Nova – The History of the Nova Espero

In 1949, two brothers from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, Stan and Colin Smith, built a 20-ft sloop, ‘Nova Espero’, in Canada, and sailed her from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to Dartmouth, Devon, in 43 days. Arriving in England expecting a quiet welcome from a few friends and family, they found instead that they were national heroes. That, however, was just the beginning of the saga of Nova Espero.

Part history, part sourcebook, part biography, this book tells the story of the boat, and the extraordinary characters involved with her, from the yachts her design was based upon, to her final fate, and the brothers’ audacious plans for peace colonies across the world.

Featuring news stories and published works from the time, and many previously-unpublished letters and photographs, the book provides a long-awaited explanation of precisely why the brothers chose to cross the Atlantic in an unfeasibly small boat, and a history of her other, equally remarkable, journeys with Stan Smith and Charles Violet.

The book is available in e-book and (very soon…) paperback formats from my online shop.

Poor Edith…

The first in a rather long series of Poor Ediths, Poor Agneses, Poor Amys, and others.

Edith Agnes Elizabeth Piper was my first cousin twice removed; the daughter of Arthur Henry Piper and his wife Agnes (née Draper). Arthur was the brother of my great-grandmother, Mary Piper.

Edith was born in Oxford in September 1888, the eldest of three siblings; she was around a year younger than her cousin Evie Smith, my grandmother. The two were very close, and kept up a correspondence. I had never seen a picture of her, until I found these images in my collection of family papers and photographs. They show a very beautiful young woman, with striking almond-shaped eyes.

In 1915 she married Joe Venables, a printer’s machinist, and private in the 1st Batallion of the Rifle Brigade. On May 4th 1918, the couple had a son, Eddie (seen in the final image below, with his cousin May Dolling – whom I remember meeting in the early 1970s).

Sadly, Edith died on May 27th 1918, around 3 weeks after Eddie was born, from post-partum meningitis; she is buried in the same plot as her grandparents, William and Elizabeth Piper, in Rose Hill Cemetery, Oxford.






Edith’s death was not the first tragedy to visit the family, nor the last. Her mother, Agnes, fell ill 3 weeks after the birth of her third child, in August 1893, with post-partum psychosis, or puerperal mania as it was called then, and was admitted to Littlemore Pauper Lunatic Asylum:

“A pale and anaemic woman who looks weak and ill. Is under the delusion that Angels haunt her room, also that a man had been standing at the window of her room with a big stick in his hand, & waving it in a threatening manner at her. Her Nurse informs me she is at times violent, refuses food, that she fancies men are about the house. Patient seated and incoherent on admission – talked about being put asleep & an illegal operation being performed”.

Apart from a couple of home visits, from which she was promptly recalled, Agnes remained in Littlemore for the next four years. In 1897, she was discharged, “at the request of her mother, who undertook all responsibility”. In 1898, she was hurriedly readmitted.

“Her countenance expresses mental pain. Memory markedly defective, not able to sustain a conversation. Language obscene. Bursts of laughter alternating with crying. States that she hates her mother. Her mother states that she has threatened to beat out her (mother’s) brains; that she wanders about at night without any cause”.

There Agnes stayed, in one asylum or another, for the rest of her life. She died on March 22nd 1922 in Buckinghamshire County Lunatic Asylum at Stone, from Lupus and TB. Her husband Arthur died just three days later from a stroke. His sister wrote: “Poor Agnes. They had been married 36 years, and had only spent six years together when she was taken away”.

So much pain, within just one family.


England in the 17th century

“Could the England of 1685 be, by some magical process, set before our eyes, we should not know one landscape in a hundred or one building in ten thousand. The country gentleman would not recognise his own fields. The inhabitant of the town would not recognise his own street. Everything has been changed, but the great features of nature, and a few massive and durable works of human art. We might find out Snowdon and Windermere, the Cheddar Cliffs and Beachy Head. We might find out here or there a Norman minster, or a castle which witnessed the wars of the Roses. But, with such rare exceptions, everything would be strange to us.

Many thousands of square miles which are now rich corn land and meadow, intersected by green hedgerows, and dotted with villages and pleasant country seats, would appear as moors overgrown with furze, or fens abandoned to wild ducks. We should see straggling huts built of wood and covered with thatch, where we now see manufacturing towns and seaports renowned to the farthest ends of the world. The capital itself would shrink to dimensions not much exceeding those of its present suburb on the south of the Thames. Not less strange to us would be the garb and manners of the people, the furniture and the equipages, the interior of the shops and dwellings. Such a change in the state of a nation seems to be at least as well entitled to the notice of a historian as any change of the dynasty or of the ministry”.

The state of England in 1685

Thomas Babington Macaulay

The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, Volume I. 10th edn., 1854.

Thoughts on my 5th-great grandfather (September 2016)

What’s on my mind? Why, some thoughts on my 5th- and 6th-great grandfathers, from the book I’ve now spent almost 6 years working on, without an end in sight, that’s what. The very regrettable thing is that, by and large, it’s the male side which is commemorated; from genealogical records – rather than personal family letters and other papers – I know far more of the lives of my male antecedents than the female ones. Inevitable, I fear, but sad nonetheless.

The parents of Samuel Somes, as far as can be deduced, were Richard and Elizabeth Somes, of Maudlin’s Rents, in East Smithfield, just to the east of the Tower of London. Records show that 5 of the couple’s 6 children, Sarah, Elizabeth, Rachell, Samuell, and Richard, were christened and/or buried at the church of St Botolph Aldgate. The records do not reveal where, or indeed if, their other recorded child, Henry, was christened, but it is likely also to have been in St Botolph’s.

The known facts for Richard and Elizabeth’s children are:

  • Sarah was christened on August 28th 1677; her parents’ address was given as ‘East Smithf.’.
  • Elizabeth was christened on July 14th 1682, ‘Elizabeth Solmes, daughter to Richd Solmes by Elizabeth his wife’, with the same address given.
  • Rachell was christened on November 11th 1684, ‘daug. to Richard Solmes by Elizabeth his wife’, same parental address, and was buried on July 11th 1686, ‘daughter of Richard, Maudlens Rents’.
  • Samuell’s christening (as shown by the picture above) was carried out on January 15th 1686/7, ‘Son of Richard Somes by Elizabeth Maudlins Rents’.
  • Henry died in 1691, and was buried in April that year, ‘Son to Richard Maudlin’s Rents’. The timing of the other children’s birth and christening suggests he was born between 1687 and 1691.
  • Finally Richard, the youngest known child, was born in 1693, and christened December 27th that year, ‘Son of Richard and Elizabeth Somes, Madlins Rents’. He was buried on January 18th 1701/02; his family’s address then was given as Sunn Yard.

With my daughter close by me, I sit here writing about the life of her 6th-great grandfather, born 328 years before. One thing I wanted to explore is why the generation gap in my family has been so consistently great, in several branches of the family. The two world wars explain a bit – but only really the first half of the 20th century. Eight generations in 328 years makes an average of 41 years per generation. I have, thanks perhaps to the inheritance of a double dose of laissez-faire attitude, exceeded that average by a full ten years, but I am by no means solely responsible for the average. I am still no closer to understanding why, though.

Thinking of Richard Somes, then, sitting at home with the 3-month old Samuel, in late winter 1687 in Maudlin’s Rents, Wapping, just as I am sitting with Genevieve in Fawley, Hampshire. Far more than 70-odd miles and just over 3 centuries separates us. As Macaulay observed, I could not recognise the Fawley, or the Wapping, of that era, were I suddenly to be transported there. And while Richard would recognise my house and garden as just that, with the exception of the books, he would not immediately comprehend one in a hundred of the things that surround me now. Many of them, in fact, are so far removed from his reality that he might not even classify them superstitiously as ‘magic’; possibly he would fail even to register them as things at all.

I sit surrounded by a library of books, with a host of electronic devices connecting me to most of the people in the world I could wish to speak to, and many more that I don’t, with the full sum of all human knowledge freely available to me within seconds. One of the things it allows me to do is to peek, almost vicariously, at his life, or the few fragments of it that remain. His family likely lived in one room, or perhaps a pair of rooms, lit by candles and maybe an open fire; a rough wooden table and a couple of chairs; coarse wood or pewter plates, maybe a thick coat or cloak and hat hung on the inside of the door. With that behind the door, a few tools of the waterman’s trade ready for the following day’s harsh excursion. If he could read and write, he probably rarely got the chance to exercise either skill, beyond the bare minimum – which is not to say he was primitive or unskilled, of course. But overall, the modern conveniences of my life would be completely lost on him, as would the reasons for my having them.

The list of differences between us is almost infinite. So what instead is our common ground? I sit with my daughter, feeding her, making up little gibberish rhymes and songs to keep her amused. Her hand, though dwarfed by my little finger, grasps it strongly, as she chuckles, laughs or cries. So, perhaps, Richard did with young Samuel to amuse him, as they waited for Elizabeth to prepare the meal or finish attending to the other children. Perhaps he had brought something for the child; a scrap of Flemish cloth as a cover for the baby in his crib, or a battered foreign coin, a little gift of curiosity. And right there is our common ground. Hope. Optimism. Curiosity and wondering.

As I watch her feeding, or gently sleeping, I wonder what her life will be; so must he have done. I have long since given up trying to project myself onto her, to mould her in my own image; whatever she does, I hope she’ll do it with spirit – that’s all I ask.

Theo Osborn Smith and Viscount Nuffield

Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard a story in my family that Theo Smith knew William Morris, of Morris Motors, in Oxford. It was said that Theo knew how to do brazing, and Morris (who was about 15 years younger than Theo) didn’t, so he used to send various jobs to Theo for brazing. The more I looked for some kind of evidence, the less I found, so eventually I dismissed the idea as wishful thinking. A little while ago, I found a letter my grandmother Evie Somes wrote to Morris in 1956 – by then he was William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield – asking if he remembered Theo, when he ran his little cycle shop on the Cowley Road in Oxford. There it is, proof positive. It really happened.

299 Fulham Road, Chelsea

142 Fulham Road
The shops of J. Somes (no. 299, far left) and W. A. Dolling (opposite, at no. 142) in Fulham Road, Chelsea, around 1906. The belligerent-looking shopkeeper outside no. 142 may be W. A. Dolling himself. Photo courtesy of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Local Studies.

In around 1910, my grandfather, Jo Somes, took over running the family jewellery and pawnbroking business at 299 Fulham Road, with his brother, George Francis Somes. The business had been left in trust by Jo’s father when he died, to support his widow, Alice Somes, Jo’s mother. The trust had been administered by Jo’s uncle, but when he too died in 1910, the business was landed upon the reluctant shoulders of Jo himself.  However, through the shop, he met, by chance, the woman who would become his wife, Evie Smith.

On the opposite side of the street from 299, at no. 142, was the shop of William Arthur Dolling, glass and china merchant. Arthur Dolling himself had become badly ill, with a brain tumour, and his wife Rose, struggling to cope with their young daughter, May, had enlisted Evie, her niece, to help with running the business. Evie’s family were originally from Oxford, but were at that point living on the Isle of Wight, where her father was a well-known boat-builder and inventor. While Evie adored her parents, the family was far from well-off, and one suspects that life on the Island was a little quiet for her, so the chance to live and work in London for a while must have been welcome. With a fast train from Portsmouth to the capital, it was not a hard journey to return home when needed.

It was not long before Evie caught Jo’s eye, and a romance soon developed. Evie, too, was musical, and with her father and siblings was an accomplished choral singer. As well as the usual womanly skills of needlework and the like, she also practised miniature painting, and pokerwork. When in London, they carried on their romance, playing tennis, going for rides on Jo’s motorcycle and sidecar, and in musical activities. When Evie’s own familial duties kept her away, they kept in touch, almost daily, by postcard; he called her, tenderly, “Girlie” or “my darling girl”, and she called him “my own dear boy”.

Their relationship was not without opposition from Alice Somes, who didn’t want her son seeing ‘a mere shop-girl’, or ‘that woman that cleans the windows’, as she put it. By return, Evie was deeply suspicious of Alice’s housemaid-companion, Maud Snook, who she suspected had eyes for Jo (or maybe vice versa). Though after their marriage the relationship became more civilised, at heart, the enmity between Alice and Evie continued the rest of their days.

Arthur Dolling died in January 1911, aged only 33.  As Jo and Evie’s relationship deepened, and he and George settled in as best they could to running the business, so the troubles looming in Europe overshadowed them, and everyone else. Jo had enlisted with the Westminster Dragoons in 1908, and later, the Royal Army Medical Corps. Soon after the outbreak of the war, Jo signed up as a Special Constable for the Metropolitan Police, while continuing his duties with the RAMC. Realising that his experience with motorcycle engines qualified him eminently as an aircraft mechanic – since the propulsion for the early planes consisted of essentially the same engines – he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

In August 1915, he and Evie were married in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight – although there was no time for a honeymoon – and the couple moved into a house in East Sheen. Soon, though, Jo was called up for active service, and served on the front line, repairing plane and motorcycle engines. His active service continued throughout the war, and eventually he ended up with the RAF, as the RFC was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918. Though physically uninjured, he was more than a little traumatised by his experiences. Despite all this, he and Evie had their first child, Theo, in March 1917.

There, we’ll leave the tale of the Somes family for the moment – but it’s continued in more detail in The Somes family and Fulham Road, on