forced out of those incarcerated.

By the mid-1800s, more prisons were beginning to be built, meaning that the prison hulks were slowly being phased out. More and more criticism was aimed at the hulks. Those who wanted reform for the prison system suggested that the improvements being made in ordinary prisons was not being implemented on the hulks, meaning that the conditions were still as terrible as ever. As husband and wife authors, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote on the prison system many years later, have indicated that the hulks had become “of all the places of confinement… apparently the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible”.[8] It is no wonder then that by 1852, there were only two hulks left in use, before the whole hulk system was officially disbanded in 1857.

Garneray, Louis; Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/prison-hulks-in-portsmouth-harbour-25000

Despite there being some positives, in terms of offering meals, education and money upon release, there was no denying that the authorities made sure that prison hulks were a nightmarish place to be. Many who served their sentence on them were known to stick together, almost as if to rally around the horrors they had witnessed, mainly caused by the corruption of the system. All in all, it is a good thing they ended, but let them be remembered for the inhumanity, just like much of other parts of the justice system at that time.


[1] Digital Panopticon, https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_Hulks

[2] Ibid

[3] Thomas R. Forbes, ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the Deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth, England, in 1817–27’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 33.3 (1978), p. 358

[4] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[5] Ibid

[6] Rose Staveley-Wadham, ‘”Colleges of Villainy” – Life Onboard the Prison Hulks’, The British Newspaper Archive, 31 March 2021, https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2021/03/31/life-onboard-a-prison-hulk/

[7] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[8] Sydney Webb and Beatrice Webb, English Prisons Under Local Government (New York, 1922), pp. 45-46

Review of To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West and looking for your next book to read, I would seriously recommend To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner. This book tells the joint story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot him dead in a house in Fort Sumner New Mexico one night in 1881. I have always enjoyed tales of the Wild West, but didn’t really know too much about the back story to either Billy the Kid of Pat Garrett. All I really knew was that myth and legend shrouds the backstory to both of these men. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid that was written by Pat Garrett himself as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing.

The first few pages of the book are dedicated to other reviews the book has been given. All of these are positive, and at times a little dramatic sounding, so I must admit this gave me some reservations. However, I must admit that not long into the book, I felt I must agree with them. This book really has been one of the best I’ve read this year. The writing style was easy going and action packed, but in a concise way. Whilst this book is a biography, this writing style really did make me feel like I was reading a fiction book, rather than a history book. It certainly meant that the book was very hard to put down. In many ways, it felt as if this book transported the reader right into the middle of the events being described.

I feel I have learnt a lot about what made both men tick, but in a very entertaining and thrilling way. The double narrative could have easily become confusing for the reader, but in fact it was the opposite. It was done in a way that described the outlaw and the lawman not just as individuals, but how their paths crossed at various points along the way. I feel that whether or not the reader knew the outcome of Garrett shooting the Kid, everything does culminate towards that. I had read previously about what happened during the Kid’s death, but had found descriptions of it very confusing. However, I feel the author dealt with what was a confusing event in a very commendable way that made it easy to understand with previous versions I had read. Just taking this example alone does make me applaud the writing style, even though as previously mentioned, it is written well throughout.

The good research and time gone into this topic is evident. Whilst it does have the tone of a fiction book, there are always good references to works by other historians, witnesses who had known Pat and the Kid, and newspapers from the time. By using all of these sources, it does give a well rounded approach to the topic, whilst also giving a wider context to lawless New Mexico, and the Wild West as a whole. I did particularly like the addition of what happened to Pat Garrett after he had killed Billy the Kid. As this book suggests, Garrett hated the fact he was known across America as the one who killed the Kid. By adding these extra facts both before and after Pat knew the Kid, it felt right to respect Pat’s wishes and added to his character. The goes for the exploration of the early life of Billy the Kid. Whilst of course his level of criminality can’t be justified, it goes towards explaining how his life had led him to that point.

The only thing that initially confused me a little was that the first chapter deals with when Pat Garrett first arrested Billy the Kid and others and attempted to take them on a train to meet their justice. This resulted in a shootout and riot with locals who wanted one of the criminals, not Billy the Kid. After reading the rest of the book, the author’s choice to put this in the first chapter makes sense as it places the relationship Garrett and the Kid had straight into the reader’s mind, before the author goes into more detail about the background of both characters.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, whether they have an interest in the Wild West or not. It’s journalistic writing style is so easy to read and helps what is a difficult topic in places, in terms of the violence used by the criminals it mentions, but also as the life of Billy the Kid has become very sensationalised in the years since his death, easier to digest. There are many books on the Wild West out there and I genuinely feel that this is one of the best there is. As one of the reviews from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper suggests “A superbly written story, utterly enthralling and unforgettable”. I would definitely reiterate that statement.

Just so you are aware, an updated edition for the tenth anniversary of this book was published in 2020. I am not sure what updates have been introduced in that version as I was reading the original 2010 one, but if you manage to get your hands on a copy, you’ll have to let me know if there are any differences.

Glastonbury and its Connections to the Hymn Jerusalem

First of all, Happy Easter, whether you celebrate Easter as a Christian festival like I do, or not. In honour of the season, I thought I would share the Christian legend connected to the hymn, Jerusalem. The hymn has become an unofficial national anthem of England and is seen as something very patriotic, having been sung at all sorts of events, including the London Olympics, royal weddings and the last night of the proms. It is perhaps also well known for being the anthem of the Women’s Institute, which adopted it in 1924.[1] Since then, the hymn has come to represent an idyllic England. It is within this patriotic context that the song, composed by Charles Hubert Parry, has been understood for over a hundred years since it was first debuted in March 1916, but have you ever stopped to think about what the words really mean?

The lyrics mainly come from Milton, an epic poem William Blake wrote in the early 1800s, especially the famous line “dark satanic mills”. Since the patriotic connotations became associated with the hymn, the dark satanic mills in particular has come to represent Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but in Blake’s format, it was really intended to be an allegory for Satan himself, who was a miller who ground souls.[2] Another famous line, “did those feet in ancient times”, is steeped in centuries old legend that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave his tomb up to hold the body of Jesus following the crucifixion, came to England and established the country’s oldest church at Glastonbury in Somerset.

View of the Abbot’s Kitchen Glastonbury, Somersetshire dated March 16 1761 from the King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library

During the medieval period, Glastonbury was a huge place of pilgrimage because of its abbey. The abbey not only had connections to Joseph of Arimathea, but in 1184, a fire hit. It was during restoration work following the fire that the graves of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinivere were found. Both of these links brought fame and drew on beliefs at the time. Whilst the theme of Arthurian legends and the belief of Glastonbury as being Avalon, where Arthur was buried, are interesting in their own right, there isn’t time to delve into those in this blog post, so I’ll just stick the Joseph connection. However, if you are interested in that, do feel free to research that for yourself.

According to legend, Joseph came either with a younger Jesus, or following his death and brought the Holy Grail with him, to set up a church, which later developed into what became the abbey.[3] If we follow the legend of the Holy Grail, Joseph buried the Grail at what is now known as Chalice Well. It is there that the water runs red, the colour of blood, linked with the blood of Christ. Whilst this colour is also created by the iron that runs through the water, it is clear to see why people in the past would have believed this.

Chalice Well, Glastonbury (2005), John Vigar, Wikimedia Commons

The other legend connected to Joseph is the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. It is said that on a hill just outside of the town called Wearyall Hill, Joseph’s staff turned into a thorn tree, which is a variety found in the Holy Lands.[4] What makes this tree miraculous is that it flowers twice a year: at Easter and Christmas, even though Easter changes its date ever year. Before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries from 1536, there were known to have been three trees on Wearyall, but by the 1600s, there was only one left. When the English Civil Wars were raging, the Parliamentarian forces, who were mainly Puritans that followed strict doctrines, destroyed the Glastonbury Thorn. Luckily, local residents had taken cuttings and a replacements descended from the original were later planted, but many have either died or tragically been vandalised. There are many around the town, including one in the abbey grounds, but there is also one main one at Glastonbury’s parish church. Most monarchs since the seventeenth century, other than when the Parliamentarians ruled following the Civil War, have been gifted a cutting at Christmas to use for decoration, a tradition started when Anne of Demark, wife of James I, was gifted one.[5]

These legends originate from the fact that there was a large Jewish community in the West of England in the time following on from the crucifixion, many believed to have been tin miners in the region.[6] Whilst this may be the case, is there any truth to these tales? They cannot be totally proved or disproved with the passing of time and as there is faith behind them, I believe it is only fair to leave it up to individuals to make up their mind on this. However, an article written in 2018 about archaeological explorations made by the University of Reading at Glastonbury Abbey holds an interesting take on this. The origins of the Abbey were originally thought to date back to around 700 AD. In their excavations, they found the remnants of a pre-Saxon timber building on the outskirts of the later abbey complex. Within this they found fragments of later Roman pottery, showing links with the Mediterranean, and much earlier burials than expected.[7] These excavations have now dated the origins of the site to around 450 AD, nearly 300 years earlier than previously thought.[8]

A Holy Thorn beneath up the tower of St John the Baptist parish church (2009), geography.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst this may not prove the Joseph of Arimathea legends, it does show that perhaps there was a much more ancient place of Christian worship than was previously thought. It showed that William of Malmesbury, an historian writing in the 1100s, was right when he noted an early church on the site at Glastonbury, which he said was the oldest he had ever witnessed himself.[9] Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no denying that Glastonbury does hold some sense of spirituality and mysticism to it, something which I can promise you can still feel today if you visit. As the hymn Jerusalem says, ‘did those feet in ancient times’, i.e. the feet of Joseph, come to England, bring Christ or Christianity with him, who knows, but hopefully this post has made you think a bit differently about that famous song.


[1] Whittaker, Jason, ‘Almost Everything You Knew about the Hymn Jerusalem is Wrong’, Prospect, 26 December 2019, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/arts-and-books/almost-everything-you-know-about-the-hymn-jerusalem-is-wrong

[2] Ibid

[3]  ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[4] Ibid; Johnson, Ben, ‘Glastonbury, Somerset’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Glastonbury/#:~:text=The%20legend%20of%20the%20Holy,the%20site%20of%20Glastonbury%20Cathedral.

[5] ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[6] Ross, David, ‘Legends of Glastonbury- Joseph of Arimathea’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/Myths/Glastonbury.htm

[7] Gilchrist, Roberta, ‘Glastonbury: Archaeology is Revealing New Truths about the Origins of British Christianity’, The Conversation, 23 March 2018, https://theconversation.com/glastonbury-archaeology-is-revealing-new-truths-about-the-origins-of-british-christianity-93805

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

Lew Wallace: The Author of Ben-Hur and His Connections to Billy the Kid

Until recently, I didn’t know that Ben-Hur was a novel written by Lew Wallace, a former Governor of New Mexico and Major General. Instead, I just assumed the famous 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston, was just an original screenplay suited to the epic film genre that was popular at the time. It was only whilst reading a book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff responsible for the outlaw’s death, that I came across Lew Wallace. After doing further research, I found that Wallace had had an interesting and varied life. Hopefully this post will go some way towards demonstrating that.

Lewis, known as Lew, Wallace was born in Louisiana on 10 April 1927. He father, David Wallace, was a politician and Governor, something which he would pass onto Lewis. However, the pair disagreed a lot as Lew didn’t do well in school. He was more bothered about art and books than his school work, much to the annoyance of his father. At the age of 16, he was thrown out of the family home so he could start earning a living, with the hope this would cure him of his so-called delinquent ways.[1] In some ways it did a little. He went on to become a lawyer, but only to satisfy his father. He still loved his books and carried on reading whenever he had the opportunity, even if it meant reading till very late at night.

Image of Lew Wallace from his autobiography, published in 1906, Wikimedia Commons

Wallace took any opportunity he could to get away from his law practice by becoming a soldier. First in the American-Mexico war of 1846-1848 when he joined the Indiana regiment before joining the American Civil war, where he was first a general, then later a major general. At the Battle of Shiloah in April 1862, he was used as a scapegoat for the Union’s near defeat. He had been ordered to bring his division as reinforcements, but took the wrong route and didn’t get there until the second day of fighting.[2] Sadly, this was something he had to deal with for the rest of his life as people never let him forget and heaped the blame on him. The American Civil War was not the last time he attempted to join the army. In 1898, at the age of seventy one, he tried to join up again so he could fight in the Spanish-American War.[3] His efforts were politely declined.

In September 1878, Lew Wallace was brought in as the Governor of New Mexico in an attempt to create peace following the Lincoln County War, a conflict between two rival factions within the Lincoln County part of New Mexico. As Wallace had previously been one of the members of a military commission that tried the conspirators behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, it was thought he would do a good job.[4] There is no denying that Lew did his very best to create peace, but it was a very difficult job with so many outlaws causing havoc throughout the territory. The most notable being Billy the Kid.

Letter to Lew Wallace from Billy the Kid dated March 1881, Fray Angelico Chavez History Library, Wikimedia Commons

The Kid and Wallace met in Spring 1879 when Wallace offered him a pardon in exchange for his witness testimony in a high profile murder case. However, no pardon was ever given, despite Billy writing to Wallace numerous times to remind him of the promise. There were never any replied to these letters, but from Billy’s continued criminal behaviour and the many death threats he made against Wallace, it’s clear why the promise was never fulfilled. Many local newspapers reported on this situation, especially after Pat Garrett arrested Billy in December 1880, who still wanted a pardon. In response, one newspaper directly asked Wallace about it. He said “I can’t see why a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me”.[5] Billy certainly didn’t get it and in April 1881, Wallace signed the death warrant as ordered by the courts, with an execution date set for 13 May. The execution never happened as Billy escaped from jail and was later shot by Garrett on 14 July. Wallace had offered a $500 reward for anyone who recaptured the Kid, but by the time Garrett claimed the reward money, Wallace was no longer the Governor, meaning it took longer to be paid.

The connections to Billy the Kid could easily have become one of the only parts of Lew Wallace’s life that made him an interesting man. However, it was really his writing of the historical novel Ben-Hur, that would become his lasting legacy, even if we now remember it more from the Charlton Heston film, rather than the book itself. When it was published in November 1880, it was an almost instant success. By December, its first print run was completely sold out.[6] By 1900, the novel had been through thirty six English editions and twenty other language editions.[7] Ben-Hur has been described as the “most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century”, as it outsold every other book in America, except the Bible, until Gone with the Wind was published in 1936.[8]

First Edition of Ben-Hur (1880), Wikimedia Commons

In later life, people of his hometown of Crawfordsville in Louisiana recalled a rather odd old man. They remembered him more of a solider than a writer as he was known to wear his military uniform around town.[9] To many he seemed aloof but those who were close to him, he was thought of as gracious and hospitable.[10] What many did remember though was the beech tree, later known as the Ben-Hur tree, on his land where he was often seen writing under.[11]

There aren’t enough words or time to go into all the details of the life of Lew Wallace, but I hope that this goes some way to show the ‘highlights’ of what was a varied and interesting life. He may be not so well known now, but in his own time, he was one of America’s best-known celebrities. With connections to one of the most infamous outlaws of the Wild West and one of the most famous stories (and later film) of all time, the legacy of Wallace is still around, just as long as you know where to look.


[1] Lifson, Amy, ‘Ben-Hur: The Book that Shook the World’, Humanities, 30.6 (2009), https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/novemberdecember/feature/ben-hur-the-book-shook-the-world

[2] Gardner, Mark Lee, To Hell on A Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 153

[3] McGrath, Nick, ‘Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace’, On Point, 19.4 (2014), p. 18

[4] Gardner, Mark Lee, To Hell on A Fast Horse, p. 87

[5] Ibid, p. 23

[6] Ibid, p. 154

[7] Lifson, Amy, ‘Ben-Hur: The Book that Shook the World’, https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/novemberdecember/feature/ben-hur-the-book-shook-the-world

[8] Ibid

[9] Forbes, John D., ‘Lew Wallace, Romantic’, Indiana Magazine of History, 44.4 (1948), p. 386

[10] Ibid, p. 386

[11] McGrath, Nick, ‘Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace’, p. 21