Dartmouth Castle

It’s time we heard from my favourite Edwardian travel writer again. Charles G. Harper can always be relied on for a droll observation or caustic comment. This post finds him in Dartmouth, Devon.

The little coach that runs daily from Dartmouth to Kingsbridge has a steep climb up out of Dartmouth. Here the pedestrian certainly has the advantage, for, tracing his coastwise way round through the woods of Warfleet creek, where a disused limekiln by the waterside looks very like an ancient defensible tower, he comes at last upon the strangely grouped church of St. Petrox, the Castle, and the abandoned modern battery, all standing in a position of romantic beauty, where the sea dashes in violence upon the dark rocks.

Dartmouth Castle 1

The “garrison” of Dartmouth Castle in these days is generally a sergeant of garrison artillery retired from active service, or in some condition of military suspended animation not readily to be understood by a logically minded civilian. It is a situation worthy of comic opera : in which you perceive the War Office erecting batteries for defending the entrance to the harbour, and then, having completed them, furnishing the works with obsolete muzzle-loaders, capable of impressing no one save the most ignorant of persons. Then, these popguns having been demonstrated useless, even to the least instructed, they are removed at great expense, and their places left empty : it having occurred in the meanwhile to the wiseacres ruling the Army that, in any case, under modern conditions, a hostile fleet would be able to keep well off shore and to throw shells into Dartmouth, without coming in range of any ordnance ever likely to be placed at the castle.

So the sergeant-in-charge, who lives here with his wife and family, and is apparently given free quarters and no pay, on the implied condition that he makes what he can out of tips given by tourists, is not burdened with military responsibilities.

Dartmouth Castle 2

The present incumbent appears to have developed strong antiquarian tastes, is learned in the local military operations of Cromwell’s era, and a successful seeker after old-time cannonballs and other relics of strange, unsettled times.

You cannot choose but explore the interior of the Castle, for as you approach there is, although you may not suspect it, an Eye noting the fact. The Eye is the sergeant’s, and there is that way about old soldiers which admits of no denial when he proposes that he shall show you over. You are shepherded from one little room to another, peer from what the sergeant calls the “embershaws” (by which he means embrasures), and then, offering the expected tribute for seeing very little, depart.
‘The South Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd, 1907.

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The Gift of Prophesy

This editorial in the Otago Daily Times looked ahead 110 years and put faith in human ingenuity to solve predicted problems, with surprisingly accurate results.

THE Otago Daily Times. FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1872. (abridged)
Our weekly contemporary in Melbourne has lately been enacting the part of alarmist upon the subject of the exhaustion of the coal fields of England, and the consequent decay of the British Empire. Following in the steps of an able writer in the Quarterly Review, the Australasian draws a dismal picture of the effect which the loss of her coal supplies must inevitably have upon the leading industries of the mother country, and sees in prophetic vision her workshops and manufactories, with the helots that inhabit them, flying to those lands blessed with larger stores of the necessary article.

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Professor W. Stanley Jevons. 1835-1882

It will be remembered that some seven years ago Professor Jevons alarmed the world a good deal by sounding the first note of alarm concerning England’s coal mines becoming exhausted, and a Royal Commission was appointed to take stock of the resources. Its report concluded that by 1982 England’s mines would be exhausted; but the writer in the Quarterly is by no means satisfied with so lengthy a tether, and proves incontestably that 1945 will see an end of England’s greatness. The difference, indeed, will seem to most of us something like that once discovered to exist betwixt tweedledum and twedledee. By the time that the 39,000,000,000 tons of coal which all think are still to be found in England are exhausted, the want of fuel will make but little difference to those who are now eagerly debating the subject. We can indeed imagine some selfishly-minded matron piling on the lumps all the more profusely on the drawing-room fire, in the fear of not getting her full share of what is left. Beyond the increase in coal bills due to this cause, we do not see any great reason for alarm in this generation.

In all seriousness, it does seem as if this sort of dismal prophesying of England’s decadence towards the end of the next century, owing to the consumption of all her coal, was rapidly reaching the ridiculous. No doubt, not many among us will remember when something of a panic was created by the discovery that the supply of timber by means of which the wooden walls of Old England [navy ships] could be constructed was running short, not only in England, but in Europe. We were then familiar with the gloomy phrases that warned us of a time when we should no longer be able to bid defiance to the world upon the sea. England, however, manages still to get along without exhausting the last oaken plank or bulwark.

Can any one doubt that long before the last ton of coal sends its smoke to heaven, science will have discovered some method of storing and applying heat without the use of so costly and cumbersome a material as coal? It certainly requires less faith in the future, and demands a far less implicit confidence in the resources of genius, to suppose that this will be done, than it did some fifty years since to conceive of iron ships floating upon the water.

If we consider how largely even the discovery of a partial substitute for coal — a discovery, for instance, which would place at our disposal some means of moving ocean steamers without its aid — would alter the whole condition of things upon which these dismal calculations are based, we shall realize more profoundly the absurdity of predicating the decline of England from such a cause. It is indeed only by trading upon the historical fact that each nation in turn has risen to its zenith and then declined, that such ill-omened prophets of evil obtain a hearing at all.

That England must one day yield her supremacy among the nations is probably as certain as anything in the world; but if history repeats itself, and if the lessons of experience have any value, we may safely declare that she will not do so from any such cause as the loss of her coal. ….

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Coalmines and iron works in Victorian England. Source: historywebsite.co.uk

We should suppose that the enormous increase in the price of coal at home, which, by the last accounts, had reached as high as 40 per cent advance on last year, was the moving cause for stirring up the outcry again. There is about it something of the judicious puff with which Weston and Holloway have made us familiar. Gather your rosebuds, or rather fill up your coal cellars, while ye may. Professor Jevons and his congeners have warned us that the supply of coal will soon be exhausted and it is the duty of every prurient householder to procure an immediate supply of this indispensable article.

We will not follow the writer into his particularly unreal description of the coalheavers of the Black Country, whom he describes as helots, and then as Israelites, doomed to make bricks without straw. Of all the labouring classes at home, we should have thought them the last to whom such terms might be applied. A certain sturdy independence of character, a habitual indulgence in luxuries of the table, a mild partiality for bull-dogs, &c., &c., were the peculiarities which we thought used to mark them more especially. But it is plain that the writer in question is earnestly desirous of having a fling at the ‘Philistines of the London press, who, it seems, are accustomed to ask, concerning these helots—Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Let us hope that ere this he has succeeded in making an amicable arrangement with his coal merchant, and that notwithstanding the melancholy predictions of which he is so full, some twentieth century Micawber will find it possible to earn a precarious livelihood as a coal merchant until something better turns up, even though he should not begin until 1945.

1945 did see “an end to England’s greatness” but not because of a lack of coal. The “mother country” was almost bankrupt after two world wars, a situation that none of these writers could have foreseen. India gained independence in 1947 and the rest of the Empire followed over the next 20 years.

Coal mines began to close in the ’70s and, by 1982, slag heaps on what had been some of the most productive coal fields were being landscaped and planted with trees.

Dickens in Washington (continued)

Charles Dickens visited both houses of Congress nearly every day, during his stay in Washington, and left his impressions in ‘American Notes’, published in 1842.

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John Tyler, U.S. President in 1842.

The House of Representatives is a beautiful and spacious hall, of semicircular shape, supported by handsome pillars. One part of the gallery is appropriated to the ladies, and there they sit in front rows, and come in, and go out, as at a play or concert.

The chair is canopied, and raised considerably above the floor of the House; and every member has an easy chair and a writing desk to himself: which is denounced by some people out of doors as a most unfortunate and injudicious arrangement, tending to long sittings and prosaic speeches. It is an elegant chamber to look at, but a singularly bad one for all purposes of hearing. The Senate, which is smaller, is free from this objection, and is exceedingly well adapted to the uses for which it is designed. …..

Did I see among them the intelligence and refinement: the true, honest, patriotic heart of America? Here and there were drops of its blood and life, but they scarcely coloured the stream of desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay. It is the game of these men, and of their profligate organs, to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked. And thus this lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation.

That there are, among the representatives of the people in both Houses, and among all parties, some men of high character and great abilities, I need not say. ….
It will be sufficient to add that to the most favourable accounts that have been written of them, I more than fully and most heartily subscribe; and that personal intercourse and free communication have bred within me …. increased admiration and respect.

There are more quarrels than with us, and more threatenings than gentlemen are accustomed to exchange in any civilised society of which we have record: but farm-yard imitations have not as yet been imported from the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The feature in oratory which appears to be the most practised, and most relished, is the constant repetition of the same idea or shadow of an idea in fresh words; and the inquiry out of doors is not, “What did he say?” but, “How long did he speak?”

Dickens went on to describe, at length, the universal habit of chewing tobacco in both houses and spitting – with “disregard of the spittoon” – but I’ll spare you that to avoid causing nausea and putting you right off your food!

Mr. Dickens goes to Washington

Charles Dickens visited Washington D.C. in 1842 and found it still under construction.

800px-Charles_Dickens_sketch_1842-2It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for it is only on taking a bird’s-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring Frenchman.

Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament – are its leading features.

One might fancy the season over, and most of the houses gone out of town forever with their masters. To the admirers of cities it is a …. pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.

Such as it is, it is likely to remain. It was originally chosen for the seat of Government, as a means of averting the conflicting jealousies and interests of the different States; and very probably, too, as being remote from mobs: a consideration not to be slighted, even in America. It has no trade or commerce of its own; having little or no population beyond the President and his establishment; the members of the legislature who reside there during the session; the Government clerks and officers employed in the various departments; the keepers of the hotels and boarding-houses; and the tradesmen who supply their tables.

It is very unhealthy. Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to reside there; and the tides of emigration and speculation, those rapid and regardless currents, are little likely to flow at any time towards such dull and sluggish water.

The principal features of the Capitol, are, of course, the two houses of Assembly ……
(more on those in the next post).

The new college

Dartmouth as a port of call for liners died hard, but the last line of steamships, the Donald Currie service [Castle Line] to the Cape, went, and now it is divided between being a favourite yachting station and the home of the new Royal Naval College, which, transferred from its picturesque and makeshift old home aboard the Britannia and Hindostan, now crowns the hill and nobly dominates the whole of Dartmouth in the great range of buildings overlooking the Dart.

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The Hindostan, left, and Britannia c. 1900.

The ferryman who puts us across the Dart is full of information and as full of regrets about the Britannia and Hindostan, the new Naval College, and the changed conditions of seafaring life, but with a sardonic smile he thinks the cadets will learn their business as well ashore as they have done afloat. “Why not?” he asks.
“They don’t want no sailors nowadays. There was a time when a sailor was never without his marlinespike an’ mallet. Now they’re all bloody Dagoes and Dutchies in the merchant sarvice, an’ engineers and stoke-hole men, with cold chisels, ‘stead of knives, in the Navy. For a sailor – when there were sailors, mind you – to be without his knife, why, he might every bit as well up’n give his cap’n a clump auver th’yed, so he might. An’ up there” – he jerked so contemptuous a thumb over his shoulder that it was almost a wonder the new flagstaff on the new central tower did not wilt – “up there them young juicers is fed up with ‘lectricity ‘n things no Godfearing sailorman in my time never heerd of.”

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The new Naval College c. 1905, the year that it opened.

Although it is designed in the Paltry Picturesque Eclectic Renaissance or Doll’s House style, with ornamental fripperies and fandangalums galore, the Naval College has the noblest of aspects, seen from down the harbour, or across the Dart from Old Rock Ferry. Planted on the wooded summit of Mount Boone, the long range of buildings, backed by dark trees, sets just that crown and finish upon Dartmouth which suffices to raise the scenic character of the place from beauty to nobility.
‘The South Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper, 1907.

Dart estuary

The Royal Naval College and Dartmouth “from down the harbour”.

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c. 1925.

Updated 22nd March 2019

The training ship system originated during the Crimean War, when the two-decker Illustrious was used for training seamen for the Royal Navy. The superior type of sailor it produced encouraged an extension of the scheme to officer training, for which purpose the three-decker Britannia, lying near by in Hasler Creek, Portsmouth, was acquired as a sort of annexe. Moral objections to Portsmouth as a resort for cadets on shore leave eventually secured the removal of Britannia to Portland, where the social atmosphere was more congenial to parents if not consequently to their sons. Wind and tide compelled the final move to the sheltered waters of the River Dart in 1863.

Extra accommodation, necessitated by the increasing number of boys wanting to be naval officers, was provided by an old teak-built two-decker, the Hindustani [sic], moored astern* of Britannia and joined to her by a gangway. Some shore installations were added, mainly recreational. Then Britannia herself was replaced by a bigger ship taking the same name, the former Prince of Wales [in 1869].
‘Scott of the Antarctic’, Reginald Pound, 1966.

*As you can see in the photograph above, Hindustan was moored ahead of the ‘new’ Britannia, not astern.

Folkestone from top to bottom.

Charles G. Harper points his caustic pen at Folkestone, England, and its social divide.

….modern Folkestone, as distinguished from the old fishing-port, wears in its most prominent residential parts the appearance of an unregenerate South Kensington. Cubitt [the architect], that great conjurer with bricks and mortar (not forgetting the plaster) was the author of both. He bade arise both Cromwell Road and the intensely respectable and extremely expensive mansions that front upon the Folkestone Leas – or Lees, as I grieve to find them frequently spelt.

Folkestone Lees-2

Now the Folkestone that in these times centres upon the Leas notices sometimes that the sea does, in fact, incidentally stretch away out and down there, and it knows – ah, yes – that there is a harbour. Sometimes you start from it for the Continent, don’t you know!

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The ferry ‘Invicta’ leaving Folkestone for Boulogne. c. 1906.

But from the austere and exclusive Leas the tripper element is entirely banished, and those sedate and dignified fashionable visitors who promenade beside the lawns between the old church of St. Eanswythe at the eastern extremity and the huge Hotel Metropole and the Grand at the western end seem to take their pleasure as solemnly as though it were one everlasting Church Parade.

F_leas shelter

There are people, it is true, of a lower social status, and of a more primitive and joyous nature, who come to Folkestone, and patronise the very fine pleasure pier, and do not disdain the beach and the simple old delights of the seashore; and there are still other people who patronise a “switchback” contrivance down below; but these are folk who stay somewhere in back streets, who have no sort of commerce with the refined life which distinguishes the Leas.

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The fine pleasure pier down below.

Sometimes, it is true, some of the Olympians of these heights descend by the lifts that communicate directly with that geographical and social underworld, and occasionally the primitive people of down yonder ascend by the same means from the Lower Road to explore this rarefied region, and both are impressed by what they see and hear. But they mingle no more than oil and water will do. The very bands understand to a nicety the differences of ideals and outlook, and render Grieg, Wagner, and classical music above, while to the Lower Road audiences they discourse strains of a simpler and more popular kind.
‘The Kentish Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall, Ltd. 1914. [Abridged]

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The Leas above and the beach below with the lifts (left) in between.

Illustrations from vintage postcards in my collection.

 

The Skirl of the Pipes

Are these Highland gatherings, these Highland games (I have never been able to discover the difference, if any, between “gatherings” and “games”), ancient and traditional? If they are, then history is remarkably silent on the point. Was it ever the pastime of the Highlander to hurl the trunks of pine trees about the countryside? Somehow I doubt it. Indeed, I harbour a suspicion that Highland games are only about 100 years old….

Braemar Pipe band

To put it bluntly, I do not believe that the Highland Gathering is ancient nor that the Highland Games are traditional, although they have undoubtedly become a tradition. They are also one of Scotland’s very best advertising media.

Let me hasten to add that this does not mean that I dislike or disapprove of Highland Games. On the contrary, I love them. As a spectacle I do not think they can be bettered anywhere in the British Isles.

Braemar duoWatching the games, the observant onlooker cannot fail to notice a marked difference in interest between the Scots in the audience and the foreigners in the audience, especially among the women. The kilt, it is apparent, arouses emotion in the foreign female breast; the Scots female…. appears to be quite unmoved….the Scots, male and female, are much more interested in the pipe music and the dancing.

This, surely, is because both are, in fact, ancient and traditional, technical and very highly skilled. You have to be an initiate to understand the finer points of either. I like watching Highland dancing, which I find both graceful and energetic: but the technical points are a closed book to me. I love the barbaric music of the bagpipes, but I am quite unable to distinguish between the playing of one competing piper and another on the platform. They sound exactly alike to me. But they do not to the Scots.

Braemar Pipers

Text edited from an article by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald (1900-1981) published in the ‘Sphere’, September 21, 1957.

Images from the Royal Braemar Gathering 1984.