Pirate Legends II: Blackbeard’s Gambit, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

Captain Kidd, who we discussed in the last issue, met his end in London, a city of fog. But let us now travel over 4,000 miles south-west to the exotic beaches of the Bahamas during the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. From 1713 onwards, New Providence Island was a pirate haven, and was later established as the capital of the self-proclaimed ‘Pirate Republic’The Peace of Utrecht (1715) signalled the end of the Spanish War, resulting in tens of thousands of British sailors being cast aside, as the bankrupt Royal Navy disowned three-quarters of its manpower, condemning over 36,000 men to poverty in the first 24 months following the end of the war.

               Betrayed, abandoned, and above all resentful of their distant king,  these men banded together to ransack the very empire they had help build. As gamekeepers turned poachers, these newly minted terrors of the Caribbean would captivate public opinion for centuries to come. Declared hostis humani generis, or enemies of mankind, these pirates honoured a code of their own- war against the world.

Nassau, under pirate and later British occupation is a major explorable location in the hit videogame Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

The year is now 1715, and pirates ranked at the top of the food chain. The port of Nassau itself was less of a town then a small collection of shacks and makeshift hovels, with the imposing bastion fort keeping a watchful eye over the bay. New Providence Island was the ideal base of operations for any pirate, as its shallow beaches halted His Majesty’s men-of-war from getting too close, and the Bahamas itself was a veritable labyrinth of small islands and inlets, with hundreds of hiding places where a sea roving vessel could remain undetected for weeks. These enterprising pirates knew these islands well, yet it took years of trial and application for the Royal Navy to even grasp a basic understanding of the pirates’ tactics.

The Pirate Republic took the established democratic ways of a privateering vessel and moulded the rules so that they could be adapted on land. Consequently, the pirates elected their own leaders, and several so-called ‘governors’ if one could call them such, were ‘sworn in’ to manage the republic’s affairs. Among these men were Benjamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings, and much later the cutthroat pirate ringleader Charles Vane. One of these individuals, Thomas Barrows, after declaring himself ‘Governor of Providence’ reportedly claimed that he awaited several hundred Jamaican sailors to join the pirate fraternity, so that they may wage war against the empires of Spain and France, while keeping out of England’s way. One of these ‘governors’ would not only become the world’s most infamous pirate, but also America’s first bogeyman. His name was Captain Edward Thatch, now known the world over as Blackbeard.

The pirates’ reign over New Providence, however brutal or strange it might have been, could not have lasted forever. Having grown tired of the continued pirate raids against their regional interests, the Admiralty named Captain Woodes Rogers governor of the Bahamas, and through much political manoeuvring and the securing of benefactors from Parliament and even financing a fraction of the voyage himself, Rogers led a fleet to retake the island for the Crown. Rogers’ fleet was comprised of the flagship Delicia, Commodore Peter Chamberlain’s Milford, and the sloops Rose, Buck and Shark. On 5 September 1717, George I issued a proclamation decreeing that those pirates who should surrender themselves would have the king’s ‘gracious pardon of and for such his or their piracy or piracies’, a desperate attempt to quell the pirate threat. Rogers was to sail into the heart of the pirate nest to deliver the king’s decree, yet he had no idea of what truly awaited him.

A statue of Woodes Rogers outside the Hilton Hotel in Nassau, many still revere Rogers as the hero that liberated the island from the pirate occupation.

In July 1718, under the command of Thomas Whitney, the Rose was dispatched to scout the state of the island’s primary anchorage. What he saw must have turned Whitney’s blood cold. The blackened skeletons of captured vessels scattered the shoreline, while in the middle of the bay, silently sat Charles Vane’s brigantine, with its 20 primed guns. While Whitney attempted to parlay with Vane’s crew, which was comprised of dissenters that opposed the pardon by hoisting the white flag of truce, with Rogers’ approaching armada, Vane must have realised that Nassau was lost. At 2 AM, Rogers’ men awoke to a state of shock and horror. Vane’s ship, its deck covered in pitch, tar and all things flammable, and its cannons loaded was sent on a collision course with the blockade. As the cannons were double loaded, the moment the heat reached a certain point, the guns would ignite and fire in all directions causing havoc to anything in close proximity. The British fleet scattered, leaving an opening for Vane to sail out of the harbour. Successful pirates knew when to run, and Vane executed his scheme masterfully. The pirates sailed the Katherine out of Nassau to unknown shores, shouting profanities to the British sailors as they passed, and Nassau finally fell the British. The remnants of the Pirate Republic collapsed soon after.

So where was Blackbeard in all this? Having most likely summarised that the pardon would spell doom for Nassau, Blackbeard was busy making friends (and enemies) further north along the east coast of the American colonies. Let us take a moment to analyse another pirate legend:, the tale of Dead Chest Island. We are all too familiar with Billy Bones’ iconic sea shanty that first appeared in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island (1883), a verse of which reads as such:

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

According to one pirate legend, Blackbeard marooned 15 of his crewmen on Dead Chest Island near Deadman’s Bay, though in truth to refer to the isle as an ‘island’ may be a tad flattering, as the island contains little vegetation, and is entirely uninhabited. Legend dictates that Blackbeard left each man a bottle of rum and a cutlass, and when Blackbeard returned a while later, all but handful remained alive. The legend is most likely what it is, a legend through and through. Yet, short anecdotes like this continue to render Caribbean piracy a fascinating area of study, as it is sometimes difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.

A bird’s eye view of Dead Chest Island, though relatively small in stature, this isle marked the genesis of one of the Golden Age’s most iconic legends.

Returning to the matter at hand, what was Blackbeard up to whilst his remaining comrades resisted Rogers’ invasion of Nassau? The answer demonstrates Thatch’s (Blackbeard’s) sheer ingenuity and political guile. Thatch relocated to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, only short distance from the colony’s capital of Bath. Unlike crown colonies which were under the direct control of the king, North Carolina at the time was a privately-owned colony dependent on individual enterprises. The small colony could have not been more perfect for Blackbeard’s scheme. Reigning Governor Charles Eden was more than willing to deal with pirates, who could in theory provide a steady source of income.In June 1718, Blackbeard tactically negotiated a king’s pardon for himself and his men and put into action his latest and greatest con.

With the glimmer of gold in his eyes, Eden asserted that Blackbeard should take a privateering commission from the Danes of St. Thomas, as Thatch’s taking of the Adventure, a registered Spanish vessel was itself an act of piracy. Eden overlooked the transgression and allowed Thatch to keep his sloop and might have even forged the relevant ownership papers for the captain. Having remained an honest citizen for the impressive span of a month, by August, Blackbeard had resumed his piratical activities. Under Blackbeard’s command, his crew harried fishing craft in the Outer Banks, later attacking several British merchant vessels. Thus, Blackbeard’s plan is laid bare. So long as Eden remained under this thumb, Blackbeard could rely on colonial protection.

A contemporary illustration of Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard that appeared in Charles Johnson’s A General History (1724). The Queen Anne’s Revenge can also be seen in the background.

So, if Blackbeard had maintained a relatively good relationship with the local colonial authorities, who exactly were the titular adversaries? The answer lied directly north in the colony of Virginia, were the vengeful Governor Alexander Spotswood held court. Viewing Blackbeard as something of a personal adversary or perhaps even a nemesis, Spotswood’s distain for pirates is legendary, having previously mandating that all former pirates who wished to settle in Virginian territory must make themselves known to the local authorities, and had later masterminded the kidnapping of William Howard, a prominent member of Blackbeard’s crew. To silence his adversary and fearing the formation of a second Nassau in his back garden, Spotswood dispatched a small flotilla comprised of the sloops Jane and Ranger to silence the dread pirate once and for all. Indeed, Blackbeard’s ploy treaded the boundaries of politics, colonial jurisdiction, and economic circumstances, so devious was his master plan.

On 21 November 1718, Spotswood’s pirate hunters dropped anchor a short way from Ocracoke Inlet. Ever confident in his scheme, Blackbeard neglected to post a lookout, effectively bestowing commanding officer Lt. Robert Maynard with the element of surprise. At 7:30 the following morning, Maynard ordered a launch in an attempt to stealthily infiltrate the Adventure. According to popular legend, Blackbeard’s crew were at the time of the ambush recovering from a night of heavy drinking, and it is imaginable that many of the pirates groaned as they heaved their aching bones and groggy heads into action after the alarm was sounded. Blackbeard’s gunner, Phillip Morton, fired a broadside at the British sloops, and it was reported that Maynard raised the Union Jack in defiance, while Thatch returned the favour by raising a black flag. As per Maynard himself, Blackbeard, ever the showman, ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ To kill a pirate, Spotswood and Maynard had relied upon pirate tactics. The Jane and the Ranger were outfitted for speed, while in contrast the Adventure rode low in the water due to the weight of her heavy guns. Another broadside robbed the Ranger of his leadership and she was run aground on a nearby sandbar by its confused crew. Overly confident in his abilities and sure of a victory, Blackbeard ordered the Adventure to fire further broadsides on Maynard’s Jane. Maynard’s strategy was commendable, if somewhat dishonest. One could even suggest that they were more akin to pirate tactics to Royal Navy stratagems. Maynard ordered his remaining below decks, leaving only Maynard himself and a few others on deck, conveying the impression that the pirates had already dispatched the majority of the crew.

‘The Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard in 1718’ by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While heavily romanticised, this illustration perfectly conveys the dramatic nature of the Thatch’s last stand.

With his crew cheering and morale high, Blackbeard ordered that the crew of the Adventure board Maynard’s ship, and it was at this moment that the pirate hunters sprang their trap. Maynard ordered his men on deck, and the navy outnumbered the surprised, and likely severely hungover pirates. Blackbeard’s crew were no match for Maynard’s revitalised hunters. The two commanders engaged in a duel, yet before Blackbeard could silence Maynard, ‘one of Maynard’s men gave him a terrible wound in the neck and throat’, catching Blackbeard off-balance. According to legend, it took 20 lacerations from a cutlass and 5 gunshot wounds to bring Captain Blackbeard down, though this is most likely fictious.. Perhaps to finally ensure that the dread pirate Blackbeard stayed down, one of Maynard’s highlanders cut off the captain’s head, which was later hung from the Jane’s bowsprit as a warning to all that Blackbeard was no more. Demoralised, the remaining pirates surrendered, and a plot by the pirate Black Caesar to ignite the Adventure’s powder magazine was foiled by some rebellious captives. Blackbeard’s headless corpse was then thrown overboard, which according to legend swam 20 times around the ship before sinking to the captain’s final resting place in Ocracoke’s shallow waters.

Perhaps Blackbeard had the last laugh after all, as while his adversaries became shrouded in history and spent years untangling the subsequent political calamities that they themselves had created, Blackbeard’s legend has survived and thrived. Indeed, for all their accomplishments, Spotswood is only really remembered for one reason: their association with the far more famous archpirate.

Despite having halted Blackbeard’s pirate activities, Sportswood was accused by multiple parities of breaching contemporary colonial conduct, and spent the next years attempting to unravel the chaos he had unknowingly created.

Captain Thatch, you certainly did have the last laugh.

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.

Next week: The Reign of the Pirate Queens

Further Reading:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Gosse, Phillip. The History of Piracy. Dover, 2007.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard. Hoboken, 2006.

Lee, Robert. Blackbeard the Pirate. Winston-Salem, 2004.

Rankin, Hugh. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh, NC, 1965.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

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Pirate Legends I: The Legend of Captain Kidd’s Buried Treasure, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

A Brief Introduction to the Pirate Legends Series

They say ‘dead men tell no tales’, yet the real pirates of the Caribbean continue to spout their legends in continually spectacular fashion. While the exact parameters of the Golden Age of Piracy are still debated amongst historians, it is generally accepted that the period spanned from around 1680-1730, and those mavericks who terrorised the trade routes have forever been epitomised by the larger-then-life figures of Blackbeard, Henry Avery, and many other legendary pirate ringleaders. Those rogue sailors have bequeathed to the world some of literature’s most colourful characters, including Captain Hook and Long John Silver, and despite the pirates creating a culture based on terror, in challenging the cultural and social norms of the contemporary period so dramatically, they captivated the minds of their contemporaries, and are still revered as folk heroes to this day.

            Howbeit, one of the Golden Age’s most enduring legacies is the piratical tropes it endowed. Evidently, images of colourfully dressed pirates swinging from ropes and burying their treasure on exotic desert islands is certainly an alluring concept, yet unfortunately, it is a far cry from reality. This is the aim of Pirate Legends, to explore, demystify, and even authenticate some of the most extraordinary legacies of the pirating practice. From buried treasure and cryptographic maps, to sloops and floating fortresses, it is the objective of this blog to seek the sunny horizons of freedom, over the darkness of the deep blue sea, and bring into the light true tales from pirate’s life.

Welcome to the Golden Age of Piracy.

Pirate Legends I: The Legend of Captain Kidd’s Buried Treasure

During the course of four centuries, smugglers, thieves, and pirates alike met their ends at London’s Execution Dock. That little scaffolding in Wapping was built to send the Crown’s enemies to the other side, but above all, it served another purpose. It was a warning. Imagine for a moment, what Wapping’s waterfront may have looked like during the dawning years of the eighteenth century. A veritable wooden city within the heart of the British Empire’s capital, with its incessant wharves and timber yards, and its blackened streets surfeited with the homes of sailors and merchants alike, within a community where maritime culture reigns supreme. If you were to take a short stroll from Wapping, you may find yourself in London’s principal port at Custom House Quay, where the anchored ships with their masts and riggings appearing as a jungle of wood and rope, all the way to Old London Bridge. This would be the last thing that Captain Kidd would ever witness. 

A portrait of William Kidd by James Thornhill. Kidd’s powdered wig and unique reputation should
immediately differentiate him from the average buccaneer.

Believed to have been born in Dundee, Scotland, around 1654, much of William Kidd’s formative years remains shrouded in mystery, though we know that he was born to a radically Calvinist household, and that his father held a position of some kind within the Church of Scotland. Kidd’s name does not appear on any known records until 1689, where he can be found serving aboard a buccaneering vessel in the Caribbean. Immediately following the Glorious Revolution, William III’s ascension plunged the British Isles into the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) and pirates and rogue sailors alike were reminded of their patriotism and thus privateering commissions were issued so that these ‘reformed’ seamen may harass Britain’s enemies. Up to this point, British-born pirates traditionally targeted ships flying the colours of enemy nations, and they would not necessarily target British shipping for another twenty years. Kidd gained his own command in the vainly named Blessed William and sailed with a privateering flotilla commissioned by Governor Christopher Codrington of Nevis. After a decisive battle at Marie-Galante, Kidd’s crew, dissatisfied with their captain’s line-of-battle tactics and constant bullying, mutinied and seized the Blessed William, along with the £2,000 of Kidd’s shares that were still aboard. Some of their number would go on to become pirate legends themselves, including one Robert Culliford, who would later become Kidd’s most enduring nemesis.

While Kidd may have lost his command and a sizeable amount of treasure, he gained something far more precious: a fearsome yet reliable reputation. After further adventures in New York, which at the time greatly benefited from pirate activity, the good captain married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort in 1691, and the marriage was finalised mere days after the death of Sarah’s second husband, John Oort. The exact origins of Kidd’s notoriously maladjusted enterprise remain unknown, as each partner turned against each other like rabid dogs several years later. Briefly, by 1695 Kidd must have grown tired of life as a landlubber and set sail for London onboard his brig, the Antigua, to acquire a privateering contract in response to the pirates operating out of the East-Indies. Upon his return to London, Kidd settled in the home of a Mrs. Hawkins, a distant relative of the captain, whose home was situated in none other than Wapping. This almost delicious instance of foreshadowing illustrates that Kidd’s legend was to end where it first began.

The Captain Kidd public house now stands only a short stroll away from where Kidd was executed, and the pub itself is decorated with numerous pirate memorabilia

After much political manoeuvring, this ‘Corporation of Pirates’ as they were later labelled had their heads filled with dreams of pirate treasure, as news of the East-Indian escapades of Thomas Tew and many other pirate ringleaders reached their ears. Though the king initially ignored the plan, he later gave his approval, and the corporation attained a patent under the Great Seal. Thus, the now-legendary Adventure Galley, a formidable vessel of 34 gunswas refitted for duty and the backers sealed their partnership. Each individual man involved would go on to deeply regret this decision. The king himself maintained a stake in the venture, as Lord Shrewsbury made it so that the king would retain a handsome 10% of the profits. With his letter of marque secured, Kidd sailed the Adventure Galley down the Thomas and out of London on 10 April 1696. Officially, Kidd’s commission allowed him to take ships flying enemy colours, yet the primary goal of his venture was to hunt down the notorious pirate captains that had plagued British regional interests. Indeed, only a year before, Henry Avery, the so-called ‘King of Pirates’ had captured the treasure-laden Ganj-i-Sawai, resulting in a severe deterioration of Anglo-Mughal relations.

After making port in the West-Indies, Kidd landed in the Red Sea and found little success, and so he deemed it wise to chase a Mughal pilgrim fleet. Making an anchorage at Perim Island, Kidd went about to set his trap. The pilgrim fleet set sail from Mocha on 11 August 1697, under escort from a fleet of three European ships. Interestingly, the Ganj-i-Sawai, narrowly avoided Kidd’s wrath, and it was this reason that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the English, French and Dutch East India companies to escort his pilgrim fleets from hence forth. One such ship, the Sceptre, was commanded by one Edward Barlow, a highly controversial figure within maritime history, and a remarkably unreliable narrator. Barlow claimed to witness the Adventure Galley flying the red flag of piracy. Kidd, vastly outnumbered, retreated to the open ocean.

Technically speaking, Kidd had not yet committed piracy, but he was about to commit murder. His gunner, William Moore, dissatisfied with Kidd’s leadership, openly challenged his captain, claiming that they should attack a nearby Dutch vessel. Kidd, enraged at his gunner’s insubordination, hit Moore across the head with an iron-hooped bucket, with the gunner’s last words supposedly being ‘farewell, farewell, Captain Kidd has given me my last.’ Moore died later the next day of a fractured skull. Kidd supposedly claimed that he possessed friends in England that would ‘bring me off for that’, believing that despite having killed a man, his benefactors in London would ensure that he never saw the inside of a prison cell. Despite this, the fact was inexcusable. Kidd had committed first degree murder.

Kidd’s killing of William Moore remains synonymous with his legend, and several illustrators across the centuries have since reimagined the confrontation.

The final nail in Kidd’s coffin would be his taking of the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant on 30 January 1698. Under the guise of a French flag (a common privateer and pirate tactic) Kidd intercepted the vessel, which was under the command of the English Captain Wright, who produced a French pass, and as Kidd’s commission was to take French vessels, he thought he had finally scored a major victory. In reality, the vessel was of Armenian origin, and her cargo the property of the Mughal Empire. Kidd was surely aware of this, as Coji Babba, one of the seven Armenian merchants aboard, offered Kidd 20,000 rupees to allow them on their way. His plea fell on deaf ears, and Kidd took control of the ship. Following this, Kidd later chased the Sedgewick, a ship registered to the East India Company. William Kidd, privateer of Great Britain died. Out of the ashes emerged Captain Kidd, pirate legend of the Indian Ocean.

With the leaky Adventure Galley on her last legs, or sails in this case, Kidd set a course for Île Saint-Marie in Madagascar, a notorious pirate hideout. It was here that Kidd once again crossed paths with Culliford, who at this point was an established pirate captain. Ever the thorn in Kidd’s side and disgruntled with their meagre shares and with Moore’s murder probably still fresh on their minds, many of Kidd’s crew abandoned him for Culliford. Out of 117 men, Kidd now only commanded about 20, whose ranks were bolstered with the addition of slaves. With reduced manpower, Kidd’s second ship, November, was stripped and burned by the dissenters, while the Adventure Galley finally sank to her final resting place, as Kidd’s remaining men could not man the pumps that required constant operation to keep the ship afloat. Culliford had made a fool of Kidd yet again.

With the Quedagh Merchant, now renamed the Adventure Prize, Kidd, defeated, set a course for the Americas. It was in the West-Indies that Kidd discovered from an East India Company agent that he had been deemed an outlaw and enemy of the crown. Kidd was arrested in Boston for high seas piracy. In the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey, Kidd was sentenced to death twice on the same day. Once for the murder of William Moore, and once for his piratical transgressions. Despite this, for the duration of his trial Kidd maintained that he was the ‘innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.’ It was an undeniable fact at this point, Kidd was doomed. Consequently, on 23 May 1701, Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock. Kidd’s hanging was a major public spectacle, and hundreds hurried to the waterfront to witness his demise. Evidently, Captain Johnson deemed Kidd’s escapades to be the ‘subject of all conversation, so that his actions have been chanted about in ballads.’ The first rope snapped, and Kidd hoped that by some divine providence, he had been spared. Though he intended to remain defiant to the end, at the last possible moment, Kidd repented his sins. The second rope held, and Captain Kidd was no more. In death, Kidd suffered a final humiliation; his corpse was gibbeted at Tilbury Point, a warning to all to what awaits those who contemplate the pirate life.

What became of Kidd’s legendary treasure hoard? We are all too familiar with the archetypical trope of pirates burying their treasure to safeguard their ill-gotten gains, yet in part we can thank Captain Kidd for this most enduring of piratical legends. Evidently, leading maritime historian David Cordingly lamented that the concept of buried pirate treasure has garnered far more attention than it ever deserved to have. Yet, over a century before Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver set sail for Captain Flint’s fabled Treasure Island, Kidd apparently stashed his bounty away before dancing his final jig at Execution Dock. While we are aware that the concept of pirates acquiring massive amounts of treasure is a misconception of sorts, it is a genuine historical fact that Kidd did possess a hoard of great wealth.

Captain Kidd gibbeted at Tilbury Point, though it must be noted that the artist has taken several liberties with this illustration.

Upon his arrival in the West-Indies, the Adventure Prize’s hull was laden with gold, textiles, silver, and other treasures of great monetary value. In order to rid himself of the highly inconspicuous Indian-built Adventure Prize, Kidd traded much of this away and acquired the Saint Antonio for 3,000 pieces of eight. In addition, he collected 4,200 in bills of exchange and a further 4,000 in gold dust and bars. Consequently, Kidd pocketed a handsome 8,200 pieces of eight, a respectable amount for the time, along with an unknown number of treasures that were shifted aboard the Saint Antonio. It is also theorised that Mrs. Kidd may have been in possession of some of Kidd’s booty, as he reconnected with her upon his return to New York.

News of Kidd’s fortune whetted the appetite of Lord Bellomont, who went about hunting down the individuals who had been in contact with Kidd who might have some inclination to the location of the haul. Kidd’s old friend Duncan Campbell was among this number, whose Boston lodgings were subsequently searched, and 463 ounces of gold, and a further 203 ounces of silver were discovered, along with a menagerie of other smaller treasures. John Gardiner, fearing Bellomont’s wrath, also conceded his 11 bags of silver and gold. After a short stay in prison, Mrs. Kidd forswore her treasures as well. Most likely intended as a bribe, prior to his arrest, Kidd sent Lady Bellomont a ‘gift’ in the form of chest of jewels, and this was also confiscated by her husband. In total, Bellomont dispatched 2,353 ounces of silver, 1,111 ounces of gold, 52 bags of silver doubloons, 41 bales of goods, and several precious jewels to England along with Kidd himself aboard the Advice.

Howbeit, one might be keen to learn that this statistic did not even amount to a fraction of Kidd’s total reported bounty. Kidd himself attempted to plea with Bellomont that if he were to return to the West-Indies, he would give up an additional £75,000 worth of goods that was said to still be aboard the Adventure Prize. He reiterated this plea at his trial, yet it fell on deaf ears. Bellomont supposedly stated that he had bid ‘the gaoler to try if he could prevail with Captain Kidd to discover where his treasure was… but he said nobody could find it but himself and would not tell any further.’ This is suspiciously similar to an alleged statement attributed to Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, who claimed that he had hidden his loot where only himself and Satan may find it. However, this was a poor bargain, as the Adventure Prize itself was thoroughly searched and stripped prior to its burning. This is where myth and legend assume command. Kidd appropriated an estimated £400,000, so this does indeed beg the question. What happened to the rest of the treasure? The rapacious Bellomont, ever desirous, went as far to dispatch a ship to the West-Indies to continue his search.

A fanciful rendition of Captain Kidd and his pirate crew burying his bounty on an uncharted island, as illustrated by Howard Pyle.

So, finally we arrive at the precipice of piratical legend. While it is believed that Kidd did indeed bury some of his treasure at New York’s Gardiners Island, it is hypothesised that this small haul was unearthed during Bellomont’s treasure hunt. Undoubtedly, the most enduring legend is that Kidd hid his treasure from the world on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, which itself has been the centre for a treasure hunt spanning several centuries. The island’s ‘money pit’ as it is referred, uncovered in early excavations, is believed by some to have been dug by Kidd’s remaining crew to safeguard the lost fortune, and the island is laden with many natural traps and tunnel systems that can be considered nigh ingenious in design. The Oak Island ‘curse’ dictates that seven people must die before the treasure can be found, and to date, six men have perished in search for riches. Kidd is not the only contender for the origins of the Oak Island mystery, however. Indeed, many have theorised that the isle’s prophesied bounty may in fact be William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, hoarded Viking treasure, or even the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly hidden away centuries ago by the Knights Templar following the failure of the Crusades. Kidd’s treasure however remains the most popular theory.

Kidd’s buried bounty, and indeed Kidd himself has become deeply intertwined with pirate popular culture. Indeed, the popular television series The Curse of Oak Island (2014-present) has dedicated many episodes to finding the purported treasure, as brothers Rick and Marty Lagina continue to hunt for the elusive fortune. The island itself can be visited in the cult videogame Assassin’s Creed III (2012), where the protagonist unearths Kidd’s hidden stash after gathering four map fragments previously in the possession of Kidd’s former crewmen. The aptly named ‘Capt. Kidd’s Anchorage’ in Treasure Island (1883) is named for Kidd, and an argument can be made that without the legend of Kidd’s gold, we would not have Robert Louis Stephenson’s immortal adventure.

Furthermore, several of American author Washington Irving’s short stories are centred around the Kidd legend, including The Devil and Tom Walker and the Money-Diggers, both published in Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824). The latter includes a short story entitled Kidd the Pirate, where it is illustrated by one of the protagonists that the treasure in question was as ‘buried by Kidd the pirate and his crew.’ Veteran diver Barry Clifford believed he had discovered a silver bar belonging to Kidd’s hoard off the coast of Île Saint-Marie, yet this was later debunked by multiple UNESCO lines of inquiry. Suffice to say, rumours of Kidd’s treasure ignited an explosion of North American treasure hunting, and through the centuries multiple companies and consortiums have been established to find the hoard.

Thus, the legend of Kidd’s treasure is laid bare. Although the privateer turned pirate has been long dead, rumours of his fortune remain prevalent today. So, what is the conclusion to this most enduring of pirate mysteries?  It could be that Kidd’s stash is a fantasy, a fabrication that was centuries in the making. Perhaps Bellomont was victorious in finding Kidd’s treasure, and kept it hidden for himself. Maybe some lucky individual has already discovered it and has hidden it away from public eye. It could be that Kidd’s cursed bounty is still out there, waiting to be found. Or perhaps there was no treasure, and Kidd fabricated the story himself in an ill-conceived attempt to escape the hangman’s noose. Though Kidd remains a decisive figure within the maritime discipline, he is remembered as one of the early legends of the Golden Age of Piracy, and I imagine that the good captain would be fond of the legacy, and the ambiguous promise of riches it harbours. Nevertheless, perhaps the explanation is far more sinister. As the Oak Island curse observes, seven must die before the treasure will reveal itself, which means that one more unlucky soul must perish in search for the fabled bounty.

Take a warning now by me,
For I must die, I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
For I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
And shun bad company,
Lest you come to hell with me…

Next week: Blackbeard’s Gambit…

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.

Further Reading:

Bonner, Willard Hallam. Pirate Laureate. New Brunswick, 1947.

Brooks, Graham. The Trial of Captain Kidd. Glasgow, 1930.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Pyle, Howard. The Book of Pirates. Dover, 2020.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

Ritchie, Robert. Captain Kidd and the War Against Pirates. Cambridge, 1986.


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Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part Two: UG student Eve Roberts reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the stunning visual display below, Eve explores the founding of the relationship between Reading and Düsseldorf. Inspired by ‘the children’, then-mayor Phoebe Cusden set up an exchange with local families in Reading. Read on for a beautiful story of love, community and kindness at the heart of Reading!

‘It Started with the Children’: A celebration of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, by Eve Roberts

Although the association was formally established in 1948, Reading’s links to Düsseldorf had already begun through the efforts of the mayor at the time, Phoebe Cusden, as demonstrated by this letter written by Phoebe in response to an article published in The Spectator regarding the plight of post-war Germany. Given that the letter dates so soon after the war ended, yet expresses such a strong desire to illustrate ‘that we are not indifferent to human misery’, provides a particularly noteworthy insight into Phoebe’s own aspirations, but also the founding ideals that the association was built upon. 

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a call went out to Berkshire County from the Royal Berkshire Regiment based in British-occupied Düsseldorf, to adopt the city.  This was answered by Phoebe, who set up a Christmas appeal in 1946 within the local newspapers. Although initially hit with criticisms stemming from continued hostilities towards Germany, the generosity of local people soon outweighed this, with donations of £80, 1,000 lbs food and 11 sacks of clothing assembled within a month, despite ongoing rationing.

Given this success, Phoebe undertook her first visit to Düsseldorf in 1947. Like many other European cities, Düsseldorf had been reduced to rubble by the war, with the photographs below providing just a small snapshot of the damage caused by bombing campaigns. On her return, Phoebe recounted the ‘appalling conditions’ of families within the city, with thousands living in ‘air raid shelters’ and ‘holes in the ground’, and ‘suffering from lack of bare necessities of life’. Seeing this first-hand drove aspirations to forge a link between Reading and Düsseldorf further and in 1948, the Reading-Düsseldorf Association was established.

When establishing the link between Reading and Düsseldorf, one of the main concerns of the association’s co-founders was the welfare of Düsseldorf children. A further appeal was published within local papers for families to take in children from Düsseldorf as part of an exchange. This was duly taken up and in 1948, six children came to stay with local families for three months, with the exchange then reciprocated in 1949 with seventy English school children.  As noted by Phoebe Cusden’s grandson, Richard Thom, the exchanges were extremely important to Phoebe:

She felt that she wanted to give the children a better life, but she also wanted the children of both places, Düsseldorf and Reading, to meet each other, learn to get on with each other, reconciliation after the war and to build up friendships that in some cases will last for a very long time.”

One of the six children to first visit Reading, Gretel Rieber, later recalled her ‘amazement’ at the luxury of being given a box of dates by a member of the association and that to her, Britain was a ‘land of cornucopias’ compared to the ‘cold, hunger and deprivation’ of post-war Düsseldorf. Although Britain was still suffering the effects of wartime rationing and damage caused by German bombing campaigns, the fact that for these children their time spent in Reading was so far removed from their lives in Düsseldorf, arguably provides a revealing comparison of the differing post-war societies in Reading and Düsseldorf. 

Due to the success of these initial exchanges, it soon became an annual fixture and in 1981, was officially termed the Mayor’s Young People’s Exchange. Although this ended in 1992, the association continues to encourage local school exchanges with Düsseldorf, which has also extended to include work experience trips for college students, and exchanges between local sports clubs, orchestras and choirs to name a few. 

As ties continued to grow between Reading and Düsseldorf, the association began to look for ways to commemorate the link for the 30th anniversary. This soon led to the incorporation of the Düsseldorf tradition of cartwheeling street performers.

Stemming from city folklore, it is said that on his way to his wedding, Prince Jan Wellem’s coach wheel came loose. To resolve the issue, a local boy stepped forward and rotated within the wheel, thus creating the effect of a cartwheel, from which he was awarded a gold ducat. To this day, children continue this practice of performing cartwheels in the cities of Germany in exchange for a penny.

For the 30th anniversary, a statue representing the cartwheeling boy was commissioned to sculpture Brian Slack, and unveiled outside the Hexagon Theatre in 1981, where it still stands today. As highlighted by the surrounding images, the symbol came to celebrate both the exchanges and the growing ties between Reading and Düsseldorf, with the incorporation of traditional folklore acting, as current vice-chairman Robert Dimmock notes, as a symbolic ‘identity’ through which the association could build itself around.

Throughout the association’s numerous anniversary celebrations, key events have often centred around musical and dance performances, with a vast array of local and international groups taking part.

Regarding dance performances, a firm favourite within anniversary celebrations is the Düsseldorf Grasshoppers, whose performances have spanned the majority of these celebratory events. Other groups have also included the Kennet Morris Men dancers and St Andrews Scottish dancers, who joined the Grasshoppers for an International Folk-Dance Festival held for the 30th Anniversary.

Anniversary celebrations also included several music concerts, with groups such as the Reading and Düsseldorf Youth Orchestras, the Düsseldorf Big Band and Reading’s Phoenix choir, timetabled to perform. Some groups, such as the Youth Orchestras, also forged their own friendships from these events and went on to host one another through several exchange trips and concerts; thus, extending the ties between Reading and Düsseldorf further.  

Following along similar performing arts-based lines, one of the main programmed events for the 40th and 50th anniversaries included performances conducted by the Düsseldorf Marionette Theatre.

Theatre productions included “The Ballad of Norbert Nachendick”, which followed the story of a tyrannical rhinoceros, and “The Magic Flute”, which was performed in Düsseldorf and follows the story of the lovers Pamina and Tamino. Each production used an array of different hand-made puppets and sets crafted by the company.

Although the performances were in German, issues surrounding their receival and understanding proved to be of little consequence, as highlighted by the local newspapers below, which mirror one another in their reflection of the overall ‘delightful theatrical experience’ of the productions, enjoyed by audiences of children and adults alike.

The local newspapers used within this online exhibition also illustrate how numerous anniversary celebrations enabled the association to explore different avenues of contact established between Reading and Düsseldorf. The use of performing arts in particular arguably reflects a symbolic sharing of cultural practices between the two areas, that enabled a shared cooperation between local groups and sustained interaction between Reading and Düsseldorf.   

We hope that you have enjoyed this online gallery, which has been granted permission for use by the Berkshire Record Office. All materials used within the gallery are located in the Reading-Düsseldorf Association collections and Phoebe Cusden collections held at the Berkshire Record Office.

Above: Photograph of Phoebe Cusden during a visit to Düsseldorf, D/EX1485/15/16

You can visit the exhibition at Reading Museum from this weekend and view some of the items above for yourself!

Archival Primary Sources:

Berkshire Chronicle, 30th May 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Berkshire Chronicle, 11th July 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Reading, Berkshire Record Office, Reading-Düsseldorf Association Collection, D/EX653acc4544.1.

Rieber, Gretel, ‘Friendship creates peace: 40 years of city friendship between Reading and Düsseldorf’, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Primary Sources:

Interview with Richard Thom, Reading, 24th November 2021.

Interview with Robert Dimmock, Reading, 19th November 2021.

Secondary Materials:

Corridor Press, Hands of Friendship: The Story of Reading’s twinning links (Reading, 2003).

Stout, Adam, A Bigness of Heart: Phoebe Cusden of Reading (Reading, 1997).

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Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part One: UG student Eleanor Dyer reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the short blog below, Eleanor pieces together the story of Hildegard Stephan in the archives, who travelled to Reading from Düsseldorf in 1949. Read on for a moving, visual insight into Hilde’s material history – and stay tuned for Eve’s blog, coming later this week!

Three Months in ReadingThe Reading Düsseldorf Association and the Young People’s Exchanges, by Eleanor Dyer

In 1949, 25 German children from the city of Düsseldorf came to Reading on a trip as part of the then newly created Reading Düsseldorf Association, which was set up in 1947 by the Mayor of Reading at the time, Phoebe Cusden. It aimed to send both material aid and gestures of friendship to the German city, which had been destroyed by the devastating effects of the Second World War.

This newspaper cutting from 1949 explains how these 25 German children were chosen to come to Reading. The Second World War caused much suffering for Düsseldorf families, after intense bombing there. This meant that children were picked who were “all suffering in one way or another from the results of the war – lack of food, bombed homes, loss of parents and psychological disturbance”. Many of the children even arrived to Reading with unsatisfactory clothing; this was remedied by the kindness of neighbours and the children’s host parents, who in some cases even bought them new clothes.

One of the 25 German children was Hildegard Stephan, who is mentioned in this newspaper cutting. Her home was bombed, and her family lost everything they owned; tragedies like this are why the trip was so positive for these children.

The gratitude and happiness Hildegard had for her stay in Reading can really be felt in this beautifully written and illustrated report she wrote about the activities she got up to and the places she saw during her time in Reading.

1: The front page of the diary is illustrated by Hildegard; it shows a drawing of Great Britain with Reading marked out.

Nowadays Hildegard’s report of the journey and the trip is located at the Berkshire Records Office (BRO), where it made its way from the archives of the Reading Düsseldorf Association, after being donated by Hildegard herself. Robert Dimmick, who is currently the Vice Chair of the Association, was the person to receive Hilde’s donation, and commented that the diary was “a way of communicating what life was like” for Hilde in England.

Until now the diary has not been officially translated from the German, but as a student doing a placement at the BRO who also happens to study German, I have been able to translate Hilde’s story into English. The report covers lots of different aspects of the stay; it weaves factual accounts of what took place with Hilde’s personal feelings about everything she did.

Here Hilde writes a contents page of everything in her report:

The trip across the sea.
Arrival in Reading.
Easter days on the beach.
What I saw and experienced in Reading:
The house that I lived in.
My host parents.
In the Alfred Sutton School.
On wanders through the town.
On trips in the surrounding area.
On a trip in London.
As a guest with English people.
With German children at home.
On visits to neighbours.
Farewell and trip home.
Arrival back in Düsseldorf.

Hilde and the other German children’s adventure began on the 13th of April 1949, bright and early in the morning.

Hilde writes: Finally, the day of the journey had arrived. I hadn’t even thought about how I should have such good fortune to be able to travel to England. But when the 13 April came, it was really four o clock in the morning, going with my parents to the train station where the journey began. All 25 Düsseldorf children who had been invited to Reading boarded the D train accompanied by Miss Siemons shortly after 5 o clock, going to Hannover where we arrived at 9 o’ clock. There, another medical check-up took place in a hotel, and our luggage was checked by customs officials.

You can really hear the excitement and nervousness in this first page, and how Hilde was so thankful for the opportunity.

However, there were some difficulties that Hilde and the German children came across.

On these pages, Hilde talks about what going to school in Reading was like:

After the Easter celebrations, lessons also began for me at the “Alfred Sutton School”, which I attended every day from 8:40am until 4pm. Even over midday we stayed in the school and got lunch there. We had English, French, Mathematics, Geometry, Geography, Biology, Drawing, Music, P.E., Gymnastics, Handiwork and Cooking. In most subjects, it was impossible for me to follow the lesson because I didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations. That’s why we German children kept ourselves busy with other things instead …. The school hours went by very slowly this way, and we could hardly wait for the end of the day.

This is a really illuminating part of Hilde’s report because it shows that no matter where they come from or what they have been through, teenagers will always be teenagers, complaining about school and just trying to get through the school day with their friends. In my opinion, this is a reason why the children’s exchanges that Phoebe Cusden and the RDA fostered were so important for these Düsseldorf children. They had suffered so much that they really deserved a chance to feel like normal kids again and do day-to-day activities like going to school and hanging out with friends.

This sentiment is echoed in a letter sent from Phoebe Cusden to Harold Nicolson of The Spectator in 1945. Here, Phoebe expresses her belief that in attempting to set up these children’s exchanges, those involved can show that they are “not indifferent to human misery – even the misery of ex-enemies, if children can be so called.”. It’s certainly true that even though Nazi Germany caused suffering in Britain, this was initiated by certain few perpetrators at the top level, definitely not children.

Back in 1949, Hilde and her German friends said farewell to Reading on 14th July.

She writes: So, it was no wonder that the three months which seemed to lay endlessly before me at the start of the trip had come to an all too fast end. On the 14th of July the farewell from Reading arrived. Many tears poured as we drove away from the Town Hall

There is really a sense of how much the children enjoyed themselves on the trip. Without a doubt, they went home feeling happier about their lives. Like Hilde says to end her diary: “But now I go back to my work with new courage”.

 After this, many more children’s exchanges took place, and the same values of friendship and cooperation which gave young people opportunities like this are what guides the Reading Düsseldorf Association today, almost 75 years later.

Pictures produced with permission and thanks to the Berkshire Record Office.

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That’s a Wrap! Our MA History Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

‘Episode’ Four: ‘From the ‘boneshaker’ to women’s suffrage’, Oliver Ziebland blogs about bicycles and women’s liberation!

We’re wrapping up our material culture series for the Historical Skills and Resources Module with a short blog by MA student Oliver Ziebland. Inspired by an original ‘boneshaker’ at the Museum of English Rural Life(MERL), Oliver asks how the 1869 velocipede paved the way for the modern bicycle, allowing for cycling to become a symbol of women’s liberation.

Before we hand over to Oliver, we’d just like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all the students involved and to module convenor Dr Jacqui Turner for all her hard work on this module. We’ve loved these innovative assessment methods and hope you have too! If you want to find out more about our MA options, click here – there’s still time to sign up for September 2022!

From the ‘Boneshaker’ to Women’s Suffrage, by Oliver Ziebland

In 1908 Rose Lamartine Yates became the first woman to be elected to the Cyclists’ Touring Club council. One year later fellow suffragette Alice Hawkins, member of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club, led a campaign to increase membership for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by cycling from village to village around Leicester. Cycling became an important tool for women’s emancipation at the turn of the twentieth century and it was the cranked velocipede, known colloquially as the ‘boneshaker’, that made it possible.    

Built with wood and iron and weighing up to ninety pounds, the ‘boneshaker’ appears far removed from the modern carbon fibre road bike that can be as light as eighteen pounds. Nevertheless, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) houses an indispensable piece of bicycle history.

Having acquired its nickname due to the uncomfortable ride over poor-quality roads, this bicycle represents the first two-wheel design to incorporate pedals. Arriving in Britain in 1869, popular interest sparked two decades of rapid development, culminating with the safety bicycle which was first brought to market in 1885. Yet aside from representing an intriguing piece of technology history, the preservation of an original ‘boneshaker’ in the MERL encourages us to consider the significance of such an item outside of its immediate impact on transport, sport and leisure. For cycling played an important and often unsung role in the movement for women’s emancipation.

The Boneshaker on display in the MERL 55/278

The history of the bicycle is largely underappreciated. Even within professional history it preoccupies a rather niche group of transport and technology historians. Perhaps understandably the development of the bicycle is overshadowed by other technological advances of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most notably the steam engine and motor vehicle. Two wheels, a handlebar, saddle and pedals – its simplicity undermines the ingenuity of its inventors and the bicycle’s legacy as a tool for societal change. In our popular imaginations it is often the penny farthing that emerges as the preferred example of proto-bicycle design. Its large front wheel placing the rider precariously high above the ground has become a peculiar signifier of late Victorian England. However, whilst the penny farthing has greater cultural cache, before the invention of the safety bicycle it was the velocipede or ‘boneshaker’ that had the most impact on the development of the modern bicycle.

Not only was the ‘boneshaker’ one of the first designs to attach a crank to its wheels, it was the first to do so on a two-wheel velocipede that placed its rider out of reach of the ground. For most of us today, balancing on a bicycle is a skill we are all quick to learn as a child, but for the average adult in the nineteenth century it was a total novelty. Designs for such a model emerged in France and the United States in the mid-1860s, and the first ‘boneshaker’ most likely appeared in Britain at the start of 1869. Almost immediately ‘velocipede mania’ swept the nation, as stories of long-distance rides and races around the Crystal Palace captivated audiences. Over one hundred suppliers contributed to a burgeoning British bicycle industry in 1869 and newspapers across the country ran hundreds of advertisements for the new velocipede. The craze was intense but short and by the spring of 1870 the Manchester Evening News was running no advertisements, compared to two hundred the previous year. Nevertheless, the bicycle craze of 1869 was prophetic of what was to come in the 1890s, when the invention of the safety bicycle transformed cycling into a cultural phenomenon.

It was for women that the development of the bicycle into a mass market consumer item had the most significant impact. The ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s became synonymous with the fashionable safety bicycle, providing middle class women greater freedom to travel away from the home. This tested the chaperone system which had previously ensured women were very rarely out in public unaccompanied. Women did not take up cycling en masse until the early twentieth century, but in 1869 the ‘boneshaker’ began to challenge many of the patriarchal conventions that were blocking female emancipation. When it came to cycling, fashion was the obvious barrier. Long flowing dresses and tight corsets made riding the cumbersome ‘boneshaker’ almost impossible. However, a few early pioneers were prepared to ditch such restrictive clothing, adopting pantaloons that were first popularised in France.

Postcard promoting women’s suffrage. New Zealand had become the first country to grant women the vote in 1893

The liberating potential of the bicycle was quickly recognised by American suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. In 1895 Stanton predicted that the bicycle would inspire women to have more ‘self-respect, self-reliance’ and ‘courage’, then, the following year Susan B. Anthony went a step further declaring that the:

“…(bicycle) has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

High praise for the humble bicycle. The MERL’s ‘boneshaker’ was itself once owned by a female rider. Donated to the museum by a Mr Claude Brighten in 1955, he had previously acquired it from Lady Frances Clayton-East of Hall Place, now home to the Berkshire College of Agriculture.  Whether or not she ever rode the ‘boneshaker’ is unclear. Yet, Lady Clayton-East’s part in the story of this bicycle speaks to its broader social significance.    

Of course, the emancipatory legacy of cycling is partly due to the patriarchal backlash.  In the sporting comments of an edition of London’s Morning Post published in 1895, one commentator wrote disparagingly of the emergence of women’s organised sport in the 1890s.

Sporting comments, Morning Post, Monday, Nov. 25, 1895  

127 years later for many sportswomen, amateur or professional, the same stereotypes and prejudices persist. Therefore, for feminists today the history of the bicycle should not simply be remembered as a quirk of the early suffrage movement, but as inspiration to continue the campaign for equality in sport and wider society alike.

Further Reading

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing (with contributions from Nick Clayton and Gary W. Sanderson), Bicycle design: an illustrated history, Cambridge, MA., London, MIT Press, 2014

Shelia Hanlon, ‘Rose Lamartine Yates: The Cycling UK Suffragette’, We are cycling UK, https://www.cyclinguk.org/

Christie-Robin, Julia, Belinda T. Orzada, Dilia López-Gydosh, ‘From Bustles to Bloomers: Exploring the Bicycle’s Influence on American Women’s Fashion, 1880–1914’, The American Journal of Culture, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, (December, 2012), p.315-331

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