Archive for the ‘The View from the Cuttings’ category

The Willoughby Family of Colchester, Illogan and Plymouth

September 10th, 2021


The summer of 1647 was not the most auspicious time to be married. With the King a prisoner of Parliament, the anxieties of the Civil War were unresolved. Whilst the defeated Royalists seethed against the exactions of Parliament, the country was drenched by almost incessant rain, which promised yet another ruined harvest and seemed a sure sign of divine displeasure. Long-distance travel was exceptionally difficult and dangerous, any stranger being viewed with deep suspicion and liable to lynching as a spy.

Thomas Wilby was a native of Colchester in Essex – the ancient Camaloduno, famed in Arthurian legend – one of the great commercial centres of England and a Parliamentarian stronghold. Having fallen foul of the town’s oppressive Puritan government, Thomas took passage on a ship that spirited him as far away as possible from Colchester. He duly stepped ashore in far Cornwall, or ‘Kernow’, whose people spoke a foreign language, were widely despised as a barbarous, beggarly race, and were notorious among the English for their fanatical Royalism. It was perhaps only his disarming youthfulness – Thomas was barely 21 – that prevented him from being quietly murdered. 

This is the true story of Thomas’s arrival in Cornwall and of his marriage, within months, to a well-connected local girl, Margaret Nicholas of Sithney. Their surname rapidly adapted to ‘Willoughby’ (which the Cornish found easier to pronounce), Thomas and Margaret were the ancestors of all subsequent Willoughbys in Cornwall. Their descendants have been like Abraham’s – as numberless as the stars.

The couple’s younger son, also Thomas, settled at Illogan on Cornwall’s dramatic northern shore. He founded a line which, for six generations, farmed the same small estate at Great Nancekuke, close to the very edge of the heather-clad cliffs. They also dabbled in wrecking and tinning, for Illogan was at the heart of the mining country. However, when the latest steam machinery appeared on the increasingly industrialised landscape, it inspired an enterprising younger son, William Willoughby, to become an engineer.

Perhaps the protégé of Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam locomotive, William went on to found, in 1844, what became Willoughby Brothers of Plymouth, builders of sturdy small ships and of all manner of iron structures and machinery, much of which is visible in and around Plymouth today.

This book includes a full, up-to-date account, with biographical sketches, of all traceable Willoughby descendants, including those through the female line. They include such luminaries as Kenneth Kendall, the newsreader who made broadcasting history; Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter, who built the first British motor-car and later founded Westland Aircraft; Sir Arthur Hockaday, Denis Healey’s ‘ideal’ of a private secretary; and countless others who have made their mark in a quiet way, such as Josephine Willoughby, one of the earliest female students at Cambridge. It is intended to surprise and delight every Willoughby descendant, and to enthral every devotee of historic Kernow.

This 192-page A4 bound paperback book, with colour covers, nearly 80,000 words of text, ten genealogical tables and eighteen colour plates has been limited to an imprint of seventy copies. Only a few are still available and they can be ordered from the author at a price of £45.00 each. Please contact

Faith and Fresh Air: Medieval Reading’s Response to an Epidemic

June 9th, 2020

Sometime in the twelfth century, perhaps soon after the consecration by Thomas Becket of the Abbey Church, a terrible plague fell upon Reading. Young and old alike, anyone vulnerable to the bite of an infected flea in an age where everyone was permanently flea-bitten, succumbed like wheat before the scythe to this terrifying disease.

All normal commerce was suspended. The townsfolk kept to their houses, their anxiety almost unbearable. When a sufferer exhibited the first symptoms of the disease – a headache to start with, then debilitating chills and fever – it was like the delivery of a death sentence.

People very occasionally recovered, but most would suffer appallingly for a week, until, sapped of all their strength, death brought the release for which they must, by then, have craved. Nauseous, aching all over, they shrank with anguished cries from the light, the brightness being more than they could stand. Then came the swellings, usually after a couple of days, agonising, hard swellings that sometimes grew to the size of an orange, on the neck, arms, inner thighs, swellings that were soon black in their vileness and bursting with pus and blood. Yet this was not the most excruciating phase of the disease, for then they started to bleed internally, and to leak blood from every orifice. Sufferers already stank of death by the time they expired, with their helpless husbands, wives, parents or children looking on in horror and wondering when their own turn would come. They was nothing they could do, other than wait to load the battered, unrecognisable corpses onto the carts that came to carry away the dead.

The poor and afflicted would usually have turned to the monks of the Abbey for succour, but the infirmary there was already packed with their own people. Thirteen Reading monks perished from the disease in the course of that year. Their only hope was in prayer, for a strong wind that would blow away the foulness in the air, yet it seemed to the monks that God was punishing them for their sins and that they needed to persuade Him of their merit.

In a great act of faith, the monks of Reading Abbey, who had complete authority over the town, resolved at length on a course of decisive action. A decree was issued to all the able-bodied townsfolk. Rather than wait to put out their dead, they were told to lay out their sick relatives on litters in the streets. Fearful of leaving their homes, they were told nonetheless to assemble in the vast Abbey church for a service. A fast was proclaimed, and special litanies were sung in front of the congregation. The monks then led a solemn and orderly procession through the streets, holding aloft their most sacred relic, the hand of St James the Greater, and invoking him before God as their protector.

It was subsequently affirmed that a miracle was worked that day, that the sick lying on their litters, having once caught sight of the bejewelled reliquary containing the hand, were cured of their affliction. It was as if the Lord had been appeased in that hour and had instantly allayed the grief of His people, who returned joyfully to their homes, to be free of the epidemic for many years to come.

In the decades since the founding of the Abbey by Henry I, who had entrusted this prized relic to its care, a number of miraculous cures had been credited to the saint. There had been a catalogue of incidents in the mid-1150s. A knight called Mauger Malcuvenant had been restored to life by drops of water in which the holy reliquary had been dipped; a woman from Earley, a nearby village, had been cured of her dropsy after praying in the Abbey church; and a man from Barking had, after keeping vigil there overnight, miraculously regained the power of speech. The lifting of the Reading plague was St James’s most dramatic intervention to date, greatly enhancing his reputation as a miracle-worker and, as a centre of pilgrimage, that of the Abbey, where he was believed to be a living presence.

The Becket Casket in the V & A is contemporary with the events described above

A Survival Guide for Lock-Down: Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room

May 27th, 2020

How does one come to terms with being confined to one’s home?  In 1790, when Count Xavier de Maistre. a 26-year-old lieutenant of marines in the service of the King of Sardinia, was placed under house arrest, he undertook and completed a forty-two-day ‘journey around his room’, for that was the precise length of his sentence for the rather gentlemanly offence of duelling.

Pouring out a book that he had already long planned, Maistre writes with great verve and enthusiasm, determined to ‘display only the cheerful aspect of my soul’. His Journey around My Room is a spoof travelogue, offering an alternative, but no less fulfilling form of travel to the timid and the indolent, to those in poor health, and to those who are simply short of cash, not to mention those, like him, who are forbidden to go out at all.

Maistre’s modest furniture and pictures spark a series of delightful reflections and imaginative leaps, although, as he points out, a ‘nice fire, books, pens’ are all you really need for such a journey.

He writes with great appreciation of his armchair, his sofa and his bed, where so much of his interior life is lived. After all, ‘A bed witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. – It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; – it is the throne of love; – it is a sepulchre.’

His carefully-curated picture gallery evokes sentimental memories of former loves and of past friendships. ‘Happy the man who finds a friend whose heart and mind harmonise with his; a friend united to him by a conformity of tastes, feelings and interests; a friend who is not tormented by ambition or egotism; – one who prefers the shade of a tree to the pomp and circumstance of a court! – Happy the man who possesses a friend!’

Though he presents himself in Voyage autour de ma chambre as rather unsoldierly, forgetting more than once to buckle on his sword for court duty, Xavier de Maistre had a distinguished military career ahead of him. He joined the Russian service in 1800, fought in the war of 1812 and was promoted a year later to Major-General. He married into my family and spent part of his retirement (from the late 1830s) in Naples, where he was the neighbour and close friend of my Naryshkin ancestors. The story he told them was that he had considered his little manuscript to be of no significance, but that his brother Joseph had liked the book and had had it published in Turin in 1794, with further editions issuing from Paris and Hamburg in 1796. It was only many years later, after the downfall of Napoleon, that Xavier was able to visit Paris. There he discovered, to his astonishment, that everyone seemed to have read his book, and he was quite taken aback to be fêted as a literary celebrity. He was a wise and modest old man, as one would expect, the preoccupation of his later life being painting, in which he was no less skilled than as a writer. He died in St Petersburg in 1852.

However, as any astute person knows, one is never alone with a book. Through his library of novels, ‘and a few choice poets’, Maistre is able to ‘transport my existence’ and explore a ‘vast terrain’, from ‘the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos’. He is referring particularly to Homer, Virgil, Ossian and Milton, for whose Lucifer he confesses a guilty admiration. His books give him access to worlds which can no longer be found on Earth, ‘for the men and even the heroes of today are pygmies’. In this light, it is no vanity for Maistre to describe his journey as the finest ever undertaken.

Unlike those who, today, are cowering inside for the avoidance of an epidemic, Maistre suffers his punishment alone, though at least he is able to receive friends, and is waited on by a Jeeves-like servant called Joannetti. Besides, there are those tussles with his (apparently female) soul. However, his coquettish mistress, Madame de Hautcastel, is indifferent to him and not among the visitors. Maistre is also exiled from, and grieves for, his native Savoy, a land assailed by ills, and soon to be annexed by Revolutionary France.

Outside in Turin, it is the time of the Carnival. He would have preferred his sentence to have fallen during Lent, but ‘philosophical reflections granted by Heaven’ prevent him from envying the revellers, whose merriment is clearly audible in the streets below. Instead, he reflects on those who are in far worse predicaments than he.

He is thinking of the poor, whose ‘pitiful cries’ are everywhere met with indifference, except by ‘the host of charitable men who sleep while the others are enjoying themselves, get up at daybreak and go off to give aid and comfort to misfortune, without witnesses and without ostentation.’ These saintly people then go off to church to thank God for his benefits, for which reason alone ‘the Eternal, angered at the harshness and avarice of men, holds back his thunder bolt that was poised to strike!’

In truth, Maistre is enjoying the uninterrupted time to himself, confessing that, ‘for some time now, all crowded gatherings have inspired in me a certain terror’. He has felt corrupted by the artificial bonhomie of such occasions, and is prone to finding ‘causes of sadness everywhere’. In confinement, his natural optimism asserts itself: ‘What a rich storehouse of enjoyment has kindly nature endowed on those men whose hearts are able to enjoy!’

He knows in his heart that he needs ‘the heaven’s air, and that solitude resembles death’, but Maistre speaks for all those fortunate people who are enjoying ‘lock-down’ too much – for whom, indeed, it is a blissful, restorative experience, a chance for tired souls to rest and for the whole Earth to breathe again.

‘Enchanting land of the imagination, you whom the most benevolent Being bequeathed to men to console them for reality, I must leave you. – Today is the day when certain persons on whom I depend say they will restore me to freedom. As if they had taken freedom from me! As if it had been in their power to deprive me of it for a single moment, and to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me! – They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe: immensity and eternity are mine to command.

‘So,’ he concludes, ‘today is the day I am to be free, or rather the day on which I am to be shackled in chains once more! The yoke of business will once more weigh down on me; I will no longer be able to take a single step that is not traced out for me by propriety and duty. – I may still be happy if some capricious deity makes me forget both of them, and if I can escape from this new and dangerous captivity!’

[Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room, trans. Andrew Brown, with a foreword by Alain de Botton, London, Hesperus Classics, 2004.]

Why Learn Latin?

September 30th, 2019

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, would no doubt have opposed the teaching of Latin in schools.

When I first taught Classics in a prep school, I had been asked by a headmaster friend to provide cover in an emergency. I felt no need to question whether lessons in the Classics were a waste of my own and my pupils’ time, or whether I was complicit in such crimes as the perpetuation of elitism, privilege and pointless tradition. The job was there, and I took it.

My passion for the Classics – embracing Latin and Greek grammar, mythology and Ancient History – dates from childhood and is something I was itching to share. All that pent-up enthusiasm made my lessons, for me at least, not only enjoyable but also immensely rewarding, as if I were passing on a torch. As a result I have been ‘covering in emergencies’, at a series of prestigious prep schools, ever since. Teaching is no longer just ‘a job’ for me. I really do feel as though I am on a mission.

Whilst many pupils are soon won over and able to see ‘the point’ of their Classical studies, there are always a few who are harder, or impossible, to convince. Sooner or later, the dreaded ‘D’ word, surely picked up from sceptical parents, will spring to their lips. So what is the point, they ask, of learning a ‘dead’ language?

My old school friend, the author Simon Winder, is such a sceptic. I thought he rather enjoyed our lessons with the legendary ‘Bird’ Raven, but then I read: ‘On a conservative estimate I must have spent over a thousand hours of my childhood in Latin lessons … In an adult spasm of masochism I recently bought Teach Yourself Latin which, to my total dismay, showed that eight years of Latin lessons had actually only got me about twenty-five pages into a three-hundred-page book’ (Germania, London, 2010, p.9).

However, my battered copy of our hand-written revision notes (only someone like me would have kept it) includes such arcana as Gerunds, Gerundives and Deponent Verbs, proof that, by the age of eleven, ‘Bird’ had already steered us to what is now GCSE level – but Winder always loved to exaggerate for comic effect.

I do not believe that Latin can truly be described as ‘dead’ when it survives, in heavily adapted and accented forms, in all modern European languages, including our own. A striking instance is the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ (sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt), which survives virtually intact in, for example, modern French (suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, sont). The differences are a mere matter of spelling and pronunciation, adapted to local palettes in the intervening millennia. (Incidentally, the last sentence alone contains eight borrowings from Latin.)

It has therefore often been said in defence of the Classics that they smooth the path to learning these more obviously useful or relevant languages, or to making sense of those with which one is unfamiliar. I believe this is undeniably true. Italian, for example, comes very easily to a Classicist.

A colleague who asked his pupils to write a defence of Latin showed me the response of a particularly sharp-witted boy who had been on a trip to Romania. He claimed to have recognised at once the meaning of a sign that read ‘Nu pecunie preste noapte’, for it was merely a garbled form of the Latin ‘nulla pecunia per noctem’, no cash overnight.

In justifying a Classical education, I prefer to avoid the usual arguments, however convincing, about linguistic skills and how helpful it is with one’s English grammar and vocabulary. I once taught the son of a well-known adventurer and survival-expert who regularly questioned his need to learn a ‘dead language’, since he was bent on a career as a bush-pilot. The intellectual case for Latin was hardly going to convince a young child. Eventually I wrote in his end-of-year report: ‘Johnny may not need to know Latin in his future career as a bush-pilot, but it might make him a more interesting person’.

For Johnny’s brush with an ancient language may turn out to be the greatest intellectual challenge of his life and he will surely be the better for it. I have found in my various schools that the Classicist is still held in some esteem by colleagues – the geographers, the chemists – who are in awe of the apparent complexity of his subject and apt to consult him on general matters as if he were an oracle. The Classics are worth keeping for that reason alone.

I take as my model the Classics master at Oundle in the late 19th century, of whom it was said: ‘He teaches Classics, but he teaches much more than Classics: from him the boys get their inspiration and ideals’. There is nothing else on the curriculum that is so broad in its remit. When the grammar is taught well, it should be integral to the wider study of Classical civilisation, with all sorts of moral lessons adduced.

Stories of virtuous Romans like Horatius, Mucius Scaevola and Cloelia are all on the Common Entrance syllabus, and even the youngest children can appreciate the wisdom of well-known Latin quotations like ‘carpe diem’ (Horace) and ‘festina lente’ (the Emperor Augustus), both neat illustrations of the imperative. If education is about introducing children to worlds beyond their own, the Classical world is the broadest horizon they will see.

The father of ‘Utilitarianism’, Jeremy Bentham, who embarked on his own Classical education at the age of three, nevertheless opposed it for others, apparently because he regarded the ancients as immoral. Thus ‘while men are acquiring false words they are acquiring false ideas of things’ (Brian W. Taylor, ‘Jeremy Bentham and the Education of the Irish People’, The Irish Journal of Education, 1980, xiv, i, pp.22-3).

Bentham’s position was somewhat extreme – he considered poetry, in any language, to be ‘useless’ – but the ‘Utilitarian’ argument against the Classics is the one most commonly voiced today, as by the blogger Donald Clark (‘Latin is an old fossil that became stuck in the curriculum, not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of snobbery and tradition’ – Why in that case expose children to poetry or any literature that has no obviously useful purpose? Surely ‘education’ is about more than equipping the young to be drones in the workplace; and if the aim is that they should be able to count and express themselves, then Latin is likely to be more ‘useful’ than, say, Geography.

Clark considers the classical education to be a ‘waste of time’ and its advocates elitist snobs, yet the less it is taught, the more elitist it will become. It is not the fault of the private schools that it has largely been abandoned in the state sector, nor that the Classicist is perceived as almost the definition of a learned man or woman. The Latin word classicus means, after all, ‘front-rank’, ‘exemplary’ or ‘high-class’. As the arriviste knows all too well, Classicists stand in the front rank of educated men and women.

The footballer David Beckham, for example, has at least three Latin inscriptions among his many tattoos, and has had his children educated in Latin at exclusive schools. According to the College of Arms website, new grantees of arms like Sir Christopher Frayling and Sir George Martin almost invariably opt for Latin mottos to accompany their escutcheons, despite the advice of the heralds that these can be in any language (

It is striking, too, how many of the leading multi-national companies have names that hark back to Classical Greece or Rome (Amazon, Nike, Visa, Oracle etc.), no doubt as much because of their allure as because of their being universally recognisable.  At my son’s nursery school there are (unrelated) boys called ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Priam’. Like it or not, the Classics continue to command considerable prestige.

The main purpose of education is surely to introduce the young to the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of their elders. Far from being of mere antiquarian interest, ancient Greece and Rome have shaped our civilisation. Their legacy is all around us and deep inside us. The clinching argument, perhaps, is that through the study of the Classics we connect with our roots in the ancient world. In Peter Green’s neat phrase, it is a pathway to understanding the ‘long perspective of the past’ that has led to ourselves ( Mary Beard has written (Confronting the Classics, London, 2014, pp.3, 9) of the ‘terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity … the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value’. The Classical languages and literature constitute ‘an essential and ineradicable dialect’ of our culture which cannot be amputated from the modern world, unless – she warns – there is to be ‘a dark future of misunderstanding’.

In his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (once a standard of English literature, no doubt little read today), Thomas Gray reflected that the ‘rude forefathers of the hamlet’ in their neglected graves might, in other circumstances, have been distinguished men of action or of letters,

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll …

I suspect that most people would now struggle with Gray’s Elegy and with the vocabulary and allusions of the classically-educated poet. Are words like ‘jocund’ and ‘sequester’d’ readily understood today, and who is able to identify Hampden, Milton or, indeed, the Muse? Gray pre-supposes an audience who are as well-educated as himself. The child who is taught Classics is offered a head-start when it comes to broad culture, sophistication and eloquence. Should we deny that wealth of knowledge to the young?

Humane Classical learning has, moreover, been a solace to generations of men, from Oscar Wilde in his prison cell to T.E. Lawrence in his barrack-room and even to Karen Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch-Hatton (‘Denys taught me Latin, and to read the Bible, and the Greek poets’), who actually was a bush-pilot. Utilitarians will no doubt scoff.

Even to a beleaguered sixth-century Roman, Cassiodorus, Latin and its literature seemed a source of wisdom, virtue and stability as all else crumbled. ‘Arma enim et reliqua gentes habent,’ he wrote plaintively; ‘sola reperitur eloquentia, quae Romanorum dominis obsecundat’ (For the tribesmen have their arms and the rest; eloquence is found in sole obedience to the lords of the Romans).

It may not be for me to justify my work, which, to borrow a phrase from Herodotus, is merely λεγειν τα λεγομενα – to declare what has been handed down. Yet I still have that feeling of passing on a torch through my lessons. To quote Horace (Carmina III, i),

carmina non prius

audita Musarum sacerdos

virginibus puerisque canto

(As priest of the Muses

I sing for girls and boys

Songs never heard before).

I like to think of myself, therefore, as one of the conservators of that great tradition that has shaped our language, architecture, art, literature, economy, legal systems, politics and so much else, a potentially priceless gift and an offering to the young to do with in turn as they think fit.

Broadcaster to Nations

May 28th, 2019

Rupert Willoughby: tête-parlante extraordinaire

Basingstoke: A Lament

For devotees of Basingstoke, my contribution to Sarah Walker’s live broadcast on Radio Berkshire on 16 May, to mark the 25th anniversary of The Anvil, can be heard here:, beginning at 41:29. It’s all over in two minutes, but I contrived to mention my encounter with ‘Nigel’ from The Archers.

I was invited to participate in my role as a ‘local historian’ and author of the seminal Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture.

From our vantage point in the foyer of the Anvil, Sarah and I looked directly along Church Street, the historic heart of Basingstoke, and could clearly witness the destruction that was wrought by the developers of the 1960s. On the right hand side, buildings that were variously charming, quirky, elegant and, without exception, historic; on the left, the vast, blank retaining wall of the Basingstoke ‘megastructure’, a grotesque ‘shopping centre’ in the sky, a dismal, desolate shrine to consumerism that is the dominant feature of modern Basingstoke.

The buildings that survived the holocaust seem mostly to have been protected by their nearness to the parish church, which was sacrosanct. Countless others were needlessly felled. The photographs below, taken on the same sunny morning as my broadcast, are of parts of old Basingstoke that survive and may surprise those who know the town only for its Modernist horrors.

Château Gaillard, une forteresse imprenable

As if this were not excitement enough, I then appeared as a ‘talking head’ in a documentary called Château Gaillard, une forteresse imprenable, broadcast on the French channel RMC Découverte on 22 May (you can see it again on 3 June at midnight!).

It was made by Thomas Risch, who interviewed me in London a few months ago. I described at length the building of the Norman castle by Richard the Lionheart and its siege by Philip of France in the reign of King John.

My cousin Jean, viewing the broadcast in Paris, kindly took the photograph at the head of this article. I have yet to see the programme, but have a good impression of it from the rather excitable trailer, in which I briefly appear: see it here – – or here –,-une-forteresse-imprenable,150565339.php.

Risch asked me to read a lengthy passage from a contemporary chronicler in the original Latin, and I do hope this was included in the final cut.

Church Street, Basingstoke: on the left, the infamous 'Great Wall'; on the right, the amputated remains of a medieval market-town.

This row of charming and historic buildings survived the destruction of the 1960s because of their proximity to the church, which was sacrosanct. The Anvil, a vast concert hall, can be seen in the distance.

How modern Basingstoke might have been: picturesque and thriving.

A Dickensian Landmark in London: The Site of Fagin’s Lair on Saffron Hill

March 14th, 2019

The border between Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell is seamless and invisible but one is instantly aware of passing from a genteel quarter into a raffish one. I ventured in that direction last week on a particular quest: to discover one of London’s great literary landmarks, the site of Fagin’s lair. In Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, begun in 1837, the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’, is located with precision on Saffron Hill.

Oliver, a bemused and exhausted runaway, has joined up with the Artful Dodger on the Great North Road. That highway, known at the London end as ‘Liverpool Road’, is bordered here by market gardens, by open fields and by the cattle lairs that the drovers use on their way to Smithfield Market. The turnpike by which the boys enter London is hard by the Angel at Islington, an old coaching inn that had been entirely rebuilt in 1819. It is approaching midnight as the pair proceed along St John Street into Clerkenwell, then, by way of Exmouth Street and Coppice Row, to the prettily-named Saffron Hill, ‘along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’.

Descending into the pit: Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell

This had once been a country lane through the Bishop of Ely’s estate, where saffron was grown, but since the late seventeenth century it had been developed into an overcrowded and impoverished residential area, a ‘rookery’. Oliver ‘could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. the street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place were the public-houses, and in them, the lowest orders of Irish (who are generally the lowest orders of anything) were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, upon no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

‘Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill: his conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field-lane, and, drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them.’ [Book I, Chapter 8.]

Field Lane was an alley at the south end of Saffron Hill that connected it to Holborn Hill. The name has since disappeared from the map. Dickens knew it well and hardly exaggerates the wretchedness of the place. Peter Cunningham, author of a Hand-book of London, 1850, describes Saffron Hill as a ‘squalid neighbourhood between HOLBORN and CLERKENWELL densely inhabited by poor people and thieves … The clergymen of St Andrew’s, Holborn, (the parish in which the purlieu lies), have been obliged, when visiting it, to be accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.’ Hepworth Dixon in The London Prisons, also published in 1850, writes that Field Lane ‘is narrow enough for [one] to reach across from house to house, and the buildings so lofty that a very bright sun is required to send light to the surface … The stench is awful. Along the middle of the lane runs a gutter, into which every sort of poisonous liquid is poured.’ A foreign observer, Flora Tristan, describes it in 1842 as ‘a little alley … too narrow for vehicles to use,’ where ‘there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in second-hand silk handkerchiefs.’ Intrepid enough to visit at night, she adds: ‘There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs’ (London Journal, p.175). These had been stolen, of course, by the likes of Fagin’s crew, and the saleswomen, invariably ‘daughters of Israel’, were ‘fences’. Dixon was incensed by their attempts ‘to seduce you into the purchase of the very handkerchief which you had in your pocket at the entrance’ (The London Prisons, pp.227-8).

There is a palpably villainous and mournful air to Saffron Hill, which is still oppressively enclosed by tall buildings. The street is paved now, the original houses have all gone, and the River Fleet, a filthy open sewer that ran along its east side, is covered over; but there is a paucity here both of smart offices and of trendy warehouse developments, as if it is still a demoralised place, forsaken by the world and left to its ghosts.

The One Tun: not recommended by Charles Dickens

Descending the hill, one passes The One Tun (rebuilt in 1875, over the original cellars), which is claimed, not unreasonably, as the model of the ‘low public-house, situate in the filthiest part of Little Saffron-Hill,’ that Bill Sikes frequents with his dog. It is described as ’a dark and gloomy den, where a flaring gas-light burnt all day in the winter-time, and where no ray of sun ever shone in the summer’.

The best editions of Oliver Twist are those accompanied by George Cruikshanks’s original illustrations, where the impoverished, under-nourished boys always appear like old men. Cruikshanks’s illustration of the pub, headed ‘Oliver claimed by his affectionate friends’, shows a doorway festooned with misspelt notices: ‘To be drunk on the premises’; ‘Licensed to sel Beerly Retail’; ‘Fine Ale 3d pr. pot’.

As for Fagin’s dwelling, it was ‘a very dirty place; but the rooms upstairs had great high wooden mantel-pieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceilings, which, although they were black with neglect and dust, were ornamented in various ways; from all of which tokens Oliver concluded that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome, dismal and dreary as it looked now.’ [Book I, Chapter 18.]

At this end of Saffron Hill, one feels trapped and cornered, as if one has descended into a pit. A steep flight of steps leads up into the street beyond and the relief of sunlight and fresh air, or what passes for it in this part of London. Literary pilgrims  in search of the authentic Dickensian atmosphere will not be disappointed.

Longman's former premises on Saffron Hill: gloomy enough for Fagin

Footnote. Halfway down Saffron Hill were the premises of Longman & Co., the publishers, from 1887 – too late to have inspired Fagin’s lair, but the dirty curtains and the piles of rubbish outside evoke Dickensian squalor.

See also: and

The Statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke, and its Missing Inscription

July 21st, 2017

Photoshoot for a still-veiled Jane Austen (courtesy of Nicola Turton)

My friend James Arnott, stalwart of the Hampshire Regency Dancers, asks Jane Austen for a dance

In my 2010 monograph, Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture, I describe the ‘catastrophe’ that befell Basingstoke in the 1960s, when it was redeveloped, in the most vulgar fashion, as a ‘New Town’ fit for London ‘overspill’.

In ‘Even at Ulubrae’, the final chapter of my work, I ponder how the town might overcome its reputation for ‘rampant philistinism’. My first suggestion is that an elegant portico be built in one of its bleaker quarters, like that erected in his home town by Diogenes of Oinoanda in the second century A.D. Diogenes had his portico inscribed with a 25,000-word statement of the teachings of Epicurus, intending it ‘as a corrective to the greed and consumerism of his neighbours’.

Robert Cottle's view of the Market Place, Basingstoke, dated 1831. Jane Austen would have recognised the scene, although none of the buildings survives today. The elegant Town Hall, built in 1657, was soon to be demolished: it was thought to intrude into the square. The scene of her dancing triumphs, Jane would surely have mourned its loss. The site of her statue, unveiled this week, is in front of the buildings on the right.

My second, more practical suggestion is ‘the raising in appropriate locations in Basingstoke of four dignified statues, based on descriptions and surviving portraits’, to commemorate its most distinguished sons and daughters, namely Walter de Merton, Jane Austen, Thomas Burberry and Margaret Chandler. I even offer appropriate inscriptions for each statue.

Much to my satisfaction, a statue of Jane Austen has been unveiled this very week, by the Countess of Portsmouth, in the Market Place at Basingstoke. There appears to be no inscription, but the text that I propose in my book is as follows:

Remember Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), who shopped here before you. She spent her early years at Steventon, and came to Basingstoke for all necessary purchases. John Ring of Church Street supplied her bed and the portable writing-desk on which she wrote her great novels. These were intended to amuse her family, but have since delighted the whole world. She describes assemblies like those she attended at Basingstoke, where once she danced twenty dances in an evening without any fatigue. When on her travels, she changed coaches here. Sic parvis magna.

Jane Austen's writing-desk, now preserved in the British Library, was made by John Ring of Church Street, Basingstoke, in 1794. On it, she was to compose every one of her great novels. There's a 'contribution to world culture' if ever there was one!

The position of the new statue is only yards from the site of the old Town Hall where those assemblies took place. The Crown Inn, where she often changed coaches, is only a little further away. Most of her shopping would have taken place within a hundred-yard radius.

I look forward to the raising of the other three statues.

Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture: Read the Book, Hear the Lecture!

March 20th, 2016

Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture is a whimsical, yet scholarly attempt to explain the phenomenon that is Basingstoke.

When I gave this as my audition piece for NADFAS, success seemed assured when the mere title was greeted with gales of laughter.

Sadly, Basingstoke is one of the most derided towns in England, famous for its pointless roundabouts, vacuous shopping centres and hostile modernist architecture.

Thanks to demented post-War planners, this has been the fate of towns across Britain. I remember explaining this at a previous ADM to representatives of one of the Norfolk societies. ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘even the nicest places in England seem to have a Basingstoke on their doorstep. I don’t know Norfolk,’ I added nervously, ‘so am not sure where it would be in your case.’ Quick as a flash they replied: ‘Have you never been to Thetford?’

This is easily my most popular talk for NADFAS, accounting for about seventy per cent of my business. I urge you not to miss out on a talk that is funny, sobering and controversial. Its message is more immediate and relevant than you might suppose.

[The text of my one-minute speech to the NADFAS Annual Directory Meeting at the Central Methodist Hall, Westminster, on Monday 14 March. For reviews of my lecture, please refer to my ‘Lectures’ page and scroll down to the bottom. For further information about the book on which the lecture is based, with reviews, please refer to my ‘Books’ page.]

Top Five Jobs for Latinists (apart from teaching)

January 13th, 2016

  1. Public Orator at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They have to make speeches in Latin on special occasions. (For an example, see
  2. Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, based in Vatican City. Latin is the main language there.
  3. David Beckham’s tattooist. The footballer’s Latin tattoos include VII (his original team number), Perfectio in spiritu (‘Perfection’, or perhaps ‘completion in spirit’), and Ut amem et foveam (‘that I may love and cherish). He is ‘reliably’ (Daily Mail) reported to have spent £55,000 on his various tattoos. Angelina Jolie, the American actress, could also put some business your way: she has Quod me nutrit me detruit (‘What nourishes me destroys me’) on her belly. (For illustrations, see and
  4. One of Her Majesty’s heralds. Part of their job is to design and issue new coats of arms, with mottoes. Nothing gives you class like a Latin motto! (For some up-to-date examples, see
  5. Scriptwriter on ‘The Archers’. The character of Jim Lloyd, a retired History Professor at Stirling University, is always spouting Latin to comic effect. One story-line revealed that even Vicky Tucker was a Latinist, though she wears her erudition lightly. (See

These jobs are not necessarily listed in order of salary. I suspect that Beckham’s tattooist may be the highest earner. Perfection in spirit indeed!

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk – in Latin

March 13th, 2015


hic ictus,

illa frigida

Michaela Pfeiffer,

illud aureum album,

hocce, istis puellis viciniae,

istis bonis,

artificiis ipsis,


exultantibus in urbe,

calceantibus Sancti Laurenti,

‘tam pulchra meum est basiare’.


nimis calidus sum,

denuntiatores vigilesque vocavi,

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna);

draconem abire facio.

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna)

dic nomen, scis qui sum,

calidissimus sum

et malus de illa pecunia.



puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

sabatto nocte et sumus in loco.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

eio, eio, O!

(urbanus = after the city fashion, refined in manner, elegant; funcum = funk – otherwise untranslatable!)


This hit

That ice cold

Michelle Pfeiffer

That white gold

This one, for them hood girls

Them good girls

Straight masterpieces

Stylin’, while in

Livin’ it up in the city

Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent

Got kiss myself I’m so pretty


I’m too hot (hot damn)

Called a police and a fireman

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Make a dragon wanna retire man

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Say my name you know who I am

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Am I bad ’bout that money

Break it down


Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

Saturday night and we in the spot

Don’t believe me just watch (come on)

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Translated by Rupert Willoughby, 12 March 2015

View the original at