A close friend had come with me to the Battersea Decorative Antique Fair. She was just a few stands ahead when I heard her calling my name urgently. She was standing with one of my favourite antique dealers, Nikki Page
, who sources beautiful and unusual things.
‘Look!’ said my friend, pointing to what was undoubtedly the most exquisite and interesting item for sale at that particular fair. In a nanosecond, I already knew where I would put it. I'd already decided what colour to paint the wall behind it. But, even as I hurried towards it, Nikki was putting a red ‘sold’ spot underneath it.
Then my friend, seeing the catastrophe that was my face, laughed. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I told her it was going home with you. The red dot is yours.’
Here below is the item in closer focus: a huge metal coat-of-arms painted in lovely colours.
I justified buying it because, little as I know about heraldry, I knew the Salmon of Wisdom when I saw it. That was a gift of research on my Irish novel, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters
. As for the seal, I have written about one seen in Venice in recent years, even proposing it as a mascot for the city
. Seals feature also in my children’s novel, The Mourning Emporium
I knew that there was a lot more to learn about this coat of arms, but there was also a lot of life to be lived that summer, including finishing another book, launching a second one, scripting a play about the London Bridge terror attack and moving into a new apartment (well, new to me - dating to 1609) in Venice, where this ‘stemma
’ was now going to live. I had to put researching my crest on the back-burner for a while.
Instead, the research came to me – in the form of two apothecaries, that is, members of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London. Drs Roy and Celia Palmer are also close friends and neighbours in London. Knowing my interest in medical history, they’d asked me to lead a cohort from the Society on a tour of Venice with a focus on the role of apothecaries and barber-surgeons through the centuries.
As members of one of London’s historic livery companies, Roy and Celia took a great interest in my fish-and-seal crest. Shamefaced, I explained that the necessary research had not yet been done. With a twinkle, Roy said, ‘Leave that to me’. He took some photographs.
And, in a remarkably short time, I learned more about my crest than I could ever hope to discover on my own. My source: Andrew Wallington-Smith, who's enjoyed a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. He is also a dedicated and knowledgeable Liveryman in the City of London and an expert on heraldry and stained glass. Andrew told me that he was ‘brought up on the Scottish historical fiction of Nigel Tranter and history very much motivates me.
Thanks to Andrew, I can tell you that my Venetian crest bears the arms of the Lords Rowallan. And the motto, missing from my crest, is 'DEUS PASCIT CORVOS', which I translate as 'Feed the Crows'.
|Source: 1939 edition of Burke’s Peerage (also features in the 2001 version)|
The line has been:
Archibald Corbett, Lord Rowallan (1911); died 1933
(s) Thomas Corbett, Second Lord Rowallan; served as Chief Scout and later as Governor of Tasmania
(s) Arthur Corbett, 3rd Lord Rowallan; whose marriage to April Ashley annulled on the grounds that she was a man
(s) John Corbett, Fourth Lord Rowallan
Andrew wrote to me: ‘Archibald Cameron Corbett was the son of a Glasgow (hence the salmon & ring) merchant & philanthropist; he was a politician (MP for Glasgow Tradeston) and philanthropist; born 1856, he matriculated his arms in 1882; he married Alice Polson an only daughter; In Fox-Davies’
Armorial Families of 1905 he is shown as follows
excerpt from The Armorial Families: a Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-Armour
by A.C. Fox-Davies; Edinburgh, 1905
Alice Polson was an heraldic heiress herself, so the original crest bore an 'escutcheon of pretence' - a smaller shield placed on top of a larger one. But then Archibald Corbett was made a Baron in 1911 - as Baron Rowallan of Rowallan (having bought Rowallan Castle in 1901) - he acquired the coronet. On his son succeeding in 1933, the escutcheon of pretence became a quartering. That is the way my crest is designed, so it must date from that year or afterwards. Ancient as it looks, the object is less than a hundred years old.
To understand Andrew’s forensics on the crest design – and to share it usefully, I had to learn that heraldry uses its own special colours, each with its own meaning:
Sable: black, signifying constancy or sometimes grief.
Argent: light metallic in either gold or silver, meaning sincerity and peace.
Azure: bright blue - loyalty and truth.
Gules: red - magnanimity and military strength.
So, here is a translation of my crest. First the central, quartered part:
The keys fessways (horizontal) downwards between two ravens in Sable: the keys indicate guardianship and dominion. In Scots ‘corbie’ means ‘crow/raven. In heraldry, crows and ravens tend to be used interchangeably. Crows signify watchfulness, talent for strategy in battle, divine providence and insight into other worlds.
The blue quarters show a chevron between two bear’s heads in Argent, muzzled in Gules (red) The bears symbolize cunning, strength and ferocity in the protection of one's kin. A bear can also indicated health or healing.
The base of each blue quarter show a 'Cross Moline' (as in the cross of metal that holds a mill wheel).
The Moline is said to represent the mutual converse of human society.
Above the central section, we see a crown, a branch of oak, and a raven: the crown is of course a symbol of seigneurial authority. In this case the orbs indicate the type known as the 'Ducal 1 Variation'.
A sheaf or branch of oak leaves asserts that the harvest of one's hopes has been secured.
The two creatures who hold up the crest are called 'supporters': dexter (at left) a Salmon Proper bearing in its mouth a jewelled ring; sinister (left) a Seal Proper. (Very proper, in my opinion - though the word 'Proper' in heraldry refers to a 'charge' in its natural colours and form.)
The salmon symbolizes eternity by its return to its birthplace to breed. In Celtic mythology, the 'Salmon of Wisdom' was said to be able to pass on its knowledge to those who eat its flesh. The salmon themselves acquired their cleverness from eating the red Hazelnuts of Wisdom that fell into sacred waters: the red spots on their bellies refer to this. In the case of the Lords Rowallan, it is likely that salmon could be found on their estate. A salmon is also part of the insignia of Archibald Cameron Corbett's native town of Glasgow. Further, a fish indicates selfless virtue, spiritual nourishment and unity with Christ.
In the bosom of my own rude family, this crest is known as 'The Salmon of Wisdom and the Seal of WTF'. That's because it's not really obvious what a seal is doing on the coat of arms. The seal (or sea-calf, sea-wolf or sea-bear) is an uncommon image in heraldry. Usually just the paws and head are shown, so the Rowallan seal is exceptional. In general animal symbolism, a seal can signify dauntless courage at sea. A pair of seals are the supporters of the crests of Madeira. Seals can also symbolise humour, good fortune and graceful, easy movement.
So here are my Rowallans ... wise as salmon, supple as seals, protective as bears, watchful as ravens, endowed with good humour and good fortune. Their colours offer me constancy, sincerity, loyalty and truth.
The Rowallans are presently in Venice, but I could really do with their help in London. For, on a sadder note, I must report that the Thames is once more under threat from the Oceandiva
, Europe's biggest party boat. That is the 'monstrosity' of the blog's title: 'monstrosity' is the word most often used to describe the Oceandiva
in letters, petitions and online comments. At time of writing, this vessel appears to exist only in computer-generated images, which are the copyright of the consortium, but you can see them here
The Oceandiva first tried to come to the Thames in 2019. That didn't work out for them. Thames campaigners were successful in stopping this Dutch boat, which takes up to 1500 partygoers, from setting up a bespoke pier at historic Swan Lane by London Bridge. In October 2020, the City of London's Planning and Transportation Committee unanimously voted to reject the proposal.
But in March 2022, without notice to or consultation with those who opposed them before, the Oceandiva relaunched itself, this time as a 'yacht' (?) that will host parties, corporate jamborees and brand 'activation' events. The Oceandiva now claims that it can use a number of piers on the Thames.
Even though the Oceandiva is bigger than many buildings and will impede World Heritage views, the Mayor of London's office recently told us that 'the Greater London Authority (GLA) does not have the power to grant or forbid access to the river for specific ships or boats'. That decision rests with the Marine Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Port of London Authority (PLA). The PLA's 1909 charter gives it absolute power despite its limited accountability when it comes to its client-boats' impacts on river dwellers, both human and animal.
Neither the MCA, which certifies vessels for British waters, nor the PLA take responsibility for party-boat noise or light pollution, for riotous behaviour by disembarking passengers in the early hours or for the effects of floating parties upon the Thames's many residential clusters, which include social housing, or upon the cultural institutions like the Globe and the Tower, both of which objected strongly to the Oceandiva the first time round. Nor do the the MCA and PLA appear to find any problem with the Thames being reduced to an advertising backdrop for luxury cars.
Loud noise and blue or flashing lights, as favoured by party boats, are injurious and unpleasant not just to us overdeveloped bipeds but also to fish, insects and birds. My Thames neighbours and I are delighted to spot seals near London Bridge these days. Seals on the metropolitan Thames, you ask? Really? Oh yes, indeed. Here are some beautiful pictures
of them in Patricia Stoughton's excellent Ebb & Flow blog.
But it is hard to imagine a seal surviving an encounter with the Oceandiva.
About this latest manifestation, there are still many questions to be answered, including about what piers the mega-boat can actually use without disrupting public transport, about its much-vaunted green credentials, about the danger to bridges and other vessels, about emergency provisions: an Oceandiva
-sized accident would be on a scale never before seen on the Thames. Last week's fire on a mega-yacht in Torqua
y closed down beaches and roads, left the Environmental Agency dealing with a fuel slick and unknown numbers of people affected by the billowing black smoke. The boat's ropes were burnt - it drifted off its mooring and lurched into a pier wall. That yacht was 25.9 metres long. The Oceandiva
'yacht' is 86 metres long, far wider and much, much taller. The Torquay yacht could host 8 guests; the Oceandiva
Please have a look at this website
, and sign the petition. The historic Thames deserves better than to be commodified in this way. Imagine what imprecations Dickens or Shakespeare would have uttered if this mega-boat invaded their
Thames with loud parties and brand launches of opulent carriages that most Londoners could never afford? On the rare occasions when they've been given a chance, today's river denizens have had plenty to say about it. You can read their words on the website, on the petition
and even here
, one of the few publications where candid comments on the Oceandiva
were briefly allowed.
I've just published a short blog entitled 'Liquid Iniquity' on Writers Rebel
I'll finish with some of the aforementioned candid comments by Londoners ...
It’s disgusting that in the 21st century, with all our concerns for the environment, natural habitat and housing, that some company’s greed is allowed to supersede respect for nature - particularly the river wildlife including seals and for the thousands of residents who live along the river. It will gradually take business away from small river cruise companies and put more cash into the greedy hands of large companies who care more about wealth and status than they do the quality of life of residents and nature.
For the thousands who live along the Thames, we’ve all been woken late at night to the blaring horns, way over-amplified disco music, and DJs shouting on top of that for the entertainment of drunk party goers retching up their blue daiquiris into the Thames ... Now they want to build the river’s largest earsore.
This giant gaudy Dubai style monster ship has no place on the Thames. It would only ever be a noisy, unenvironmental, dominating, damaging money making machine. Leave the Thames alone!
The peace of the Thames is what’s got me through lockdown as unlike wealthy people I don’t have a car to drive out to the countryside. The Thames is our inner city sanctuary. The foreshore is covered in history, and seals swim up the Thames. This monstrosity doesn’t belong here.
This is absolutely horrifying, how could they even think of ruining this lovely historic part (or any part) of the Thames with such a monster. An absurd eyesore which will also be a string of accidents waiting to happen...a non-eco-friendly aberration which would completely ruin the historic setting and ambience of this part of London’s ancient river. Absolutely wrong, astonished the idea even got this far.
Please do add your own eloquence to the petition
. It may not be too late. Our views are of demonstrably little interest to the PLA or the MCA. However, we're doing our best to make sure that our voices are heard in every other place where it could possibly make a difference ... in the Highways and Environmental Health departments of the riparian communities threated by the Oceandiva
, with Transport for London, with the River Thames All Party Parliamentary Group, with the authority that will licence the vessel to sell alcohol, but most of all in the court of public opinion, which must count for something, even on the Thames.
We haven't given up on the Mayor's office, either. When it came to the Oceandiva's designs on Swan Lane Pier, the GLA's Stage One conclusion was that the project failed to comply with the London Plan, which seeks to promote sustainable, biodiverse and considerate development, while safeguarding the public realm for Londoners.
Surely the Mayor of London has some sway over the future of his city's largest and most historic public realm, the river. Doesn't he?