Wessex Worthies: George Monk

George Monk, or Monck, (1608-70), was a general in the English Civil War. He fought on the Royalist side, but later led the Parliamentary Army in Scotland, being named as a possible successor to Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II appointed him to the peerage, giving him the title of 1st Duke of Albemarle.

Monk was born in Potheridge, Devon, the middle child of a member of the local landed gentry who had fallen on hard times. His mother was the daughter of one of the richest men in Exeter, but he refused to pay her dowry when they got married, and his father died in a debtor’s prison as a result.

As a young man, Monk joined the army, a common career choice for the younger children of distressed gentlefolk. According to some sources, he served overseas in order to escape a charge of attempted murder at home, after he and his elder brother tried to kill the undersheriff who had imprisoned their father.

Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Monck was made colonel of a regiment that was sent to suppress it, allegedly participating in several massacres (your customary reminder here that “Worthies” in the title refers to notability, and does not signify approval). Upon the outbreak of the English Civil War, Monk initially refused to swear allegiance to the king, being imprisoned in Bristol as a punishment. before eventually relenting in order to secure his release.

Following the restoration, Monk became a member of the Privy Council, and was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire. He was also granted lands in the Carolinas, and shares in the Royal African Company, which oversaw England’s contribution to the Atlantic slave trade.

Monk ended his days as First Lord of the Treasury, dying three weeks before his wife at his ancestral seat in Potheridge. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, and Albemarle Sound on the coast of North Carolina is named after him.

Wessex Worthies: William D’Avenant

William D’avenant (sometimes spelled without the apostrophe) was born in Oxford in 1606, the son of John and Jane D’avenant, owners of the Crown Tavern, where Shakespeare was said to have been a frequent visitor. There is a story that Shakespeare was young William’s godfather or, in some versions, his biological father. He was sometimes said to have referred to himself as a “son of Shakespeare”, though this was probably just a figure of speech, referring to Shakespeare’s literary influence on him. He did, however, know Shakespeare as a boy, and at the age of twelve, wrote an ode upon the occasion of his death.

D’avenant was educated at Oxford, but dropped out before gaining a degree. He was a strong supporter of the Royalist cause in the Civil War, and participated in the siege of Gloucester.

He was named Poet Laureate in 1638, a title he held until his death 30 years later, despite being found guilty of high treason by parliament in 1641. In 1645, he moved to Paris and converted to Catholicism. In 1650, he was captured at sea while en route to Maryland, where the exiled Charles II had appointed him lieutenant-governor. He was put on trial for his life, but was supposedly saved by the intervention of John Milton.

D’avenant’s best-known work is the five-act tragedy Gondibert, written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Based on parts of Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards, it tells of the titular Duke of Lombardy and the conflict between his love life and his royal duties. It is notable for introducing the “Gondibert stanza” of four lines of ten syllables each, with an ABAB rhyme scheme. He also wrote the libretto of what is believed to be the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes.

He died in 1688, shortly after the publication of his final play, The Man’s the Master. He is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Wessex Worthies: Thomas Newcomen

The Industrial Revolution was a turning point in human history, transforming societies through technological advancements. At the forefront of this revolution stood inventors like Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729), whose groundbreaking invention of the atmospheric steam engine paved the way for industrial development on a global scale. In this blog post, we will delve into the life, achievements, and impact of Thomas Newcomen, whose pioneering work laid the foundation for the steam-powered era.

Thomas Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon. The son of Puritan merchants, he became a Baptist minister, with a day job as an ironmonger. He was particularly interested in the mining industry, then a major part of Devon’s economy, as he witnessed the challenges faced by miners in removing water from the mines to access valuable minerals. These observations sparked Newcomen’s interest in finding a solution to this predicament, leading him to develop the atmospheric steam engine.

Newcomen’s most significant invention, the atmospheric steam engine, marked a breakthrough in harnessing steam power for practical applications. Unlike previous steam engines, Newcomen’s design did not rely on high-pressure steam. Instead, it used atmospheric pressure to create a vacuum that would allow the engine to operate effectively.

The basic design of Newcomen’s engine involved a vertical cylinder, a piston, and a boiler. Steam was introduced into the cylinder, displacing the air and creating a vacuum. This caused the piston to be pushed upward, drawing in water from the mines through a valve. Once the cylinder was filled with steam, cold water was sprayed into it, condensing the steam and creating a partial vacuum that pulled the piston down, lifting the water out of the mines. This process was repeated, creating a continuous pumping action.

Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine revolutionized mining operations by significantly improving the efficiency of water removal from mines. It quickly gained popularity and was widely adopted in mines throughout Britain, Europe, and the United States. The engine played a vital role in enabling deeper mining, leading to the extraction of previously inaccessible mineral resources. This, in turn, fueled industrial growth and economic prosperity during the 18th century.

The atmospheric steam engine also had a profound influence on other industries beyond mining. It was used to power mills, factories, and various machinery, facilitating mechanization and transforming the manufacturing sector. This marked a crucial step in the Industrial Revolution, as steam power gradually replaced human and animal labor, leading to increased productivity and, for good or ill, the emergence of large-scale industrial production.

However, despite its transformative impact, Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine had limitations. It was relatively inefficient and consumed large amounts of coal, which led to high operating costs. Consequently, the quest for improved steam engine designs continued, eventually leading to James Watt’s revolutionary improvements in the late 18th century.

Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric steam engine played a pivotal role in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. By effectively harnessing steam power, he transformed the mining industry and paved the way for the widespread use of steam engines in various sectors. Newcomen’s innovative design laid the foundation for further advancements and improvements in steam engine technology, contributing to the industrial growth that reshaped societies worldwide. Today,a replica of his engine can be found at the Engine House in Mayor’s Avenue, Dartmouth (see photo above).

Wessex Worthies: William Friese-Greene

William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) was known as the “father of cinematography” Born in Bristol, he was a successful photographer, with studios in Bristol, Bath and Plymouth. He is commemorated on blue plaques at Bristol’s City Hall (transferred from his birthplace at 12, College Place), at the Orpheus Cinema in Henleaze, and on the site of his former studio at 30, Union Street, Plymouth. An additional plaque at New Bond Street Place in Bath commemorates him jointly with John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, on whom more shortly.

Born simply William Edward Green, he was apprenticed to a local photographer, Maurice Guttenberg, upon leaving Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School at the age of fourteen. At eighteen, he married a Swiss woman, Mariana Helena Friese, whose name he appended to his own. The couple moved to Bath where he met Rudge, an instrument maker and inventor, who collaborated with him in the development of moving pictures.

He registered a patent for a moving picture camera in 1889, and exhibited his first film, footage of Hyde Park Corner in London, in 1890. He continued to develop his processes throughout his life, including experimenting with a primitive form of colour film using alternating red, blue and green filters to create the illusion of colour. The stills above are from a 1924 film called The Open Road, shot by his son Claude after his death.

In 1951, Friese-Green was the subject of a highly romanticised biopic, The Magic Box, starring Robert Donat and a veritable who’s who of British character actors, including a memorable cameo from Laurence Olivier as a policeman.

Wessex Worthies: RD Blackmore

Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) was a Berkshire-born novelist most famous for his “romance of Exmoor”, Lorna Doone. Other Wessex based works include Cradock Nowell: A tale of the New Forest and Christowell: a Dartmoor tale. Each of these works will be the subject of their own blog post, so I will only give them a cursory treatment here, after briefly surveying Blackmore’s life

Blackmore was born in Longworth, Berkshire, the son of the parish curate. His mother died of typhus a few month later, and the family ended up moving back to their native Devon. He spent much of his childhood in the Exmoor countryside that he later came to immortalise as “Doone country”. He was educated at Oxford, and later called to the bar in That London.

His literary career initially began with collections of poetry, but it was his third novel, Lorna Doone, that really made his name, and which remains his best-known work. It inspired the Victorian romantic movement in literature, and Thomas Hardy wrote approvingly of it.

His previous work, Cradock Nowell, was set primarily in the New Forest, an area Blackmore only knew from fishing trips. It is perhaps this lack of an intimate connection with the landscape which prevented it from becoming as successful as its immediate successor.

Blackmore returned to Devon for his Dartmoor-set Christowell, published in 1882. The novel was well-received in its day, but is barely remembered now.

Blackmore died in Teddington, Middlesex, and his funeral was reported to be well-attended. Memorials to him were established in Exeter Cathedral, and at the parish church in Oare, Somerset, where Lorna Doone was married in the novel.