Coastal Catastrophe and a Steep Learning Curve – The 50th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Torrey Canyon

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” were not written to tell an exciting tale but occasionally their immediacy allows a story to unfold, minute by minute, in great detail. This one had me on the edge of my seat!

The 18th March 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of a shipping disaster which had a long term environmental impact on the British and French coasts. Over 100,000 tons of crude oil seeped into the Atlantic affecting the coastline of Cornwall, Brittany and the Channel Islands. The details still shock today and the incident impacted coast and wildlife for decades.

The “Torrey Canyon” ran aground on Pollard’s Rock, between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles on the 18th March 1967. She was an early super tanker and owned by the Barracuda Tanker Corporation (chartered to BP at the time of the incident).

As you can see on this “Lloyd’s Voyage Record Card” she left Kuwait (Mina Al-Ahmadi) on 18th February 1967. She ran aground a month later following a navigation error.

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” for 1967 take up the story…

The first reports appeared on the day of the incident, stating that the Liberian tanker “Torrey Canyon” had run aground near Seven Stones and that her position was extremely dangerous. There were thirty six Italian crew on board. In gale force winds two Dutch, two French and two British vessels were on their way to assist, the St Mary’s lifeboat had been launched (report above), the Penlee lifeboat was standing by and a request had been made for helicopter assistance. Eyewitness accounts confirmed that oil was pouring out of the vessel and desperate attempts were made to re-float her until the salvage operation had to be called off for the night.

The next day, fourteen of the crew were taken off the vessel and an ominous report from St Just stated “St Mary’s lifeboat reports that steam tanker Torrey Canyon does not look too good”. By mid-morning it was estimated that 20,000 tons of her oil cargo had been lost.
Attempts were made by tugs to pull her free of the rocks and the Royal Navy began to tackle the oil spill with detergent. Sadly this not only failed to stop the slick reaching the shore but the detergent was toxic, thus adding to the environmental impact of the incident.

The weather deteriorated and the St Mary’s lifeboat rescued a further nine of the crew who were in danger. The “Torrey Canyon’s” Master and some crew stayed aboard in spite of hazardous conditions, accompanied by two radio operators from the Dutch tug “Utrecht” which had been one of the first on the scene.

By March 20th the helicopter pilots reported that the main bulk of the oil now extended some 22 miles south of the Scilly Isles. The sea area covered was reported to be 100 square miles. More dispersant was used, and an expenditure of £500,000 was authorised by government for the incident. Questions were already being asked about who would pay for the enormous cost of tackling the oil spill and its aftermath.

On the 24th came the bad news that “a change of wind has heightened the danger of west country beaches being polluted by oil from the tanker”. Desperate attempts were made to save them but the oil reached Cornwall’s beaches on the 25th and by the next day the situation was disastrous…”Up to yesterday, oil-fouled beaches stretched from St Ives to Lizard Point, but heavy winds and sea swell have now spread deposits from the wreck twice as far up the north Cornish coast…a naval spokesman at Plymouth reported oil offshore for about nine miles from St Ives to Portreath and a further eight miles from there to Perranporth.” (April 4th report). Oil had also contaminated Lizard Point to Mount’s Bay.

On the 26th came the unwelcome news of the vessel’s fracture and more reports of oil reaching the coast at Sennen Cove and Cape Cornwall. One can only imagine the increasing dread of people living and working on the Cornish coast.

Two days later a new way of tackling the problem was tried:

“London, Mar.28.
Planes from the Royal Naval Air Station at Lossiemouth will attempt to destroy steam tanker Torrey Canyon with bombs this afternoon.”

The aftermath was also reported in The “Casualty Reports”

“Coastguards at Sennen said that the tanker was a mass of flames, with dense black smoke rising to 2,000 ft.” (March 28th reported in April 4th issue)

By the 29th March the oil slicks covered “an area from 15 miles east of the Lizard to 40 miles west-north-west of Guernsey”

The “Casualty Reports” for April 1967 take up the next instalment of the unfolding disaster as the oil had by then reached the coast of Brittany. Reports from St Brieuc describe the French Navy’s “Operation Orsec” which aimed to stop the oil reaching oyster beds worth millions of francs. The French authorities seem to have taken a different approach, using powder containing volcanic ash to make the oil coagulate so that it could be scooped from the surface. They also applied sawdust requisitioned from local mills. It is in these reports that the effect upon wildlife is recorded. The French authorities feared that they would be unable to save the majority of 60,000 birds nesting at a government owned sea bird sanctuary at Sept Iles. The plight of thousands of other sea birds was also highlighted.

Claims were made against the owners of the vessel by the British and French governments which later led to the arrest of the “Torrey Canyon’s” sister ship the “Lake Palourde” at Singapore (reported 15th July see below).

It should be remembered that the agencies involved were facing new challenges and trying to find the best solutions as the crisis unfolded. An inquiry was later held in Liberia (where the vessel was registered) which placed the blame for the incident on the Master of the vessel. Changes in legislation occurred as a result of the disaster e.g. the 1969 “International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage” which placed liability firmly on a ship owner.

If you would like to read the “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” to find out more, you are welcome to visit Guildhall Library to view them. We are a public reference library and open to all.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection



18th Century Thief-takers – Part 3

Part 3- The demise of Charles Hitchin and Jonathan Wild

A decade later Hitchin was in the limelight once again when he was caught up in a campaign against ‘sodomitical practices’ instigated by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, because of his alleged homosexuality. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners were established in the late seventeenth century in order to suppress profanity, immorality, prostitution and brothels.

A prominent supporter of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, Sir John Gonson, is pictured below in William Hogarth’s satire The Harlot’s Progress 1732 from COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections available freely online:


‘The Compleat trull at her lodging in Drury Lane’, plate III of “The Harlot’s Progress”; The harlot’s handsome young lover has cost her an easy life with her Jewish protector and she is now in a Drury Lane lodging house. In the background bailiffs enter, led by Sir John Gonson, to take her away’.

Hitchin was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1727 for the capital offence of sodomy.  Although acquitted of that charge he was convicted on a second indictment of attempted sodomy. His indictment (below) from Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6 is available online at the Old Bailey Online:

Charles Hitchin (under City Marshal , formerly a Cabinet-maker in St. Paul’s Churchyard , was indicted, for that he did on the 29th of March last, wickedly make an Assault, and commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Body of Richard Williamson.
He was second Time indicted for a Misdemeanour, in assaulting and endeavouring to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Person of Richard Williamson.
The Prosecutor depos’d. That the Evening mention’d in the Indictment, coming from the Savoy Gate, he met the Prisoner, who asked him to drink, and carried him to the Royal Oak in the Strand, where after they had drank 2 Pints of Beer, the Prisoner began to shew some little Sodomitical Civilities, which not pleasing the Taste of the Prosecutor, he desired Leave to go saying, he had some Business in the Savoy, which must not be neglected, but the Prisoner not willing to part with a smooth Face and a fresh Countenance without shewing some greater Marks of his Brutallity, bound him under an Obligation to come again and made him leave his Hat for a pledge, giving him a little Money, and a great many fair promises: After the Prosecutor’s Return, the prisoner took him to the Rummer Tavern, and treated him with two pints of Wine, giving him some unnatural Kisses, and shewing several beastly Gestures. After this he perswaded him to go to the Talbot Inn , where he called for a Pint of Wine, and order’d the Chamberlain to get a Bed ready, and bring a couple of Nightcaps: Here they went to Bed, (where the Writer of this paper would draw a Curtain, not being able to express the rest with Decency, but to satisfy the Curiosity of the Reader let this susfice, he did all that a beastly Appetite could prompt him to, without making an actual penetration. ) Next Morning the Prosecutor under frightful Apprehensions of what had been offered, went to a Relation of his and told him the whole Story, who came back with him to the Talbot, and desired, if the prisoner should come thither he might be sent for; accordingly the prisoner came again on Saturday the 9th Instant, when the people of the Inn sent for the Prosecutor’s Relation, Mr.Joseph Cockrost , who depos’d. That coming to the Talbot Inn, and hearing that the Prisoner was there with another Person, he look’d through the Key-hole of the Door, and saw such filthy Actions that are not proper to be mention’d. After this, knocking at the Door, the Prisoner came out, and upon this Deponent’s taking him by the Collar, and saving, he had some Business with him, the Prisoner laid his Hand upon his Sword, upon which this Deponent said, Sir, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip you through the Gills.
Christopher Finch , Servant, depos’d. That he saw the Prisoner the Time aforesaid, come to his Master’s House with the Prosecutor, and by his frequent coming there with Soldiers, and calling for a private Room, he suspected him to be guilty of Sodomitical Practices, and thereupon looking through the Key-hole, he saw him offer some beastly Actions to the Prosecutor.
John Carter Constable, depos’d. That he being call’d, was charg’d with the Prisoner, by the Cook of the Talbot and the Prosecutor, but he heard nothing of any Proposals made by the Prosecutor and his Friends, to make it up, as was intimated by the Evidence of John Cole and George Birch two Watchmen. The Prisoner call’d several to his Character, but the most Material was Micah Wilkins , who depos’d. He had known the Prisoner to be a very honest Man, and that he had took a deal of Pains, and spent a great deal of Money to curb the Vice of the Nation. Upon the Whole, his first Indictment being laid for actual Sodomy, he was acquitted of that, but found guilty of the Second.
12 April 1727
Charles Hitchins for Sodomitical Practices, was fined 20 l. and 6 Months Imprisonment, and to stand in the Pillory near the End of Catherine Street, in the Strand.
From Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6

In this Daily Journal article the Societies for Reformation of Manners distance themselves from Charles Hitchin:

We are well informed, that Mr Charles Hitchin, the Under City-Marshal, who was lately convicted of an Attempt to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy, never did belong to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, nor had any Concern with them, and that what has been reported and printed to the contrary, is false and groundless. But there is Reason to believe he may have pretended to belong to those Societies, because some years ago he offer’d them his Assistance which they refused to accept of, as having no very good Opinion of him, and apprehending that such Offer proceeded from corrupt motives. We are also assured that the said Societies have, for a considerable Time past, had good reason to believe that he was a Frequenter of the Sodomitical Clubs and a Practioner of that abominable Lewdness, tho’ they had not sufficient Evidence for a legal conviction, and therefore they did not promote a Prosecution against him till they were acquainted with the Evidence of the Fact, for which he is now convicted.

Daily Journal (London, England), Monday, April 17, 1727; Issue 1952. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Hitchin might have escaped from death but together with a fine of £20 and six months’ imprisonment he was sentenced to an hour in the pillory. The pillory was a frightening prospect for men convicted of homosexual offences and particularly for Hitchin as newspapers revealed he had targeted young men. The under-sheriff took him down long before his appointed hour had passed:

This day Charles Hitchin, Under City Marshal stood in the Pillory over against Katherine Street End in the Strand, Pursant to his Sentence, for an Attempt to commit Sodomy. The Mob us’d him so roughly that his Life was in Danger, part of his Cloaths were pull’d off his Back, his Breeches down and several Persons struck him on the bare skin with the end of their Canes.

Evening Post (1709) (London, England), April 29, 1727 – May 2, 1727; Issue 2773. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Charles Hitchin was taken back to Newgate prison to serve out his sentence. He was stripped of his title of Under-Marshal by the Court of Aldermen for his ‘notorious and wicked practices’ He died shortly afterwards in poverty.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Wild continued to thrive in his trade of receiver—thief-taker  despite the clause in the 1718 Transportation Act which would make it a felony to accept a reward for recovering stolen goods without attempting to prosecute the thief. Many saw this legislation as directly aimed at Wild. William Thomson, the City Recorder, one of the men who devised this act, was reported to disapprove of Wild’s activities. However, Gerald Howson, a biographer of Wild’s, has suggested that even such high-ranking City officials as Thomson turned a blind eye to the thief-taker’s double-dealing, possibly to avoid exposure of their own implication in these activities.

After 1718, Wild concentrated on gang breaking and thief-taking. It was a lucrative business: a 1720 royal proclamation offered rewards of £100, above those already granted by Parliament, for the successful conviction of robbers in London and its environs. Wild was regularly to be found at the Old Bailey and other criminal courts where he appeared to give evidence for the prosecution.

Wild fell from grace in the eyes of the public after his involvement in the arrest and prosecution of two of the most famous criminals of the age- Jack Sheppard and his accomplice Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake in 1724. The press promoted Sheppard as a popular hero who had avoided any dealings with Wild and they used him to denounce thief takers like Wild. The press portrayed Blueskin as one of the children Wild had introduced to the life of a thief and subsequently sent to the gallows. While Blueskin was awaiting trial, Wild reportedly said he could do nothing for him short of paying for his coffin. Blueskin slit Wild’s throat in a fit of rage. Wild survived, but his reputation was in tatters.

On 15 February 1725, Wild was arrested for helping one of his associates escape from a constable. Wild was held on a warrant of detainer. He was accused of being both a receiver and a confederate of thieves; of having formed a ‘Corporation of Thieves’. He was also accused of selling human blood by presenting false evidence. There was as yet no precise charge against Wild, and it appeared that the authorities still sought witnesses in order to bring him to prosecution.  However, on 10 March Wild was discovered having accepted 10 guineas for returning some stolen lace to one Mrs Statham without attempting to prosecute the thieves, who had, in any case, committed the robbery on his instructions. On 15 May 1725, Wild was tried at the Old Bailey for ‘privately stealing’ the lace, and for ‘helping’ Statham ‘to the said Lace’ for a reward.  Wild attempted to influence the jurors by producing a list of the names of 75 felons he had brought to justice. However, while Wild was acquitted of the theft, he was convicted of the second indictment, accepting reward for the recovery of stolen goods without having attempted to prosecute the thieves; a charge that had been made a capital offence under the 1718 Act. He was sentenced to hang. The night before his execution Wild attempted to commit suicide:

About two o’clock in the morning he endeavour’d to prevent his Execution by taking Laudanum, but the Largeness of the Draught, together with having fasted before, instead of destroying him immediately, was the occasion of his not dying of it.

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

On 24 May 1725 Wild, still drowsy from the laudanum, was transported to Tyburn to be hanged. An angry mob pelted him with stones so violently on his head that ‘the Blood ran down plentifully, which occasion’d a report that he had cut his throat.’

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

For those who wish to learn more about Jonathan Wild we can recommend consulting Gerald Howson’s biography, Thief-Taker General: the Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (1970) available at Guildhall Library shelf mark B:W 668.

Jonathan Wild’s trial was dramatized by the BBC please find the link below:

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian Guildhall Library

18th Century Thief-takers – Part 2

Part 2 – Rivalry between Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin

Rivalry between Wild and his old boss Hitchin came to a head when Hitchin attempted to win the support of the Court of Aldermen for his plan to eliminate crime by publishing an attack on Wild as the ‘regulator’ of the criminal world in 1718. In this tract (pictured below) he accused Wild of manipulating evidence to convict and hang minor offenders while protecting greater villains and profiting from the return of stolen valuables.

thief-taker-p2-1A true discovery of the conduct of receivers and thief-takers in … the city of London : to the multiplication, and encouragement of thieves, house-breakers, and other loose and disorderly persons.

By Hitchin, Charles, published in London : 1718.
Available at Guildhall Library, shelf mark A 2.6 NO 60 (please note photo ID such as passport or driving licence is required to consult this item).


Above, a wood cut of a man being hanged, taken from the same volume.

Needless to say Wild retaliated, giving an account of his work as Hitchin’s assistant and of the Marshal’s turning a blind eye to, and even profiting from, the thefts carried out by numerous young pickpockets in the City. Furthermore, he included evidence of Hitchin’s homosexuality by telling how the marshal had taken him to a house of ‘He-Whores’, also known as a Molly House, one of several such clubs for homosexual men established in London in the early decades of the eighteenth century.


An answer to a late insolent libel, entituled A (true) discovery of the conduct of receivers and thief-takers, in … the city of London / Written by C(harle)s H(itchi)n. Wherein is prov’d … who is originally the grand thief-taker … (Anon.).
By Wild, Jonathan, 1682?-1725. London : T. Warner, 1718.
Available at Guildhall Library A 1.2 NO 65A (please note photo ID such as passport or driving licence is required to consult this item.)

Hitchen made an unsuccessful attempt to turn these charges aside by reissuing his condemnation of Wild, in a slightly enlarged version, under a new title The Regulator, or, A Discovery of the Thieves, Thief-Takers and Locks, 1718 also available at Guildhall Library (see below):


People of the eighteenth century, like the people of today, were intrigued by the lives and language of the criminal world.  A list of ‘Flash words now in Vogue amongst Thieves’ can be found in the same publication:


To be continued…

Isabelle Chevallot

Assistant Librarian Guildhall Library


18th Century Thief-takers

In this three part blog Guildhall Assistant Librarian Isabelle Chevallot will explore the lives of Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin, two of the most celebrated thief-takers of the eighteenth century.

Part 1-Jonathan Wild, Thief-taker General

Jonathan Wild, baptised on the 6th of May 1683 in Wolverhampton, was one of Britain’s most notorious thief-takers of the eighteenth century. Before the establishment of a professional police force in the nineteenth century, thief-takers, private individuals hired to catch thieves, were instrumental in bringing criminals to justice. An Act of Parliament passed in 1697 which offered rewards for the capture and successful prosecution of highwaymen in order to persuade people to assist in law enforcement, had inadvertently created the occupation of thief-taker. The unfortunate side effect of this law was that apprehending criminals brought rich cash rewards and also a free pardon for any offences the thief-taker himself may have committed, encouraging corruption, blackmail and perjury.

Jonathan Wild, the self-styled “Thief-taker General of England and Ireland”, learned his ‘trade’ while serving a sentence in Wood Street Compter debtor’s prison. In prison, Wild became acquainted with prostitutes and petty criminals but also was in favour with the prison keepers and was granted the privilege of ‘the liberty of the gate’ which allowed him out at night to help arrest thieves and paid him for running errands. He was instructed in the ways of thievery by Mary Milliner, a well-known prostitute, and they moved in together when he was released from prison at the end of 1712. To begin with Wild made a living from the proceeds of prostitution and working as a bailiff’s assistant, and then expanded into racketeering and dealing in stolen goods. By 1713, Wild fell in with Charles Hitchin, Under-Marshal of the City, who had been suspended after being accused of receiving stolen goods and other shady practices. Hitchin, who was still empowered to act as a constable, enlisted Wild to help him keep control of his thieves while he was officially side-lined. Hitchin asked Wild to accompany him on his night walks where, on the pretext of reforming disorderly houses, Hitchin and Wild extorted protection money and trafficked in stolen goods. After Hitchin was reinstated to his office in April 1714 they fell out with each other and pursued separate careers in thief-taking.

By the December 1714, Wild had installed himself in Little Old Bailey where his house became an ‘Office of Intelligence for lost Goods’. Wild acted as a middleman who helped victims of theft recover their goods without ever keeping them in his possession. In this way he was able to avoid prosecution under the Act of 1706 which made receiving stolen property a felony. Wild put advertisements in newspapers calling for lost valuables to be brought to him at his house in the Old Bailey on the promise of rewards and no questions asked.

See below an engraving dating from 1813, this is a view of the house which was once the residence of Jonathan Wild in Old Bailey. This image can be found on COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections which is available online:


See below a couple of examples of Jonathan Wild’s advertisements from the 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection of newspapers which are available online at Guildhall Library, (please note remote access to this, and other historical newspaper archives including the Financial Times and the Times are available to City of London library members):

Whereas the house of John Bentham at the Three Spoons in Petty France was broken open on Thursday Night or Friday Morning last and there was taken from thence two Silver Tankards and 2 Stone Mugs tipt with Silver, markt B. I. D. If any of the Persons concerned in this Robbery will bring the said Goods’ to Mr Jonathan Wild at the Duke of Grafton’s Head in the Old Bailey, or discover the rest of the Persons concerned in this Fact, so that they may be brought to Justice, he or they shall have, besides his Pardon according to Act of Parliament, a Reward of Eight Pounds paid him by the said Jonathan Wild.

Post Man and the Historical Account (London, England), July 7, 1716 – July 10, 1716; Issue 11250. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Whereas the House of Aaron Arcos in St Mary Ax, was between Friday and Monday last broke open, out of which was taken 2 Salvers, 1 Coffee Pot, 1 Caudle Cup and Cover, 6 Forks, 5 Spoons, 1 set of Casters, and 1 Salt-seller, with other Goods; but the above mention’d Plate being on Monday last taken upon a Person by Jonathan Wild, these are to satisfie the Person or Persons that hath the remainder of the said Goods, that if they do not forthwith return them to the Person injured, or to Jonathan Wild at the Duke of Grafton’s Head in the Old Bailey, they may assure themselves that the said Wild will make it his Business to bring them to Justice.

Post Man and the Historical Account (London, England), August 14, 1716 – August 16, 1716; Issue 11250. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Many regarded Wild as performing a vital public service, especially by reuniting people with their lost valuables. To begin with Wild was shrewd enough to refuse any fees (although he received a cut from the thieves). Frequently, to better establish his reputation as an honest man, he would take steps to have the thieves arrested and prosecuted, particularly if they did not cooperate with him. In this way Wild was both a receiver and a thief-taker who earned not only public approbation for bringing thieves to justice, but also the rewards offered by parliament for the successful conviction of burglars and highwaymen.

Below is an engraving dating from around 1724 entitled The London Rairey Shows or Who’ll step into Ketch’s Theatre showing Newgate. Jack Sheppard, a celebrated criminal of the age, is imprisoned in the gate house at the door of which sits a figure, thought by some to be Jonathan Wild besieged by a crowd of people seeking the return of their stolen property. This engraving is available from COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections which is available online:


Below is the text of one of Jonathan Wild’s notices in the London Gazette which is available in hard copy at Guildhall Library as well as free to search online at:

London Gazette 28 November 1719 Issue: 5803 Page: 2


To be continued…

Touring Exhibitions from Guildhall Library

We’re very pleased to announce that two of our exhibitions are now available to hire for free. If you are a museum, library, history centre, school, or any other organisation, and are interested in hiring these exhibitions, we’d love to hear from you!

Each exhibition consists of eight pull-up banners and is flexible enough to fit in most spaces.

img_2461-front-bannerThe first exhibition is London’s Dreadful Visitation: The Great Plague, 1665. The Great Plague was a devastating event in the City of London, wiping out almost 100,000 people. Whether young or old, man or woman, saint or sinner, it killed mercilessly and changed London forever. This exhibition was originally staged at Guildhall Library in the summer of 2015. Divided into clear themes, visitors are able to learn more about the pestilence, including the remedies people used; theories on the causes; and what the authorities did in response to the outbreak.


Also available is our brand new exhibition That Dreadful Fire: the Hand of God, a Great Wind and a Very Dry Season, which was on display at Guildhall Library until 30 November this year. It takes you through the story of the Great Fire and explains what you can learn through Guildhall Library’s collections, including who was to blame, its impact, and how Londoners rebuilt the City.


Our plague exhibition is also now available as an online exhibition, so to find out more about the Great Plague of 1665, visit our website

Want to find out more? Please get in touch at or 020 7332 1868 and we can provide more details and an exhibition pack.

Amy Burgess
Events and Exhibitions Officer
Guildhall Library

Carolling in the Collections


Much loved Christmas carols will be sung across the City in special services this month and many of us will go along and sing words and tunes which have been a part of our enjoyment of the season since childhood.

A carol was originally a joyful song which could be sung at any time of year, but the word carol gradually became associated with the songs and hymns sung during Advent and Christmas time.

It has not always been ‘respectable’ to sing Christmas carols in church let alone sing wassails. Indeed they were often seen as worldly and irreverent and not fit for the service of God.  In these days of broader tastes and a more relaxed approach to what can be sung in church, perhaps one would not be at all surprised if the church choir burst into a chorus of Roy Wood’s “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day” or even the ubiquitous Slade, both of which have a celebratory tone.

The survival and success of music for Christmas in churches has had a chequered and remarkable history. It came close to demise during the Civil War period following a Parliamentary order for the demolition of church organs on the 9th May 1644.  The Parliamentarians are unlikely to have been objecting to music itself, just its use in church which was seen as frivolous and irreverent.  After the Restoration the old music resurfaced in churches and in some places it had never been submerged. This revival included the singing of unaccompanied psalms and the formation of church bands and quires (choirs).  Old tunes were celebrated once again and new tunes were composed.  Organs gradually returned to churches too but many rural and city parishes couldn’t afford them so the church band and quire took its place. However, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the influence of the Oxford Movement made the organ the standard musical accompaniment once again, together with robed choirs who usually sat in the chancel.  Guildhall Library has books in its collections which can tell us more about this fascinating period.

One of the musical traditions which was all but lost during the late nineteenth century was revived toward the end of the twentieth – that of West Gallery Music.  It had been popular from the early 1700s to the mid-nineteenth century beginning with the singing of metrical psalms but later augmented with anthems and carols.  This music was usually performed in the West Gallery of country churches – hence the name.  The singers were usually male with each “voice” or part being led by an instrumentalist.


A pre-West Gallery strand of music making in church was reflected in John Playford’s “Whole Book of Psalms” published in 1677 (Guildhall Library holds an 18th century copy).  Collectors like Playford were important in the re-discovery and dissemination of pre-Commonwealth tunes.  Playford records a tune called “Winchester” for Psalm 107 “Give Thanks Unto the Lord”.


The melody will be more familiar to us as “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” the words to which are thought to have been written by Nahum Tate (1652 –1715) of Tate & Brady Psalms.  This may suggest that the association of Tate’s words with “Winchester” was quite new in Playford’s time.  During the later West Gallery period, Winchester was just one of many tunes for this favourite carol.  Collectors of these tunes have apparently identified at least two hundred tunes for “While Shepherds Watched,” including Lyngham (associated with Cornwall), Otford, and Cranbrook – written in Kent.  The latter is now better known as “On Ilkla Moor bar tat” why not try it…”and glory shone around, and glory shone around, and glo-ry shone around…”

The West Gallery tunes were sung in Anglican and Non-Conformist churches in country villages and towns.  As we have seen, different parishes and congregations had their own traditions and the words and tunes local usage.  Some churches preferred to sing metrical psalms only, such as “All People that on Earth do Dwell” (Psalm 100), whilst others had a broader repertoire.  In church the choirs often sang words based on biblical texts or the Book of Common Prayer, but they also learned Christmas carols to be sung not in church, but in their homes and for ‘going the rounds’ on Christmas night.

Some post Commonwealth parishes supported the work of the singers and musicians by employing singing teachers or purchasing musical instruments to accompany the singing when players were too poor to afford their own.  Players and singers were sometimes paid money or supplied with food and drink.   The music was handed down through families, many of whom created their own music manuscripts.  These local players often played for secular occasions too.

The rousing harmonies of West Gallery tunes were not unanimously welcomed, some parishes felt that traditional psalm tunes were better suited to the solemnity of a church service. There remained a suspicion of a tradition in which ordinary villagers led the service and that their singing and playing was not confined to or controlled by the church.  Others genuinely felt that it was better for the whole congregation to sing together rather than listen to a quire and musicians.  The church bands and choirs were gradually replaced by organists.

Guildhall Library’s collections offer an insight into the history of Christmas music sacred and secular.  In his preface to “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” (1823) Davies Gilbert looks back at a dying tradition…

“shadows of these customs were, till very lately, preserved in the Protestant West of England.  The day of Christmas Eve was passed in an ordinary manner; but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cyder or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of Carols was continued late into the night.  On Christmas Day these Carols took the place of Psalms in all the Churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole Congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the Parish Clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the Parishioners.” (Preface iv)

My own introduction to the joyous sound of West Gallery Music came through the work of Thomas Hardy whose father played in the West Gallery of the church at Stinsford, a village near Dorchester in West Dorset.  The County Museum houses the Hardy family’s music books with religious tunes at one end and secular ones at the other.  Hardy’s family memories inspired  some of his poems but above all his novel “Under the Greenwood Tree” which he subtitled “The Mellstock Quire, a Rural Painting of the Dutch school” (Guildhall Library reference B:H 272).  In that novel Hardy gives a fictional account of the quire ‘going the rounds’ on Christmas Eve and leading the singing in church on Christmas morning.  There is a poignant sense of loss at its eventual demise in favour of a single musician – the church organist.


When Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) published his collection of “Some Ancient Christmas Carols: with the Tunes to which they were Formerly Sung in the West of England. Together with Two Ancient Ballads, a Dialogue, &c” he was offering these songs to the reading public at a time when they were increasingly undervalued.
(Guildhall reference S 728:28 )

The collection includes this now lesser known carol “Hark! Hark! What News the Angels Bring”


And the better known “Christians Awake”


Gilbert also records the carol “A Virgin Most Pure” which is sometimes called “A Virgin Unspotted” (see Sandy’s “Christmastide: Its History, Festivities and Carols”) and gives the tune.  Sandys records it as a West Country tune but it has been popular in several English counties.    It seems that this carol had a secular origin.  Broadwood & Fuller Maitland in their “English Country Songs” (1893) tell us that the tune used was one called “Admiral Benbow” sung at Marden, near Hereford.  Sandys also records the words to “Remember Adam’s Fall” in his “Christmastide” which is sung by the Mellstock Quire in Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree”.


Gilbert “Some Ancient Christmas Carols”


William Sandys (1792-1874) gave the words of forty two Christmas songs and the music for twelve. He too was saddened that carol singing was dying out. He recorded “A Virgin Most Pure”, “Remember Adam’s Fall” as well as a carol which possibly dates back to the fourteenth century entitled “Joseph was an Old Man” also known as the “Cherry Tree Carol”

In his Diary entry for the 23rd January 1873 the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded going to hear a man recite this carol…

“This morning I found John Cozens at work on the lawn covering down one of the old flower beds, the one near the Deodar, between it and the limes. He fulfilled his promise of reciting to me the old Christmas Carol which the Wassailers and he as chief singer used to sing with the Wassailing song at Christmas. John leaned on his spade and I took this carol down word for word from his mouth.


Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
When first he courted Mary
What a virgin was she…”

“Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert” volume two, pages 312-314. Reference BK: 48.

Kilvert records twelve verses of the carol. Laurie Lee also records singing this carol in “Cider with Rosie”.


Thankfully West Gallery tunes are now easier for a modern day audience to experience owing to the dedication of singers, musicians and scholars who have performed and recorded them in recent years. In the Sheffield area the music has survived by moving it to the pub and during December people still sing the old carols with gusto over a pint.

In London we are fortunate to have the London West Gallery Quire so we do not have to head for the West Country or Yorkshire to hear these wonderful tunes.  There is a West Gallery Music Association where you can find articles about the music and details of concerts.  So let’s not be limited in our choice of Christmas music this year and celebrate our long and varied tradition of sacred and secular carols.

Jeanie Smith

Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection

The newsletter of the Friends of City Churches available in the library also lists carol services and concerts in the City.

Find out more about secular and sacred Christmas music in Guildhall Library’s collections:

Christmastide : its History, Festivities, and Carols [1852]

William Sandys

Reference S 394:2663


English Country Songs: Words and Music (1893)

Collected and Edited by Lucy E Broadwood & J A Fuller Maitland

Reference 782:4216221


Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs (1979)

Edited by Roy Palmer

Reference 782:4216221


Festive Songs, Principally of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries with an Introduction by William Sandys (1848)

Reference ST 271 (PERCY S; 77)


The Folk-Carol of England (1967)

Douglas Brice

Reference 782:28


Go West…

Christopher Turner

The Musical Times, Vol. 136, No. 1829 (Jul., 1995), pp. 380-383

Available via Jstor in the library


The Old Church Gallery Minstrels: An Account of the Church Bands and Singers in England from about 1660 to 1860

Canon K H MacDermott

Reference 783:8


Some Ancient Christmas Carols : with the Tunes to which they were Formerly Sung in the West of England. Together with two Ancient Ballads, a Dialogue, &c (1823)

Collected by Davies Gilbert.

Reference S 728:28


Specimens of Old Christmas Carols : Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books.

Thomas Wright (1810-1877)

Reference ST 271 (PERCY S; 16)


Under the Greenwood Tree

Thomas Hardy

Reference BH: 272


The Whole Book of Psalms (1757)

John Playford ; Joseph Fox

Reference AN 11.2.17


The “Pepys Collection” at Guildhall Library

As the library of London history Guildhall Library has recently featured Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) in our exhibitions on the Great Plague and the Great Fire.

In fact we hold two collections relating to the famous diarist. The first is that of “The Samuel Pepys Club and Samuel Pepys Trust Award”: the shortlisted books for the award are added to the collection biennially. The second, and the subject of this blog is simply called “The Samuel Pepys Collection.” It contains 560 books and pamphlets by, or about, the diarist. The collection was assembled by Colonel C D L Pepys (pronounced Pep-iss) and was deposited in 1987. This material was published between c1669 and 1996 and includes biographies, editions of the diary and Pepys’ letters, and published material relating to Pepys’ career as a naval administrator.

Through the work of Pepys and his contemporaries the collection offers information and insight into the Royal Navy of the 17th century e.g. a 1690 copy of Pepys’ “Memoires Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England, for Ten Years, Determin’d December 1688” (Pepys 3*). It was printed in London for Benjamin Griffin, and sold by Sam Keble at the Great Turks-Head in Fleet-street over against Fetter-Lane. There is a well known engraved portrait of Pepys as frontispiece by R White (after Godfrey Kneller).


In this memoir one can see Pepys the successful administrator at work and defending his record.

“A List and State of the Whole Royal Navy of England (Whether at Sea or in Harbour) upon the 18. day of December 1688 shewing the condition of each ship and vessel therein, with respect to their repairs and Value of their Rigging and Sea Stores, upon that day, containing also an Account of the last and highest Estimates presented to his Majesty by the officers of his Navy of the defects of every ship comprehended within Mr Pepys’ Proposition; compar’d with the Real Charge of the Works perform’d thereon by the late Commissioners of the Navy between the Commencement of their Commission March 25th. 1686. and its Determination October 12. 1688.” P178-9

The collection also includes Nathaniel Boteler’s “Colloquia Maritima”. Boteler (or Butler) seems to have been a controversial figure; appointed Governor of Bermuda in 1619, he was accused of the harsh treatment of some Spaniards who were wrecked on the coast. In 1627 Boteler commanded a ship which took part in the catastrophic La Rochelle Expedition (led by George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham and favourite of Charles I) in which 4,000 men died. “Colloquia Maritima” contains six dialogues on such subjects as the office of commanders in chief, the duty of inferior officers, the victualing of ships, an explanation of the names of all the parts of a ship and the best ships of war and the ordering of fleets.
The dialogues were written in 1634. A later printed, but said to be flawed edition, was issued in 1685 (See Carr Lawton’s article in “Mariner’s Mirror” for January 1911).


Our 1688 copy (Pepys 8) was printed and sold by William Fisher and Richard Mount at the Postern on Tower-hill. It was dedicated to Samuel Pepys by the bookseller Moses Pitt.

Another volume in the collection is mentioned by Pepys in his diary for Friday 25 July 1662:

“At my office all the morning, reading Mr Holland’s discourse of the Navy, lent me by Mr Turner; and am much pleased with them, they hitting the very diseases of the Navy which we are troubled with nowadays. I shall bestow writing of them over and much reading thereof.”

There are two copies of John Holland’s (fl. 1638-1659) “Discourses of the Navy” in the Pepys Collection, both in the Navy Records Society series (Pepys 433 & Pepys 434).

John Holland was Surveyor of the Navy from 1649-52. His manuscript of ‘A Discourse of the Navy’ was written in 1638 but was not published until 1896. His work examines inefficiencies and problems in administering the Navy e.g. the organization of wages, victuals, stores and people – so it is unsurprising that Pepys was a keen reader of the work. Holland, like Boteler, is said to have been abrasive and his career was punctuated by disputes with colleagues. His second discourse appeared around 1661 and was dedicated to the Duke of York (but also not published until 1896).

“Samuel Pepys’ Naval Minutes” edited by J R Tanner (Navy Record Society edition of 1926) were taken from his manuscript in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Pepys 390). They offer an eclectic mix of Pepys’ notes on things to be investigated, naval problems he was mulling over, criticism of his predecessors, even rumination on how Noah’s ark was built. The original minutes were unclassified, meaning that Tanner’s index is invaluable. The volume also includes a list of ships mentioned by Pepys.

Pepys’ maritime career saw him appointed Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Board in 1660, admitted a younger brother of Trinity House in 1662 (later Elder Brother and Master) and nominated for the committee set up to run Tangier (part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry 1661) in 1662.

Sir Hugh Cholmley (1632-1688) was given charge of building the ‘mole’ or breakwater at Tangier in 1663, then felt essential for defence from attack and for protection from the weather. Cholmley’s “An account of Tangier” (Pepys 45) takes us to this period of Pepys’ administrative career and Cholmley is mentioned several times in the “Diary” e.g. in this entry for Monday 12 January 1663:

“So I went to the Committee, where we spent all this night attending to Sir J. Lawson’s description of Tanger and the place for the Molde, of which he brought a very pretty draught. Concerning the making of the Molle, Mr. Cholmely did also discourse very well, having had some experience in it.” (R C Latham and W Matthews edition Volume 4)

Pepys became Treasurer of the Tangier garrison in 1665. Our 1787 copy of Cholmley’s account was taken from his manuscripts by Nathaniel Cholmley. The structure was costly and several years were spent building it. However it was unfinished when Tangier was besieged in 1680 and the colony had to be abandoned. It was then decided the mole could not be left behind to aid the besiegers and so it was destroyed – another expensive and difficult undertaking.

Pepys kept a Tangier journal from 30th July 1683 to 1st December 1684 and a 20th century publication of this is in the collection (Pepys 439), as are his Tangier papers which were edited and transcribed for the Navy Records Society series (Pepys 439).

The collection includes many volumes which look at Pepys’ other enthusiasms as in this book by Australian writer and polymath Oscar A. Mendelsohn (Pepys 378).


Other books by this author include “The Earnest Drinker’s Digest” (1946) which is in Guildhall Library’s food and drink collections. The book is in part a collection of quotations from Pepys’ diary, so if you would like to know what Pepys wrote about English wine, champagne, ale, sack, wormwood wine or metheglin, this will be of interest.

Charles A. Rivington’s “Pepys and the Booksellers” (Pepys 419) offers notes on the book sellers, book binders, stationers, printers and print sellers mentioned in Pepys’ diary, correspondence and papers, so is of value to anyone interested in the 17th century book trade. It tells us about Pepys’ good relationship with the London booksellers together with useful references to them in the “Diary”. One can also see the fruits of this relationship in the “Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College” compiled by N.A. Smith (Pepys 245).

Pepys had three volumes of what he termed “Penny Merriments” which contain 115 small chapbooks now at Magdalene College. The volumes offer 17th century broadsides, ballads, riddles, proverbs, recipes etc. which were aimed at a wide audience – hence the penny cost. Roger Thompson edited a selection of these entitled “Samuel Pepys’ ‘Penny merriments’ : being a Collection of Chapbooks, full of Histories, Jests, Magic, Amorous Tales of Courtship, Marriage and Infidelity, Accounts of Rogues and Fools, together with Comments on the Times” (Pepys 365).

Guildhall Library is a public reference library open to all. Scholars and enthusiasts are all very welcome to visit to read and enjoy these books. All you need to bring along is proof of your name and address. A post on “The Samuel Pepys Club and Samuel Pepys Trust Award” will follow in the New Year.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection

*reference in the Pepys Collection