Polperro Postscripts

A blog for anyone with an interest in Polperro, publishing and people... with occasional musings on history and humanity.



The Denniston dynasty

Posted on October 20, 2017

Ten years ago I published Robin Denniston’s tribute to his father, Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s work in signals intelligence 1914-1944. His father Alastair had headed the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) before the Second World War and was responsible for setting up the code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. In due course he was moved to a similar operation in London but when he retired at the end of the war, the highly secret nature of his work meant that he received little recognition for his distinguished career. Indeed, he is almost the only head of what is now GCHQ to have not received a knighthood for his service.

Robin had originally approached me while I had been in discussion with one of his daughters, Susanna Everitt, about a possible book about her great-grandfather James Denniston. In the event, I went ahead with Robin’s monograph about his father’s work. Robin himself had had a distinguished career in publishing and was keen to see his father’s role acknowledged once he had been given the go-ahead by GCHQ.

In due course, I returned to the story of James Denniston, a Glaswegian doctor who had volunteered to work in a field hospital in Erzurum in Turkey during the 1870s when Turkey was at war with Russia. His letters to a young woman he had left behind vividly described the appalling conditions he encountered; they also charted the growing intimacy of the relationship that developed between them.

A young member of the extended Denniston family, James McKnight, undertook the task of turning the epistolary romance into a novel, published this month as Letters From Erzurum.

Meanwhile, a few weeks earlier, a biography of Alastair Denniston by the Bletchley Park historian Dr Joel Greenberg was at last published. Alastair Denniston: Code-Breaking from Room 40 to Berkeley Street and the Birth of GCHQ was duly launched at GCHQ in the presence of the Denniston family.

The hitherto unacknowledged role of the man who headed one of Britain’s most secret wartime operations has now been told, along with that of his father, the young Glaswegian doctor who served in an altogether different theatre of war.

Wrecks and Royals

Posted on September 13, 2017

The story of the ‘Wreck of the Ten Sail’, when ten ships from a convoy came to grief on a reef off Grand Cayman in 1794, is a familiar one to the inhabitants of this idyllic haven in the Caribbean. But the legend that has become attached to the incident, that the reason the Cayman islands enjoy tax free status today is because a royal prince aboard one of the ships was saved by the islanders and a grateful King George III granted the Islands the status they enjoy today, has long been dismissed by modern historians.

However, as author Sam Oakley reveals in her new book The Wreck Of The Ten Sail – a true story from Cayman’s past there was indeed a link with the British monarch. One of the passengers aboard HMS Convert, the frigate escort also wrecked along with nine merchant vessels, was Lady Amelia Cooke, daughter of the Duke of Atholl whose aristocratic Murray family ruled the Isle of Man in the 18th century. Thirty years old at the time, she was returning to England from Jamaica following the death of her husband there. Her cousin, Lady August a Murray, had secretly married Prince Augustus Frederick, the sixth son of George III, in Italy the previous year.

Lady Amelia was among several hundred survivors of the maritime disaster, attributed to a navigational error, who found themselves stranded on Grand Cayman at a time when the inhabitants were still coping with the aftermath of a ferocious hurricane that had virtually devastated the island. So dire was their plight that a group of prominent residents wrote a letter to Captain John Lawford, commander of the Convert, pleading with him to evacuate the survivors as quickly as possible.

Today, a monument stands on a lonely outcrop of the shore overlooking the reef where the ten vessels were wrecked. It was commemorated on the 200th anniversary of the event in 1995 when Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit to the spot, though it is not known whether she was aware at the time of the royal connection unearthed by our author.












Polperro Smugglers' Jug

Posted on August 2, 2017



‘Success to our Trade’ was the toast of the Polperro smugglers in the 18th century. The ‘Trade’ in question was the import of contraband goods from Guernsey; huge quantities of rum, gin, brandy, tea and tobacco were shipped across the Channel to Cornwall and sold on once landed ashore. It was a risky if lucrative business that brought great wealth to a number of Polperro families, among them the Quillers.

The existence of a ‘smuggling’ jug that had once belonged to William Quiller and inscribed with the famous ‘toast’ has long been known. Indeed, an early photograph of it can be seen in the Polperro Museum. But the jug itself was thought to have been lost… until now, when it surfaced in the care of a descendant of the family and in remarkably good condition considering its age.

The creamware jug is typical of many commemorative jugs produced during the 1790s and early 1800s, except that it uniquely celebrates the smuggling trade. On one side is a picture of a lugger and on the other a pony laden with a barrel of what is presumably liquor of some sort; both representative of the smuggling trade that flourished in Cornwall at the time.

The jug originally belonged to either William Quiller (1765-1816) or his son of the same name (1790-1823). Both commanded a number of smuggling and privateering vessels during the Napoleonic wars and both probably perished at sea as did many of the Quiller menfolk. William Quiller’s name crops up frequently in the accounts of the Polperro privateers that captured a number of valuable French prizes when Britain was at war with France.