The Alma

The war to name all pubs

There are many inns around Britain bearing this name, or a variation of it. The Battle of Alma, Heroes of Alma, Heights of Alma and the Alma Arms are just a few examples. The Alma is the name of the major river running through the area of the Ukraine formerly known as the Crimea. On 20 September 1854 it became the scene of the first key battle of the Crimean War, fought by the British and her European allies against the Russians over lands once occupied by the declining Ottoman Empire.

The result was a stunning, if unexpected, victory for Britain and France during one of the few periods of history when the two countries were actually on the same side and not fighting each other. This triumph was marked all over Britain with references to the Alma, and hundreds of returning soldiers called their newborn daughters Alma out of respect for their fallen comrades, leading to a Ukrainian river becoming one of the most popular girls’ names of the late nineteenth century.

The Battle of Alma led directly to the Russian counter-offensive a month later at Balaclava, which became famous for the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, led by Lord Cardigan under the command of Lieutenant General George Charles Bingham (1800–1888), otherwise known as the 3rd Earl of Lucan. He was the less-than-illustrious ancestor of the rather more notorious Richard John Bingham (1934–?), 7th Earl of Lucan, missing since 1974 and still wanted by Her Majesty’s Old Bill. (If you could check the quieter corners of your local pub for him – he’d be getting on a bit now, of course – they’d be most grateful.)

Like the knitted headcovering with holes for eyes, nose and mouth (it was bitterly cold in the Crimean Peninsular) so favoured by today’s bankrobbers (and my nan who knitted mine) pubs in Britain were named the Balaclavain honour of the men who fought there and the 350 British soldiers who lost their lives on that day. It was the disaster at Balaclava, caused by the incompetence of the commanding officers, that led the British army to review the practice of selling commissions to wealthy noblemen, enabling them to buy any rank they could afford and, without any special training, lead soldiers into battle. This led to the Cardwell Reforms, established between 1868 and 1874, that also banned flogging and branding as a form of punishment in both the army and the navy.

Aldershot, for many years the home of the British army, also has a pub in honour of the campaign. It is called, quite simply, the Crimea, and locals even go to the lengths of re-enacting, with convincing realism, some of the more violent scenes of the historic conflict every weekend. At least that’s what it looked like to me when I drove past there the other day.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Admiral Duncan

Curmudgeonly seadog who threw the naval rule book out of the porthole

The most famous of the many pubs in Britain going by this name can be found on Old Compton Street in Soho. The pub became notorious in 1999 as one of three locations around London in which a lunatic former member of the National Socialist Movement detonated a number of nail bombs. Three people lost their lives at the pub and many more were badly injured. The other Admiral Duncans around Britain have had a far more peaceful history, fortunately, although that is in direct contrast to the man they are named after.

Adam Duncan (1731–1804) was only fifteen years old when he joined the Royal Navy in 1746. His rise through the ranks was meteoric and he reached the rank of commander at the age of twenty-eight. But there he stuck as he was a difficult man and not popular with the admiralty. It took nearly forty years before Duncan finally arrived, in 1795, at the rank of commander-in-chief in the North Sea, with the responsibility of protecting Britain from the troublesome Dutch.

Two years later, in the autumn of 1797, it was Admiral Duncan who prevented the Dutch fleet, at that time commanded by the French, from invading Ireland and establishing a new threat to Britain from the west. Tearing up the established rule book of naval warfare, Duncan ordered his fleet to sail directly at the Dutch lines, instead of the more conventional, and gentlemanly, approach from the side.

This celebrated encounter, known as the Battle of Camperdown, brought immediate fame for Duncan and he returned to London a national hero, was honoured everywhere he went and given the freedom of both London and his home town of Dundee, in Scotland. In Newcastle upon Tyne there is a pub called the Camperdown in memory of Duncan’s victory. Meanwhile, in the same year a much younger officer, one Horatio Nelson, had a similar job tackling the French and Spanish in the Mediterranean, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Cape Vincent (see also The Admiral Collingwood).

It was to be another eight years before Britain’s most renowned naval hero dealt with the French and Spanish navies by copying Duncan’s tactics at Camperdown, sailing directly at the Franco-Spanish fleet and scattering their ships in all directions before winning one of most famous battles in history, close to the coast of a small Spanish cape called Trafalgar.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

Doctor Foster

Doctor Foster
Went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again.

This rhyme would have been used as a warning to children – that danger lurks around every corner and that they should watch their step. Before the days of tarmacadam, large potholes in the road were common and could easily be mistaken for shallow puddles, which, as we all know, attract children like a magnet.

One theory runs that the origins of this verse stretch back over seven hundred years to Edward I (1239–1307), who was known by the nickname of Doctor Foster – perhaps because he was a learned fellow, or just someone in authority, from the Latin doctor, meaning a teacher or instructor. One day, on a visit to Gloucester during a rainstorm, the king rode his horse through what appeared to be a shallow puddle.

When it turned out to be a deep ditch, both king and horse became trapped in the mud and had to be hauled out by the good folk of Gloucester, much to Edward’s fury and embarrassment. The king, also known as ‘Longshanks’ (if not quite long enough to negotiate deep puddles) or ‘Edward the Lawgiver’ and responsible for much of the Tower of London in the form that we know it today, vowed never to return to Gloucester – and he remained true to his word.

However, another, rather more likely theory, concerns the geography of Gloucester itself. As Britain’s most inland port, Gloucester is located on the banks of the River Severn – a low-lying area highly prone to flooding, as recent years have shown, and therefore with puddles aplenty. Relatively close to the Welsh border, the town would have been of strategic importance to Edward during his campaigns against the Welsh. Hence it is quite possible that ‘Foster’ follows ‘Doctor’ – the long-legged, learned, lawgiving king – simply because it rhymes with ‘Gloucester’.

Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here

Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
That sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Arachnopohobia is clearly not a modern complaint. Although cobwebs have traditionally been used as a dressing for wounds (and, scientifically tested, have turned out to contain all kinds of antibiotics), spiders have long been seen as malevolent. Richard III, presented by William Shakespeare as the most evil English king, is described as ‘a bottled spider’, which comes from the belief that spiders were inherently toxic – if one were dropped into a glass of water, every drop would be poisoned. It is therefore entirely understandable that this particular little girl from days gone by would have been frightened away by one, but in fact there’s more to the origins of this rhyme …

‘Little Miss Muffet’ first appeared in print in Scotland in 1805, but it was probably around for a long time before that. Some Scottish historians believe Miss Muffet to be Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87), and the spider John Knox (c.1510–72), the great Protestant reformer and founder of the powerful Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Knox’s best-known work was The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) – a notorious attack against the female Roman Catholic sovereigns of the day, in particular Mary I of Scotland and Mary I of England, in which he stated that his purpose was to demonstrate ‘how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traiteresse and bastard’.

Which goes some way to explaining why he and the young queen were unlikely to see eye to eye, even if she hadn’t had such a turbulent and very public lovelife – twice married, to the French Dauphin (Francis II) and Lord Darnley, both Catholics, and with a purported lover, David Rizzio, murdered by a jealous Darnley. Knox held vast religious influence in Scotland and regularly rebuked Mary, often openly attacking her in his sermons. Eventually her nobles rebelled and she ran away to England, but her cousin Elizabeth turned out to be even less keen on her presences than Knox. Mary was kept under house arrest for nineteen years and then executed. So the Scottish line is that only if Miss Muffet had made friends with the spider, everything could have been so different for her – and for spiders too for that matter.

However, an English interpretation of the rhyme is rather more domestic in nature. Historians point to the eminent English physician Dr Thomas Muffet (1553–1604), staunchly Puritan in his beliefs and therefore close in spirit to John Knox. What he is best known for is his study of insects, particularly spiders, and how they relate to medicine. Hence it is easy to imagine one of Dr Muffet’s daughters sitting on a small, three-legged stool (a tuffet), eating her curds and whey (a dairy product, not unlike cottage cheese), when one of his spiders dropped in and frightened the living curds out of her.

Three Blind Mice – The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

Albert Jack books available for download here


Three men in a tub,
And how do you think they got there?
The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker,
It was enough to make a man stare.

At first glance, this looks rather like a reference to a gay peep show. Indeed, history reveals that there probably was such a thing, catering especially for royalty and the nobility. There is every chance the working classes also had their own clandestine man-on-man entertainment going on in towns and cities throughout the land. However, the oldest printed version of the rhyme, dating to the fifteenth century, reveals how changing just a few words can alter a story completely, putting an entirely different complexion on it:

Three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

Peep shows were popularized by the Victorians during the nineteenth century, but their origins can be traced back much further, to Europe in the 1400s. In those days, wandering artists and entertainers came up with the idea of presenting their art or shows in a large portable wooden box. The inside could be decorated to create scenery and customers would pay to watch the action through holes in the side.

It was all innocent fun in the beginning but soon developed into the perfect way of providing ‘closet’ sexual entertainment for the public without breaking too many laws. That was probably when those Victorians became so interested in them.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here