The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

The sport of Roley Poley

18th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture, Military & Naval 4 Comments »

Last night I tweeted an appeal on Twitter for more information about Roley Poley. So far no one has responded so I thought I would post the full reference here and leave it open for suggestions. What do you think it means? (Or if you actually know enlighten me)

Roley Poley newspaper clipping


From Morning Post, 2nd April 1793

MJ Holman @mishjholman

Adventures in Berlin

Family History, Military & Naval 5 Comments »

My father HenryDuring World War II my father Henry had been part of a special operations unit working on decoys in readiness for the Normandy landings. Following a major accident and subsequent discharge from the Royal Navy, he was headhunted by the Foreign Office, but initially refused to take a position. After some careful consideration, he decided to take the entrance exam and was placed in a job within the British military government in Germany.
   When I was a child, he regularly described to me his experiences in Berlin and vividly recalled some astonishing events that he had observed. I grew up with these images in my mind and following our nostalgic visit to Berlin in the early 1990s decided to record our conversations. Since my father's passing, I have been unable to listen to those tapes, but I am aware that no amount of sobbing and discomfort will stop me from returning to those fascinating accounts one day, and I hope that in time I can produce a piece of work that does him and the historical significance of his story justice.
   During our visit to Berlin, we took a taxi to Fehrbelliner Platz and the Rathaus Wilmersdorf, the site of the British HQ from 1945-1953. The former centre of Nazi military administration had been renamed Lancaster House by the British following their occupation of the sector. As we walked along Hohenzollerndamm towards the rear of the building, my father recalled that his office had been situated at the very end of the Rathaus, just a couple of doors away from the military governor.
   From the office at the back of Lancaster House, Henry journeyed to and from Whitehall accompanied by a briefcase full of sensitive documents and two military policemen armed with machine guns.
   He frequently travelled by rail, catching the boat train from London. Initially he found the journey intractable; the hardship and impecunity of the German people weighed heavily upon him: witnessing the women pulling down the remaining shells of buildings and rebuilding the towns, thin and malnourished children begging for food, the elderly without a penny for fuel or food during the bitter winter – this was the nation he had fought against a few years before.
   Eventually, he took to purchasing food and chocolate at his stop off points in Belgium and Holland, then relinquishing all of his supplies to the German children that ran by the side of the train shouting, 'Schokoladen! Schokoladen!'

Spandau Prison

Spandau Prison

   Any business conducted in and around Berlin was done by car, but his personal chauffeur, a one legged former Messerschmitt pilot disliked and feared the Soviets so intensely, that he would go no further than the beginning of the long drive up to Spandau when the Soviets were overseers of the prison. Henry was forced to walk the distance to the door of Spandau prison, observed from the watchtowers by Soviet soldiers as young as fifteen. After knocking on the door, he discovered communications were monosyllabic and the exchanges brief.
   Our allies in the west were different though, after all they spoke the same language. The Americans were engaging and generous, supplying Henry with cigarettes and food parcels he could smuggle home; there were also parties and balls, large amounts of Pimms and girlfriends. There was a drunken night accidentally driving into the Soviet zone where he and his US friends were nearly shot on suspicion of spying.
   One day, he was returning to London when his train was stopped and searched by the Soviets who were looking for a number of German individuals that they believed were being smuggled out of Berlin by the British. I had heard of this story so many times and asked him if it were true, he assured me it was.
   On 5th April 1948, Henry visited Gatow airport to meet up with the British passengers of a Viking airliner and to collect the diplomatic mail that was carried on board. He was standing smoking a cigarette and in deep conversation with General Robertson's pilot when the plane appeared in the distance and was preparing to descend, but suddenly disappeared. A Soviet fighter plane had collided with the Viking, killing everyone on board both aircraft; by the time he and the British officials had reached the site, they discovered that the Soviets had confiscated everything including the diplomatic mail.

Sunderland Flying Boat

Short Sunderland

The air disaster exacerbated tensions between the Soviets and the other allied powers leading to the Berlin Blockade. Within months the Airlift was under way and Henry stood and watched as the Sunderland flying boats skilfully touched down on the waters of the Wannsee.
   His time in Germany lasted another four years, but was tragically cut short by the sudden death of his younger brother Sidney; he felt that he could no longer be apart from his family at a time of such distress. Years later I know that he regretted the decision to leave, that he had witnessed some momentus events and had seen at first hand a significant piece of twentieth century history.


How to float a Georgian

18th Century Digressions, Manufacturing & Industry, Military & Naval 1 Comment »

F. C. Daniel's Life Preserver'A droll and not indecent sight'

In the autumn of 1764, an experiment was conducted at London Bridge to test the efficacy of the Patent Air Jacket; one tester was a woman in a mob cap with red ribbons, the other was a man eating bread and cheese and firing a pistol, obviously testing the efficiency of the air jacket in cases of drowning whilst eating a cheese 'sandwich' and firing a gun scenario. According to one eyewitness, "it was a droll and not indecent sight, they all being dressed in flannel shifts and linen breeches".
   During the previous Spring, William Cobb a cordwainer from St Swithin's Lane, Cannon Street had submitted his patent for a 'Method of making an Air Jacket and proper Shoes for Swimming', explaining:

 'The jackets are made of calves, neat, or sheeps leather, or any thing pliable that will hold air, cut in the form of a short jacket without sleeves, with pieces sewed on the outsides and back bigger than the insides or back to hang loose and hollow, to contain a sufficient quantity of air blowed through a bag or receptacle, with a pipe fixed to it to convey the air into the receptacle, which receptacle is fastened on to one of the loose sides to convey the air into the loose sides and back, by means of a communication from one part of the jacket to the other. The jacket to be buttoned before, button-holes round the skirts to be buttoned or fastened to the waistband of the breeches. The upper strap of the receptacle to be buttoned to the upper button of the jacket, and the lowest strap to the nearest lower button it comes to. Then hold the pipe with your teeth and blow into the receptacle till the jacket is filled with air, stop the pipe with the cork, then use it in swimmng.
'The shoes are made with pieces of wood cut in the form of a sole of a shoe, and hinges screwed on to the wood with joints covered with leather, fastened on to common shoes, to open and shut in swimming like a swan's foot'.

   Surprisingly, the shoes never caught on. However, in 1808 The Repertory of Arts published a description of Mr F. C. Daniel's 'Life-Preserver' (see illustration above), for which Daniel won a Gold Medal from the Society of Arts. The Repertory of Arts describes the two inventions as 'similar', but did Mr Daniel borrow from William Cobb? Daniel certainly had many advocates for his invention, there were testimonies from happy nautical folk thankful for a contraption that resembled an instrument of torture or an unwieldy chastity belt. John Dickenson of Norwich was a gentleman grateful for its assistance during a boat trip:
   "I went from the city of Norwich, in a pleasure-boat that I keep for the amusement of sailing, in company with a gentleman and two ladies… we set sail about four o'clock, it being moon-light during the night; and fortunately procured, in case of accident (the wind blowing hard at South-east) one of your life-preservers… [At] the extremity of a broad water, two miles over, known by the name of Braydon, a sudden gust overset the boat, precipitating myself, companion, and two ladies, into as agitated a water as I have ever seen at sea… The gentleman, whose name is Goring, was inexpert at swimming, and with difficulty kept himself up, till I reached him; and then directing him to lay hold of the collar of my coat, over which the machine was fixed, I proceeded toward the ladies, whose clothes kept them bouyant, but in a state of fainting when I reached them [naturally, they were women]: then taking one of the ladies under each arm, with Mr Goring hanging from the collar of the coat, the violence of the wind drifted us on shore upon Burgh Marshes, where the boat had already been thrown, with what belonged to her. We got the assistance of some countrymen directly, (after taking refreshment at a marsh farmer's house, where we were procured some dry clothing for the ladies, who were now pretty well recovered,) and by their endeavours put the boat in sailing trim, and prosecuted our voyage to Norwich, which we effected by eleven o'clock that night".

   It seems apparent from Mr Dickenson's account, that the ladies concerned did not require the use of Mr Daniel's marvellous invention thanks to their voluminous petticoats and bouyant stays, if only they could have just stopped fainting!

“The greatest discovery made in Navigation”

18th Century Digressions, Military & Naval No Comments »

"It is said an Englishman is arrived from Spain (whose brother is now master ship-builder at Ferrol) who has invented a method to make the largest man of war go two knots an hour in a dead calm, or upon a lee-shore. We are told, it is the greatest discovery made in Navigation, for these many years.

 "The Spaniards were so sensible of the utility of his invention, that some considerable offers were made to him for imparting the Secret, which he rejected in favour of his native country; and when information was given that he intended to depart the kingdom, a messenger was dispatched from Madrid to stop him, but luckily he had sailed in the packet for England, a few hours before the order arrived."

Feb. 3-10 1759 The Universal Chronicle


An extraordinary tale of survival at sea

18th Century Digressions, Military & Naval 1 Comment »

Sailors praying after the Battle of the Nile

Glasgow, December 25. Copy of a letter from the Mate of an East-India ship to his wife in Cartsdyke, near Greenock.

My Dear,

   "This is to acquaint you that I am yet living; and I do think there is not on earth a more remarkable instance of the great mercy and goodness of God, than has been shewn in my preservation. I arrived in India the 15th of August, 1753 [?], and agreed to go Mate along with Capt.Hugh Kennedy, an old Comrade of mine in Virginia. I will be particular in my first voyage, and I hope you will chuse what follows to be put in the News-Papers, that all concerned may have a true and impartial account of the fate of their friends and relations.

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