Archive for October, 2008

Unusual trades: ever met a congreve maker?

Having recently caught the genealogy bug, I have been diving into my family history. It’s astonishing what you can turn up these days, without ever leaving your computer desk. I’ve now got a pretty complete picture of my family back through five generations – and have traced one particular line back to 1580.

What is particularly fascinating about the censuses, from 1851 onwards, is that they usually show the occupation of the person named. And of course, in the nineteenth century, the great majority of working folk had some sort of craft or trade.

Among my forebears I found a book-binder, a cabinet-maker, a boat-builder, a brick-maker, a miller, a sawyer, a backsman (foreman in a coal-mine), a straw-plaiter (for hat-making), a bombazine-weaver, a dress-maker – and quite a number of plain ‘labourers’.

One job particularly intrigued me. My great-grandfather had, as his neighbour in Norwich, a man who was listed as a ‘Congreve maker’, while his son was a ‘Slive maker’. What on earth was a congreve? A kind of coat? A bottle? I decided to do some research.

It turns out that during the Napoleonic Wars there was a certain artillery officer named Sir William Congreve who invented a kind of military rocket for firing at the enemy. When the wars ended, in 1815, it seems likely that he turned the pyrotechnic skills he had acquired to the invention of an early kind of friction match – which was known as a congreve. And that’s what my ancestor’s neighbour was making, using sulphur, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide. A pretty explosive mixture, I would have thought.

And a ‘slive maker’? I can only think that this is a variant, or a mis-spelling, of ‘sliver’ – a thin strip of some kind (there is an old verb ‘to slive’ meaning to split). So my guess is that the son was making the match-sticks – for Dad to put the heads on.

Incidentally – have you noticed how many people say ‘slither’ when thay actually mean ‘sliver’?

Postscript: I have now discovered that, although Sir William did indeed invent a great many things, it was actually a John Walker, a chemist in Stockton-on-Tees, who invented the friction match – but he named it after Congreve, presumably because of his fame as a rocket pioneer.

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More Thomas Hardy

I went for a walk last week on the ridge above Abbotsbury. This Dorset village lies a few miles south-west of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge). From the ridgetop one can see for miles – west over Lyme Bay, north over the fertile fields of the Marshwood Vale, and south-east to the long strand of Chesil Beach (Pebble Bank), with the sea on one side and the swan-laden water of the Fleet on the other. Beyond it, the hump of Portland (the Isle of Slingers) and the town of Weymouth (Budmouth). It was a fine autumn day, and the views were splendid.

Surprisingly, I don’t think Hardy had a special name for Abbotsbury. It’s an interesting and picturesque village, with its ruined abbey, magnificent tithe barn and, just down the road, the swannery founded by the monks and still thriving today.

BBC TV did a new serialised version of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” recently. I have to say I didn’t like it. The opening sequence, with a group of uniformly-pretty young ladies performing a sedate dance on a grassy hilltop seemed a million miles from Hardy’s description of a rustic village ritual, with as many old women as girls among the dancers. For me, it set the tone of the whole production: rather sanitised, lacking in Dorset earthiness – and with an unnecessarily lush musical background. Not one of the BBC’s best.

The picture shows the view of Abbotsbury we had as we climbed back up from the beach.

Abbotsbury village, Dorset

Abbotsbury village, Dorset