Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Daniel Charles Trout was the Harbour Master at Topsham Quay from 1902 to 1918. In May, 1918 he fell to his death while working in the hold of a three masted schooner. In the words of his grandson, Daniel, as recorded by Sara Vernon in the nineteen-eighties, “he was killed alongside the Quay, fitting new beams into the Leader, standing on a twelve-inch wide beam to drive the top one in with a bittle. They think there must have been a bit of rope hanging out over and it hitched in the bittle so that he lost his balance and fell six feet and broke his back. He died twenty-four hours later.”

Jim Voysey, then eleven years old, witnessed this tragedy. He remembered walking home from school on that fatal day with Daniel’s son Les, and seeing the broken man being carried from the hold. They were “bringing him in on a plank of wood.”

‘Bittle’ ,or perhaps better ‘bittel’, is another word of the Estuary not to be found in dictionaries and in danger of being lost. It means a wooden mallet. Standard English has the word as ‘beetle’ but this kind of beetle is a rare species. A few trades still recognise beetles and the tautologous ‘beetle mallet’ but the word ‘bittel’ was until recently the preferred word for a mallet in these parts.

Shakespeare uses ‘beetle’ once, but only once: “fillip me with a three man beetle.” exclaims Falstaff. And the groundlings would have laughed at the image of that great tun of a man on his back and being battered by the Elizabethan equivalent to a tamping rammer! But the Devon word is more recognisably descended from a standard Anglo Saxon word for hammer, bītel. As so often, the Devon word more closely echoes the meanings and the language of the Old English.

The Leader ended up, like many another vessel, stranded and left to rot in the mud on the far side of the river from Topsham. Some think of her as being Daniel Charles Trout’s memorial.

1 comment:

  1. "Bittle" is among the many, many variants on "beetle" in the OED:

    "1 bíetel, bítel, býtel, 3 bettle, 4 bytylle, 4-6 betel, 5 betylle, bittill, 5-6 betell(e, 6 betill, -yll, betle, beetel(le, 7 boytle, 8-9 dial. beatle, bittle, 6- beetle.

    1. An implement consisting of a heavy weight or ‘head,’ usually of wood, with a handle or stock, used for driving wedges or pegs, ramming down paving stones, or for crushing, bruising, beating, flattening, or smoothing, in various industrial and domestic operations, and having various shapes according to the purpose for which it is used; a mall"

    The "mall" is an interesting little extra: not the usual kind, but the thing of which a mallet is the diminutive.