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  • The town of Bury St Edmunds by Martyn Taylor

    a-z-of-bury-st-edmunds-1 Interior of the cathedral (A-Z of Bury St Edmunds, Amberley Publishing)

    When I take visitors around the wonderful town I was born into, Bury St Edmunds I am told so often “we never knew about this place before”. My job as a tour guide is to make sure they do and want to come back for more. There is so much on offer for people to enjoy with the undeniable jewel in the crown that of the magnificent Abbey Gardens. Laid out six years before Victoria ascended the throne they follow a design found then in The Royal Botanical Gardens in Brussels.

    However, there had to have been something there before the owner the Marquess of Bristol asked the gardens creator and curator Nathaniel Hodson to lay them out; it was the Great Court of the Abbey. The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St Edmundsbury were the custodians of the shrine of the first patron saint of England, St Edmund the Martyr who met his death in 869. The motto of Bury as it is simply known by locals is ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law’ for it was here in 1214 that twenty-five barons swore an oath to compel King John to agree to Magna Carta. This foundation stone of democracy was acquiesced by John a year later at Runnymede. Looking at the two plaques put up mid-nineteenth century to commemorate this event it is hard to envisage the enormous central tower they are affixed to for all that is left is a flint core.

    a-z-of-bury-st-edmunds-3 King Raedwald's helmet in the British Museum (A-Z of Bury St Edmunds, Amberley Publishing)

    In the Domesday Book it is recorded that between the years 1066 and 1086 a total of 342 houses were built on agricultural land, urban expansion indeed! Abbot Baldwin had started laying out the town in 1065 making Bury a contender for the earliest purposely laid out town in the country. That medieval grid can still be followed today.

    For over 500 hundred years, from the first abbot Uvius in 1020 to the last John Reeve in 1539, the abbey ruled the town. When that fateful day came and Henry’s commissioners came to do their worst it did not take too long for the townspeople to realise that this religious yoke could be loosened forever so they dismantled it piece by piece, stone by stone.  It is said you will not find abbey stone much further than six miles outside the town, the distance a cart would travel back and forth within a day; however, you will find it all over the town.

    a-z-of-bury-st-edmunds-2 Tostock Place (A-Z of Bury St Edmunds, Amberley Publishing)

    The idea of a book using an alphabet format covering the history of the town or parts of it came to me one day, not just the historic core. This way many more locations not previously dealt in books would have the opportunity to be read by people.  So the concept of A-Z of Bury St Edmunds was born, starting with the letter A and finishing where else but Z. The letter X did cause a great deal of head scratching and churning up of the old grey matter but eventually it was solved, whether Dr Johnson would approve I am not sure!

    So what is the content of A-Z of Bury St Edmunds? There is the obligatory number of past pubs, disasters and deaths; nasty and nice people; churches and chapels.  Obviously the pictures enhance the stories, many of them never published before. You could say there is something for everyone in it but I would say that wouldn’t I!


    Martyn Taylor's new book A-Z of Bury St Edmunds is available for purchase now.

  • Stack Stevens: Cornwall's Rugby Legend by Steve Tomlin

    As the stories emerge of Britain’s medal-winning heroes and heroines returning from the Rio Olympics a common theme has been the self-sacrifice, weary of hours of travel, grinding training routines yet that they still emerged retaining an engaging joy in their chosen sport, modesty and sportsmanship.

    stack-stevens-1 Lineout at Coventry. Alvin Williams jumps for the ball with Stack and Bonzo Johns behind him eager to help (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    Forty years ago life was very much tougher still. Rugby Union in England was then a totally amateur sport even at the very highest level and was characterised by public and grammar school young men who were at (or had been to) an Oxbridge college, training in a London medical school or serving as young officers in the Armed Forces. The top clubs carried all the kudos and were generally centred around London and the Midlands with a few outposts like Bristol and Leeds. England teams consisted almost entirely from that somewhat narrow pool of talent.

    Brian ‘Stack’ Stevens left school just after his fifteenth birthday to work seventy hours a week on his father’s farm which was situated in a remote village in the far Southwest tip of the country in West Cornwall just a few miles from Land’s End. His village school had played no real organised sport let alone rugby and he was sixteen before he was introduced to his first game for his local Young Farmers Club.

    stack-stevens-2 Meeting the Queen before England play a President's XV at Twickenham, 1971 (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    Cornwall has frequently been described as a ‘hotbed of rugby’ and certainly the local towns and villages always followed the game keenly especially when the Cornwall team took the field in the County Championship and this was the only tiny crack in the door when an England selector might just take some notice. Furthermore, living in the far-flung locality of Penzance in the depths of winter - long before the motorway system had been completed - was a massive challenge just to get the chance of playing at the top level. On many occasions he would hitch a ride through the night to a senior match or a squad training session on a broccoli lorry heading for Covent Garden.

    His story is how he overcame all this, often in the face of a dominant father who wanted him on the farm 24/7 to finally emerge as one of the leading lights of the England team. Moreover, this team was one which defeated South Africa and New Zealand on their own home soil for the very first time in history and indeed he scored one of the tries in the triumph over the All Blacks in their own back yard. He held his place for five years, was called out to New Zealand to join the 1971 British Lions in what is still their only series victory in that rugby-crazy country and then had to refuse a second Lions tour three years later due to his crushing farming commitments.

    stack-stevens-3 Going over for a historic try in Auckland with Ian Hurst (13) and Sid Going (9) unable to do a thing about it (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    This book covers all the twists and turns, highs and lows, triumphs and setbacks of a remarkable rugby player which took place in the face of anti-apartheid demonstrations, IRA death threats and a near miss from being involved in a major fatal air crash. Above all this was achieved with an irrepressible sense of fun and enjoyment of the game for its own sake. Thus the book is littered with dozens of hilarious anecdotes from an age in rugby which has probably now gone for ever.

    His courage is now being put to the test even more in recent years by his contracting a debilitating neurological condition which has made normal speech impossible. Hence this book has been written largely through the eyes of his contemporaries many of whom were the very top rugby stars of that era who not only admired him as a rugby player but clearly loved him as a person.

    His was one hell of a journey!


    Steve Tomlin's new book Stack Stevens; Cornwall's Rugby Legend is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Finds from Essex by Ben Paites

    The Portable Antiquities Scheme began in 1997 and operates across England and Wales, promoting the recording of archaeological material found by members of the public onto their free online database ( Over 30 Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) operate across the country, ensuring each county is covered. The FLOs visit metal-detecting clubs and host events at museums and other institutions, to allow members of the public to get their finds identified and recorded. Recording them ensures that as many people as possible get the opportunity to see some of the wonderful objects that are uncovered every day.

    One other role the FLOs have is to administer the Treasure Act 1996, by identifying any objects that might be Treasure ( As a result, the work of the PAS has facilitated the acquisitions of some incredible objects by museums across the country.

    As of October 2016, over 1,200,000 individual objects have been recorded onto the database. This has allowed a great deal of research into the history of England and Wales. From Stone Age tools to Elizabethan jewellery, there have been some incredible discoveries in the past 20 years and not all of them have been treasure. Essex alone has recorded over 20,000 and has one of the highest numbers of Treasure cases per year in the country. 50 Finds from Essex brings together just some of those objects and attempts to unravel the stories they tell, within the historical context in which they were made and used.

    50-finds-from-essex-1 Figure 1: Gold ring found in Uttlesford, possibly showing Odin with a cross (ESS-E396B1). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)

    The book itself looks at each region within the county, highlighting some of the objects from a wide range of periods. In Uttlesford, there is a wealth of Anglo-Saxon material that is not present in the rest of the county. Objects such as no. 4 (fig. 1), highlight the wealth of some people living in Early Medieval Essex.

    50-finds-from-essex-2 Figure 2: Pilgrim badge of St Hubert (ESS-940232). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)






    The next chapter examines finds from the Braintree area, including objects almost 10,000 years old. For a region with sites such as Heddingham Castle, there is no surprise that the Medieval finds from the region are also significant. Object no. 12 (fig. 2), shows that pilgrim badges, more commonly made of lead, could also come in highly decorative forms. The possible connection with this particular badge and Anne of Cleves is particularly tantalising.

    50-finds-from-essex-3 Figure 3: Viking sword found in the river Colne (ESS-D45534). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)


    Next stop on the journey around Essex is Colchester and Tendring, a region with rich coastal archaeology and some of the most significant Roman sites in the country. From a Roman brooch produced in Gaul to Medieval figurines with links to a Colchester abbey, the finds from North East Essex reflects Britain’s tumultuous history at a local level. Object no. 20 (fig. 3), a Viking sword found in the river Colne, highlights this more than any other.

    50-finds-from-essex-4 Figure 4: An Iron Age object of uncertain purpose, from Epping Forest District (ESS-472ABA). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)


    Finds from Epping Forest and Harlow have provided a wealth of information about Essex’s most ancient woodland. With some significant Iron Age defensive structures in the area, there is no surprise that several significant objects from that period have been found. This includes some of the earliest currency used in Britain, brought over from continental Europe, as well as enigmatic object no. 23 (fig. 4) that proves to be a mystery to experts across the world.


    x-default Figure 5: Elizabethan gold, ruby and diamond pedant, only display in Colchester Castle (ESS-0144A4). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)

    Brentwood, Basildon and Thurrock are individually rather small districts, but have produced a great deal of finds with several metal detecting clubs in the area. Being so close to the River Thames, the ancient highway into London, the diverse history of the region is reflected in the finds. This region has provided some insight into how coins can be more than just currency, such as a Byzantine coin turned into a pendant. Alongside this are objects that reflect wealth beyond currency, brought through this region for centuries. Object no. 35 (fig. 5) is a gold, ruby and diamond pendant similar to one worn by Elizabeth I, now on display in Colchester Castle.

    50-finds-from-essex-6 Figure 6: Roman metalworker's test piece (ESS-E5CE07). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)


    Central Essex and the area around Chelmsford, the county capital, showcases the great industry that Essex has seen throughout its history. Not only in the form of incredible skilfully produced objects, but also objects that highlight the process of production. Object no. 39 (fig. 6.), though not particularly impressive to look at, shows how Roman craftspeople would practice their designs before producing the mould to cast an object.


    50-finds-from-essex-7 Figure 7: A seal matrix depicting a ship (ESS-ED25B6). (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)

    The final region that is examined is Southend, Maldon, Rochford and Castle Point, an area of coastal and estuarine environments, with limited opportunities for detecting due to a large portion being owned by the Ministry of Defence. However, the maritime nature of this region is clearly reflected in the finds from further inland. Objects came to Britain from far and wide during the Bronze Age, as seen in the Burnham on Crouch hoard. As ships allowed for faster travel they became a significant part of the lives of people living in Southern Essex. Object no. 49 (fig. 7.) shows this, as a ship was chosen to be used on a seal matrix.

    50-finds-from-essex-8 Figure 8: Hindu vessels found in the River Colne. (50 Finds from Essex, Amberley Publishing)





    Finally, Object no. 50 (fig. 8) was chosen to highlight the fact that people today continue to leave things that can be discovered in the future. These vessels were rescued from the river Colne in the summer of 2015. Although produced in recent times, they highlight the diversification of Colchester in the modern day. Prior to this, there had been no recorded instance of a Hindu offering in the river. If a member of the public had not spotted them and notified their local FLO, those objects may have been sitting in the river for centuries to come.


    Ben Paites new book 50 Finds from Essex is available for purchase now.

  • Mission to China by John Holliday

    It was 8 October 1835, and the American brig Huron, under the command of Captain Thomas Winsor, edged its way between the sand banks along the Yangtze River towards Wusong, the gateway to Shanghai.

    mission-to-china-1 Landing at Woosung, 1835. From the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    The gloomy weather obscured the vessel until it reached the mouth of the Huangpu River where the Chinese who were manning the forts spotted the ship. The Huron’s crew ducked for cover when the Chinese fired from either side of the river. The captain called out, “Don’t worry lads, they’ll do us no harm.” He had recognised the report of the cannon as blank cartridges no louder than most muskets, most likely due to the use of badly mixed powder. The forts themselves were in a bad state of repair, and some of the walls had fallen in, an indication of the weakening economic state of the Qing dynasty. Rather than serving as a warning, the sound of the guns merely heralded the arrival of foreign devils in the forbidden empire.

    A tall, slim man dressed in a long black coat, light trousers and black boots stood with top hat in hand on the poop deck, staring into the mist, willing it to part and give him a glimpse of the land he had waited nineteen years to see. At age thirty-nine, with slightly receding light brown hair and curly side-whiskers, Walter Medhurst looked a fit man, in spite of having spent all those years living in the tropics. The way he stood with fixed stare hinted at his determination to influence, and be influenced by, the country that lay before him.

    Early the next morning, the long boat was launched and four sailors were assigned to take the missionaries into Shanghai. The day was stormy and there was concern about undertaking such a long journey in dark and rainy weather. Medhurst was adamant that they should proceed as soon as possible. He wanted them to reach the city before any opposition could be organised against them.

    The vicinity of Shanghai was marked by a forest of more than a thousand junks that lay off the city. As visibility was poor, the approach of the long boat was not observed until it passed among the junks. Suddenly, an outcry erupted; a foreign boat had arrived and immediately every door and window was crowded and the sides of the junks were lined with spectators. All the onlookers were smiling and none was alarmed or displeased at their sudden appearance.

    mission-to-china-2 View of the Mission Chapel at Batavia. Drawn and engraved by G. Baxter. From China: Its State and Prospects, by W. H. Medhurst, London, John Snow 1838. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    Medhurst observed the Tianhou temple, the temple of the Queen of Heaven and he directed the sailors to land close by. Having never seen foreigners, the people pressed forward to get a good look at these strange visitors.

    As the two missionaries were collecting their bag of books to commence distributing them, they heard a clattering noise on the granite pavement, which was produced by the thumping of long bamboos. They saw the people give way, right and left, to two officers, who greeted them in a friendly manner and invited them to the nearby temple. Happy to comply, Medhurst ordered a sailor to follow them with a bag of books and they made their way through the immense crowd towards the temple. The officers opened a path before them with their bamboo sticks, crying out, “The visitors are come!”

    At the temple, Walter Medhurst was engaged in a conference with the mandarins, when officers came in and announced the arrival of the Chief Magistrate of Shanghai, who requested to meet the visitor. He was seated in the central hall of the temple attended by a group of officers. As Medhurst approached, he paid the magistrate the usual compliments. Seeing a chair placed opposite, which seemed intended for him, he took a seat accordingly. The magistrate expressed indignation at seeing a barbarian seated before him and the officers around called out, “Rise! Rise!” Medhurst rose as requested, asked why he could not be seated at the conference, and when told that he could not, he bowed and left the room.

    mission-to-china-4 Potrait of Walter Medhurst before he left London in 1816 by W. T. Strutt. Collection of the SOAS Archives. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    When the mandarins tried to persuade him to return, Medhurst’s response was that while subjects of the empire should be expected to comply with government regulations, a stranger and a guest should be treated with respect. “I come as a friendly stranger and I am invited by you to a public conference. I have committed no offence, nor broken any laws and therefore will not stand as a culprit before any mandarin in the empire,” he said. “But,” Wang stammered, “our Chief Magistrate is the greatest Chinese in Shanghai.” “Well then,” Medhurst replied, “the individual who now addresses you is the greatest Englishman in Shanghai and I do not choose to compromise the honour of my country by submitting to be treated as a barbarian or offender. I have no favour to ask of the magistrate and if he does not wish to see me in the proper manner, then he need not see me at all.”

    The position taken by Walter Medhurst may at first seem single-minded and uncooperative. He was not taking that position without a great deal of consideration about the best way to achieve his goals in the long term. His experience of negotiating with the Chinese went back over nineteen years and had taught him to be wary of acceding too readily to their demands. Every subsequent negotiation with that person or others of his nation would hinge on the first reception.

    As the rain had eased, they returned to the boat where the sailors were busy eating their dinner while thousands eagerly stretched forward to ‘see the lions fed’. One man who had pressed through the crowd began rubbing his eyes and then took a second look, to be certain it was not a dream.

    Their return to the Huron was difficult, but through perseverance, they eventually arrived at the vessel about 9 o’clock at night, wet, cold and tired. They were thankful to have arrived safely and pleased to have distributed over a thousand volumes among nearly a million people. So ended Medhurst’s first visit to the city over which he would have so much influence in following years.


    John Holliday's new book Mission to China: How an Englishman brought the West to the Orient is available for purchase now.

  • Hill-Forts of the Cotswolds by Sean Campbell

    Hill-Forts are defensive structures, many of which are built on advantageous higher ground giving a strong position to defend from. During c.700-100BC hill-forts were built in different parts of Britain. The Cotswolds which is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was one of them, many of these monuments were constructed here.

    hill-forts-1 Kimsbury Castle: great views from the top of the inner rampart. (Hill-Forts of the Cotswolds, Amberley Publishing)

    I have had an interest in hill-forts since studying Field Archaeology, as trying to spot Ancient earthworks at these sites is something I really enjoy doing. I began exploring these forts within the Cotswolds in 2009 and since then have been able to see that many of these sites have been looked after for us to enjoy today. At Leckhampton Hill (Leckhampton) for example the defensive remains can be seen on approach to the site and is built upon an area which has great views over distance areas. Other fort sites have been built near to in recent times, such as Windrush Camp (Windrush) which has farmland buildings built around it, its standing earthworks can be seen amongst them.

    hill-forts-2 Leckhampton Hill: the defences, seen from the entrance. (Hill-Forts of the Cotswolds, Amberley Publishing)

    I enjoy visiting these sites because being over 2000 years old, a lot of historic events would have taken place at these sites, which I find fascinating. Many sites have no clear labelling or signs, but when reached via a map or with directions, you can enjoy the challenge of finding the fort remains and get a perspective of what it would have been like for those inhabiting these sites. Sometimes the challenge of finding forts earthworks can be a challenge, as I found out when I initially went to visit Brackenbury Ditches (North Nibley). The first area I visited I mistook for the fort itself, but it was actually a nearby area that had some rampart looking earthworks. When I checked my routes on the map at a later date I realised that the site was actually further along the hill plateau. From this I learnt the key importance of checking positioning, as well as assessing the authenticity of archaeological remains while on search for a hill-fort.

    hill-forts-3 Sodbury Camp: in between the defences, next to the inner ditch. (Hill-Forts of the Cotswolds, Amberley Publishing)

    It is not just the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age that some of these sites were inhabited. For example there are some sites that were inhabited before they were forts, for example Crickley Hill (Coberley) was a Neolithic Causewayed enclosure. Birdlip Camp (Peak Camp) (Cowley) nearby, has also been interpreted to have been a Neolithic Causewayed enclosure. Other sites were also inhabited after the Iron Age, at Sodbury Camp (Little Sodbury) for example, it is known that it was used as a Camp by the Romans.

    So why not go out and visit one of these standing monuments for yourself? Visible remains of forts defences are a sight to see, the combination of a bank and ditch defence may sound simple, but its design is effective and would have taken a lot of time, resources and effort to achieve. However not every hill-fort will have visible remains today, as a result of the ground being disturbed, ploughing being an example of something that can damage archaeological sites. Each fort whether it is built upon a high dominate ground or a low-lying position has its own individuality and reasons for being built there. Exploring accessible areas’ for yourself will give you an opportunity to make your own interpretation on a site.


    Sean Campbell's new book Hill-Forts of the Cotswolds is available for purchase now.

  • Whitechapel in 50 Buildings 'History through a Lens' by Louis Berk

    The renowned British photographer, Don McCullin once said of Whitechapel “This district is the most visually fascinating in the whole of London, in fact in the whole of England.” I feel exactly the same way. Even after more than a dozen years photographing in and around the area there are days I feel I have barely scratched the surface.

    whitechapel-in-50-buildings-1 Sundial on the Neuve Eglise now the Jamme Majid mosque in Brick Lane (c. Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The key attraction of Whitechapel to me is the enormous amount of social history contained within its streets and buildings. You can barely walk a hundred yards without finding an architectural gem which links to the impact of immigration, philanthropy and social history. I am not drawn to photographing people. Our lives are but shadows (to echo the sundial of the former Huguenot chapel in Fournier Street) but the buildings have a permanence belying the often powerfully changing circumstances of the people associated with them.

    It was opportune that in Rachel Kolsky, a historian and award-winning London tour guide, I discovered someone whose passion and interest for the back streets of this fragile hinterland (increasingly fragile as the City pushes eastwards) matched mine. The combination of her energy, extensive knowledge and passion for Whitechapel with my attempts to capture the buildings in photographs allowed the idea for this book to become a reality.

    whitechapel-in-50-buildings-2 World class architecture in the heart of Whitechapel: the Idea Store by David Adjaye (c. Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Recent popular television programmes (“Whitechapel”, “Ripper Street”) have brought a resurgence of interest to this area and while these series tend to focus on the notorious late 19th century history of Whitechapel, the area contains buildings that cover a much broader historical period.

    The book spans from the 16th century all the way to the modern day, from the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry to Shoreditch High Street station, the latest gateway to the area. The story associated with each building explains the social history of the area which has seen successive waves of immigration going back more than 400 years.

    Deciding on 50 Buildings out of the many hundreds, if not thousands contained within the area of Whitechapel was not an easy task. Rachel and I agreed very quickly on a number of landmark examples, including the magnificent 17th century Hawksmoor Churches which are at the west and east end of the area but we also wanted to include many of the buildings associated with the different immigrant communities who found refuge here. In turn Whitechapel has been the refuge for Huguenots in the 17th century, Irish and Jewish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently the Bangladeshi community in the late 20th century. What is interesting is how each successive wave has not only added new buildings but also modified old buildings to their use.

    whitechapel-in-50-buildings-3 Sandy’s Row Synagogue, a former Huguenot Chapel (c. Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    For example, the Jewish population has often reused former chapels as Synagogues. A fine example is the Sandy’s Row Synagogue which began life as the L’Eglise L’Artillerie formed by the local Huguenot population. After time as a Baptist chapel it then became the ‘Society for Loving Kindness and Truth’, a Dutch-Jewish congregation which moved into the building in 1867. The strength of the Jewish community in the East End endures even today and the Synagogue is still in use.

    whitechapel-in-50-buildings-4 Gwynne House (1934) (c. Whitechapel in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Whitechapel has some great surprises in store for anyone who wanders the back streets. One building Rachel and I agreed on emphatically that had to be included in the book is a magnificent example of 1930s Art Deco, Gwynne House. Landlocked by 18th and 19th century buildings all around it we both think it has a distinctly nautical flavour to the design and reminds us of an ocean liner ploughing its way steadily through the back streets behind the Royal London Hospital (who owned the building until recently, as accommodation for medical staff).

    The architect, Hume Victor Kerr had an interesting life serving as an officer in both world wars of the 20th century. In the interwar years he left his mark on Whitechapel with a number of distinctive buildings in Turner Street, New Road and as far as field as Middlesex Street in Aldgate.

    Nothing stands still in London and central Whitechapel is planned to have a facelift that will make it closer in look and feel to Canary Wharf. No doubt this will lead to casualties amongst some of the least loved buildings in the area. Whatever the future holds for Whitechapel, its buildings will continue to tell its fascinating and important story. May they remain for future generations to discover and enjoy.


    Louis Berk & Rachel Kolsky's new book Whitechapel in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes by Dennis Newton


    Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding not only commanded RAF Fighter Command, he was its chief architect from the very beginning when it was created in 1936. He built it into the formidable weapon it became just in time for its ‘finest hour’ saving Britain in the violent, dark days of crisis in 1940. He set down the rules, chose the aircraft, built up the squadrons and developed their techniques, looking into every detail – but he wasn’t always right.

    Before WW2, he ordered that the guns of all RAF fighters were to be harmonised to create a widely spaced pattern of bullets at a range of 400 yards. This spread of bullets was intended specifically to combat bombers as it seemed most likely that any air attack on Britain from Germany would be by unescorted bombers. Because of the distances involved Luftwaffe fighters simply would not be able to take part. Because of ‘Stuffy’ Dowding’s nickname, this widely spaced pattern became unofficially known as the ‘Stuffy Spread’.

    While the method gave an average pilot a greater chance of scoring some hits on his target, early engagements revealed it was unlikely to cause enough damage to bring an enemy plane down! Experience during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939/40 and the Battle for France and the Low Countries in 1940 showed a concentrated, accurate burst of fire achieved far better results.

    Although Dowding’s order to spread the field of fire was still regarded as standard procedure, squadrons with combat experience were harmonising their guns on a single point 250 yards in front of their aircraft.

    a-spitfire-pilots-story-17-pat-hughes-in-front-of-tent-1 Flight Lieutenant Paterson Clarence Hughes of No.234 Squadron RAF. (Credit Bill Hughes, A Spitfire Pilot's Story, Amberley Publishing)

    Going in close seemed to be another way of preventing the ‘Stuffy Spread’ from scattering too many bullets far and wide. Obviously, the closer a fighter could be positioned behind its target, the closer together the pattern would be and the more certainty there was of making a kill. Effective though it might be, it was obviously dangerous - but wasn’t war dangerous anyway?

    Before the Battle of Britain intensified, one nervous new pilot reportedly asked his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Paterson Clarence Hughes, ‘What do I do if I miss?’

    ‘What do you do if you miss?’ Pat Hughes’ deliberate reply came back, ‘Listen mate… you get as close as you can and you can’t miss!’


    No.234 Squadron RAF claimed its first victories during July 1940, three Ju88s destroyed in three weeks and Pat Hughes led all three attacks.

    He had gone in close. For him, that was definitely the answer.

    One of his wingmen, Sergeant George Bailey, would recall years later, ‘...Amongst some of his [Pat’s] efforts towards the war effort – frowned upon and stopped by higher authority – painting of the spinners of our Spitfires bright colours in competition to the yellow nosed 109’s. Use of incendiary bullets in all guns and bringing the concentration of fire power from the eight guns down to the minimum distance that could be obtained from the mountings... about 50 yards less than that recommended by the A.M. (Air Ministry)’

    In his three attacks, return fire had struck Pat’s Spitfire on two separate occasions – one bullet each time. Pat would go in close again and again...

    What followed was dramatic by any measure. During just over three weeks of spectacular action, Pat’s tally of enemy aircraft destroyed climbed to more than 14 victories.

    Then came 7 September 1940 and the first huge daylight attack on London. At first caught by surprise by the change in German tactics, Dowding’s fighters pounced after the withdrawing Luftwaffe bombers like angry hornets. They had to make them pay.

    a-spitfire-pilots-story-45-spitfire-attacking-do17 A Spitfire breaks away from an attack on a Dornier Do17. (Credit, A Spitfire Pilot's Story, Amberley Publishing)

    South-east of Folkestone, 234 Squadron ran into an estimated sixty German aircraft consisting of Dornier Do 17s and escorting Messerschmitt 109s. Initially instructed to patrol over the airfields at Kenley and Biggin Hill at ‘Angels Ten’, Squadron Leader ‘Spike’ O’Brien had taken his twelve Spitfires up to twice that height until they were above hoards of bandits all heading south on their way home. They were being harried as they went by furious, stinging Hurricanes and Spitfires.

    Pat Hughes in Spitfire X4009 as usual was leading the three Spitfires of Blue Section. O’Brien told Pat to go after the bombers while his flight covered the 109s. Ordering his wingmen to follow suit, Pat plunged after the bombers. He was well ahead of the others as he closed in on a straggling Dornier.

    Blue Two, Pilot Officer Keith Lawrence, followed the Australian down and saw him make a quarter attack on the German machine. Large pieces flew off the enemy plane, then a wing crumpled and it went down spinning. Lawrence glanced away for a target but when he looked back an instant later, he saw a Spitfire spinning down with about a third of its wing broken off... a collision?


    It was late in the afternoon a few miles from Andover when Kay Hughes, Pat’s bride of just six weeks, stopped her car and phoned 234 Squadron’s Mess at Middle Wallop. She asked for Pat. Instead, F/O E. C. ‘Bish’ Owens, the fatherly squadron Adjutant, came to the phone. ‘Come right over’, he said, ‘I’ll meet you at the gate.’

    For a second she wondered why? Then, instinctively she knew. She clutched the gold charm bracelet Pat had given her. She knew...

    True to his word, ‘Bish’ and some of Pat’s boys met her at the gate. They told her that Pat was missing - there was some hope but the chances were not good. Then they took her to the White Hart where a room had been booked. ‘I’ve got your double,’ the landlord said greeting her with a wide smile. That was before he realised something was wrong...

    ‘Bish’ took him to one side and told him.

    Paterson Clarence Hughes had become the highest-scoring Australian pilot of the Battle of Britain - a ‘Top Gun’. His full story is told in Dennis Newton’s A Spitfire Pilot’s Story published by Amberley.


    Dennis Newton's new book A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes, Battle of Britain Top Gun is available for purchase now.

  • The Secrets of London's Squares: Westminster and Bloomsbury by Alan Brooke & David Brandon

    Many cities of the world are famous for their squares. For example: Red Square in Moscow, Times Square in New York, Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City and Tiananmen Square in China. When it comes to London many people, if asked, would name Trafalgar Square or even Leicester Square. The squares (and one might add the parks and gardens) are a defining feature of England’s capital city. ‘Square’ is a generic term for urban open spaces and as we know many are not actually square or even rectangular. Squares are a form of architecture and town planning not exactly unique to the metropolis but never exploited to the full in other cities although it could be said that Bath, Edinburgh and Liverpool all made some use of the concept.

    secrets-of-central-londons-squares-2 The statue of William Shakespeare with fountain at Leicester Square. (Secrets of Central London's Squares, Amberley Publishing)

    Given the hundreds of squares in London we decided to focus on Bloomsbury and Westminster. We also included a handful of what might be called ‘stand alone’ gardens so see this as a bonus!

    Some squares have an abundance of features including statuary, gardens, inscriptions on benches, fountains, gravestones, commemorations and of course many London plane trees, which account for over half of the city’s tree population and are in evidence in many of the squares in this book. It was the unusual, quirky and curious that fascinated us as well as the familiar features of the selected squares.

    Garden squares provide a welcome retreat for people seeking rest and for those who work nearby. However there are many squares off the main streets that are probably less known to the visitor. Of course there are limits to what can be seen in London in a short space of time but some of the squares and gardens in Westminster and Bloomsbury are certainly worth seeking out and do provide many unexpected discoveries as well as a peaceful haven.

    The London Square has to be seen as an evolving historical and architectural phenomenon. Its origin probably lies in the work of Inigo Jones in Covent Garden in 1631-39 on land then owned by the Earls of Bedford and of which very few traces still exist. Despite the Georgian association of some squares many were built in the Victorian period notably between 1840 and 1880, in such districts as Kensington. The grandest squares were largely in estates whose ground landlords were the Russell, Grosvenor, Portman and Cavendish-Bentinck families or their connections.

    secrets-of-central-londons-squares-1 One of many benches with personal inscriptions in Berkeley Square Gardens. (Secrets of Central London's Squares, Amberley Publishing)

    The earlier squares were paved and largely of open access which made them less exclusive. The private enclosed garden in the centre of a square emerged as a conscious attempt to safeguard the existence of at least some open space as London expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and especially the nineteenth century. Even the resulting ‘green’ amenity was only available to a small privileged elite. As the nineteenth century wore on many resented the social privilege of these gated spaces. The closed or private garden squares had few, if any occupants. Those that had open access drew huge numbers of visitors, clearly enjoying, respecting and appreciating the space and the surroundings.


    George Orwell felt strongly about the exclusive nature of the squares. ‘…the railings are returning in one London square after another…So the awful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out. When the railings round the parks and squares were removed, the object was partly to accumulate scarp iron, but the removal was also felt to be a democratic gesture…The parks were improved out of recognition by being laid open, acquiring a friendly, almost rural look that they had never had before’ (As I Please 1943-45).

    Most squares did their duty in the Second World War and not just in giving up their iron rails. Belgrave Square became a tank park, St James’s Square was dug up and given over to vegetable growing and air raid shelters were built in Soho and Manchester Squares.

    The building of residential squares started to decline in the early twentieth century and many faced demolition. It was the London Squares Act of 1931 that saved many from such a fate. There has been a minor resurgence of squares in the latter part of the twentieth century notably with the expansion of office squares such as Canada Square in Canary Wharf. In more recent years events and organisations such as the London Open Garden Square Weekend and the London Parks and Gardens Trust have added to the interest and upkeep of these places.

    As with much of London the most fascinating aspects are those in the less familiar places. Do seek out both the lesser as well as the better-known squares and gardens – there is much delight to be had and discoveries to be made.


    Alan Brooke & David Brandon's new book Secrets of Central London's Squares is available for purchase now.

  • Mrs Janet Taylor — 19th Century Pioneer of Sea Navigation by John S. Croucher

    On 4 February 1870 the Durham County Advertiser included the following short obituary:

     At the vicarage, St Helen’s Auckland, at the house of her brother-in- law, 21st ult,. Mrs Janet Taylor, fourth daughter of the late Rev Peter lonn, vicar of Sately in this county. She was the authoresss of several books on Navigation and Astronomy and a few years ago a pension was granted to her for her services by the Government.

    mistress-of-science-1 Mariner’s Calculator replica. (Authors’ collection, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    In a few short lines were concentrated the barest of outlines of the career of an extraordinary woman, who in the very male world of sea navigation made a distinct mark. Others wrote of her in a few tributes, dotted over the years: that she was a ‘competent astronomer’, that her books were ‘of the best’ of their kind, that she was an instructor ‘without equal in her day’ and that her ‘Nautical Academy’ was ‘much patronised’ by naval and merchant seamen. Her youngest brother wrote simply that she was ‘the Great Gun of our family’.

    I knew that Janet Taylor was an interesting relative — my great-great-great-great aunt. I am descended from her eldest brother William, and like Janet, I am a mathematician and teacher. I was intrigued by my super-talented ‘aunt’, and the mathematical ‘gene’ that connected us. Just how extraordinary she was I was determined to uncover. What started as a journey of curiosity resulted in a determination to tell her story, to fill in a unique, and missing, piece in the history of sea navigation.

    After the death of her mother when she was just seven years old, Janet gained a scholarship at the precociously young age of nine, to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where the other girls were all aged over 14. Her life thereafter took her into the heart of maritime London.

    mistress-of-science-2 Janet Taylor Octant detail inscribed ‘Mrs Janet Taylor & Co’ – detail of image shown in 18. (Authors’ collection; photo by Bec Lorrimer, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    Her father, the curate of the church of St Mary and St Stephen and schoolmaster of the Free Grammar School at Wolsingham, inspired her in the wonders of navigation. She became a prodigious author of nautical treatises and textbooks, born of a fascination in particular in measuring longitude by the lunar distance method. She conducted her own Nautical Academy in Minories in the east end of the City, not far from the Tower of London; she was a sub-agent for Admiralty charts; ran a manufacturing business for nautical instruments, many of which she designed herself; and embarked on the business of compass adjusting at the height of the controversies generated by magnetic deviation and distortions on iron ships.

    Through her scientific work Janet established a respectful correspondence with those in the highest positions in the maritime community: men like the head of the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office, Captain, later Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, and Professor Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Where they were hesitant at first in their engagement with Mrs Taylor, she clearly won their support and respect.

    mistress-of-science-3 Janet Taylor binnacle. (Authors’ collection; photo by Bec Lorrimer, c. Mistress of Science, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1835, in consideration of ‘services she has extended to seamen’, through her Lunar Tables, the Admiralty awarded her £100 ‘from scientific funds’, a ‘handsome pecuniary award’. She was similarly honoured by the two other members of the ‘big three’ of the 19th century maritime world in Britain: the Elder Brethren of Trinity House  and the East India Company. She also received international recognition for her contributions: gold medals from the King of Holland and King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia; and, by 1844, a medal from the Pope. Then in 1860 her contributions to navigation were acknowledged by her own country when she was awarded a civil list pension of £50 per year, ‘In consideration of her benevolent labours among the seafaring population of London’.

    Like women of her time, she had many children, eight of her own and three step-children, but it was her contributions to science and to navigation that are to be remembered. So little of her story has so far been told and there is so much more to know.

    Ten days after her death in 1870, an obituary published in The Athenaeum concluded by saying: “Perhaps some surviving relative or friend may be able to throw light on the life and labours of one who was as extraordinary from her acquirements of knowledge as from her social reticence.”

    And so, some 150 years after her passing, I am that relative – seeking to introduce my brilliant, great-great-great-great aunt to a wider public to give her the proper recognition she deserves. Over the past decade my labours in uncovering my aunt’s story, a journey in which my wife Rosalind also enthusiastically joined, has resulted in a biography, in the hope that, in a small way, Janet Taylor’s story may now be seen in the light it deserves: the story of an extraordinary pioneer of sea navigation.


    John S. Croucher & Rosalind F. Croucher's new book Mistress of Science is available for purchase now.

  • Blue Light Models 'How I got started' by Adrian Levano

    Nowadays I usually come out to most people as a ‘toy car collector’. Time was that I might have hidden the fact away from new acquaintances, at least until I was sure they could handle it – and until I was fairly sure they thought I was, in all other respects, normal! Belonging to a collectors club helps in many ways, you realise there are plenty of intelligent people out there with the same hobby – and interacting with the members in my role as editor of the club magazine has led me to explore areas of the model world about which I previously knew very little.

    blue-light-models-1 Dinky Toys nos 250 and 259. (c. Blue Light Models, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m told that I could identify real cars before I could pronounce the names. I’ve always been a ‘collector’ of toy cars, and since the age of about eight or nine have kept them in their boxes. Admittedly they were taken out and played with, so most from those early days show some signs of that use. There have been times over the years when the collecting was ‘on hold’ but I hardly ever disposed of any toys, and still they keep accumulating as I find new areas of interest.

    It was probably a move to the South-East of England in the 1980s that was the biggest boost. I found myself in close proximity to several collectors’ toy fairs, one of which was in the town where I lived. I do find such fairs are the best way of adding to the collection, although internet auctions are good if you know your subject.

    With one exception, I have always avoided the temptation to try to get everything of a particular series. It’s the last few that are always the most difficult to get and which cost a lot more. There is always something different to add a new flavour to the collection – for example it’s only in the last year or two that I have taken any real interest in tinplate toys. They have a distinct charm which had eluded me previously. Perhaps with age and experience I can now put toys into a social and historical context which gives a new dimension to my hobby.

    blue-light-models-2 Budgie produced the Wolseley in two scales; here we have both police versions and the smaller one again as a fire car. (c. Blue Light Models, Amberley Publishing)

    I have to admit that I’m not a specialist on emergency services – I have all sorts, in all scales and materials. In many ways that probably equipped me better for this project than collectors who specialise in only one particular aspect. A lot of British collectors seem to prefer home-grown products, and I think the same applies in other countries. For me it’s the more unusual the better.

    When I was young we made regular family trips to Germany and other European countries, and that was a major influence in widening my horizons about what was around – remember that was long before the internet, so the toys and models I brought back from my travels were things hardly seen in England.

    In this book I try to give an overview of model emergency services vehicles over the decades, across the world, and some advice about how to buy, store and care for a collection. Of course, most toy and model manufacturers have produced a far wider range than just ‘blue light’ models, so in a way it’s also a brief history and overview of model vehicles in general.

    blue-light-models-3 From a range of detailed fire vehicles aimed at the North American marker are a REO Speedwagon pumper and a Mack L pumper - both in 1:50 scale. (c. Blue Light Models, Amberley Publishing)

    In fact the title is a rather Anglo-centric as emergency services vehicles in other countries can have other colours of flashing lights such as red or orange. Although it’s written from the point of view of a British collector, I have tried to cover as wide a spread of interests as possible, and have included modern toys available at ‘pocket money’ prices through to the rarer collectibles.

    I wouldn’t like your readers to think that toys and models are my whole life! At times I just shut the door to the collection room (yes, it does have its own room complete with small photo studio) and try to engage with the real world. For example, I’m an amateur musician and play keyboards. It’s odd how things overlap though; of the musicians I’ve worked with in recent years, at least two spring to mind as serious model enthusiasts, one is a leading expert on plastic toy soldiers, the other makes the most amazing model railway locomotives and rolling stock from scratch and also edits a model railway club magazine.

    I’m a keen, if very amateur gardener, and also hope to get back to more travelling soon. My favourite city to visit is Istanbul, but as fate would have it, Turkey adds very little to my model collection – so going there is a real holiday from my everyday world in every sense.


    Adrian Levano's new book Blue Light Models is available for purchase now.

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