Barbara Wreaks: Quite forgotten, even in the place of her birth

Barbara Hofland (née Wreaks), 1770 – 1844

Barbara Wreaks was the daughter of Robert Wreaks, a Sheffield manufacturer, brother of the better-known Marmaduke Wreaks, hairdresser, wigmaker, and toy merchant, of High Street.

Barbara was born in 1770, and first achieved local fame in 1795 by a series of contributions to the Sheffield Courant (1793-1797), entitled, ‘Characteristics of Some Leading Inhabitants of Sheffield at the Close of the 18th Century.

In 1796, she married Thomas Hoole, a Sheffield manufacturer, but quickly became a widow, and went to live with her mother-in-law in Attercliffe, where in 1805 she wrote a volume of poems, of which over 2,000 were printed, “By James Montgomery at the Iris office.” The list of subscribers occupied nearly fifty pages of the book, and most of them were Sheffield folk, but whether their large number is testimony to culture in Sheffield in those days, or simply to Barbara’s own assiduous canvassing, it is hard to tell.

With the profits from the book, she opened Grove House boarding school in Harrogate, a forerunner to what is now Harrogate College. Later she married Thomas Christopher Hofland, the landscape painter, and removed to London, where she became well-known as a prolific writer. She published nearly a hundred books, chiefly for young readers. One of her many popular books (as Mrs. Hofland) was The Blind Farmer and His Children (1816). Her most popular children’s book was The Son of a Genius, about an impulsive artist, which may contain autobiographical elements. She died in 1844.

© 2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved


Robert Eadon Leader’s long life saw the greatest development in world history and Sheffield shared it to the full

Robert Eadon Leader (1838-1922). “One may be quite sure in reading anything he wrote that if he made a definitive statement he had verified everything before committing to writing.” Photograph: Picture Sheffield

If it had not been for Robert Eadon Leader, we might not know much about Sheffield history. Today, his work provides us with a definitive account of our past. “He was an antiquary to the finger-tips, with an infinite relish for patiently searching among old records, and a comprehensive knowledge which enabled him to distinguish truth from myth, almost at a glance.”

Robert Eadon Leader, journalist, Liberal activist, and historian, was the son of Alderman Robert Leader and was born at Broomhall in 1839. He was the descendant of an old Sheffield family, his ancestors for four generations connected with the firm of Tudor, Leader, and Nicholson, silversmiths.

His grandfather became proprietor of the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent in 1830, and his father succeeded to the paper in 1842.

In 1860, Robert and his older brother, John Daniel Leader, were admitted into partnership. Four years later, the father retired in favour of his two sons, though he continued to take an active part in the editorial work until 1875.

The brothers divided work between them. Robert became editor and John became commercial manager, an arrangement that lasted until 1892, when Robert became a Liberal Parliamentary candidate and gave up the editorial chair. The  Leader family sold the paper a few years later.

“Occasionally when some question arose regarding Sheffield history I wrote and asked him about it and invariably received a courteous reply giving me all the information I wanted. It was invariably accompanied by a note that I was at liberty to make what use I liked of it, but not to mention his name.” -Unknown journalist – 1939. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

His expertise in local history was comprehensive, and his most famous volumes were ‘Reminiscences of Old Sheffield’ and ‘Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century’. He also published two volumes of the ‘History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire’, written at the request of the Company. It was completed when King Edward and Queen Alexandria visited Sheffield for the opening of the University and handsomely bound copies were presented to them.

Robert also wrote ‘Local Notes and Queries’ and ‘Spectator in Hallamshire’ for the Sheffield Independent.

He lived at Moorgate, on Crookesmoor Road, and moved to London in 1893. He died at his home in Whetstone in 1922 and was cremated, his ashes afterwards brought to Sheffield and interred in the family vault at the General Cemetery.

The widespread collection of his papers is held by Sheffield City Archives, and what a treasure trove these will be! And don’t forget that Leader House, the ancient family home, still stands at the end of Surrey Street.

R.E. Leader had the reputation of being able to put more cutting sarcasm into a few words than any man in Sheffield, and wielded a terrible lash with merciless power. But, personally, he was an agreeable man, with a charming manner.” Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

Next year will be the centenary of Robert Eadon Leader’s death and I plan to put together a more comprehensive history then.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved


“We have indeed seen Sheffield burn.”

“We have indeed seen Sheffield burn. Many parts of our city have been destroyed; our peacetime occupations have been replaced by a complete conversion to wartime conditions. We must rebuild, reorganise, and reabsorb the men who are now away fighting. What a task! It will not be done by talking. It can only be achieved by enterprise, organisation, and very hard work. Also, we shall need good fortune and that which happens elsewhere will determine in large measure our own opportunities. If this war has taught us one thing, it is that our city is simply a cog in the wheel which is our country, and that our country is a part, and no mean part, of the mechanism of the civilised world.” – Dr W.H. Hatfield, Sheffield, 1943.

Books People

Sheffield Books: The Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

If you want to read a novel about Sheffield, then a good place to start is Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, an epic chronicle published in 2008.

It charts the relationship between two families, who live on opposite sides of a street in Sheffield in the 1970s – Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their three children; and their neighbours the Sellers family, newly arrived from London.  It ends in the mid-nineties with one of the children running a trendy restaurant.

Philip Hensher (born 1965), is a novelist, critic, journalist and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Born in South London, he spent most of his childhood in Sheffield and attended Tapton School. Now he’s the author of several novels including The Mulberry Empire, Scenes from an Early Life, and A Small Revolution in Germany.

He says that The Northern Clemency came after years of thinking about school and childhood, and it brought forth details that he put into the book.

“I made a practice of getting up early, and thinking hard about long-lost places – a school, our house then, a favourite shop, a library. All sorts of details would emerge, even phantom smells. Then I started to write. I knew who the characters were, but not at first who they grew into. 

“It took about three years to write. I wrote best when I was away from the novel’s sites. The most productive period was three weeks in Khartoum, Sudan. There was not a great deal to do in that great but strange city. In the mornings I got out one of the 10 school exercise books and one of the 20 blue Biros I had bought from a stationer in the Omdurman market, and wrote solidly, 2,000 or even 3,000 words.”

The novel contains one of the most unusual lines about Sheffield. “Dense Victorian villas dispersed through a verdant forest, breaking out like the frilled edges of amateur maternal pancakes into lavender moorland”

The book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.


The Devil Man: Edgar Wallace and The Life and Death of Charles Peace

Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932)

Reading a biography of Edgar Wallace is an exhausting experience. He was the author of over 170 books, translated into more than thirty languages. More films were made from his books than any other twentieth-century writer, and in the 1920s a quarter of all books read in England were written by him.

He was said to sleep just a few hours every night. The rest of the time was spent dictating novels, plays (many of which were performed at Sheffield’s Theatre Royal and Lyceum), newspaper articles, and racing tips. His secretaries typed out finished copy and sent them off to publishers.

Edgar Wallace, the illegitimate son of a travelling actress, rose from poverty in Victorian England to become the most popular author in the world and a global celebrity of his age. He scooped the signing of the Boer War peace treaty when working as a war correspondent, before achieving success as a film director and playwright. At the height of his success, he was earning a vast fortune, but the money went out as fast as it came in. Famous for his thrillers, with their fantastic plots, in many ways Wallace did not write his most exciting story: he lived it.

Edgar Wallace. “He knew wealth & poverty, yet had walked with kings and kept his bearing. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”

In the 1930s, Joseph P. Lamb, the Sheffield city librarian, analysed borrowing trends and decided that people wanted the same type of books – they ‘read along mass lines,’ he once said, and people were irritated when ‘their’ books were out on loan. As a result of this, books by populist authors like Edgar Wallace were purchased in fifties of each title.

In 1931, Edgar Wallace published ‘The Devil Man,’ with definitive links to Sheffield.

The book focused on Sheffield’s favourite criminal Charles Peace. According to the Sheffield Daily Independent it held the reader throughout. ‘The bad little man is as fascinating in Mr Wallace’s pages as he was supposed to be to women during his lifetime.’

“He was a queer, incongruous figure of a man. His height could not have been more than five feet; the big, dark, deep-set eyes were the one pleasant feature in a face which was utterly repulsive. They were the eyes of an intelligent animal. The forehead was grotesquely high, running in furrows almost to where at the crown of his head, a mop of grey hair rolled back. The unshaven cheeks were cadaverous, deeply lined and hollow. He wore home-knitted mittens, and in one hand clutched an ancient violin case.”

The Devil Man: The Life and Death of Charles Peace (1931)

Wallace did not mix fiction with fact, ‘he rather built an additional storey of fiction on the solid house of fact.’

Wallace raked Peace’s ugly career as it stood – his friendship with the flashy Mrs Dyson and the subsequent murder of her husband – and superimposed a strange plot regarding the secret of a new steel process – presumably stainless.

Dyson had in his possession a bottle containing some all-important crystals, and Peace is offered a large sum of money by foreigners living in Sheffield if he will steal the bottle.

This, according to Wallace, was his errand on that terrible night in Banner Cross in November 1876 when Peace shot Dyson, a former neighbour at Darnall.

Peace quarrelled with Mrs Dyson, shot her husband, secured the bottle, and then handed it to a confederate, which was the last he ever saw of it. It was in connection with this murder  that, according to Wallace, Peace had previously gone to Manchester to commit a burglary and murdered a policeman.

Charles Peace (1832-1879) Photograph: Picture Sheffield

‘The atmosphere of Sheffield in the ‘70s is deftly caught,’ said the Sheffield Daily Independent. ‘And although one feels in this book as one does in other Wallace novels – that toward the end the author has got a little bored with his subject: the story is brilliantly told.’

Wallace stated that it had taken him four years to collect the facts for the story, four months to construct the book, and four days to write it.

According to author Neil Clark, who penned ‘Stranger Than Fiction – The Life of Edgar Wallace’, ‘Sir Patrick Hastings was a guest during the weekend Wallace wrote the 70,000-word novel in just sixty hours. Hastings had difficulty in sleeping on the Friday night, and had gone to Wallace’s study where he found him dictating. He sat and watched him for two hours and was enthralled by the way Wallace worked. By nine o’clock on Monday morning, Wallace had completed his task, which earned him £4,000 in serial rights alone. He then went to bed for two days to make up for the sleep he had missed.’

A year after the novel was published, Edgar Wallace went to Hollywood to work on the RKO ‘gorilla picture’ King Kong, but his gruelling lifestyle finally caught up with him, and he died of diabetes and double pneumonia in February 1932.

In his will it was revealed that he had debts of £140,000 and almost all his possessions had to be sold. However, within two years, the royalties from Wallace’s work had cleared all the debts.

Sources: Stranger Than Fiction – The Life od Edgar Wallace, The Man Who Created King Kong, by Neil Clark (2014) and Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016.


“War and work, work and war, and it is said it might have been so different.”

On the nights of 11th and 13th December 1940, a German attack on Sheffield lasted for many hours, and cinemas, stores, and shops, were wrecked, and some churches damaged. Two days later, on the 15th and 16th, Sheffield was again attacked with material results, explosions, and a considerable number of fires observed.

“Between 3.30 and 4.00 a.m. on 13th December 1940, from our terrace we watched Sheffield burn. Sheffield is my native city. I felt then that the rest of my life must be devoted to helping to restore and rebuild the fortunes of the city.”

These words were written by Dr W. H. Hatfield in the introduction of his book, Sheffield Burns, published in 1943, in which he idealises and hopes the city will have a brighter future.

“My father desired to rest with his father, and I remember subsequently on a quiet wintry afternoon standing before their tombstone and reading the dates on which my grandfather and my father passed away, and then realising that I could from the inscriptions before me, predict the approximate date upon which I, given good fortune, would also pass away.”

Hatfield gave the final proofs of his book to his publisher on 13th October 1943 and died four days later, much sooner than he had probably anticipated.

He died through strain and overwork in furthering our war effort,” said his wife Edith at the time. “Working unflinchingly at all hours, day and night for four years without rest or holiday, for our armaments and aircraft industry.”

William Herbert Hatfield was born in 1882, and worked in the laboratory of Henry Bessemer and Co, while at the same time studying at University College, Sheffield, where he became Doctor of Metallurgy in 1913. Later he became a metallurgist at John Crowley and Co and was subsequently appointed director of the Brown-Firth Research Laboratories, and later with the board of Thomas Firth and John Brown.

It was Hatfield who discovered 18/8 stainless steel in 1924 which happens to be the most widely used stainless steel in the world today. For all his efforts, he is sadly overlooked by history, except for the Hatfield Memorial Lecture, held every December by the University of Sheffield.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


John Harris: a bestselling author over four decades

John Harris (1916-1991). Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

He might not have been from Sheffield, but Rotherham counts, and the steel city had a big impact on his career.

Ernest John Harris (1916-1991) was a sailor, airman, a journalist, travel courier, cartoonist, and a history teacher. He was best known as a productive author publishing a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pel, as well as numerous war books. He wrote under his own name, John Harris, and under the pennames of Mark Hebden and Max Hennessy.

He wrote more than 80 novels, including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) that became a film of the same name starring Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Steel.

Harris was educated at Rotherham Grammar School before getting a job as a reporter at the Rotherham Advertiser in the early 1930s.

He married Betty Wragg in Rotherham and had a son, Max, and a daughter, Juliet, who carried on the Pel detective series after her father’s death.

Harris moved to the Sheffield Telegraph and during World War Two served in the RAF as a corporal attached to the South African Air Force. It was said that he served two navies and two air forces during the war.

Afterwards, he re-joined the Sheffield Telegraph as a political and comedy cartoonist, drawing comic strips such as the Calamity Kids and Amateur Archie, and published his first novel, The Lonely Voyage, in 1951.

Amateur Archie featured in the Sheffield Telegraph, as well as other regional newspapers during the 1950s. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

He stayed in Sheffield until the 1950s and following the success of The Sea Shall Not Have Them became a full-time author, moving to West Wittering in West Sussex.

After turning to full-time writing, Harris wrote adventure stories and created a sequence of crime novels around the quirky fictional character Chief Inspector Pel.

Covenant with Death was published in 1961 and despite critical acclaim has long-since been overlooked. Photograph: Sphere.

Harris’s books are still in publication, and for Sheffielders, a must-read is Covenant with Death (1961), a ‘fictionary’ account of the Sheffield City Battalion from its formation to catastrophe at Serre on 1 July 1916.

“When war breaks out in 1914, Mark Fenner and his Sheffield friends immediately flock to Kitchener’s call. Amid waving flags and boozy celebration, the three men – Fen, his best friend Locky and self-assured Frank, rival for the woman Fen loves – enlist as volunteers to take on the Germans and win glory.

“Through ramshackle training in sodden England and a stint in arid Egypt, rebellious but brave Fen proves himself to be a natural leader, only undermined by on-going friction with Frank. Headed by terse, tough Sergeant Major Bold, this group of young men form steel-strong bonds and yearn to face the great adventure of the Western Front.

“Then, on one summer’s day in 1916, Fen and his band of brothers are sent to the Somme, and this very ordinary hero discovers what it means to fight for your life.”

Harris interviewed battalion survivors for the book, and the central character, Mark Fenner, is partly based on his Sheffield Telegraph colleague Jess Richard ‘Roddy’ Robinson.

John Harris died in 1991.

A master of war and crime fiction. Photograph: Curtis Brown.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Buildings People

Stirring Up Sheffield: “Adventures need heroes and troublesome villains.”

Denounced by theatrical knight Bernard Miles, by councillors at public meetings and in the media, Colin George carried the day to build the Crucible Theatre, inspired by the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie, who died before he could direct the Crucible’s first play, Ibsen’s rarely-produced epic Peer Gynt. Photograph: Tenby Observer.

Here’s a book that will become a collectors item, and a must for those who appreciate Sheffield’s recent history. ‘Stirring Up Sheffield,’ a substantial book, is written by the Crucible Theatre’s first Artistic Director, Colin George, and his son, Tedd George, and will be published by Wordville Press on 9 November 2021.

This is the extraordinary story of a group of visionaries who came together to build the revolutionary thrust stage theatre. The radical design they proposed for the auditorium—which redefined the actor/audience relationship—aroused fierce opposition from Sheffield’s conservative quarters and several of the era’s theatrical luminaries. But it also galvanised a new generation of Britain’s actors, directors, designers and playwrights who launched a passionate defence of the thrust stage and its theatrical potential.

Colin George was the founding Artistic Director of the Crucible Theatre. Born in Pembroke Dock, Wales, in 1929, Colin read English at University College, Oxford, and was a founding member of the Oxford and Cambridge Players. After acting in the repertory companies of Coventry and Birmingham, Colin joined the Nottingham Playhouse in 1958 as Assistant Director to Val May. In 1962, he was appointed as Assistant Director at the Sheffield Playhouse, becoming Artistic Director in 1965. Colin played a leading role in the creation of the Crucible Theatre, which opened in November 1971, and was the Crucible’s Artistic Director from 1971 to 1974.

“My father was Artistic Director of the Playhouse and the previous year Sheffield City Council had agreed that the Playhouse should have a new theatre. Discussions on its design were already advanced, but my father was unhappy with the proposed stage and wanted to break free from the ‘picture box’ proscenium arch and bring the actors closer to the audience.” – Tedd George. Photograph: Wordville Press.

During his tenure Colin also established Sheffield Theatre Vanguard. This innovative scheme took theatre out of the Crucible to engage with the wider Sheffield community. Sheffield Theatres continues to build on his legacy with Sheffield People’s Theatre, a cross-generational community company which trains and nurtures the aspirations and skills of local people through special one-off projects and collaborations.

He later worked as Artistic Director of the Adelaide State Theatre Company (1976-1980), as Artistic Director of the Anglo-Chinese Chung Ying Theatre Company (1983-1985) and as Head of Drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (1985-1992). Colin joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as an actor (1994-96 & 1997-99).

The Crucible Theatre is today one of Britain’s major touring venues and a Producing House in its own right, and is also famous for being the home of the World Snooker Championship, screened on TVs all over the world every year. Image: Sheffield Theatres.

In 2011 Colin was invited by the Crucible’s Artistic Director, Daniel Evans, to join the Company for the 40th anniversary production of Othello. This was to be his last theatrical performance and, fittingly, it took place on the thrust stage he had created. Following Othello, Colin produced the first draft of this book, before his death in October 2016.

The introduction is by Sir Ian McKellen:

“Adventures need heroes and here its principal one is Colin George, the first artistic director of The Crucible Theatre, who in this memoir recalls in fascinating detail how, aided by others locally and internationally, a dream came true. Here, too, there are troublesome villains, who failed to share our hero’s imagination and determination.”

In 2011, in the theatre’s 40th anniversary production of Othello with Dominic West and Clarke Peters, Daniel Evans invited George back to play Desdemona’s aged father. It was George’s last role, in a theatre he loved and which was now garlanded with awards. And it was a full house. Photograph: The Guardian.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Other People

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Sheffield Banker

The August 1948 edition of America’s Cosmopolitan Magazine which featured ‘The Last Adventure of Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Was Wanted.’ Photograph: WorthPoint.

This might have been called ‘Arthur Conan Doyle’s Last Case,’ except it was one which that great writer left to others to solve and involved a story with Sheffield connections.

Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930 and several documents, unused typescripts, and odd papers, were placed in a deed box by Lady Conan Doyle. Among them were some typewritten pages headed, ‘The Man Who Was Wanted,’ recounting a hitherto unrelated adventure of the great Sherlock Holmes.

Reference was made to it by Hesketh Pearson, a biographer of Conan Doyle, and the revelation caused a literary stir. People clamoured for its publication, American and British editors approached the Conan Doyle family, and tempting prices were mentioned. But the family were unwilling to sell at the time.

Some years later, the American Cosmopolitan magazine acquired the right to print the story in the United States, and in Britain, shortly after Christmas 1948, it was published by the Sunday Dispatch.

It prompted a letter to the Conan Doyle family from Arthur Whitaker, a slim, grey-haired man, who was living in Longridge, near Stroud, and spent his days collecting ornithology reports from bird-watchers in Gloucestershire.

“You know that story called ‘The Man Who Was Wanted,’ which appeared in an American magazine and in the Sunday Dispatch? Well, I wrote it. I don’t want any money or publicity, of course, but I just thought you’d like to know, that’s all.”

It caused upset in the Conan Doyle family and a solicitor began to investigate the claim. He interviewed Whitaker, examined a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle, and saw that he had an exact carbon copy of ‘The Man Who Was Wanted.’

“It is quite simple, really,” said Mr Whitaker. “In 1911 I was a young architect, married, and living in Barnsley. I thought I might earn a little more money by writing detective stories, so I wrote five or six. One was called ‘The Man Who Was Wanted.’ I sent it to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking him whether he ever collaborated in story-writing, and if he would like to collaborate with me.

“He replied that the story was not bad, but that he did not collaborate; he sometimes paid ten guineas, however, for an idea which he later worked up in his own way. He advised me to change the names in the story and get it published myself. However, I accepted the ten guineas, and he retained the typescript. That’s all there is to it, really.”

Because the typescript was unsolicited, the Conan Doyle family had retained it but held back on publication believing it was not up to the great man’s standards. However, Arthur Conan Doyle’s son, Denis, had eventually allowed publication with a note to that effect, and adding that the family had at last yielded to public pressure and had allowed it to be printed.

Arthur Whitaker, a ‘simple, frank type of man, living in Barnsley, away back in 1911, when there were hansom cabs, and young men wore luxuriant moustaches and straw boaters.’ Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

And the Sheffield Connection? I quote from the pages of ‘The Man Who Was Wanted.’

“Holmes picked up a telegram from the table and looked at it thoughtfully. “If only the inquiry this refers to promised to be of anything like the interest of some we have gone into together, nothing would have delighted me more than to have persuaded you to throw your lot in with mine for a time; but really I’m afraid to do so, for it sounds a particularly commonplace affair,” and he crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it over to me.

“I smoothed it out and read: “To Holmes, 221B Baker Street, London, S.W. Please come to Sheffield at once to inquire into case of forgery. Jervis, Manager British Consolidated Bank.”

“It appears that a gentleman named Mr. Jabez Booth, who resides at Broomhill, Sheffield, and has been an employee since January I88I, at the British Consolidated Bank in Sheffield, yesterday succeeded in cashing quite a number of cleverly forged cheques at twelve of the principal banks in the city and absconding with the proceeds.”

The Conan Doyle family returned the money it received from the Sunday Dispatch and the newspaper forwarded it to Arthur Whitaker to help him support his seriously wife.

The story itself eventually appeared in ‘The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: After Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.’ It was credited to Arthur Whitaker and retitled ‘The Adventure of the Sheffield Banker.’

Photograph: Goodreads.
Photograph: Goodreads.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


The Adventures of Roger L’Estrange

The fascinating story of Roger L’Estrange stands alongside Sheffield’s claim to Robin Hood, and if it is true, makes him one of our most remarkable sons.

This account begins in 1891 when Dominick Daly, barrister-at-law, and former editor of the Birmingham Gazette, was in Mexico City on private business, and was asked by his friend, Colonel Hoffman, of New York, to see if he could find documents that he could use in a forthcoming book about Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican Messiah – a strange legendary white man with a long beard, reputed to have imparted the doctrine and practices of Christianity on the Aztecs, hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquest.

Daly visited the city’s library and was allowed access into its archives.

“One day, I happened to pick out from amongst the contents of an old cedar-wood chest, a strongly, though roughly bound book of quart size, secured by a broad strap of leather.”

Written in English and Spanish, it appeared to be a diary written by Roger L’Estrange, ‘Sometime Captain of the Florida Army of His Excellency the Marquis Hernando De Soto, Governor of Cuba, and Captain-General of all Florida,’ who accompanied De Soto in the invasion of Florida in 1541, when the Mississippi River was discovered.

De Soto (1500-1542), the Spanish explorer and conquistador, was famous for leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where he died on the banks of its great river.

Daly spent the next few years translating the document and it was published as Adventures of Roger L’Estrange by Swan Sonnenschein & Co in 1896.

The book came with an impressive preface by Henry Morton Stanley, journalist, explorer, author, and politician, famed for his exploration of central Africa and his search for missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, whom he later claimed to have greeted with the now-famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

“What I most admire in Roger is that he is so fresh, naïve, and candid, and can tell a straight story. Even Daniel Defoe, of whose style he reminds me, could not have told it better.”

The reference to Defoe was not lost on a reviewer in The Bystander magazine:

“I read with immense pleasure the book by Mr Dominick Daly. The book contained an extremely interesting account of De Soto’s ill-starred expedition, together with an elaborate route map; but I confess I am still in doubt as to whether it was a work of fiction or fact. I accepted it as the latter; but many critics treated the book as pure romance.”

The Sheffield connection appeared in the opening chapter of the translation:

“My father, Roger L’Estrange, was son of a yeoman in a Yorkshire holding in fee by ancient descent a small but sufficient estate in land not far from the town of Sheffield. My mother was daughter of Sir Geoffrey Stanley, of the ancient and noble family of Stanleys of Hooton Manor, Cheshire.

“My early years were partly passed in my father’s house, and partly in that of a bachelor brother of his, Uncle Richard, who was a founder and worker of metals, at Sheffield, where he made knives, scissors, and cutting implements of all kinds, as well as many other useful things. Now Uncle Richard was much attached to me from my earliest youth, and desired greatly that I should come into his trade at Sheffield and keep it as my own business after he passed away. Therein I was nothing loth, nor was my father unwilling; but my good mother and the Stanleys were cold to a proposal which they said would turn me from a gentleman into a mere mechanic.

“So, though much was spoken about it, nothing ever came of Richard’s plan; though all the same I spent a good deal of time with him, and by his help gained some knowledge of the many curious arts of his business, and also of those appertaining to other trades carried on by artificers engaged in making metal implements and utensils, pottery, bricks, grindstones, charcoal, lime, and other things. For Sheffield is a town where there are five rapidly flowing streams, which are made use of to turn a multitude of wheels for all kinds of purposes. Besides which, great quantities of metallic ores, stones, and clays of various sorts, and wood, are found very near the town, or not far off. What I learned with my Uncle Richard in Sheffield was afterwards very useful to me.

“I was nigh seventeen years when my father died somewhat suddenly, and then my brother Hugh succeeded as heir to the paternal estate. Thereupon my Grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, sent to my mother to say that she should come back to Hooton to live again with him, and should bring me with her, and he would take charge of my education and future advancement.”

Roger L’Estrange, along with his cousin Stanley, eventually left Hooton, travelling to Bilbao, and via Madrid, ended up in the Florida expedition with De Soto, going through thrilling adventures and continuous fights between the Indians and the Spanish invaders. That was in 1538.

L’Estrange never returned to Sheffield but married an Indian woman and established a ‘Little Sheffield’ on the banks of the Mississippi River. He began making spades and ploughs made of wood, then, having built a furnace for melting copper, made hammer heads, nails, household utensils, and other useful articles. He built a large trade by barter with neighbouring Indian tribes.

Then the L’Estrange’s found iron and tin, and his implements and weapons greatly improved, the first steel saw fashioned from an old cuirass (piece of armour).

Roger eventually built a corn-grinding mill alongside his works, but they didn’t last long. The Mississippi River having little sympathy with foreign invaders, flooded the land, and ‘Little Sheffield’ was destroyed.

The story didn’t end here.

L’Estrange, looking into his affairs, found that he possessed a fortune in jewels, settled in Mexico with his Indian wife and five children, where Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish Viceroy, bestowed on him a large estate, and where, as alleged, he wrote his diary, subsequently lost, rediscovered, and then forgotten about.

In the 1930s, Mr Cecil L’Estrange Ewen, author of “Witch Hunting and Witch Trials’ and “A History of British Surnames,’ published a pamphlet designed to show that there never was a Roger L’Estrange, and that Sheffield’s claim “to have produced the first Englishman to navigate the Mississippi must be relegated to the limbo of the chimerical.”

The Telegraph and Independent responded:

“For our part, we intend to go on believing it – as in the case of Robin Hood. Learned persons assure us that Robin was a myth. Not to us, he wasn’t; Nor are we going to consign Roger to that category. Whether Mr. Ewen is right or wrong in the contentions he puts forward in his pamphlet we shall make no attempt to decide. But we don’t like parting with Roger and the ‘Little Sheffield’ story. If it wasn’t true, it ought to have been. It was just the sort of thing a Sheffield man would do.”

But it appears that Sheffield did forget Roger L’Estrange – ignored until now.

For my part, I’m afraid that “Adventures of Roger L’Estrange” was probably an elaborate work of fiction, a story brilliantly orchestrated by Dominick Daly.

With the benefit of modern technology, it appears there never was a Roger L’Estrange from Sheffield, neither does there seem to have been a Sir Geoffrey Stanley at Hooton Manor (although the family and house did exist until 1788). Colonel Henry C. Hoffman died in 1883, eight years before supposedly asking Dominick Daly to search the library archives. And, in 1891, the year of the diary’s discovery, Daly appears to have spent most of the year in the English law-courts, and not in Mexico!

But, there again, you never know, and it makes a compelling story.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.