Lost in the Infinite Wilderness of America

Did you hear about the Welsh-speaking tribe of American Indians? No? Well, indie rock genius Gruff Rhys is travelling the world, playing songs from his film, book, and album American Interior, which tells the tale of John Evans, the man who went to find them.

The story starts with the Norman invasion, when the Celts were pushed back to the fringes of Britain, with the Welsh territory largely reduced to Anglesey and Snowdonia. Owain Gwynedd strengthened the kingdom, but on his death, his successors began to fight amongst each other, causing his son Prince Madoc to decide to set sail in search of new lands to settle. Apparently, he made it all the way to America and established a settlement in Mobile, Alabama. After returning to Wales to gather more supporters, he travelled up the Mississippi, eventually stopping near North Dakota. Here, his descendants remained, passing on their language and skills such as building coracles.

That’s the legend anyway, and it became fairly popular in Elizabethan times, as Britain tried to claim more territory in the new lands of America by insisting that they had actually got there first. Some years later, Iolo Morganwg decided to raise an expedition to find this lost tribe and put Wales back on the world map. Unfortunately, there was only one applicant, John Evans.

Evans and Morganwg set off to London to find some benefactors for their trip, but after little success, Iolo scarpered back to Wales, leaving Evans penniless in the big city. He decided to go ahead and travel to the US anyway.

The inner sleeve of Rhys’ LP shows Evans’ route from Baltimore, then Philadelphia (“where they taught him to make maps”), and onwards to the Mississippi and finally to the lands of the Mandan in present day North Dakota.

[Map by Pete Fowler, who did most of Super Furry Animals’ artwork]

American Interior interior

American Interior LP inner sleeve


More maps and illustrations were on display during the show – here’s Gruff playing in front of maps of the Ohio River (“it looked exactly like this”) and the Canadian border at the 49th parallel (I think you probably had to be there).

Gruff Rhys and USA river map Gruff Rhys and the 49th Parallel

Evans had many adventures along the way including catching malaria, being imprisoned, defecting to the Spanish, persuading the English army to abandon a fort (thereby annexing the land for Spain), defending the Canadian border, and finally sailing the length of the Mississippi before dying in New Orleans. The whole saga is summed up excellently in the song 100 Unread Messages.

Rhys’ sleeve notes above (and detail below) highlight the difficulty of using the correct names when discussing the indigenous people of North America. History is written by the victors and too often, a name given by outsiders can stick, even though it causes offence.

Notes on terminology

Luckily for us, a young cartographer has produced a map of Native American tribes showing their names and locations before the Europeans arrived. Below is a detail of the map, showing the Mandan nation, the most likely candidates for the lost tribe that John Evans was searching for.

Tribal Nations

So, even though Evans never found the lost Welsh tribe, his efforts weren’t in vain, as his maps were used by Lewis and Clark during their journeys through the American west.

Mystery still seems to surround Evans though, as the above site also seems to think he is Scottish. Oh well, as I’ve said before, print the legend.

Ships, Clocks & Stars

Despite the fact that my family is from London, and I was born there, I’ve never been to Greenwich. This means I’ve never seen the Royal Observatory or the Greenwich meridian, even though it is, quite literally, the centre of the world. Kind of.

Anyway, last weekend was a good time to put this right, as the Royal Museums Greenwich are holding an exhibition to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act. If you haven’t been already, I strongly recommend a visit before the exhibition ends on 4th January 2015. It’s the first time that all five of John Harrison’s timepieces are on public display together.

Sailing in the 18th century was a hazardous business, and poor navigation often resulted in longer journeys or even shipwreck, as with the Scilly disaster of 1707. The main difficulty was determining a ship’s position while at sea; establishing latitude was fairly straightforward, by measuring the angle of the sun over the horizon at midday, but longitude proved more of a challenge. The most common method was to use dead reckoning – basically to follow a bearing and assume that you haven’t been blown off course by the wind or tides.

The government decided to start a competition to solve the problem and passed the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the Board of Longitude, who would award a prize of up to £20,000 to whoever could come up with a method of determining longitude at sea.

(Interestingly, this article suggests that the Longitude Act was just a distraction to postpone actually doing something about the appalling conditions on board ship at that time.)

Five methods emerged as contenders, most of which used time to determine longitude. Given that the sun moves through 360° every 24 hours, that’s 15° every hour. So, if you are 15° W of Greenwich, it will be midday one hour later. The local time can be determined by seeing when the sun is at its apex (i.e. midday), so it follows that if you know the local time and the time at Greenwich, you can work out how many degrees of longitude you have travelled. So, how do we know the time in Greenwich when we have been at sea for weeks or months on end? Clocks of that period were unreliable and could not keep time during a long voyage.


Probably the least plausible method was to set up an array of signalling stations that would send up a rocket at regular intervals, say every hour. The idea was that sailors would hear the signal and recalibrate their onboard timepieces. Also, the time difference between seeing and hearing the flare would allow the distance from the signal to be calculated.

The problem with this method is the difficulty of maintaining the position of ships at sea, making sure the signals were released at the right time, and the reliability of ordnance. Would the rocket reach the right height, or explode too early?


It was known at the time that the Earth’s magnetic field varied and that there was a difference between magnetic north (as shown by a compass) and true north (as shown by the Sun and stars). Some people thought that if the all the magnetic fields across the globe could be mapped, then they could be used to determine a ship’s position. This chart by Edmond Halley is an attempt at plotting these fields:

Sea chart of magnetic variations

A new and correct sea chart of the whole world showing the variations of the compass as they were found in the year 1700
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Unfortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field changes over time and has too many local variations for this method to be of any use.

Jupiter’s Moons

The idea of using lunar or solar eclipses to determine time had been considered before, but these events were too infrequent to be of much use. However, when Galileo discovered in 1610 that Jupiter had four moons that disappeared behind the planet and reappeared at regular intervals, he realised that this method had some potential. He attempted to persuade first the Spanish, then the Dutch government to produce telescopes and train navigators to make the observations, but he was unsuccessful. Even one hundred years later, improved technology could not make instruments accurate enough to view a small object like Jupiter from the deck of a moving ship. This method did prove to be very effective though for establishing longitude on land and was used well into the 18th century.

Lunar Distances

If Jupiter’s moons were difficult to observe, a method requiring observations of our own moon should have been much easier. The idea was that an angle could be measured between the Moon and a star, for example the pole star, giving a ‘lunar distance’. After consulting an almanac of distances – and also altitudes of the Moon and stars – for various places around the globe, the local time should be easily determined. However, the Moon’s motions are very complex and constructing such a table proved very difficult.


The most accurate clocks of the period incorporated pendulums, which were unable to function properly on a moving ship. Watches and smaller timepieces were too susceptible to heat and humidity to remain accurate over long periods of time. A young clockmaker from Lincolnshire, John Harrison, had started to experiment with using wooden components, which required no oil, yet were almost frictionless. Over the next few decades, he constructed a series of timepieces (H1-5, on display as the centrepiece of the exhibition), continually making improvements, but never quite doing enough to please either himself or the Board of Longitude. The clocks performed well over a number of sea trials, with, for example, Captain Cook referring to his ‘trusty friend’ and ‘never-failing guide’. Eventually, Harrison petitioned the Prime Minister, and after a debate in parliament, he was awarded  £8750.

John Harrison's H1

Three-quarter view of Harrison’s marine timekeeper H1
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art Collection

It’s clear that the Board were reluctant to award any of the prize to Harrison and continued to champion the lunar distance method, as favoured by Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal. They kept asking for Harrison’s timepieces to be sent on more sea trials and often discounted the trials that had taken place, claiming they were ‘unofficial’. The Board was stuffed with parliamentarians, Fellows of the Royal Society, and other members of the establishment and they weren’t about to give to prize away to some chippy northener. (This article sheds a little more light on Maskelyne’s role in the affair.)

I don’t think the exhibition made enough of Harrison’s struggles against the establishment, but nevertheless, it is fascinating and packed with information. There is so much more to see, as the institution is actually four museums on one site – hopefully I’ll have time to go and visit the rest of it before too long.

Mrs P’s Journey

A few weeks ago, I was browsing my site stats (as you do), and I noticed that the most popular page on this blog, by a long way, is the page on Geographia Ltd. There is not a lot of information online about them, which is probably why so many searches have ended up here. However, I did recently find a book that gave a lot more detail about this intriguing company.

I read an article about a musical based on the life of Phyllis Pearsall, which mentioned a biography, Mrs P’s Journey, by Sarah Hartley, and I wasted no time in getting hold of it. It is a fascinating read and definitely worth looking at.

Even though her father was a successful businessman, Phyllis’ life wasn’t particularly easy. Like many self-made men, Sandor Gross was a highly strung, enormously driven monster, who would regularly scream and shout at his staff (and family) for the smallest mistake. Her mother, on the other hand, was less aggressive, but rarely showed Phyllis any affection. On one night in Paris, Bella dragged her fifteen year-old daughter from midnight mass to café after café, even though Phyllis had a raging fever and clearly needed to be taken home and put to bed.

Another time, after her parents had divorced, Sandor was declared bankrupt. Unable to pay Phyllis’ school fees, he sent her a telegram:


Even though she was only 13 at the time, she travelled back to London, alone with her huge trunk, and caught a taxi to her mother’s house. Instead of welcoming her home, Bella just packed her little girl off to an employment agency with all her belongings. Luckily, Phyllis was unphased by this; she calmly accepted a teaching job in France and headed there straight away. As she said on so many occasions, On we go.

Alexander (Sandor) Grosz left his native Budapest and made his way across Europe to London, arriving, penniless, in 1900. Within a few years he had married and built a successful business selling lamps. One day, on finding that his brother-in-law sold maps for a living, he decided to sell his business and produce his own map. Initially, he asked his draftsmen to produce a map of the British Isles in one week. It actually took the best part of a year, despite Sandor’s constant presence in the office, shouting, slamming doors, and generally getting frustrated at the lack of progress. Eventually, one hundred maps were produced, varnished and mounted on cloth and rollers, and quickly sold to offices across the capital.

His success brought him into more exclusive social gatherings; he met with Lord Burnham, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, and suggested a new series of maps to help pinpoint the current troublespots of the Balkans and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Apparently, no newspaper had tried this before, but the maps that Geographia produced were a success. The Telegraph’s circulation increased and the two companies’ relationship lasted many years.

Though Geographia turned out to be a fairly significant company in the world of cartography, it was only really by chance that it came into existence at all. “What did I love about oil lamps? Nothing. Maps? I long to see my name printed over and over again at the bottom of each copy. Produced under the direction of Alexander Gross.” he said, years later.

Sandor’s wife, Bella, played an active role in the company, keeping an eye on the finances and making sure he didn’t over stretch them. However, he rarely acknowledged her contribution and regularly undermined her. When she wrote a play, he financed a West End run, but the critics savaged it. They simply weren’t ready for a story involving a financially astute woman in business. What Suffragette nonsense. Sandor probably knew the play would fail and he deliberately encouraged Bella in order to gloat over her and establish his superiority.

Watching the way her father treated her mother must have been a huge influence on Phyllis’ behaviour later in life and on her determination to do things for herself. When, in 1935, she got lost on the way to a dinner party, Phyllis tried to buy a street map of London to make sure she didn’t lose her way again. On finding that such a map didn’t exist, she decided to make her own, spending the next ten months walking the city for up to 18 hours a day, filling many notebooks with street names, house numbers, sketches, and so on. The work didn’t end there – having persuaded one of her father’s old draughtsmen to produce her map, she then had to spend a further three months transferring her notes onto index cards for him to work from.

Finally, a map was ready, and she tried selling door-to-door, with little success. Phyllis went to a wholesaler, but, as the only woman in the waiting room, she was ignored for days on end. Finally, she was seen and her persistence paid off – a massive order of 1250 A-Z atlases, which she produced and delivered herself to branches of WHSmith across the capital.

Eventually, she took on more staff, and the company went from strength to strength. Phyllis continued to work hard, refusing to delegate any part of the business, even when she was seriously injured in a plane crash. Her father was still exerting his influence, sending unhelpful telegrams, such as:


[It sometimes seems as if the family communicated entirely by telegram, as there are many more examples:


Or this one, sent from Bella to each of Sandor, Phyllis and Tony:


The pedant in me was slightly irritated by the added punctuation though. I know it makes them read better, but still…]

Despite the many hours Phyllis spent running her business, she still found time for her first love, painting. In an interview with the Daily Mail, she said that she always wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. As a successful map-maker, she didn’t need to use her art to pay the rent and could cherish it instead of exploiting it to make money.

All in all, Mrs P’s Journey is a fascinating story and a worthwhile read, which sheds more light on two important cartographic companies. I would have preferred the book to contain references, like other non-fiction works, for example Rachel Hewitt’s excellent Map of a Nation. There is one small section detailing the history of cartography, which also mentions how snooty some people are about the A-Z style.

These conventional colours are of course of enormous assistance in distinguishing between the crowded details of a London street guide: the difference can best be appreciated when one compares the copy of a cheap monotone guide such as the A-Z with Bartholomew’s or Philip’s expensive colour atlases. (Phillipa Glanville, ‘London in Maps’, The Connoisseur, 1972.)

Some have complained about the chronology and accuracy of the book (see these fairly amusing Amazon reviews), but the author herself acknowledges that Phyllis’ story is not straightforward. Even in her own autobiography, there are many contradictions. I agree that it’s more important to go with the most interesting interpretation of events. As Steve Coogan says in 24 Hour Party People – “When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend.”