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  • Secret Chesterfield by Richard Bradley

    The Crooked Spire, Chesterfield's wonky landmark. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    My first book, Secret Chesterfield, published February through Amberley, was an accidental conception. It was never one of my life's ambitions to write a book about Chesterfield – it just sort of happened. I had been working on an ongoing survey of Derbyshire folklore and calendar customs, past and present, and had made a list of potential publishers who specialised in local history to approach, Amberley being one of the companies was on my hit list. In 2016 I discovered that Amberley in conjunction with the Historical Association had run a national history book competition – but only saw this after the closing date. I saw by chance that in 2017 the competition was being re-run – this time three days before the deadline. I managed to squeak an entry in in time – but didn’t win.

    However, the unexpected consolation prize was that shortly after the competition deadline I was contacted by Nick Grant of Amberley and asked if I wanted to write a title for them. Err, OK then. Seemed like too good an offer to refuse! Having been sent a list of the local history strands that Amberley published, the one that appealed to me the most by far was the 'Secret’ series one. Chesterfield was mutually agreed on the area to focus on as I had quite a bit of material from my existing research covering the area. Although I hadn't grown up there myself, most of my family comes from the surrounding towns and villages. I didn’t really possess the requisite time, inclination or discipline required to write a comprehensive history of Chesterfield from the founding of the town to the present day, but the 'Secret' series was just up my street, focussing on the history that had fallen through the cracks in the pavements. The worst indictment for 'Secret Chesterfield' would be for a member of the townsfolk to read it from cover to cover and think, 'Well, I knew all that already!' It was a fun challenge hunting out obscure facts and episodes that it seemed most people wouldn’t know about.

    George Stephenson, inventor of straight cucumbers. Oh, and public railways. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    I studied History at A Level, but the exalted activities of Louis XIV lavishing his subjects’ money on extending his vanity project palace at Versailles and the tedious ins and outs of British political history of the 1800s had failed to inspire me, and I subsequently received a ‘D’ (there were six of us in my History class; two of my fellow students got results good enough to net themselves a place at the University of Cambridge). On a personal level, the publication of Secret Chesterfield goes some way towards atonement for my rubbish A Level result.

    The visuals were an important part of the project, the 'Secret’ series requiring 100 images to illustrate them. As a non-driver, I passed through Chesterfield on the train most weeks taking my son to visit his grandparents. Throughout the summer and autumn months, as we were picked up at Chesterfield Station I would ask my parents if we could just make a brief detour before driving over to their house in order that I could photograph an ice cream factory/milestone/remains of an oilwell at the back of a garden centre/abandoned churchyard for inclusion in the book. The most surreal moment came when I rang them up en route to meet us and asked if they had a spare cucumber, which I then balanced precariously on the palm of the statue of the town’s illustrious adopted son George Stephenson outside Chesterfield Railway Station, to illustrate his perfectionist zeal for growing immaculately straight cucumbers. This act drew glances from passing commuters which ranged from puzzlement to mild alarm.

    I also enjoyed sourcing the archive images for the book. I have collected postcards on and off for years, so added a few new (old) postcards of Chesterfield to my collection for the purposes of illustrating the book, as the author guidance notes I received from Amberley explained that old postcards are generally OK to use from a copyright point of view. I also sweet-talked various local groups including the Dronfield Heritage Trust, the North East Derbyshire Field Club, and the Chesterfield Astronomical Society (who let me use some wonderful images of their observatory, tucked away down a cul-de-sac in Newbold, being built in the 1950s) into kindly allowing me to use old photos from their collections, which really do add a lot to the book.

    The finished article: town pump Princess Diana well dressing, 2017. (Secret Chesterfield, Amberley Publishing)

    The thread of part of my narrative for a ‘Secret’ history ended up being spoilt rather unexpectedly (and spectacularly) during the course of the writing process. I was including a chapter on ‘Water’ in the book in which I planned to include the Chesterfield well dressings. This practice, of producing a design using natural materials (flower petals, moss, bark, pine cones wool, etc.) in thanks for the gift of water during the summer months, is a well-known phenomenon largely peculiar to Derbyshire. However, it is much more readily associated with the villages of the limestone White Peak areas of the Peak District such as Tideswell, Youlgrave, Buxton and Wirksworth. The fact that Chesterfield had produced dressings since at least 1864 seemed to me a greatly-overlooked fact. However, one of the teams of dressers in 2017 (when I was writing the book) decided to choose an image of Princess Diana as a subject for their well dressing, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death in a Parish car smash as well as the fact that along with Prince Charles she had opened the towns shopping centre development, The Pavements, in 1981. The end result, whilst entirely heartfelt, turned out a little – shall we say – wonky. It was widely shared on the internet, provoking reactions ranging from sarcasm and hilarity to genuine anger – firstly among locals (several of whom commented they never knew Chesterfield made a well dressing, thus vindicating my original line of approach), and then as the story spread like wildfire from citizens of countries around the world. Although the ‘secret’ of the Chesterfield well dressing was now well and truly out, Diana still had to go in the book, it was too good a story to omit.

    How could you earn £10 just from looking in shop windows? Why was the former leader of Chesterfield Council once dressed as a pig and paraded around in a wheelbarrow? Why is a black puddle full of leaves at the back of a garden centre a site of national significance? What was the 19th Century Rector of Staveley’s unusual hobby? How did a troupe of elephants help to bring down an illegal betting ring? Why did the village cross the road? Find out the answers to all these questions, and more, in Secret Chesterfield.

    Richard Bradley's book Secret Chesterfield is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Falkirk by Jack Gillon

    Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert Buchanan – Falkirk’s Bard

    Falkirk in Central Scotland is a small town with a big history and, unlike many other towns, its own bard.

    Robert Buchanan was born in Falkirk’s Steeple Land on 22 June 1835. His father was a baker who worked in and later owned the Pie Office at the steeple. Robert attended Falkirk Parish School where he was ‘not noteworthy for either his regular attendance or overwhelming love of his studies’. On leaving school he was apprenticed as a currier in his Uncle John Gillespie’s business at the foot of Bell’s Wynd. However, his ‘constitution was delicate’ and he did not have the ‘bodily strength necessary for such laborious employment’. At the age of twenty-two Robert was nominated to Her Majesty’s Customs and was appointed to a position at the port of Grangemouth.

    After ten years at Grangemouth, Robert was promoted to a position in Dublin and later to Londonderry. Although Robert’s career prospered in Ireland, he was homesick for Falkirk – his ‘dear auld toon wi’ grey spire crowned’. His wife, Margaret Rankine, a fellow Bairn of Falkirk, passed away from consumption in July 1874 and her remains were returned to Falkirk for internment. The loss of Margaret was a severe blow to Robert and despite plans to return to his native town, he passed away in Londonderry on 31 December 1875.


    The Pie Office, High Street. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert was known at school as a ‘ready rhymer’ and, from 1856, contributed poems to the local paper on a regular basis. His poetry is noted as being distinguished for its ‘light, fanciful grace and airy turn of thought and rhythm.’ A collection of his poems was published in 1901. These feature a number of works dedicated to Falkirk and the ‘Glories of Grangemeouth’.

    His poem ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ was written for a reunion of the Bairns of Falkirk living in Glasgow. It was set to music composed by John Fulcher, and was first performed by the local singer Michael Rennie at the Glasgow Trades Hall on 26 January 1866, where it was ‘warmly applauded by the assembled Bairns of Falkirk’. The tune was arranged for the Falkirk Iron Works Band and played at most of their public appearances. It was for a time Falkirk’s anthem (the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ of the Falkirk Bairns); for many years it was sung at ‘all convivial gatherings held in the ‘dear auld toon’ and wherever the Bairns of Falkirk congregated. It was even introduced into the curriculum of Falkirk board schools.


    ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’:


    The dear auld toon, wi’ grey spire crown’d

    In happy langsyne days,

    We wandered, sun and tempest browned,

    Amang they glens and braes;

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never memory flit

    Frae thee, our dear auld hame.



    For we canna forget the dear auld hame,

    Gae wander where we will;

    Like the sunny beam o’ a simmer’s dream

    That lingers near us still.


    We mind where Carron silvery flings

    Her white spray o’er the linn,

    And dashing doon the woodland sings,

    Wi’ bubbling, brattling din;

    And love blinks o’ a bonnie e’e

    We won by Marion’s Well,

    Twines every round life’s stormy sea,

    A fairy plaited spell.


    Wha wadna lo’e thee? Dear auld hame!

    Wha round thee hasna shared

    That sacred fire that laid De Graeme

    Within the auld kirkyaird?

    And strewed thy field wi’ horse brave,

    Wha focht in Freedom’s name,

    And bleeding won an honoured grave

    In building Scotia’s fame.


    Oh, dear auld hame! tho’ toiling years

    Hae left us sere and grey,

    A glimpse o’ langsyne ‘mid our tears

    Turns dark’ning nicht to day.

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never mem’ry flit

    Frae thee, oor dear auld hame.


    The unveiling of the momument to Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1899 a proposal to erect a monument to Buchanan to ‘perpetuate his memory’ was suggested in the columns of the local paper. In less than three months, £38 and 10s was raised by subscription for the proposed monument. The subscriptions were

    donated by those that ‘had the privilege of personal acquaintance with Buchanan, and who admired him for his poetic gifts and his qualities of head and heart’ and ‘those of a later generation who were happy to support one who had sang so sweetly of the dear auld toon’.

    The ‘chaste and imposing’ monument to Buchanan was unveiled in Falkirk Cemetery on 30 September 1899. Despite torrential rain a large crowd gathered for the ceremony, including one of Buchanan’s daughters, who had travelled from Liverpool to attend the event. The unveiling ceremony ended with a rendition of the ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’, which it was reported ‘touched the hearts of everyone that attended’.

    Perhaps a recital of ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ should be revived for present-day events in the town.

    Jack Gillon's new book Secret Falkirk is available for purchase now.

  • Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England by W. B. Bartlett

    The last surviving remnant of the Castle at Tailleboug, site of one of Richard's great early triumphs in France. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Shortly after the terrible events of 9/11 2001 in New York, President George W. Bush made an appeal for support in his efforts to right the wrongs done to his country. In the process, he unthinkingly used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the actions of the coalition he was attempting to form. He quickly had to withdraw the term as there was a widespread furore about the use of a word that for some still has extremely negative connotations.

    Neither was he alone in using the ‘crusade’ word. His main opponent, Osama Bin Laden, was quick to seize on the slip as evidence that indeed another ‘crusade’ was about to be launched in a rallying-cry for resistance against perceived Western aggression. He reminded his audience of some of those crusaders who had in the past unleashed chaos on the Muslim world; prominent amongst those singled out for particular mention was Richard Coeur de Lion.

    So eight centuries on Richard continues to court controversy. The crusades, in which he took a leading part, are in the modern world an embarrassment. However, eight centuries ago the perception of the movement was vastly different, certainly in Western Europe. The crusades were not only sanctioned by the church, they were encouraged and organised by it. Whilst this may seem morally indefensible through our eyes, it highlights the difficulty of judging the medieval world through a modern prism. We cannot expect a ruler of England in the late 12th Century to think and act in the same way as we would.

    Saladin's castle, one of the major Muslim fortresses in Syria on the borders of Outremer. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    When Richard became king of England in 1189 following the death of his father, Henry II, one of his first acts was to put flesh on the bones of his plans for a crusade. This had already been in formulation for a while; Richard had reacted quickly after the news of a disastrous crusader defeat at Hattin two years before had hit Christendom like a thunderbolt. He had quickly ‘taken the cross’ in a symbolic sense, pledging himself to be a crusader; but he was not so quick to turn his good intentions into practical reality. Now that he was king though, he had the resources of England at his disposal and he was quick to use them to further his crusading ambitions.

    The crusade that followed certainly courted considerable controversy. One such moment came early on after a great triumph at Acre following one of the great set-piece sieges of the Middle Ages. Richard was left after the victory with several thousand Muslim prisoners on his hands. Negotiations were held for their release with the Muslim leader Saladin but the terms agreed for whatever reason were not complied with. Keen to move on to the next stage of the campaign, Richard ordered that the prisoners should be massacred.

    The Victorian image of Richard the Crusader; the statue stands outside Parliament in Westminster. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    The killing of the prisoners at Acre still casts a huge shadow over Richard’s career – though it did not seem to do so at the time where cold-blooded acts such as this were not unique. Much more controversial back then were his relationships with his fellow-crusaders, particularly King Philip of France and Duke Leopold of Austria. Philip could not wait to get back to France and did so not long after he arrived in Outremer (the name for the crusader territories in the Holy Land). By that time, his relationship with Richard had completely broken down, not least because Richard had spurned Philip’s sister Alice to whom he had been betrothed for the ridiculous time of nearly three decades.

    Richard fell out with Duke Leopold over the grimy details of how to split the considerable amount of plunder after Acre fell. Leopold’s banner was flung into a ditch soon after he had put it up over the walls of the city; this was not just some empty symbolic gesture but Leopold staking a claim to a share of the loot that had been taken. Throwing the banner into the ditch was a symbolic rebuttal of his claim to any booty. This act came back to haunt Richard with a vengeance when he was captured by Leopold on his way back to England and held for a huge ransom.

    Controversy also courted Richard in the shape of his relationships with Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was an adventurer who had arrived in Outremer just as the kingdom was on the point of collapse after Hattin. He managed to organise the defence of the port of Tyre and in the process laid the foundations for a fight-back against Saladin. Conrad was elected king of Outremer whilst Richard was in the country, a decision that was not supported by the Lionheart. Shortly after, Conrad was killed in the streets by Muslim assassins. Though definitive evidence of who was behind the killing is elusive, Richard was one of the prime suspects and accusations of his involvement were given as reasons for his imprisonment and ransom by Duke Leopold’s relative, the immensely powerful Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

    The face of the Lionheart: Richard's tomb at Fontevraud. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Even the outcome of the crusade in which Richard was so heavily involved is controversial. Was it a success? It is true that the basis of a reduced but revived crusader kingdom of Outremer was in place by the time that Richard sailed back homewards.  But on the other hand, Jerusalem – lost after Hattin – remained firmly in Muslim hands and that was always seen as the main objective of the expedition. As part of the peace deal negotiated between Richard and Saladin, crusaders were allowed free access to Jerusalem before they returned home. Richard was conspicuously one of those who chose not to go; a sure sign that he would only make the journey to the sacred city on his own terms. This is an indication perhaps that Richard himself did not see the crusade as a success that remained, for him, unfinished business; sadly for him, his premature death in 1199 brought all hopes of his leading a repeat expedition to an end.

    All these unsolved questions and moments of controversy help to explain Richard’s continuing fascination to a modern audience. Later historians tended to criticise him for his obsession with crusading. Ironically it is a claim that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Richard reached Outremer in 1191 and left it less than two years later; he did not go back there during the last seven years of his reign, being far too busy trying to recover lands he had lost to Philip in France during his absence. A number of contemporary chroniclers accused Richard of not being concerned enough about Outremer rather than being obsessed with it; how times have changed and how differently we see the world now.

    W. B. Bartlett's new book Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England is available for purchase now.

  • Great British Gardeners by Vanessa Berridge

    The title page of the original edition of Gerald's Herball, published by Queen Elizabeth I's printer, John Norton, in 1597. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners

    My late father believed that people liked gardening because it was an aspect of their lives that they could control. I always thought he was wrong, as the vagaries of nature lie well beyond human agency. But the style of gardening in the 1950s and 1960s was to plant bright, long-flowering annuals and serried rows of dahlias. It only recently occurred to me that my father’s gardening wasn’t just influenced by gardening fashion, but that the fashion itself had been created by what he and his contemporaries had endured during the chaos of world war. For them, a garden was somewhere they could take charge. They blasted aphids, slugs and other pests with chemicals (no thoughts then about climate change), and would have hated the loose grasses and textural planting of a later, more informal age.

    This is the underlying theme of Great British Gardeners: From Early Plantsmen to Chelsea Medal Winners. This book follows on from my earlier The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew (also published by Amberley) about the political background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759. That book put gardening at the heart of eighteenth-century political life, because gardening, whether we realise it or not, is a political act. Gardening styles down the centuries have been influenced by many different factors, such as fluctuations in trade, war, industrial developments and environmental issues.

    Through the lives of twenty-six gardeners, I have explored four centuries of British history, showing what gardens and those who garden them tell us about political, social and economic concerns in each period.


    Illustration from Thomas Fairchild's The City Gardener. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I have started with John Gerard, who, in 1597, published his Herball, or General Historie of Plants, used as a practical handbook into the nineteenth century. A qualified barber-surgeon, Gerard, had a wide knowledge of plants because he used them in his work. He was gardening and botanising during the Elizabethan age which saw a huge expansion in trade and the beginnings of British colonialism. Gerard travelled across northern Europe with merchant companies acquiring plants, and also invested £25 in the Virginia Company, set up to finance an early colonial settlement in America. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and John Donne, and shared their relish for language. That is why, 400 years later, his Herball remains a wonderful living, breathing book. To understand the Elizabethan age, look no further than John Gerard.

    In the eighteenth century lived a nurseryman called Thomas Fairchild. From a humble, rural background, he had little education, but wrote a charming and evocative book about gardening in London. Published in 1722, The City Gardener was aimed at the merchant class, who, enriched by British trade, now had the leisure to garden. He was also the first known hybridiser, dusting the pollen from a wild carnation on to the stigma of a sweet william. He was nervous about tinkering with nature, for it was still regarded as blasphemous even among the supposedly free-thinking members of the Royal Society. It was a century and a half later before the term ‘hybridisation’ was coined and it became an accepted horticultural practice. Next time you buy a tray of annuals from the garden centre, spare a thought for Mr Fairchild.


    Venus's Vale at Rousham. (Author's collection, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    The eighteenth-century English Landscape Movement was a reaction against the French-inspired formalism of the Stuart period. The Whig aristocrats, architects of the Protestant Hanoverian succession, used their estates to symbolise on the ground the political changes in the country, as Britain became a nation and moved towards a constitutional monarchy. William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown were the two great figures of this movement, smoothing out the landscape for their aristocratic patrons. This new naturalism was intended to evoke the liberties of the British political system as opposed to the rigid autocracy of the French Catholic monarchy.

    Gardening was once a path out of poverty to fame and riches. That was certainly true in the nineteenth century, when Joseph Paxton rose to become one of the country’s leading figures, and the only gardener of my twenty-six to receive a knighthood. He was a landscape designer, an architect, a duke’s confidential friend, a botanical writer, a magazine and newspaper proprietor, an industrialist and railway magnate, a financial speculator, a politician and a visionary. This gardener’s boy was the personification of the Victorian self-made man, and his elaborate, contrived gardens reflected his age’s grand self-confidence.

    Reaction came, as it does: the 1860s saw the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which stressed the importance of craftwork and socialism, as against factory production and over-weaning capitalism. Again, gardens mirrored what was happening in the country: William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll turned away from the formal parterres packed with industrial quantities of exotic plants needing over-wintering in greenhouses. They chose plants which would flourish naturally in British gardens – alpines for rock gardens and hardy perennials for flowerbeds – anticipating the late twentieth-century gardener Beth Chatto by over a century. Beth Chatto’s principle, ‘the right plant in the right place’, is now an almost universally held gardening motto.

    Gertrude Jekyll at the Deanery, Sonning, home of Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life, c. 1901. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I’ve touched on suburban gardening after the Second World War, with its brief return to Victorian formalism. But horticultural currents continued to flow in the direction established by Robinson and Jekyll, as exemplified by the Chelsea Flower Show. Each year, the show is dominated by gardens designed and planted to raise concerns about climate change, care for the environment, conservation of water, and health. Turn on the News at Six: all these issues will be covered at some point in most bulletins.

    One of the most successful Chelsea designers in recent years, Tom Stuart-Smith, unites in his work many of the themes discussed in the book, as well as hinting at the rich variety in our contemporary culture. His gardens capture the spirit of the past, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, current environmental thinking, and a sense that a garden is a microcosm of society.

    Vanessa Berridge's new book Great British Gardeners: From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners is available for purchase now.

  • 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain by Laurence Fenton

    Frederick Douglass in Bristol: Time for the African-American Abolitionist’s Visit to the City to be Commemorated with a Blue Heritage Plaque?

    Eliza Wigham, Mary Estlin and Jane Wigham, the Bristol- and Edinburgh-based abolitionists who worked closely with Douglass during his first tour of the British Isles. ('Eliza Wigham, Mary A. Estlin and Jane Wigham', CabG.3.118, unkown photographer, Print Department, Boston Public Library, 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    While actions from the naming of Pero’s Bridge after a Caribbean slave almost twenty years ago to the unveiling of plaques commemorating the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s stay in Bristol are marks of a city attempting to acknowledge and learn from its slave-trading past, the on-going controversy surrounding the renaming of Colston Hall shows how fraught the process remains. This year’s bicentenary of the birth of the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, however, presents an opportunity to recall another side to Bristol’s engagement with the issue of slavery, the famous escaped slave receiving tremendous support from the city when he visited during a lecture tour in the 1840s.

    Douglass had crossed the Atlantic after being advised to leave America until the furore over his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, died down. He arrived in Bristol in late August 1846, the rail journey from London taking him through rolling West Country hills dappled with fabulous mansions built from the proceeds of slavery, Bristol having long served as the hub of the powerful West India planter interests. Met off the train by John Bishop Estlin, the 28-year-old slave was conveyed by horse-drawn carriage to the spacious 47 Park Street home the eye surgeon shared with his 25-year-old daughter Mary. The elder Estlin, the son of the highly-regarded Unitarian minister John Prior Estlin, was one of Bristol’s most respected citizens, combining a lucrative medical career with a lifetime’s dedication to philanthropic causes such as the education of the poor and the abolition of slavery. Mary was even more involved in the anti-slavery scene, becoming a leading member of the Bristol and Clifton Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.

    While Douglass spent his first night in Bristol at the home of John Estlin’s Quaker friend George Thomas, the founder of Bristol General Hospital, he was back at Park Street the next morning for a busy breakfast with dozens of the ophthalmologist’s friends before Mary Estlin escorted him to the nearby Blind Asylum, where visually impaired people were trained for employment in crafts such as basket- and mat-making. The ‘pupils’ there, ‘about 60 men, women & children’, had already had his Narrative read aloud to them. ‘Their delight was extreme to feel him & question him. I think F.D. will never forget the scene,’ John Estlin wrote, the underlining of ‘feel’ suggesting they actually placed their hands on Douglass’s striking face and features.

    From the Blind Asylum, Douglass made his way to an afternoon meeting at the Victoria Rooms, a handsome Greek revival-style building that had opened in 1842 – the foundation stone having been laid on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1838 – and that now houses the University of Bristol’s Department of Music. John K. Haberfield, the popular mayor, chaired the meeting, noting Douglass’s Narrative had been ‘extensively read in this city’. He also filled a glass of water for Douglass at one point, leading a local paper to declare in mock outrage: ‘What! A white man – a mayor – a man in authority – hand a glass of water to a Negro! Incredible!’

    'Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,' mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, Washington, DC, built in 1943. (Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress, 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When Douglass took to the stage, he acknowledged it was difficult for many in Britain to believe what he said about the horrors of slavery, because they ‘had heard of America, 3000 miles off, as the land of the free and the home of the brave’. The truth, however, was that despite all the loud talk of all men being equal, the constant sound in the South was of the ‘clank of the fetters and the rattling of the chains which bound their miserable slaves together, to be driven by the lash of their driver on board the ships for New Orleans, there to be sold in the market like brutes’. His well-honed ability to engage audiences to the fore, he then pointed to a child near the front of the crowd as he exclaimed: ‘And was he not a vagabond – when he would, without remorse, steal yon bright-eyed boy … tear him from his mother’s arms … doom him to slavery … and force him to drag his chains and fetters under the degrading torture of the lash?’ The boy was white, but the point was made. And besides, Douglass suggested to the crowd, the slaveholder ‘would steal white men as readily as a man who stole a black horse would not scruple to steal a white horse’.

    Douglass sat down to ‘long-continued cheering’, wrote the local press. Mary Carpenter, a friend of the Estlins and a famous social reformer in her own right, could not remember a speech of such ‘powerful reasoning … touching appeals, keen sarcasm & graphic description’.

    After a drive out to the countryside in Estlin’s carriage, Douglass returned to 47 Park Street that evening for another private gathering, the forty or so guests comprised in the main of ‘ministers, lawyers and merchants’. The following day he was back on a public stage, speaking to a 1,000-strong audience of ‘a more popular cast’, the 6d cost of the tickets doing little to temper the eagerness of the crowd, many of whom were forced to stand in the aisles throughout, to listen to his eloquent denunciations of slavery.

    Thrilled with the response to his talks and with the friendship of the Estlins and others, Douglass would return to Bristol several times during his ‘liberating sojourn’ in Britain, finally travelling back to America in the spring of 1847 as not only a free man – his manumission purchased by a group of British supporters – but a celebrity and icon of international standing. He would go on to advise President Abraham Lincoln in the White House during the American Civil and is now widely regarded as the most influential African-American of the nineteenth century.

    The Estlins remained committed to the anti-slavery cause, John Estlin actually passing away in 1855 in the midst of an anti-slavery meeting being held in his home. Mary Estlin, meanwhile, would campaign for the advancement of African-Americans until her death in 1902, by which time she had moved to the leafy surrounds of 36 Upper Belgrave Road in Clifton. Perhaps it is time they were remembered more formally in their much-loved city? A blue heritage plaque commemorating Douglass’s visit could also serve as a more positive counterpoint to the myriad reminders of the slave-trading Edward Colston throughout the city. The Victoria Rooms, where Douglass spoke so passionately, seem an obvious location.

    Laurence Fenton's book 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace by Brian Izzard

    There have been so many books on Victoria Cross heroes that the London auction house Spink actually published a bibliography. Most of the books follow a similar path, focusing on the heroism. But after researching many of the stories I came to realise that there was another dimension.

    As the blurb to my book points out, ‘. . . this is the first one to explore the lives of those for whom the greatest accolade did not bring contentment, happiness or lasting fame’.

    In Victorian times men who upset authority were often treated harshly and Victoria Cross holders who transgressed were no exception.

    After leaving the army Ravenhill, with his family, ended up in their local workhouse. (Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the saddest cases is that of George Ravenhill, who joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the age of 17. When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, his battalion sailed to South Africa. In a famous action at Colenso, Ravenhill was one of the soldiers who tried to save the guns of the Royal Horse Artillery after a blunder led to them becoming trapped in a Boer ambush. Seven men, including Ravenhill, who was wounded, were awarded the VC.

    After his discharge from the army he struggled to provide for his wife and three children, two sons and a daughter. They ended up in their local workhouse, Erdington, Birmingham. In 1908 Ravenhill’s plight came to the attention of Liberal MP Cecil Harmsworth, who raised the case with the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane [later Viscount Haldane], in the House of Commons. Haldane replied: ‘This is the first intimation we have received on this matter. The case is being investigated.’

    No help came and Ravenhill, whose wife had given birth to another child, a girl, resorted to stealing some iron worth six shillings to raise money to feed his family. He was arrested and jailed.

    It is to Ravenhill’s credit that despite his financial misery he had refused to pawn or sell his Victoria Cross. But if War Office bureaucracy had moved slowly to help him, especially with regard to a pension claim, it acted swiftly to dishonour him. His decoration and two campaign medals for South Africa were confiscated, and his name was removed from the Victoria Cross Register.

    According to the 1911 census, Ravenhill and his wife and children were still in the workhouse. Another child had been born, but such were the family’s dire circumstances that three children were sent to Canada for fostering by wealthy families. The ex-soldier would never see them again. In 1921, aged 49, he died at his home, one room in a squalid tenement building. The hero of Colenso was buried in a plot marked only ‘36’. There were no funds for a plaque.

    Rushing forward on his own, Michael O'Leary of the Irish Guards took out two German positions before machine-gun fire could be directed at his comrades. Another soldier would later say: 'O'Leary was extremely modest over what he had done, but his comrades knew that he had probably saved the lives of a whole company.' (Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace, Amberley Publishing)

    The unfortunate distinction of being the first army recipient to forfeit the Victoria Cross fell to James McGuire. Bizarrely, a cow led to his downfall.

    For many Irishmen in the 19th century the British army offered an escape from poverty and the misery of the country's potato famine. At Enniskillen in 1849 the East India Company was recruiting for its regiments, and McGuire, then a labourer aged 21 or 22, signed on for 10 years, sailing to India to join the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers. He was awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny after throwing a ‘burning mass’ of ammunition boxes over a Delhi parapet and saving many lives.

    After completing his service Sergeant McGuire was discharged in 1859 with a pension of one shilling a day. As the holder of the Victoria Cross he was also entitled to an annual payment of £10. McGuire returned to Ireland and at some stage went to live with an uncle, who had a small farm near Enniskillen. The ex-soldier was persuaded to loan the family £6 but the debt was never fully repaid.

    McGuire, a ‘simple, quiet man and not up with the ways of the world’, took a cow belonging to his uncle as payment. He was arrested on his way to a fair, presumably to sell the animal, and a court sentenced him to nine months’ hard labour.

    McGuire reportedly died a few months later. But there is speculation that he may have taken on a new identity, perhaps joining the army again, an easy thing to do in those days.

    As the Victoria Cross winner Michael O’Leary observed: ‘No nation ever did bother much about its old soldiers, and why should they bother about me?’

    The army veteran had been reduced to working as a doorman at a hotel near Park Lane, London, earning ‘a scant living holding umbrellas over the heads of painted actresses, crippled old ladies and richly-clad members of the plutocracy’. The hotel did not pay him a wage and he relied entirely on tips, ‘but only one person out of ten ever gives me a tip’.

    In 1915 O’Leary of the Irish Guards had caught the imagination of the British public after single-handedly storming two German positions and saving many of his comrades from deadly machine-gun fire in northern France. After the war he went to Canada to start a new life but was later dogged by smuggling and bootlegging scandals.

    Brian Izzard's new book Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace is available for purchase now.

  • Anglo-Scottish Sleepers by David Meara

    The Northbound London-Fort William Sleeper approaching the Cruach Snowshed between Rannoch and Corrour stations on the morning of 7 January 2010, running an hour late due to iced points. (Norman McNab, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

    Paul Theroux’s amusing quotation, from his book The Great Railway Bazaar, sums up the sense of anticipation that a long railway journey encourages. I remember very well that sense of excitement when as a twelve year old boy I boarded the Royal Highlander at Euston Station to travel north to Inverness at the beginning of our summer holidays. It is an excitement that I was keen to recapture when I began writing my book on the Anglo-Scottish sleeper trains about two years ago. I knew that Serco, the new operator of the Caledonian Sleeper, was committed to improving the service, and together with the Scottish Government were investing £100 million into an enhanced experience and brand new rolling stock, and it occurred to me that no attractive and accessible history of the sleeper service existed. Having spotted a gap in the market I decided to do some research and see what I could find.



    Sleeping cars waiting for their passengers on Platform 1 at Euston station. (Author's Collection, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

    The National Railway Museum was my first port of call, as they hold a big archive of books, leaflets and posters, of all of which I made good use of. Much of the detailed history is to be found in specialist railway magazines and books on the rolling stock of the individual railway companies that existed before nationalisation. There are also a few preserved sleeper carriages, both at the National Railway Museum and elsewhere. I wanted to write a social, rather than a technical history, and the atmosphere and style of the heyday of sleeper travel is best captured in period photographs and the wonderful posters which the ‘Big Four’ companies commissioned, often from well-known artists, to advertise and promote their services. The National Railway Museum holds a comprehensive collection of railway posters, and thanks to the help of Philip I have made good use of these in my book.

    I also wanted to describe travelling on each of the Highland Sleeper routes, to Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen. So I booked myself onto the sleeper and did a round trip, travelling north to Aberdeen, across by train to Inverness, and on by bus to Fort William, from where I took the southbound sleeper back to London Euston. There is nothing on our railway network quite like settling into the sleeper lounge car, with a glass of malt whisky beside you, haggis, neeps and tatties being prepared in the galley, and the glorious expanse of Rannoch Moor unfolding before you in the evening sunshine.

    The northbound London to Fort William Sleeper passing through the remote Gorton loop on 1 May 2015 at 8.28 a.m., pulled by a Class 67 locomotive, Cairn Gorm, in the new Serco Midnight Teal livery. (Norman McNab, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

    But one element was missing, and that was a selection of stories from the many thousands of people who have used the sleeper over the years. Their experiences would bring a book like this to life as well as providing valuable insights into the experience of the sleeper operation.  Happily a letter to ‘The Times’ helped to solve that problem, and thanks to a friendly ‘Times’ columnist I was inundated with all kinds of stories and anecdotes, funny, saucy, romantic and peculiar, which brings the story of the Anglo-Scottish Sleeper service to life, and reveal the great affection people have for the service.  From being the exclusive preserve of the grouse shooting gentry it has evolved over the years into a wonderfully democratic community of travellers, from business people to backpackers, and just occasionally the sportsman off to his Highland estate to escape the rigours of City life. The lounge car remains the social centre of the train, and has been the setting for many convivial gatherings, late night conversations, even an impromptu ceilidh or two. Hopefully the impressive improvements which Serco are introducing will not spoil this special feeling of being both on a working train and on a journey with a real sense of occasion and excitement about it.

    David Meara's new book Anglo-Scottish Sleepers is available for purchase now.

  • British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years by John Megoran

    Monarch at Weymouth, 1960. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    Looking back on my life I was so incredibly lucky to have grown up as a boy in Weymouth in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the harbour there was such an epicentre of paddle steamer activity. Not only did the Consul, Embassy and Monarch lay up there each winter but they were subsequently joined by the Princess Elizabeth and visitors like the Bristol Queen and Sandown which came for work on their engines and boilers undertaken by paddle steamer operator Cosens and Company of Weymouth.

    A young Tony McGinnity bought the Consul in Weymouth after she had been withdrawn in 1962 and after that failed he set himself up as a ship broker handling the sales of pretty much all the UK paddle steamers withdrawn in the 1960s through his office at 11 Custom House Quay, Weymouth.



    Consul sailing up Weymouth Harbour, 1958. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    In the summer we went for trips aboard them to Lulworth Cove, Portland Bill, the Shambles Lightship, Swanage, Bournemouth and Totland Bay, Isle of Wight which to my young eyes seemed as far away as the moon. I was so taken with them that I even built a paddle steamer replica in our back garden.

    Then each September, just as a new school year started, Consul, Embassy and Monarch retreated to lay up in Weymouth Harbour. The boilers were blown down making the steamers float higher in the water exposing a skirt of green weed which soon dried out and changed colour to white. Hats were put on the funnels to stop the rain going down. The brass was coated in a film of grease and carefully bandaged with strips of tarpaulin to keep it from the elements. The buoyant apparatus were stacked on deck and covered to protect them from the worst of winter storms.


    Embassy at Bournemouth. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    There the steamers slumbered until the awakening dawn of spring brought out the workforce from the yard. Maybe a little bit of decking needed renewing like on the Consul in 1962. The Monarch had a new inner funnel fitted in 1959 and the Embassy had a new front fitted to her wheelhouse in 1964.

    Then the fitters started work on the engines and boilers. Painters came aboard to start to transform the ships before they went off to the slipway or dry-dock for Board of Trade survey and underwater anti-fouling painting. Consul was small enough to be hauled out on Cosens own Weymouth slipway but the other paddlers had to go to Portland, Poole or Southampton instead. When they came back ready for their new summer seasons how fresh, shiny and new they looked.



    Monarch at Weymouth, 1961, awaiting a tow to the scrapyard. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    All this was part of my daily childhood life. My cycle route to school took me past the harbour and the paddle steamers. I would stop and gawp, watching everything going on. Occasionally in the darkest depths of winter, and when there was nobody about, I would sneak aboard. Consul was always locked up but Embassy and Monarch had open access to their alleyways. Embassy had a cover over her engine room skylight so her machinery was always cloaked in darkness but not so on the Monarch. No cover there and what a winter joy it was to stand there looking at her engine bathed in sunlight from the skylight above and to try hard to figure out how it all worked.

    It seemed to my young eyes then that these paddle steamers had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. It therefore came as a huge shock and deep personal outrage for me to read in the Dorset Echo in November 1960 that the Monarch was to be withdrawn. I just could not believe then that such a wicked thing could happen.

    But happen it did. In March 1961 Monarch was towed away to be scrapped in Cork and I shed a tear. My grandmother, who knew Cosens general manager Don Brookes, heard of this and came round to our house the following week clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string. When I opened it, what joy! Inside was the name pennant and house flag of Monarch.

    So the 1960s wore on with one paddle steamer after another being withdrawn. Glen Gower, Glen Usk, Whippingham, Compton Castle, Totnes Castle, Alumchine, Medway Queen, Sandown, Kingswear Castle, Talisman, Bristol Queen and Cardiff Queen, the list of withdrawals just went on and on.


    The author in Kingswear Castle's wheelhouse. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    It was though tempered with little bursts of optimism these recommissions were all short lived. Freshwater was bought for further service on the Sussex Coast in 1960 and from Bournemouth but that lasted for only two seasons. Consul was bought by Tony McGinnity but again only lasted for just two years. Princess Elizabeth enjoyed six golden summers in private ownership, three of then running from Weymouth when I really got to know her. Through that I was lucky enough to be invited for part of the delivery voyage of the Jeanie Deans south from the Clyde to London and again for her first few trips on the Thames of what turned out to be a very short career as the Queen of the South.

    In April 1967 I went aboard the Embassy for the last time just before she too was towed away to be scrapped and it was then that the penny finally dropped. Paddle steamers were on the way out and rather than finding a career aboard them as I had hoped, I would have to look elsewhere to make a living.

    Looking back I can hardly believe my luck that in the end, and by a rather circuitous route, I did become a paddle steamer captain and was able to spend thirty years of my adult life running the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the Medway and Thames. But that is another story told in another book.

    John Megoran's new book British Paddle Steamers The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.

  • Anne Boleyn - A Tudor Victim by Lynda Telford

    Anne Boleyn’s rise to fame as Henry VIII’s second queen is often quoted as a case of a king raising up a commoner for love. The reality is far more complex. While Anne descended from a background of solidly noble maternal ancestors, and upwardly mobile courtiers on her father’s side, Henry’s own antecedents were shaky. His father and mother both had doubts cast on the legitimacy of their bloodlines, and the Tudor seat on the throne was won in battle, not by inheritance.

    Henry’s marriage to the Spanish Katherine of Aragon had produced only a daughter, and his longing for a son to succeed him was becoming desperate. He saw in Anne, not merely an attractive companion, but a woman of strength and intelligence. One, moreover, who could give him the sons he needed, to give permanency to his line.

    Unfortunately, ending his first marriage went through years of delays, during which time Anne’s reputation suffered. She proved fertile when their marriage was finally achieved, and as there was no evidence of her having a pregnancy during the waiting time, it is highly unlikely that their relationship was fully physical during the legal holdups. That Anne was able to keep Henry’s interest, yet keep his impatience in check throughout that time, is a credit to her character and considerable charm. Sadly, the long wait also saw the partners increase in age, and Anne was around 32, to Henry’s 42, when their marriage finally took place. Not old by modern standards, but not young by their own.

    Anne produced their daughter without difficulty, but subsequent pregnancies resulted in miscarriage or stillbirth. Not merely disappointments, but these misadventures allowed detractors to claim that the long struggle had achieved nothing except political unrest.

    The lack of a male heir, and the problems created by the abandonment of Katherine, would eventually damage the harmony of the marriage, with outside pressures proving too great. Although Anne remained a Catholic all her life, she was interested in the New Learning, and frequently imported books from Antwerp for her household to read. This also put the conservative factions against her, particularly as she had many friends among the more progressive courtiers.

    Despite these problems, Henry held on. This was partly due to the alluring sunshine-and-shadow of Anne’s mercurial personality, but also because Katherine was still in the background and separating from Anne may have meant returning to her rival. Katherine was six years Henry’s senior, and any attractions she may once have possessed, had long since faded.

    There was also a strong need, in Henry’s own character, to be seen to be in the right. Any separation from Anne would appear, to an avidly censorious Europe, as an admission that he had made a mistake. Also, he still retained the hope that she would produce the urgently needed son, to justify the earlier struggles.

    Unfortunately, it was not to be. The continuing lack of the male heir, that Henry believed he needed, gradually allowed Anne’s enemies to undermine the security of her position. Henry was not entirely faithful, and in the past his friends – notably Bryan and Carew – had arranged assignations for him with the wives of other gentlemen of his household. These regular adventures did not noticeably add to his known tally of bastards, so it may be assumed that his virility was rather less than he would have liked people to believe. This lack of potency, particularly as he aged, was probably the reason why his wives experienced difficulties in producing many healthy children.

    A faction had been encouraging him to settle all his problems, both personal and political, with another marriage. This would end the prominence of the Boleyn’s, and allow a takeover. As another divorce might make Henry appear fickle, it was decided to charge Anne with adultery. Though this extreme action, which would result in a trial for treason, was ostensibly to defend the king’s honour, it was actually entirely motivated by a desire to replace the Boleyn’s at the centre of power.

    Anne was arrested, not even knowing the full charges against her, which were still being formulated. Even so, a headsman from France (who used a sword) had been sent for, at a cost of £23.6s.8d.  before her travesty of a trial began.

    The men accused of being her lovers, except her brother Lord Rochford, were tried first. The fact that their condemnation would seriously compromise her trial was of no concern. She defended herself with courage, proving at several points that the “incidents” did not take place, as she was elsewhere at the time. This also cast grave doubts on the veracity of other charges made against her. The Lord Mayor of London, present at her trial, said he “could see no evidence against her, except that they wanted an occasion to be rid of her.” However, the result was a foregone conclusion.

    Her brother and the other condemned men were executed on the 17th May, leaving Anne to face alone the full horror of a public death, beheaded by a sword. To the very end, she appeared convinced that she would be reprieved, but she was executed within the precincts of the Tower, on Friday the 19th May 1536.

    Henry’s many further marital adventures proved irrelevant. His son, by his third wife Jane Seymour, who had plotted with her family against Anne, did not live to adulthood. Katherine’s daughter Mary married a Spanish Prince, and embroiled England in Spain’s war in the Netherlands.

    It was Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who restored England’s pride and made her a force to be reckoned with. With her splendidly successful reign, that Anne’s place in history was fully justified.

    Ref: “Tudor Victims of the Reformation” by Lynda Telford.

    Published: Pen and Sword. 2016.

  • Ford Tractors by Jonathan Whitlam

    This early restored MOM tractor from 1917 has received the lettering along the sides of the fuel tank that was fitted to the first X series prototype to arrive in Britain in January 1917. (Ford Tractors, Amberley Publishing)

    While writing my new book on the history of Ford tractors, I was very aware that at the same time it was exactly one hundred years since the first Ford tractor entered production in the autumn of 1917. It had been rushed into production with such haste that it hadn’t even been given a name and, because Henry Ford could not put the Ford name on it because his fellow board members did not want anything to do with tractors, it simply became known as the MOM tractor, after the British Ministry of Munitions that had ordered the first 6000 to be built. Now as we arrive in 2018 it is 100 years since that first machine was produced for general sale as the Fordson Model F in the spring of 1918.

    A century later and a lot has changed, not least the fact that the Ford Motor Company no longer produces tractors. However, the big factory in Basildon, in Essex, built by Ford in 1964 still assembles tractors for sale worldwide under the New Holland name, a division of CNH Industrial owned by Italian firm Fiat.



    The Ford 8N was produced by Ford themselves after splitting with Harry Ferguson and caused Ferguson to take Ford to court over its use of his patents. (Ford Tractors, Amberley Publishing)

    70 years ago Ford launched the 8N model built in the USA, which was based on the 9N that had been constructed in co-operation with Harry Ferguson and incorporated his hydraulic lift; the Ferguson System. The 8N though, was sold exclusively as a Ford product and lead to Ferguson filing a lawsuit against Ford for unauthorised use of his patents!

    The same year the Fordson Major, built in Dagenham in England, was factory fitted with a diesel engine for the first time, using the Perkins P6 as the power plant of choice.

    Ten years later and Dagenham launched the Power Major in 1958, which was a world away form the original Major of ten years earlier while the same year saw the new Workmaster and Powermaster ranges arrive in the USA.

    The secret of the success of the 9N when in work was the Ferguson System of three-point linkage and hydraulic draft control, which required a range of matched implements, such as this two-furrow plough, to be bought with the tractor. (Ford Tractors, Amberley Publishing)



    Moving on another ten years and Ford had launched the Ford Force range. A major update of the 1000 Series introduced four years earlier and built in Basildon Antwerp and the USA. The big six cylinder 8000 also joined the range that year pushing power up to 115hp.

    With all these anniversaries it seems a great time to launch a book on the Ford tractor, especially on the anniversary of the Force range, as these machines set the standard for Ford tractors for the next two decades and beyond.

    Ford returned to the six-cylinder concept with the 8000 of 1968. A new 401 cubic inch diesel engine was used to great success and this 115 hp tractor proved much better than the earlier 6000 model and was only built in the USA. (Ford Tractors, Amberley Publishing)

    The Ford name might not grace the sides of tractor bonnets today, but the legacy of this important brand lives on, not only in the thousands of Ford tractors still out on the farms of the world still working for a living, but also in the ultra modern New Holland tractors still being built to this day.

    Jonathan Whitlam's new book Ford Tractors available for purchase now.

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