Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets–Generation X in the 1830s

IMG_20170706_122705For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.

I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:

… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.

Slave Trading in Liverpool as Late as 1825?

In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.

But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.

As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.

The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:

I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.

There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.

I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.


Cain’s Audio Guide for Liverpool Biennial 2016

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pintthe book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:

Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.

My audio guide can be downloaded from here.

Listen to Chapter 1 of Cain’s: the Story of Liverpool in a Pint here.

Liverpool Biennial 2016. Download the festival guide from here (pdf).

Why Arctic Whalers Did Not Become Explorers


Scoresby’s observation of ships appearing to be inverted by refraction at high latitudes.

The forgotten history of Arctic whaling had something of a boost from the British Library in the form of a blog post by Philip Hatfield on the contribution of William Scoresby Jr. to the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Hatfield is a curator of the Lines in the Ice exhibition at the British Library and his post reproduces some of Scoresby’s beautiful detailed drawings from An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) to support his view that the whaler and scientist is overlooked in the history of the Northwest Passage. Scoresby’s two volume book was arguably the most important text on the Arctic and Arctic whaling for a century after it was published. It is referenced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851), Charles Darwin had a copy in his library, and the second volume remains the most comprehensive description of the processes involved in Arctic whaling before about 1860. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Scoresby was frequently referenced in newspapers as an expert on the Arctic, and was a champion of Lady Franklin in her attempts to find her missing husband. Her efforts in 1849 included paying Hull whalers significant amounts of money to join the search. Scoresby went with her to Hull to help her persuade them.

I agree with Hatfield that the significance of whalers in Arctic exploration has been overlooked by historians, but their part in the story was necessarily limited by commercial concerns. While some whalers did contribute to exploration, the number who contributed to scientific knowledge from outside of Admiralty-sponsored expeditions is very small indeed. Scoresby of course is the great exception, but as a talented and university educated scientist he was unusual among whalers in any case. Even so, Scoresby struggled throughout his whaling career to square scientific interests with financial obligations to the ship owners and his crew.

Scoresby’s achievements are many. In 1817 his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, informing him of a sudden, significant, and unexplained retreat in the sea ice, helped convince Sir John Barrow that an attempt on the Northwest Passage might then be possible. Although he was to play no part in the failed expedition led by Capt. John Ross in 1818–he sailed instead from Liverpool as commander of the whaleship Fame–Scoresby later became a friend of Ross and in March 1820 visited him at Stranraer when the Baffin took shelter in Loch Ryan on her maiden voyage north. In 1822, Scoresby made the first detailed map of a section of East Greenland, naming it the Liverpool Coast, and noting that it was 70 miles West of where the Admiralty maps suggested.

Like many people at the time Barrow subscribed to the belief that sea near to the North Pole was warm and free of ice. The popularity of this view can be gauged by its appearance in Frankenstein (1818), in which the narrator Walton declares “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” (p.5) Scoresby himself remained sceptical about explorations by ship in the high Arctic. The Caledonian Mercury reported in October 1818 Scoresby’s suggestion that an attempt on the Pole might be made with sledges: “… he proposes to pass the winter in the island of Spitzbergen, and starting in the spring with sledges drawn by dogs, to pursue a direct journey of 600 or 700 miles to the Pole. He might then expect to find a continuous sheet of ice, stretching through his whole track.”

Scoresby’s achievements, however, stand out among whalers, whose priority was to bring home a full ship in the shortest time possible. Whaleship crews became restless, and even threatened mutiny, if they felt time was being wasted. Even the enticement of a reward for any whaler who found a passage through the ice could not persuade captains to take the risk of becoming beset. A ship full of blubber and a winter beside the hearth at home, while by no means guaranteed, was a more attractive prospect. Indeed, Barrow complains in an 1817 Quarterly Review article “On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific”, that whaleship captains, who received a substantial government bounty on their catches, had to swear to the custom house to pursue whales and “other large creatures” and undertake no other activity. Whalers were legally obliged to catch whales, rather than explore. Even Scoresby’s own explorations, notably the 1822 voyage to Greenland, were undertaken alongside commercial whaling (he caught nine large whales that year) and his freedom to go ashore was granted by his Liverpool underwriters. Led by Scoresby’s friend William Rathbone, they gave him more generous insurance terms than other whalers, with the express purpose of aiding his research, but the owners–and the law–still expected him to bring home a full ship if he could. Frustrated, Scoresby gave up whaling the following year.

Whalers have certainly been overlooked in the history of Arctic exploration, but the neglect of twenty-first century historians is less significant than the failure of the governments of the time to take advantage of their expertise and experience. As Barrow himself argues, the presence of large British whaling fleets in the Arctic offered an opportunity for exploration which the Admiralty did not adequately encourage or exploit.

Continuing Education Courses 2014-2015

Continuing Education 6

The new academic year is beginning, and that means a new set of Continuing Education courses is beginning at the University of Liverpool. Quite a few courses are brought together under “themes” this year. We’ve linked up with the Liverpool Gothic Festival to offer a series of courses called Other Worlds: Gothic and the Supernatural, there’s a series on The Grand Tour (I’m giving a talk on Arthur Conan Doyle’s journey to the Arctic on November 13th) and on Liverpool: Ideas and Culture.

Registration has already opened, but I wanted to highlight a few of the literature courses coming up soon. From October 1st Dr. Katharine Easterby is running a 10 week course on Burning Books and Dr. Diana Powell has one on Jail Birds, covering prisoners in literature in the early nineteenth century. From October 2nd there is a course on Reading Kate Atkinson, with Dr. Shirley Jones, and Read the Shortlist, covering the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Dr. Hana Leaper. Booking information is here.

New this year to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 14th at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, is a collaboration between History and English. This includes lectures on women in science by Dr. Claire Jones and on Lovelace’s father, the poet Lord Byron, by Dr. James Bainbridge, as well as lunch, and a visit to the special exhibition The World in a Particle. To book a place on Ada Lovelace Day, go here.

Full details of these and many more courses and events can be found on the University of Liverpool Continuing Education website.

John Clavell, Dandy Highwayman

For part of this week I’ve been writing a short biographical piece about John Clavell, an English poet and dramatist, who was born in Dorset in 1601. Clavell didn’t write very much before he moved on to other careers as a lawyer and a doctor (neither of which he seems to have been qualified for in any way), but what he did write is fascinating. Clavell was born into a well-to-do Dorset family, with an estate at Wootton Glanville, and he arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford as a likely lad of eighteen in 1619. But despite his family background, including a rich uncle, Sir William Clavell, our man seems to have wanted more. In 1621, before competing his degree, Clavell stole some of the silver and gold plate belonging to the college. He was soon apprehended and thrown in prison, only to be given a pardon following the intervention of his uncle. After that Clavell went off to London and fell in with a bad crowd. Thinking he was going to inherit a fortune from his father he started borrowing money, but when his father died in 1623 and most of the family estate turned out to be mortgaged, he found he couldn’t pay off the nice men who had lined up to fund his lifestyle and now wanted their money back. Clavell did the best thing he could think to do in his position: he became a highwayman. Highway robbery was a capital crime in 1624, but Clavell clearly thought the possible returns were worth it. Unfortunately he was arrested in late 1625, after less than a year terrorising the roads around London. Along with several others he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

If the hangman had his way we might have been deprived of Clavell’s obscure, but fascinating account of highway robbery. Fortunately for him and us the coronation of Charles I in February 1626 brought with it a general amnesty and for the second time Clavell managed to secure himself a pardon. It was another two years before Clavell was released, but in the mean time he wrote a penitent poem explaining why he went on the road and describing the life of a highway robber. His A Recantation of an Ill Led Life was published in 1628 and became immediately popular. Here was a first-hand account of the life of one of the most feared categories of criminal, a group who made long-distance travel a hazardous undertaking, whose acts could leave their victims penniless, or even dead. But not only was Clavell’s confessional a revelatory tract about a mysterious and much feared profession, it also offered advice on how to avoid being robbed, and on how to recognise highwaymen among your fellow travellers and companions. Notably, despite the fact that he was released from prison, Clavell warns others against taking up the profession. One swallow, he says, does not make a summer. Despite its lurid subject matter, the Recantation is low-key and unembellished. Clavell is keen to be accepted as a reformed character–he even begs the king for some kind of employment–and portrays the highwayman as generally more fearful than fearsome. Even so he begins with a striking statement:

Stand and deliver to your observation,
Right serious thoughts, that you by my relation
May benefit, for otherwise in vaine
I write, you reade, unlesse from hence you gaine
The happinesse I meane you; blest is he
That will make use of others jeopardie.
Be warn’d by me, so may you purchace hence
At a cheape rate my deare experience.

Some of the advice he gives to travellers is surprisingly modern. Don’t make it generally known you are going away, or why:

… you little thinke
There’s any harme in this, yet I have knowne
A Father thus betray’d by his owne Sonne,
A Brother by a Brother, and a friend
Most deare in outward shew, to condescend.

Trust nobody along the way:

Oft in your Clothiers and your Grasiers Inne,
You shall have Chamberlaines, that there have bin
Plac’d purposely by theeves, or else consenting
By their large bribes, and by their often tempting,
That marke your purses drawne, and give a gesse

But some of it seems at first glance rather odd: don’t travel by day “with any sum you are afraid to lose” and don’t travel on a Sunday. The first of these becomes clear when Clavell explains that darkness makes the victim and his pistols more difficult to see, but also that highwaymen “… must / Keepe lawfull howers, for feare they through mistrust / Be apprehended …” Not travelling on a Sunday also makes sense: only people with important business would be prepared to travel unlawfully on the sabbath, making picking out a victim much easier.

Clavell also gives good advice to inn-keepers on how to spot highwaymen and thieves. Ostlers in the stables might notice horses that must have special food, or careful treatment–above all else a highwayman depends on his horse. And highwaymen, it seems, travel light; their horses have empty cloak bags on the saddle, there for show, and to receive the swag. Inn-keepers, according to Clavell, should make sure to spy on their guests, listen to their conversations, and arrange for someone to knock loudly on the door, to see how they react. Sometimes criminal guests arrive in groups, pretending not to know each other, and they always go to the best inns, where they are less likely to be suspected:

The fairest Innes they usually frequent,
Out of a wary-politicke intent,
Presuming, for disparaging the man
They will not search his howse, and there they can
Rest unmolested, but since this you know
Let not the subtile theefe, escape you so.

Clavell went on to write a play about a young man who borrows money expecting to inherit a fortune and is then cheated out of his inheritance by unscrupulous moneylenders. He then went to Ireland to be a lawyer and physician. It is very unlikely he ever had any formal training as a lawyer, but nevertheless he also practised law in London in the late 1630s. He died, nobody knows where, aged 42, in 1643.

Gillian Spraggs’s site about highwaymen has part of Clavell’s Recantation available. I was unable to find the whole poem available for free on the open internet, but if you have a university subscription to Athens or similar you can read it at Early English Books Online. Otherwise, there is much more about him (and the poem) in John Pafford’s John Clavell 1601–1643. Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, (Oxford, Leopard’s Head Press, 1993).

As a side-effect of all this, I’ve had the inevitable Adam and the Ants earworm for a couple of days:


From Liverpool’s Greenland Street to Greenland’s Liverpool Coast: William Scoresby, Whaling, and Exploration

On April 17th this year I gave a public lecture based on my research on William Scoresby Jr, Liverpool, whaling and exploration at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. This was the first in a series of public talks exploring whaling and Liverpool as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival. The video below is a recording I made while I was speaking combined with the slides from my talk. I’ve also included links below to the audio on its own.

If you want to listen to the talk without the slideshow, the mp3 is downloadable from here, or you can use the audio player below.

This public lecture series was organised as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival by Claire Jones of the Department of Continuing Education, University of Liverpool.

Arctic Whaling in Liverpool

I aim to write something about the extraordinary weekend I’ve just had, helping to organise and taking part in Moby Dick on the Mersey, and about all the wonderful people who turned up and read. But before that, here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC website which came out while we were busy reading Moby-Dick. It’s about the brief, but quite significant role Liverpool played in Arctic whaling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Arctic whaling in Liverpool

Rules for Brewing in the 18th Century

Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) is often credited with inventing modern cookery books, and is sometimes called “the mother of the dinner party”. Her book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which she published herself by subscription, appeared in 1747. It contains recipes for all kinds of dishes (I am a big fan of her pies), and instructions on managing and running a kitchen. In those days beer, and in particular “small beer” was drunk by most people as a substitute for water. Brewing was a common activity, and larger houses had their own brewhouses. Here are Hannah Glasse’s rules and instructions for brewing in a domestic kitchen (I’ve modernised the spelling). She takes care to offer advice on what to do if the available vessels are not large enough to take the whole brew in one go, and it is interesting also to note the emphasis on cleanliness, and on making sure that everything is boiled and “scalded”: “Take great care your casks are not musty, or have any ill taste; if they have, it is a hard thing to sweeten them.”


Care must be taken, in the first place, to have the malt clean; and after it is ground, it ought to stand four or five days.

For strong October [ale], five quarters of malt to three hogsheads, and twenty-four pounds of hops. This will afterwards make two hogsheads of good keeping small-beer, allowing five pounds of hops to it.

For middling beer, a quarter of malt makes a hogshead of ale, and one of small-beer. Or it will make three hogsheads of good small-beer, allowing eight pounds of hops. This will keep all the year. Or it will make twenty gallons of strong ale, and two hogsheads of small-beer that will keep all the year.

If you intend your ale to keep a great while, allow a pound of hops to every bushel; if to keep six months, five pounds to a hogshead; if for present drinking, three pounds to a hogshead, and the softest and clearest water you can get.

Observe the day before to have all your vessels very clean, and never use your tubs for any other use except to make wines.

Let your cask be very clean the day before with boiling water; and if your bung is big enough, scrub them well with a little birch-broom or brush ; but if they be very bad, take out the heads, and let them be scrubbed clean with a hand-brush, sand, and fullers-earth. Put on the head again, and scald them well, throw into the barrel a piece of unslacked lime, and stop the bung close.

The first copper of water, when it boils, pour into your mash-tub, and let it be cool enough to see your face in; then put in your malt, and let it be well mashed; have a copper of water boiling in the mean time, and when vour malt is well mashed, fill your mashing-tub, stir it well again, and cover it over with the sacks. Let it stand three hours, set a broad shallow tub under the cock, let it run very softly, and if it is thick throw it up again till it runs fine, then throw a handful of hops in the under tub, let the mash, run into it, and fill your rubs till all is run off. Have water boiling in the copper, and lay as much more on as you have occasion for, allowing one third for boiling and waste. Let that stand an hour, boiling more water to fill the mash-tub for small-beer; let the fire down a little, and put it into tubs enough to fill your mash. Let the second mash be run off, and fill your copper with the first wort; put in part of your hops, and make it boil quick. About an hour is long enough; when it has half boiled, throw in a handful of salt. Have a clean white wand and dip it into the copper, and if the wort feels clammy it is boiled enough; then slacken your fire, and take off your wort. Have ready a large tub, put two sticks across, and set your, straining basket over the tub on the sticks, and strain your wort through it. Put your other wort on to boil with the rest of the hops; let your mash be covered again with water, and thin your wort that is cooled in as many things as you can, for the thinner it lies, and the quicker it cools, the better. When quite cool, put it into the tunning-tub. Throw a handful of salt into every boil. When the mash has stood an hour draw it off, then fill your mash with cold water, take off the wort in the copper and order it as before. When cool, add to it the first in the tub; so soon as you empty one copper, fill the other, so boil your small-beer well. Let the last mash run off, and when both are boiled with fresh hops, order them as the two first boilings; when cool empty the mash tub, and put the smallbeer to work there. When cool enough work it, set a wooden bowl full of yeast in the beer, and it will work over with a little of the beer in the boil. Stir your tun up every twelve hours, let it stand two days, then tun it, taking off the yeast. Fill your vessels full, and save some to fill your barrels; let it stand till it has done working; then lay on your bung lightly for a fortnight, after that stop it as close as you can. Mind you have a vent-peg at the top of the vessel, in warm weather, open it; and if your drink hisses, as it often will, loosen till it has done, then stop it close again. If you can boil your ale in one boiling it is best, if your copper will allow of it; if not, boil it as conveniency serves.

When you come to draw your beer and find it is not fine, draw off a gallon, and set it on the fire, with two ounces of isinglass cut small and beat. Dissolve it in the beer over the fire: when it is all melted, let it-stand till it is cold, and pour it in at the bung, which must lay loose on till it has done fermenting, then stop it close for a month.

Take great care your casks are not musty, or have any ill taste; if they have, it is a hard thing to sweeten them.

You are to wash your casks with cold water before you scald them, and they should lie a day or two soaking, and clean them well, then scald them.