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  • Secret Wrexham by John Idris Jones

    John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson (1728-1808). (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    I have already done Secret Chester and found this new work Secret Wrexham is nothing like it, it’s like chalk and cheese. Chester, as we all know, is charm personified. You go back to the Romans, who set its street pattern, and historically it was rich with traders and merchants who occupied its varied locations in the town’s streets, marked by ‘the rows’, making it an unique feature.

    The town of Wrexham has no such rich history. It came alive with the Industrial Revolution; before that, it was a small town with markets; rural and not industrial. The river Clywedog ran through it, and supplied water to the new factories, and to leather works. John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson was the main man who was involved in the industrial works of Wrexham. Buried in an iron coffin, they say. Coal came out of the ground in some 26 sites; some of the pits were huge; four had shafts descending some 2,000 feet. So the miners needed accommodation; Ruabon and particularly Rhos had rows of dwellings where families crowded-in.  In the present economy, some of these sell for a low price. So coal transformed the town of Wrexham. Then iron-ore was mined as well, and the iron-and-steel industry prospered. They say that cannons were created here for the wars 1780-1815. The small town, in a hundred years, was transformed into an industrial hub.

    Bersham colliery. (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    The strange thing is that ‘Wrexham’ is in two parts.  Firstly there is the town, of some 60,000 folk. Then there is the rest of Wrexham County Borough, which actually has a bigger population.  In Minera there used to be lead works, very bad for your health. In a short walk, out of the town, you enter rich farmland. The most charismatic is the Ceiriog Valley, some 13 miles of it, the road turning and twisting as it follows the trout-rich River Ceiriog.

    Pontcysyllte has the astonishing aqueduct, designed by Telford; it is 336 yards long, a width of four yards and a height of 126 feet. It is still in fine working order, despite its origin in being completed in 1805:  narrow-boats cross it frequently. There are three other spectacular bridges on this part of the Dee.

     

     

    Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (Secret Wrexham, Amberley Publishing)

    The man who gave his name to Yale University, USA, Elihu Yale, lived in Wrexham; he is buried in the local church.

    Offa’s Dyke runs through the area; built in the late eighth century, to keep the Welsh in order!

    The village of Marford has peculiar architecture; echoes of children’s stories in its pointed-top windows and doors.

    Erbistock has a popular pub/restaurant on the bank of the Dee.  Overton in 1292 received a charter from King Edward 1st. Hanmer, close to the English border, is where Lorna Sage grew up.  She is famous for her book ‘Bad Blood’.

    So, here is a lot to cover; much variety; from the industrial to the agrarian. My book is full of my photographs of Wrexham and I hope I have done justice to an area that is much more than a centre of industry.

    John Idris Jones' new book Secret Wrexham is available for purchase now.

  • SOE Heroines by Bernard O'Connor

    The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents

    A 1944 aerial shot of RAF Tempsford, the airfield from which most women agents were flown. (Courtesy of the East Englian Aviation Society, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    It was not until the last few decades of the 20th century that history books and media coverage of the Second World War began to change their focus from men’s roles to include the experiences of women and girls. It was the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, the introduction of women’s studies in universities and changes in examination syllabi that ensured young people began to get a more balanced view of history.

    Researchers began to investigate what life was like for women and girls during the war years. Instead of their traditional portrayal in wartime films and books in secondary, subservient roles or included only for a love interest, the importance of many women’s roles in the Second World War, including in the secretive world of the Intelligence Services, has begun to be told.

    Academics and authors like Juliette Pattinson, Kate Vigurs, Penny Starns, Margaret Collins-Weitz, Clare Mulley, Susan Heim and others, have brought their stories into the public eye. While Gillian Armstrong’s 2001 film Charlotte Gray portrayed the life of a woman secret agent in France, a more realistic portrayal was Jean-Paul Salomé’s 2008 film Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women Agents).

    An agent receiving her last kiss before boarding the plane to the Continent. (Courtesy of Pierre Tillet, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    Living near RAF Tempsford, a Second World War airfield about 80km north of London and about half way between Cambridge and Bedford, I have spent several decades researching its role in supplying the resistance movements across Western Europe. It was from there that agents of the British, American, Soviet, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and French intelligence services were infiltrated into occupied Europe as organisers, couriers, wireless operators, weapons instructors, saboteurs and assassins. It was also involved in exfiltrating downed pilots and aircrew, escaped prisoners-of-war, politicians, diplomats, military personnel, resistance leaders and others who were evading capture by the authorities. In 1946, the RAF Film unit produced School for Danger, later renamed Now the Story can be Told which told the story of Jacqueline Nearne and Harry Rée, British agents who parachuted into France on a secret mission and successfully returned. Over the last few decades I have published some books on the airfield, the early ones entitled RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield and Churchill’s MOST SECRET Airfield.

    Andree Borrel parachuted near St Laurent Nouan (Loir-et-Cher), on 24/25 September 1942. (Courtesy of the National Archives, TNA HS9/183, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    I found that most of the more than 2,000 personnel, both men and women based on the airfield, had signed the Official Secrets Act and were unprepared to talk or write about their experiences. Some who had been awarded medals after the war, under pressure from reporters keen to tell the stories, had their experiences printed in newspapers. However, the British, and I imagine the French government, vetted such articles to ensure no sensitive information was revealed like the names of members of the intelligence services or of people who were still alive. Names of people and places had to be changed.

    However, biographies of pilots and secret agents were published after the war; films and TV documentaries were produced and eventually autobiographies appeared. While most books have been about the men, there is an increasing number about the women, notably Violette Szabó, Nancy Wake, Odette Churchill/Sansom, Christine Granville, Noor Inayat Khan and Diane Rowden.

    The Government restriction on the release of sensitive documents to The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office in Kew, has meant that formerly top-secret documents are only gradually becoming available. The introduction of the British Freedom of Information Act in 2000 has released thousands of files into the public domain. The National Archives online discovery catalogue allows anyone to locate and occasionally download personnel files, mission reports and other secret government documents related to RAF Tempsford and the wartime intelligence services and has encouraged an increasing number of people to publish their memoirs and historians to reveal their secrets. The Imperial War Museum also has taped interviews with individuals who had a connection with Tempsford and the intelligence services.

    The women of the SOE were not the only ones to help in the liberation of France; pictured is Simone Segouin, a member of the French Resistance who was reported to have captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres area, in addition to killing others. (Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records Administration, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    As I gave talks to local history societies, women’s institutes, town women’s guilds, church and other groups, there were numerous questions from women asking for details of what their father, grandfather, husband, uncle, brother or cousin were doing during the war as they had never talked about it. They had kept their promise having signed the Official Secrets Act. Based on my research, I was able to tell them as much as I had learned.

    Focussing on the women’s stories, I published The Courier, a historical faction, in 2010, The Women of RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield in 2011 which covered not just accounts of the women agents but also the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the catering staff. Return to Holland and Return to Belgium, also published in 2011, tell the stories of women agents infiltrated into the Low Countries. Churchill’s Angels, a revised and updated account of the British women agents was published in 2012; Elzbieta Zawacka: Polish soldier and courier during World War Two in 2014, Agent Rose: The True Spy Story of Eileen Nearne, Britain's Forgotten Wartime Heroine; Designer: The true spy story of Jacqueline Nearne, a courier sent on a top secret mission to France during World War Two in 2014 and Agent Fifi and the Wartime Honey Trap Spies in 2015.

    Royal Victorian Patriotic School, Wandsworth, London, where, from January 1941, MI5 interviewed refugees to determine if they were enemy agents and gain intelligence about conditions overseas. (Courtesy of Mike T under Creative Commons 2.0, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    Having been a Trustee of the Tempsford Memorial, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2013 to commemorate women agents infiltrated behind enemy lines, mostly from RAF Tempsford, I had a tentative list of over eighty women, many whose stories had yet to be told. I decided therefore to focus on the many Frenchwomen who were parachuted, landed by plane or boat into remote parts of France on moonlit nights between 1942 and 1944. SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive French Section and Free French Women Agents tells the stories of 36 brave women. Most were trained in paramilitary warfare, fieldcraft, the use of weapons and explosives, sabotage, silent killing, parachuting, codes and cyphers, wireless transmission and receiving, and general spycraft. The youngest was 19 and the oldest 53. Of the twelve who were captured, only two survived; the others were executed, some after being tortured by the sadistic officers of the Gestapo.

    In recognition of their contribution to the liberation of France, the British, French and American governments honoured these 36 women with 49 awards including 11 Croix de Guerre, four with palms, nine Medaille de la Resistance, five Companion de Legion d’Honneur, four King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, four Member of the British Empire Medals, three Chevallier de Legion d’Honneur, two Order of the British Empire Medals, two Certificates of Commendation, two Sussex Medals, one Commander of Legion d’Honneur, King’s Medal of Commendation, one Medaille de Republique Française, one Military Cross, one Mentioned in Dispatches, one US Distinguished Service Cross, one US Bronze Star and one George Cross.

    Bernard O'Connor's new book SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents is available for purchase now.

  • East London Buses: 1970s-1980s by Malcolm Batten

    The first North Weald Bus Rally was held on 31 May 1981. Among the exhibits was London Transport RML2760, whish was already a celebrity vehicle on account of being the final Routemaster. Alongside is the unique rear-engined FRM1, which was built in 1966. (East London Buses: 1970s-1980s, Amberley Publishing)

    For transport enthusiasts and historians, anniversaries are always important occasions, and 2018 is no exception. For railway enthusiasts 2018 marks fifty years since the end of main line steam on British Railways with the “15 Guinea Special” on 11 August 1968. Many of the heritage railways will be commemorating this in various ways. Already the Mid-Hants Railway have held a gala for which they brought in another LMS ‘Black Five’ 4-6-0 to work with their resident example and recreate this last BR train, which featured a pair of the type.

    The other locomotive that featured on that August day, Britannia No. 70013 Oliver Cromwell has been working some main line trips prior to the expiry of its boiler certificate in March. On Thursday 22 February it ran over its original stamping ground from London to Norwich. Unfortunately it suffered lubrication problems on the outward journey and the return trip was diesel hauled. This had been the last steam locomotive to receive a general overhaul before BR stopped overhauling steam, and was saved for preservation on withdrawal.

    Also from 13 July 1985, London Country took route 313, Potters Bar-Chingford. Seen in Chingford on 11 July 1986, AN323 is a former Strathclyde Leyland Atlantean with Alexander bodywork. (East London Buses: 1970s-1980s, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    At the Epping Ongar railway, where I am a volunteer, we will be marking the end of BR steam with a photographic exhibition ‘Barry and after – 50 years since the end of mainline steam’ in our Penny Salon gallery at Ongar throughout August. This will feature the locomotives that were sent to Woodhams scrapyard at Barry, but were not cut up and survived to become the mainstay of the present heritage railways.

    For bus enthusiasts, 2018 marks 60 years since the introduction of the Leyland Atlantean, the first rear engine double deck type to enter production. This will be commemorated at the South Eastern Bus Festival at Detling Showground, near Maidstone on 7 April. Early Atlanteans are well represented in preservation – the first production examples from the two first operators, Wallasey and Glasgow both survive. Local company Maidstone & District were an early convert, taking Leyland Atlanteans from 1959 when they replaced the Hastings trolleybuses. Indeed they bought no front engine half cab double-deckers after 1956, unlike neighbours East Kent, who did not buy any rear engine double-deckers until 1969.

    At first the advantage of the rear engine design was in the increased passenger capacity it offered over the front engine half-cab bus. But from 1966, when one-person operation of double-deckers was legalised they had the advantage of being suitable for such work, with the passengers boarding alongside the driver. By this time other models, such as the Daimler Fleetline and Bristol VR had entered the market.

    Since 1969, some London Routemasters had carried overall advertising liveries. RM1255 is seen on route 8 at Old Ford on 30 March 1975 and is promoting an employment agency. (East London Buses: 1970s-1980s, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile London Transport had been introducing production models of the Routemaster, a traditional front-engine half-cab design, although mechanically superior to the Atlantean. They did buy batches of Leyland Atlanteans and Daimler Fleetlines for comparison trials in 1965-6. They also built a solitary rear-engined Routemaster FRM1. But this did not enter volume production, and eventually London Transport chose Fleetlines to succeed Routemasters in the 1970s.

    This brings us to the third significant anniversary – that of the Transport Act 1968. This brought in the National Bus Company, merging the state owned bus companies run by the Transport Holding Company with the formerly private owned BET group. It also created Passenger Transport  Executives to merge the local authority bus fleets in major conurbations – Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands and  Tyneside. As a consequence of this, London Transport lost its country area green buses and Green Line express services to a new NBC fleet, London Country Bus Services from January 1970. The Act also introduced as bus grant scheme, whereby grants were available for the purchase of new vehicles to modernise fleets. As this did not include half-cab vehicles not suited for one-person operation, production of these traditional vehicles came to an end in 1969.

    Malcolm Batten's new book East London Buses: 1970s-1980s is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Hayes by Louise Wyatt

    Yeading Meadows, Yeading Nature Reserve - also known as The Greenway to many locals. (Image courtesy of Dudley Miles under Creative Commons 2.0, Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m very grateful to my editor Becky Cousins for the opportunity in the first place, as Secret Hayes is my first traditionally published book. And many thanks to the publishing team for such a fabulous series to write for (I’m on my second book for the series, Secret Chepstow) and for such a professional job for turning my Word document into something so pleasurable. I tried not to dwell on the facts more commonly known – such as George Orwell being a teacher there in the 1930’s – but searched for facts such as finding out just who those fanciful tombs in the local Norman church belonged to.

    I had always imagined myself a fiction writer so delving into the historical non-fiction world was a tad scary, but boy did I enjoy it! I have always been fascinated by uncovering unknown facts, be it at home, holiday or just out and about. Hence why I began my blog after breaking my ankle in 2012, about places I had visited and things I had found out. When I was mobile again, I began blogging about walks I had been on and buildings – sometimes ruinous and sometimes not – that I had stumbled upon. Discovering a pile of rubble in some woods that just so happened to be the remains of an important strategic castle in the twelfth century really fired me up!

    Sketch of Hayes parish in 1874 by Thomas Mills. (Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I had to start with what I knew plenty about – the town I grew up in. Now a busy suburb of London, cut up on all sides by Heathrow, the M4, M40 and so on, I knew it wasn’t always so. When I was growing up, we had such good times – fields to play in, shops nearby but also able to retreat to a quiet place. It was during writing Secret Hayes that I found out just how important those ‘fields to play in’ were; now classified nature reserves with SSSI status they are more than just fields. It is an important snapshot of what was and what is still thriving, to show how the eco-system can survive in such a densely populated area and giving the local people a fabulous piece of breathing space.

    Despite all the housing developments, old and new, there are still pockets of history all around. I had always known there were ‘old buildings’ a bus ride away, but only by researching this book have I been led to understand Hayes has a central conservation area, listed buildings and award-winning open green areas that are remnants of an ancient forest and old farms; amazingly, a couple of farms are still in living memory of residents – development has been quite hard and fast when looking at things via a timeline.

    Comparing ‘then’ and ‘now’ photographs was mind-boggling during research, especially when you know the area well. How the pub that had ‘always just been behind the traffic lights’ was actually the oldest in Hayes, a main coaching inn back in the day and opposite a village-green type pond. All long gone, apart from the pub. Also discovering via research that the area where you grew up probably had higher crime statistics on a one-to-one ratio than modern day was bit of an eye-opener too; the isolation, the difficulty in connecting to main routes, as it seems even the Romans bypassed the little corner of Hayes we know as Yeading. Discovering newspaper articles of the day about dastardly deeds in an area you know was very engrossing!

    The 1086 entry for Hayes, noting 108 households and fifty-nine geld (taxable) units, including meadow, woodland and pasture worth £30. (Professor John Palmer and George slater on opendomesday.org.uk, Secret Hayes, Amberley Publishing)

    I was extremely fortunate to get my hands on an original book entitled History of Hayes by Thomas Mills, written in 1874. The author signed the inner cover and the book was dedicated to a family member, Sir Charles Mills, who happened to be Lord of Hillingdon at the time. I found it extremely difficult to make the connection between them and time – as well as my word count – was running out! I had noticed whilst researching credible sources I had found online that they constantly had this book in their bibliographies and when I Googled it, there was the only copy available on Amazon. A tad expensive but I just had to have it. Not only did it help give me a fabulous insight to the Hayes of the late 1800’s, it was very special holding a book of that age in my hands. In fact, I was almost too scared to hold it and it is now safely tucked away. Thomas Mills’ detailed sketches and beautiful descriptive language as eye-witness accounts transported me to a Hayes that was the village it always had been, up until the early 1900’s.

    Hayes will probably go on to be continually developed but I’m hoping my book will enable people to realise that beneath their feet is history; that buildings exist in Hayes that have been there when the area was an idyllic backwater – although I do use the term idyllic loosely. Many people were poor, they had farms to work, miles to tread to the nearest market town (in this case, Uxbridge) and Yeading in particular appears to have been a hard place to live, with its farms, then brickfields and isolation. But the area is still remembered fondly by many and if one cares to look closely, pockets of the meadow, woodland and pasture that were mentioned so long ago in the Domesday Book are still there.

    Louise Wyatt's new book Secret Hayes is available for purchase now.

  • Preston History Tour by Keith Johnson

    Wandering and Wondering – A Magical History Mystery Tour

    Fishergate Railway Bridge. (Preston History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    If you should be considering a visit to Preston in Lancashire in the future why not get a copy of the Preston History Tour and take a route through the historic town.

    Perhaps, like me, you will wander and wonder as you walk around Preston. Perhaps you will ponder with thoughts about the streets, the buildings and the people that passed this way before who were all part of the rich tapestry of life.

    The book takes you on quite a journey on a long and winding road with twists and turns along the way. Always remember that this old market town now a University City endured feast and famine, plague and pestilence, triumph and tragedy, conflicts and confrontation to emerge as 'Proud Preston' a title richly deserved. By reflecting on the images within the book it gives you, the reader, a chance to stand and stare and be nostalgic whilst you are there.

     

    Fishergate and Fishergate Baptist Church. (Preston History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    This trail begins on Fishergate Hill the seat of County Hall since 1882, then onwards to Fishergate to glimpse the history there. On next to Winckley Square surrounded by fine buildings, some of which date back to the dawn of the 19th century. After wandering around the Square it is but a short walk to the Avenham & Miller Parks by the side of the River Ribble where historical delights await. Leaving the parks by tree lined paths you reach Avenham Walk, created as a gravel path in 1696. Soon Avenham Lane beckons and then a slight detour takes you to Stoneygate where Arkwright House has stood since 1728 and from where you can glimpse a rear view of the Minster church.

    Returning to Avenham Lane and on to Queen Street you will reach London Road a vital artery of the city. Ahead to your left is Stanley Street and a glimpse at New Hall Lane, where cotton mills once abounded, before you step onwards towards Church Street a highway steeped in history. As Church Street turns into Fishergate, Cheapside beckons along with the ancient Market Square where you may choose to linger a while and admire the buildings that surround it. Harris Street, by the side of the Harris Museum, takes you up to the modern day Guild Hall and the Town Hall where civic matters are dealt with on Lancaster Road.

    Miller Park. (Preston History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    Across from the Town Hall is the narrow, winding Crooked Lane, where soup kitchens gave relief to the poor in cotton famine days, and a few more footsteps will bring you to the Preston Bus Station, a structure both praised and criticized, from the top of which you can view Preston in its entirety. Church steeples and towers, high rise apartments and office blocks, modern and historical structures and highways all coming into view.

    Returning to Lancaster Road the Covered Market of 1872 origins then beckons, as do Market St and Orchard St from where you can enter Friargate. A few steps more and you are on Lune Street where the old Corn Exchange and St. George's Chapel await. Next is the Ringway and a stroll towards Friargate Brow that eventually leads to the Adelphi roundabout and the UCLAN campus. From here you can look in awe at the spire of St. Walburge's church and admire the former church of St. Peter's.

    Maret Place. (Preston History Tour, Amberley Publishing)

    Corporation St will then take you to where the canal once terminated at the rear of the old Corn Exchange and a return to Fishergate and journey's end at Preston Railway Station from where visitors have flocked since 1880. Hopefully, by then you will have embraced the history and the heritage of the city and its folk and like myself learn a little bit more about proud Preston.

    This history trail is intended to give you a glimpse of Preston's past and to recall the endeavours of its people. A chance to wander and wonder where generations past have lived and toiled. The streets and alleyways, buildings and structures, parks and pastimes all left a legacy, although it is the people who made Preston proud.

    In truth, whenever I walk this walk it seems like a magical mystery history tour and I hope it is for you too. Preston History Tour is a pocket sized publication that takes you along the highways and byways and hopefully down memory lane. This is a tour of Preston you can make by donning your walking shoes, or if you prefer, from the comfort of your old armchair as you flick through the pages.

    Keith Johnson's book Preston History Tour is available for purchase now.

  • Star Wars Memorabilia by Paul Berry

    Boba Fett's Slave 1 came with a model of Han Solo in Carbonite. This was different to the version that was later released individually. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    Writing a book about Star Wars collectables was a daunting task. The sheer amount of product released since 1977 is overwhelming. In fact were a complete guide ever to be published it would require numerous volumes and within months would be hopelessly out of date. My new book STAR WARS MEMORABILIA doesn’t attempt to be a complete guide.  Narrowing down 40 years of history into 96 pages, it is more of a concise pocket guide to the history of Star Wars collectables. I hope it will appeal to the new collector as well as old died in the wool fans.

    30th Anniversary Collection Darth Revan. (Hasbro, 2007, Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    I make no apologies for the fact that the book is a nostalgia trip, taking a particular focus on the items produced during the 1970's and 1980's. While many of the other Star Wars collectable books in the past concentrate almost solely on the action figures, my book looks at the wider world of Star Wars collecting including many UK produced items which are often overlooked.

    My own association with Star Wars goes back nearly forty years, I was slightly too young to remember the first film coming out, but when the Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 I first became aware of Star Wars and the toys. As a child of that period it was impossible to escape Star Wars, it was the in thing and nearly every kid had at least one of the action figures.

    Jabba the Hutt playset. (Kenner, 1983, Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    I saw Empire at the cinema, and got to see the original film a year or two later in a double bill, but that was it until Return of the Jedi came out. It is easy to forget now that in the early eighties, the films weren't available on video and hadn't yet been shown on TV so in a sense being into Star Wars back then was far more about the toys and the merchandise than it was about the films.

    I was entranced by the Star Wars figures, I can’t quite put into words how exciting it would be to walk into a store and see characters you had never seen before. Everything was a surprise back then as without any internet or information you would have no idea when new figures would appear. The Star Wars displays in those days were vast with rows and rows of figures and boxed items piled to the ceiling. Stores would occasionally get visits from some of the characters, I particularly remember seeing Boba Fett and Darth Vader in my home town of Grimsby.

    The Uliq Qel Droma and Exar Kun comic pack set is the rarest modern Star Wars release. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    When Return of the Jedi brought the Star Wars saga to a close in 1983, I don’t remember it being a big deal because the toys still kept going. Little did I know that 1985 would mark the last new figures I would acquire for some time. The following year I was faced with the realisation that there were no new figures and as bargain shops became choked with Star Wars toys at discount prices it became clear that this era of Star Wars was over. Like many I gradually forgot about Star Wars and turned to other things. My old toys were packed away where they remained untouched for the best part of a decade.

    While the Vintage Collection if often seen as the pinnacle of the modern Star Wars range, follow on collector-orientated lines failed to ignite the same interest. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    The 1990's marked a slow return of Star Wars to the public consciousness and it was towards the middle of that decade that my own interest began to be aroused. Like many I was caught up in a rush of nostalgia and this just happened to coincide with new figures coming out. As a child, purchases had been limited to pocket money, birthdays and Christmas and those occasions where parents had been nagged into submission, but now in my early twenties and with a disposable income it was like being let loose in a candy store. Despite initially only intending to buy select figures I soon got reeled in hook line and sinker and started getting every one. Little did I realise I'd still be collecting Star Wars 22 years later. Collecting Star Wars it would be fair to say is a slippery slope and can be very addictive. One thing tends to lead to another and the initial intention to just collect the action figures, then turned into getting the 12 inch figures as well, this led to trading cards and then comics and busts, the list goes on. Before you know it you've spawned a monster that quickly outstrips all available space. With the new crop of films from Disney it is fair to say there is no end point to a Star Wars collection, for all we know items will continue to be produced long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil. The answer to this conundrum of course is to try and have some focus and boil down the thousands of products to an area that is both attainable and affordable. This is a problem I have struggled with over the years as my own collection grew into a behemoth but in recent years I have become much more focused on particular areas. Certainly with rising prices and an ever increasing amount of product, it is harder than ever now to keep up with everything than it has been in the past.

    Various Decipher CCG cards. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    Who knows what Star Wars items will be collectable in the future. Awareness of the collectability of Star Wars has been around since the 1990's and the result is that few of the items produced over the last twenty years have seen such increases in price as those produced during the early days. Many items from the 1990's can still be found easily and cheaply purely because so many stashed extras away thinking they would be an investment. When collecting anything the rule is to buy what you like and gives you enjoyment and if it does turn out to have any investment value then that is a bonus.

    With the multitude of new films on the horizon I remain excited about the future of Star Wars and currently have no intention of stopping collecting. Whether I will continue collecting Star Wars into old age who knows, but given I have been at it for nearly forty years already I see no reason why not.

    Paul Berry's new book Star Wars Memorabilia: An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectables is available for purchase now.

  • Proud to be a Baggie: A Pictorial History of West Bromwich Albion Fans by Dean Walton

    WEMBLEY 1968 – 50 YEARS ON

    Ten-year-old Ray Jackson and supporters from Barratts & Baird set off for Wembley. (Proud to be a Baggie: A Pictorial History of West Bromwich Albion Fans, Amberley Publishing)

    May 18th 1968, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World was at Number 1 in the charts and Harold Wilson was the pipe-smoking Prime Minister. Indeed it was a ‘wonderful world’ for everyone associated with West Bromwich Albion football club, the FA Cup was coming back to the Black Country.

    In front of almost 100,000 fans against Everton at the old Wembley Stadium, the ‘King of the Hawthorns’ Jeff Astle became the first player to score in every round when his left foot rocket in the third minute of extra-time proved to be the winner – his 35th goal in an incredible season. Albion’s Welsh international skipper Graham Williams lifted the trophy and a part of the West Midlands went absolutely crazy.

    Although hardly anyone owned a colour television in those days, the ’68 final was actually the first to be broadcast in colour, this meant that both teams had to wear their change strips – Everton in gold & blue and the Baggies wearing their lucky white shirts & shorts with the now legendary red socks being worn with the kit for the first time. The match ball was also yellow for the benefit of colour TV. Dennis Clarke also became the first substitute to be used in a final when he came on for the injured John Kaye at the end of the 90 minutes.

    Everton were hot favourites, they had thrashed Albion both home and away that season. Baggies captain Graham Williams proudly declared before the game that ‘no team ever beats another three times in the same season.’ This statement stuck in the players’ minds and helped spur them on to success.

    A crowd of 250,000 in West Bromwich town centre with the Star & Garter pub on the right. (Proud to be a Baggie: A Pictorial History of West Bromwich Albion Fans, Amberley Publishing)

    The next day, the streets from Birmingham city centre all the way to West Bromwich town hall were packed with an estimated 250,000 people who turned out to welcome the team back with the Cup for the fifth time.

    West Brom have never made the final since, despite getting to four FA Cup semi-finals, in fact it was the last major trophy that the club won. The FA Cup was very special in those days, fans would gather around the TV from 9am in the morning to watch the build up to the match itself – it was always the highlight of the season.

    Now we look back nearly 50 years later and every one of those players is still a household name amongst the Baggies’ supporters: Osborne, Fraser, Williams, Brown, Talbut, Kaye, Collard, Lovett, Astle, Hope, Clark C and Clarke D. Sadly three of the team are no longer with us; goalkeeper John Osborne, winger Clive ‘Chippy’ Clark and ‘King’ Jeff Astle have all passed away, Astle’s premature death was a result of brain damage caused by continuous heading of the old leather case balls.

    Fortunately the remaining nine players still get together regularly and at least three of the Cup winning team will be at the launch of Proud to be a Baggie – a book chronicling the history of West Bromwich Albion fans. The launch and signing takes place in the Fanzone at The Hawthorns before the forthcoming Albion v Spurs game on 5th May. Dean Walton’s book features many never-before seen photos of the fans heading to Wembley and at the homecoming on the Sunday.

    Albion may well be heading for the Championship but the boys of ’68 will be remembered forever.

    Dean Walton's new book Proud to be a Baggie: A Pictorial History of West Bromwich Albion Fans is available for purchase now.

  • East Anglian Traction by John Jackson

    Lowestoft has also enjoyed its fair share of locomotive-hauled passenger services in 2017. On 20 July, No. 68005 Defiant sits at the buffer stops having arrived with the 12.05 departure of Norwich. (East Anglian Traction, Amberley Publishing)

    My wife, Jenny, and I have been privileged to have travelled to many far-flung corners of the world. Yet it was Amberley Publishing who coaxed me to come out of copy writing ‘retirement’ to produce a range of railway titles on subjects much closer to home. Nothing could evoke stronger memories of my lifelong love affair with this country’s railways than writing ‘East Anglian Traction’.

    Although I was born and brought up in Northampton, it was the trips back to my parental roots that sparked this railway enthusiasm that was to last a lifetime. You see, both my parents, and several generations before them, came from a little corner of Essex, close to the Suffolk border.

    For many years our family made use of the long-closed station at Haverhill in order to return to our family roots. The railway line may have closed half a century ago but the memories of family outings around East Anglia by train will remain with me forever. Sadly, I did not possess a camera in those days – and, hence, have no photos of steam hauled passenger trains on the area’s branch lines. Despite the traction change from steam to diesel multiple units, the axe fell on this Stour Valley line in March 1967.

    The Freightliner stabling point at Ipswich still receives its fuel by rail. The tanks are worked to Ipswich from Lindsey on Humberside. On 5 October 2015, No. 66556 is seen shunting a short rake of fuel tanks at the stabling point. (East Anglian Traction, Amberley Publishing)

    It is ironic that it has taken half a century for the politicians and decision makers in this country to realise that there is a demand for connections that are east to west. Historically, those lines from north to south (i.e. to and from London) have seemed to be the priority. I say, bring on the East West Rail Link ASAP. This should see the reinstatement of direct services between our two major university cities of Cambridge and Oxford.

    Meanwhile, I have spent those intervening fifty years travelling the railway lines of East Anglia that have survived. What’s more, in recent years, my wife persuaded me to make sure that my camera is our constant companion. The photographic fruits of these extensive travels have been on display on the internet for many years now.

    That said, Amberley coaxing me to produce a modern record of East Anglian Traction has been one of my most enjoyable projects.

    At the opposite end of the traction spectrum can be found a small fleet of GA's one, two or three-car diesel multiple units. These can be found across the region's non-electrified lines. A typical East Anglian scene on 4 May 2014 sees a single-car unit, No. 153309, calling at Hoveton & Wroxham while working a Sheringham to Norwich local service. (East Anglian Traction, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    You see, for me the region is an area of railway contrasts and setting foot on today’s platforms at many stations in East Anglia is like stepping back in time by a couple of generations. If those who run today’s railway are to be believed, much change is, however, in the offing. There is a promise by today’s passenger operator of the areas franchise that virtually all its rolling stock will be replaced in the next few years. We shall see.

    As I write this, the last remaining semaphore signals in the Yarmouth and Lowestoft areas are being replaced.

    Meantime, we have enjoyed our adventures in this lovely part of the world. Our aim was to compile a record of rail operations in the area in the second decade of the 21st century – before future changes are delivered and the railway we know today is consigned to history.

    It just remains for me to say thank you to Amberley for giving me the opportunity to once again re-visit my roots. I also hope that the reader gleans a sense of my enthusiasm and enjoys browsing the books pages.

    John Jackson's new book East Anglian Traction is available for purchase now.

  • The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

    Lionel on show in Germany aged 17. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    The Lion Boy was Stephan Bibrowski, born near Warsaw in 1891, with his entire body covered with fine, soft hair about an inch long. His parents and six sisters had no abnormity of the hair whatsoever. As a four-year-old child, Stephan entered the world of show business at a German amusement arcade, the Panoptikum in Berlin, under the artist’s name Lionel the Lion Boy. A certain Professor Minakow examined him in Moscow at the age of five. His face and body were covered with fine blond hair, up to 8 in long on his face and 2-3 in long all over the rest of his body. His dentition consisted of a solitary canine tooth in the lower jaw. It was clear to the professor that this was a genetic disease, namely hypertrichosis congenita lanuginosa [inherited excessive hairiness with lanugo hair]. In 1901, the 10-year-old Lionel was taken to the United States, to join Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. His mother had probably never even seen a lion, but the exhibition posters claimed that the boy’s father had been torn to pieces by an escaped circus lion before her very eyes; this horrid sight had of course ‘marked’ her unborn child in this sinister way. In 1904, Lionel toured large parts of the world with the circus, before returning to Berlin.

    The Fat Boy and his father in 1909. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1923, he returned to the United States, having received a good offer from the Coney Island amusement park: the authorities there had agreed to pay him $500 a week for taking up permanent residence at the park during the summer seasons. Lionel spoke five languages, was a well-read and intelligent man, and quite an entertainer. He was something of a body-builder, and sometimes gave demonstrations of his gymnastic and athletic skills during the shows. One ribald newspaper account tells us that he was also something of a ladies’ man: in spite, or perhaps rather because, of his extraordinary hairy face and body, he never had any difficulty getting admirers among the female visitors. After his successful stay in the United States, Lionel went back to Germany; he died from pneumonia at a hospital in Berlin in 1931, being spared the experience of Hitler’s rise to power with a narrow margin.

    The Fat Boy of Peckham flourished from 1902 until 1912, being exhibited for money all over Britain, and even touring Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His name was Johnny Trunley, and at the age of just five, he was 4 ft tall and weighed 10 stone; he could lift his father, who acted as his manager, off the ground. The London School Board decided that even this monstrous child should be provided with an education, and made sure that a king-sized desk and chair were constructed for him, but the hulking Fat Boy preferred his idle life as a sideshow freak. He also valued his night’s sleep, and more than once there were deplorable scenes as the howling Johnny was dragged out of his terraced Peckham home by a troop of school policemen, only half dressed.

    A French postcard showing Kobelkoff and his family. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    The Daily Mail suggested that the London County Council should construct a special tram line to carry the Fat Boy to school, since no motor omnibus would surely hold him. But Johnny’s father took him on tour to the West Country with a travelling sideshow; if the local bumpkins made fun of him, he asked them how much they earned per week. In each town he entered, he was measured for a suit by the local tailor; this was considered as funny the twentieth time as it had been the first. At the height of his career as an Edwardian mega-star of corpulence, Johnny Trunley appeared at Fred Karno’s music hall in London, where he met Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He turned the scales at 33 stone and was officially proclaimed the heaviest living person in Britain. There was nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with him, just primary obesity that had spiralled out of control.

    In 1912, old Mr Trunley died unexpectedly, and Johnny was without his father and manager. During the Great War, his weight plummeted dramatically, since there was never enough food, and he was very fearful of the air raids and the sinister ‘Zeps’. Johnny Trunley, once the celebrated Fat Boy of Peckham, had become just an ordinary man. He started work as a clockmaker, married and had a son, and lived on until 1944; it is likely that he has descendants alive today.

    Violet and Daisy Hilton as young girls. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book of amazing oddities, the successor to my popular Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and The Two-Headed Boy, I explore various strange, surprising and bizarre aspects of the history of medicine: Does people’s hair go white after a sudden fright; can the image of the killer be seen in the eyes of a murdered person; does the severed head of a guillotined person maintain some degree of consciousness; did Thomas Parr, the Shropshire Methuselah, really attain the great age of 152 years? Giants, dwarfs and medical freaks are paraded in front of the reader, to say nothing of Nikolai Kobelkoff, the Russian armless and legless wonder, the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Hans Langseth who boasted a 17½-ft beard. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, combines a historian’s research skills with a physician’s diagnostic flair, as I explore our timeless fascination with the freakish and bizarre people and events in the colourful history of medicine.

    Jan Bondeson's new book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities is available for purchase now.

  • Jet Flying Boats by David Oliver

    The magic of water-borne flight

    Technicians checking the complex Bristol Proteus turboprop engines in preparation for the first flight of the Princess give scale to its immense size. (Richard Riding Collection, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was fifty years ago that I landed on the calm blue waters of Catalina Island’s Avalon Bay, lying 50 miles off the coast of southern California, in a 30-year-old Grumman amphibian, the Goose. As the veteran flying boat settle in a flurry of green water that covered the windows for a few seconds, it seemed that I had experienced the last of a dying breed of aviation. I had flown from London to Los Angeles a few days earlier on one of Pan Am’s first ‘Jumbo Jets’ and the elderly six-seater Goose, which still flew hourly shuttles for tourists between Long Beach Harbor and Catalina, seemed to have little or no relevance to international air travel in the modern world.

    However, this flight would inspire a life-long interest in water-borne aircraft during which I have been fortunate enough to experience many aerial voyages that stay in the memory. These include flying a Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol from Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia in another Grumman Goose, and scheduled flights from Miami’s Watson Island terminal to the Bahamas on Grumman Mallards and Turbo Mallard amphibians belonging to Chalks International, then the world’s oldest airline.

    An R3Y-1, the long-range troop transport variant of the Convair Tradewind, taxies into San Diego Bay during the early trials. (Convair, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a long way from a flooded gravel pit in Rye, Sussex, to the Nass and Kinsault Rivers in northern British Columbia, and Lake Coeur d’Alene, Spokane in Washington State, but they were all places where I flew from in floatplanes. From the Rye gravel pit I flew in the only UK-registered Tiger Moth on floats and a Super Cub floatplane, piloted by a former Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat, the ‘Jumbo Jet’ of the 1940s, Roger Sherron, while it was Cessna C180s in Canada and a DH Beaver in the United States.

    Having obtained a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), I tried my hand at learning to pilot a flying boat in the 1980s. The American Lake LA-200 Buccaneer is a small single-engine amphibious flying boat which I flew from Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent to the River Medway where I attempted to master the challenging skill of landing and taking-off an aircraft from water. My instructor was one of the most experienced post-war flying boat pilots, Keith Sissons.

    In 2016, Be-12PS Yellow 20 was returned to Russian Navy service following a comprehensive rebuild at Beriev's Taganrog facility on the Sea of Azov. (Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    My all too short time spent at the controls of the Buccaneer gave me a lasting respect for the likes of Keith Sissons and Roger Sherron who had to combine the dexterity of sailing a ship and flying an aeroplane.

    Although the flying boat fell out of fashion after the Second World War as a commercial transport aircraft, after being the symbol of luxurious and sophisticated international travel in the 1930s, new and more practical roles would virtually save the large amphibious flying boat from extinction, one of which was aerial fire-fighting. I was lucky enough to make several flights in a French Canadair CL-215 which included scooping and dropping six-ton water bombs. The exhilaration of skimming across a lake in what is then essentially a 4,000hp speedboat at 82 miles per hour, as is scooped 1,200 gallons of water, can be imagined. When the water was dropped, the Canadair bucked in the air relieved of its load.

    With twenty-two in service, Italy's Protezione Civile operates the largest fleet of CL-415 water bombers outside of Canada. (Martin Visser, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    The only company that has continued to design and built flying boats since 1945 is Russia’s Beriev. I was one of the first Western journalists to visit the previous closed Beriev factory at Taganrog on the Sea of Azov after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and get to fly in a Be-12 amphibian. Beriev had built more than 200 turboprop-powered anti-submarine warfare Be-12s for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and developed its advanced jet-powered replacement, the A-40 Albatross, under wraps.

    Built like a tank with ladders between the two decks, the Be-12 had numerous astrodomes, portholes and an extensively glazed nose which provided an excellent camera platform from which to photograph the A-40 that was flying in formation.

    A Beriev Be-200 gives a patriotic demonstration of the amphibian's sequential drop capability using different coloured liquids. (Beriev, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    During the same visit I saw the prototype of the Be-200, the world’s only jet-powered fire-fighting amphibian, and have kept in touch with Beriev and followed growing success in a niche market to this day.

    When Amberley asked me to write a book on Jet-Powered Flying Boats, I rediscovered the many failures due mainly to the fact that they were too far advanced for the technologies, especially engine development, of the time, and the cost of their development which was considerably higher than those of contemporary landplanes.

    However, it is reassuring to know that Russia and Japan is still producing technically advanced amphibious flying boasts albeit in small number, and that they are soon to be joined by Germany and China which are developing state-of-the-art water-borne aircraft for the future.

    David Oliver's new book Jet Flying Boats is available for purchase now.

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