When I first came to live on Sheppey in October 2008, I started to research the Island’s ecology and history. One of the many things I discovered was that a substance called copperas was processed here on quite a large scale in the 16th C and even up to the 19th Century. Copperas was a very important commodity, with many commercial uses, bringing wealth to England and in particular to Queenborough. I found a very short reference to a man named Mathias Falconer, by historian William Lambard in his “Perambulations of Kent”, written in 1570. Falconer was a Dutch immigrant who started processing copperas at Queenborough. It is thought to be the earliest known reference to a chemical factory in Britain. This is my imagining of his story.
A Reading from a Letter locked in a small iron box, which was dug from a trench, during the archaeological excavation of Queenborough Castle in 2005. It was addressed to Anna Falconer, closed with the seal of Mathias Falconer.
My Dear Anna,
Before I am laid in my grave, I am compelled to write this letter to you as my dear wife. It has come to you sealed with instructions “To be opened by you alone after my death”. There’s a dreadful ache in the sinews in my old hands, which makes this all the harder to write, but I must try to set things right by you, before it is too late.
I know that you have always shared with me a deep love of the flat heath-lands around the home we built together back in Brabant, in our Dutch motherland in the year 1545.
You were my companion and help through the years I spent learning my trade as an alchemical engineer, working with what to you was the accursed copperas. In truth, I wished only to give the best support I could to our little family. But you know it became impossible for us to worship as our consciences saw fit, because the Spaniards still ruled North Brabant.
Oh Anna, I remember you fondly as a young woman of 20, dressed all in white and pink for our wedding day, what a joyous day that was! And do you remember that Christmas-time when we visited your cousins in Antwerp? The goose was so fat we thought it would not be cooked in time for the festive meal. The trees were all dressed in white and the bells were ringing out when we took our little Pieter tobogganing for the first time after morning church. How he loved it! Reluctant as you were, but brave woman that you are, you took a turn on the sled, and how you laughed when you fell into that snowdrift and came out looking like a snow-woman, with your bright red nose!
Ah yes, we had some happiness in our years together and I was reluctant to take you and our beloved Pieter, who was then but seven years old, to England, against your wishes, but I felt it was for the best. I believed it would give us freedom from religious persecution, and give us the chance to build a better quality of life. And it did give us those things, did it not, Anna?
Think what a guileful Act the Pope decreed, to make Antwerp the only place where copperas could be bought! Hah, those Papists sowed up the market as tight as a duck’s arse! So, in the year of ‘65, when the Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth of England offered up monopolies to “certain Dutch Mynerall men”, I had to take the chance to come to England. I am proud to be one of those few men charged by the English Crown with the task of seeking places which yielded the stones to make copperas. Aye, that was the same year that the Spaniards sent their Armada against the English fleet, and were defeated by the clever strategies of Drake and our Queen.
I won’t forget what a time of unease and triumph that was! Stalwart fishermen from Queenborough, Leysdown, and Minster were called to sail with Drake for their country in 11 small ships, such a time!
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. So it was that, in ‘73, I fetched up with you and Pieter at Queenborough on the Isles of Sheppey, and we were furnished with very serviceable quarters, at the Castle. I had found that copperas stones were indeed plentiful on the Minster and Warden shores.
Those heavy, knobbly, dull grey pebbles, full of iron. Only when they are broken open and exposed to the air and sea-water, do you see their true essence. Pale green globules like fish eggs lie on the cut grey-green surface which shines like metal. Your nostrils pick up the faint but unwholesome bad-egg smell of brimstone. Peuch - and it has a nauseous taste! You didn’t know what copperas was at that time, and God knows you always hated it after! But I still think it is almost a magical substance!