Wednesday 1 April 2015

Tales of Smugglers and ... Seaweed?

Here's a post about how my eccentric ancestors inspired Breathless ...

I grew up in a village located midway between Portsmouth and Southampton in Hampshire. Thanks to my family’s obsession with the sea and all things nautical, I spent a large chunk of my childhood falling off yachts, dinghies and jetties, before it dawned on them that the seafaring gene had completely passed me by. But it didn't stop my grandfather telling me endless stories about our seafaring ancestors. It wasn’t until years later, when I began researching our family history for myself, I realised some of these tales weren’t strictly true. I don’t have an ancestor called Captain Hook (I can’t believe I fell for that one!) but we did find a real live pirate (OK, a ‘privateer’ who sailed with Sir Francis Drake) way back in the family tree.

My grandfather

My grandfather was the Harbour Master for the River Hamble but his family had originally come from Weston, a tiny fishing village across the River Itchen from Southampton. It was one of those places where everyone knew everyone, and most of the villagers were related to each other in one way or another; if you look through the parish records you can see the same surnames cropping up throughout the centuries. A hundred years later, Weston now consists of modern housing estates and tower blocks, and is completely unrecognisable as the small fishing community it once was. 

The Thatched Cottage, now demolished,
part of 'old' Weston
One of my grandfather's tales was about the seaweed hut, which his family used to store fishing equipment. No one was quite sure when it was originally built, but it first shows up on an Admiralty chart of Southampton Water, dated 1783. According to legend, smugglers stored kegs of spirits inside the hut until they could be moved under cover of darkness. But although Weston was an isolated fishing village, it was still located on one of the country's busiest waterways, so I think that particular story is also unlikely!

The Seaweed Hut on Weston Shore, now demolished
(and, allegedly, my great-great-grandfather)
A description of the hut was published in 1905 by the Reverend G.W. Minns. He said,

"It covers an area about 25 feet by 14 feet. Some piles driven in the ground protect the walls and transverse beams of oak support the roof. It is composed entirely of seaweed so closely matted together that the interior presents a smooth surface and is impervious as a wall. The exterior is renewed from time to time by a few loads of seaweed which the fishermen pile on as required."

Industrial development affected the local fishing and the seaweed hut gradually fell into disrepair until it was demolished in 1967.

My grandfather’s stories about his family were so entertaining that when I wrote Breathless I realised he had become the inspiration for Joseph Halfpenny, who is convinced he’s descended from Port Rell’s most famous resident - a 17th century smuggler named Black Jack. Jack’s story, and the connection he has to a long-lost wreck, is told in flashbacks throughout the book.

The themes of obsession and family history also managed to sneak into the next book I wrote too -  Nemesis. Despite owning a castle, one of the characters is trying to prove she’s related to a pirate. This was something I realised while researching my own family tree. No matter how respectable and hard-working our ancestors were, we all secretly want to be descended from smugglers and pirates ...


Nothing ever happens in the seaside village of Port Rell, which is why Lainey Jennings is so keen to leave it. She’s only twenty-four, there’s so much more she wants to do with her life. Crazy and outlandish things; like ice diving in Alaska, explore the underwater caves in Mexico, maybe even search for the lost city of Atlantis. Stay in Port Rell forever? Talk about purgatory!

Since the death of her father, she’s struggled to keep the family diving business from bankruptcy. There’s just one thing that keeps her going. Her dream that one day she’ll discover the lost wreck that her father was so obsessed with, the legendary
Mary Eliza
- responsible for destroying Port Rell almost four hundred years ago.

When an old, unknown wreck is discovered in the bay, sleepy Port Rell is under siege once more. This time it’s from the media, including a team from the
Wreck Raiders TV show, led by handsome archaeologist Zac Nelson. The villagers are quick to cash in on their unexpected popularity. But ancient wrecks aren’t the only things waiting to be discovered.

Because someone in Port Rell has a secret.


  1. I'm sorry I can't find a Link button, so here's a Like.

  2. I love that your grandfather convinced you you were descended from Captain Hook! Well, who wouldn't want that?!

    I moved from Devon to the Isle of Wight when I was 10 and lived there until I left for uni, so my head was filled with tales of smugglers and pirates too. It was fascinating to read about the seaweed hut and the role it might have played. Thanks for sharing that - I'm off to download a copy of Breathless.

    1. Thank you, Kath! As children we used to spend all our summer holidays on the Isle of Wight! Blackgang Chine and the Waxworks museum I think were two of my favourite places to visit! I hope you enjoy Breathless! x