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  • Looking at the Women of Ancient Roman by Iain Ferris

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Lifesize bronze statue of Victory from the Capitolium, Brescia, Northern Italy

    Today's visitors to the archaeological museums of Rome will see many statues of the imperial and elite women of ancient Rome and of Roman goddesses on display and numerous other kinds of Roman objects such as reliefs, tombstones, coins, and mosaics adorned with images of women of many sorts. Some of these images were intended to be taken at face value by their ancient, contemporary viewers, but others were imbued with more subtle and nuanced meanings depending on their original context of display.

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Statue of the empress Sabina in the guise of Ceres

    In my latest book for Amberley Publishing The Mirror of Venus: Women in Roman Art I attempt to make sense of this plethora of images of women and to explain their original meaning and significance in what was a male-dominated society and a highly visual culture. As well as looking at such images in Rome itself I also examine their occurrence in provincial contexts in places like Roman Britain.

    Particular attention is paid to analysing the images of the Roman imperial women and the elite women who often emulated their portrayals, to consideration of the significance of imagery on funerary monuments, and to the investigation of the remarkable phenomenon of the portrayal of working women from Rome, Ostia and Pompeii and elsewhere in the Roman world and of barbarian women.

    Rome - Microsoft Word - Document2 Mummy-portrait of a Romanised woman from Hawara, Fayum, Egypt (Photo copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum)

    I also look at the widespread use of images of goddesses, common personifications such as Victory, and mythological women such as the war-like Amazons in various contexts, including their appearances on major civic monuments in Rome. Finally, I try to come to grips with the concept of the Roman male gaze and its relationship to male power in Roman society and how this may have impacted on the reception of the many sexualised or erotic images discussed in the book.

    My book is intended to counteract the old cliché that the vast majority of women in the ancient world could be classified either as goddesses, whores, wives, or slaves and to illustrate the multiplicity of positive and sometimes complex identities revealed by a careful analysis of images of Roman women.

    Rome - 9781445633725

    Iain Ferris' The Mirror of Venus is available for purchase now.

  • Oxford Pubs by Dave Richardson

    I have written books before but unlike some of the authors in Amberley’s Pubs series, I’m not a local historian. But it really was a no-brainer when Amberley approached me to write the volume about Oxford, as I knew most of the pubs already and the history of some is well documented.

    Oxford Pubs - Microsoft Word - Document4 Angel & Greyhound Pub

    I decided from the outset that I wanted to give a flavour of what these pubs are like today, to act as a guide book as well as a historical record. So I have included only a few which are no longer with us – the Golden Cross, now Pizza Express; the Roebuck, now Wagamama; and the Swindlestock Tavern, which closed over three centuries ago. I also tell the stories of the Angel and the Greyhound coaching inns, both on High Street, whose names live on at the Angel and Greyhound pub in St Clement’s.

    Oxford Pubs - Microsoft Word - Document4 The Mad Hatter Cocktail Bar

    Research was long and arduous, but someone had to do it.

    I ventured into pubs I had never been in before despite living in Oxford for 35 years, including the Mad Hatter cocktail bar which is a bizarre place where, in true Alice in Wonderland style, you have to answer a question before they let you in. Beware the tea served from ornate teapots, though -- it tasted like a boozy cocktail to me!

    I took most of the external photographs myself, while a professional photographer friend, Phil Gammon, took most of the internal shots. The pubs chosen for their interesting interiors include the Bear, Chequers, King’s Arms, Turf Tavern, White Horse, Old Bookbinders, Rose & Crown, Victoria, and Angel and Greyhound. For archive photographs I went to the Oxford Mail/Oxford Times archives where the librarian, Chris McDowell, was particularly helpful, providing many photographs from the 1950s onwards.

    I’m pleased with the many stories I unearthed about Oxford’s pubs, so I hope you enjoy reading the book. For example, where’s the Oxford pub with a witch’s broomstick plastered up behind a wall? Where did Shakespeare used to stay, possibly fathering an illegitimate child with the landlady? Which pub has a ceiling painted to resemble the Sistine Chapel in Rome? And which pub was a sixteenth century brothel? You’ll have to read the book to find out…..

    Oxford Pubs - 9781445647289

    Dave Richardson's Oxford Pubs is available for purchase now.

  • An essential guide to faking it in WW2 Britain by Megan Westley

    It’s generally accepted that life in wartime Britain was tough. Civilians on the ‘Home Front’ were faced with a multitude of regulations and restrictions to follow, governing their diets, wardrobes and workplaces. But beyond these well-known rules were many others that came into force only between 1939 and 1945. Some were social, and could instantly mark you out as insider or outcast, whereas others were legal and carried heavy fines (or worse) for non-compliance.

    So, let’s imagine you’ve somehow taken a wrong turn and travelled to wartime Britain. What shouldn’t you do?

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1Help yourself: Spotted a tin of Spam lying in a bombed-out shop? Even if it looks like nobody’s coming back for it, leave it where it is. Helping yourself to things isn’t a cheeky win; it’s looting. Any form of looting carried a severe sentence. Technically, those found guilty could face the death penalty. Regardless of this, the opportunities offered up by the blitz were too great for many to resist. Some thieves kitted themselves out in an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden’s uniform in order to walk into damaged houses and shops unchallenged.

     

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 The smiling faces of this couple, bombed out of their house in Coventry, show that the spirit of Britain was not easily broken. (Image courtesy of www.historicoventry.co.uk)

    Bring down the mood: So you’re having a rotten war and think the Germans may win? Keep it to yourself. Defeatist talk caused extreme contempt and could lead to a conviction for weakening national defence. Despite this enforced optimism, householders in their thousands tuned in to the broadcasts of ‘Lord Haw Haw’, an Irishman based in Germany who spoke to the British public with the aim of damaging their morale. Though his communications were upsetting, many listened in the hope of gleaning valuable news about their loved ones overseas.

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 A shopkeeper is seen stamping a ration book, having weighed out all the items. (Amberley Archive)

    Waste money: If you’d like to avoid making friends with the ‘squander bug’, be sure to spend your money wisely. The War Savings Campaign encouraged householders to invest any spare cash in a fund for the war effort. It was seen as unpatriotic to waste money or keep it stuffed under your mattress when the country was in need. The squander bug was a nasty, swastika-emblazoned character who boasted “Go on! Keep your wallet stuffed with notes! I’ll help you squander them!”

     

    Step off a moving bus: Black and white films show people hopping on and off moving buses as a matter of course. But if you want to be a good civilian, you’d better not do it at night. London Transport released a number of advertisements warning of the dangers associated with getting around in the extreme darkness of the blackout. Every good campaign needs a character, and theirs was Billy Brown, a man ‘much too sensible and knowing to jump down off a bus that’s going.’

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 (Amberley Archive)

    Talk too much: If, by any chance, you should come across some interesting information, do remember to ‘keep it dark’. The ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ campaign was rolled out in 1940, warning the public about potential spies in their midst. The Ministry of Information even screened films showing how the smallest piece of leaked information could result in loss of life. Keeping secrets wasn’t just a social nicety: in 1944, a Civil servant was sentenced to three months in prison on two charges ‘arising out of careless talk’.

    Find out more about negotiating everyday life in Home Front Britain in Living on the Home Front by Megan Westley.

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    Megan Westley's new paperback edition of Living on the Home Front is available for purchase now.

  • What We Did Before Selfies by Robert Hallmann

    Celebrities do it. Politicians do it. Tourists, travellers and friends do it. People even do it with sticks at arm’s length in some very dangerous situations.

    They take their own photographs - selfies.

    What we did not do before the proliferation of image catching devices was to then share our efforts with all the world and her aunt.

    We did have self-timers, where the camera was placed on a tripod or somewhere else secure and then after pressing the button we joined the group of friends or family before the delayed moment of exposure. I never owned a self-timer; I never felt that self-important. But I did experiment.

    Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

    1) Germany, 1950s:

    A small printing company’s party in a private house. I had been asked to bring my camera, which was a simple Agfa box similar to the Kodak Brownie. That camera had been my father’s and while the house burnt down under phosphor grenade attack in 1945 the camera survived the inferno in the cellar, almost intact. It has two levers – exposure and time exposure.

    The flash available before flash bulbs was a small sachet of magnesium powder, somewhat resembling a tea bag with a strip of paper attached to it, about a foot long. This could be hung up, well away from flammable material – my favourite support was a broom handle balanced on tall furniture or a door. I had told the company of typesetters, printers, bookbinders and office staff, including the boss’s wife to huddle together as it was difficult to gauge exactly the area that would be included. Of course, to some of my colleagues this was great fun when the light had to go out before I set fire to the hanging strip of paper and opened the shutter before piling onto the heap of celebrants myself (far left).

    Most people’s attention is expectantly focused on that burning strip of paper. Somehow my boss managed to avoid the crush, but of course one of our group chanced his luck with the nearest lady in the darkness, a fact he found difficult to live down once the 60 x 90 mm evidence was developed and printed.

    Magnesium powder burning in air produces a brilliant-white light, hence its use in photography. The downside is the flammability. I ruined a perfectly good friendship once when I had placed the flash powder sachet too close to the curtains at a girlfriend’s home…

    Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

    2) Dublin 1960-61:

    Commuting between my lodgings and my place of work in Dublin I passed a very boring end-of-terrace edifice, which I decided needed some artistic embellishment. A double exposure was needed.

    My landlady was not best pleased. Well, what self-respecting house-owner would not be surprised to find someone hopping to the bathroom on one leg, the other foot dripping red paint that looked like blood? I’d painted the sole of my foot and pressed my footprint on a large sheet of black card and photographed it. Then, without winding the film on, I went out with my camera and photographed the bland wall in question onto the same peace of film. It’s perhaps not perfectly placed, but of course this was long before Photoshop. But does a foot count as a ‘selfie’?

    Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

    3 & 3a) Reflections in Essex, late 1960s:

    As a special experimental background I had covered a wall in metallic foil, but of course it will never reflect with the clarity of a mirror. That was the point. Distortions were very acceptable and if Pablo Picasso could do it, one could at least try. Among the experimental results were a self-portrait with an abstract dimension, and even one where I turned myself into a pair of very humdrum trolls with rather odd-shaped cameras. Oh, my beloved Kowa 66.

     

    Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic4) Cumbria shadow, 1970s

    Never have I felt so alone and been so far removed from any other human being as on Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, one 1st of November. And I loved it, even while carrying a cumbersome camera case with me. It was time to leave. The sun was sinking, but when I saw this giant shadow bestriding the snow scape beside me, following me about, I had to record it, even gave a wave to another snow-capped top. I trust that’s Great Gable in the background?

     

     

     

     

    Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic5) London reflection, June 1977

    Balancing on tiptoe on the kerb of Savile Row, I caught my reflection in a doorway of a gentlemen’s outfitters, while trying out a new 35 mm camera. My London selfie. Did I actually frequent the premises? Not on my income.

    London was rich in reflections. Every shop window would reflect something of the street scenes about it. You were never alone. Along the large glass panes your twin would follow you everywhere at a sideways glance. You and the thousands of others. Photographing the window displays, the shops and the shoppers in juxta-position was great fun. I often pretended to photograph something particular while including Londoners, too.

    As an antidote to crowds, an escape to quiet places like Scafell Pike out of season offered a kind of balance.

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    Robert Hallmann's Londoners Street Scenes of the Capital 1960-1989 is available for purchase now.

  • The Year of Four England Cricket Captains 1988 by Neil Robinson

    When Adam Lyth took the field for England at the start of this year’s final Ashes Test match at the Oval in August, his presence served as a potent reminder of how much has changed in England’s cricket team over the past quarter of a century. Lyth, who made his Test debut against New Zealand back in May, has struggled to establish his place in the national team; despite scoring a century in only his second Test, he later found runs against Australia harder to come by and his record of 86 runs at an average of 12.28 in the first four Ashes Tests led cricket fans and commentators alike to question whether Lyth was indeed the right man to open England’s innings alongside captain Alastair Cook.

    Nevertheless, Lyth retained his place, and even one more failure at the Oval did not completely rule out a place for him in England’s party to take on Pakistan in the Middle East this autumn. Lyth is not the only batsman to have benefitted from the England selectors’ new-found sense of patience in recent times. His opening partner and team captain Alastair Cook endured a prolonged barren run of nineteen Test matches without a century beginning with the first Test of the 2013 Ashes and ending only in the final Test in the West Indies this spring. The experienced Ian Bell’s record of 692 runs at under 19 from his last 23 Tests also makes for less than impressive reading.

    Yet both Cook and Bell, as well as Lyth, have retained their places throughout these periods of poor form and under-achievement. The willingness of the team’s management to support struggling players is something that few England cricketers of earlier generations would have experienced themselves. There are countless examples of England selectors’ patience stretching about as far as a dried out elastic band – take Graeme Hick being dropped in 1993 after averaging 57 from his previous four Tests – but few years in the history of English cricket have seen the selectorial axe come down with more crushing frequency than 1988.

    A season that began with such promise – a 3-0 whitewash of the West Indies in the Texaco Trophy series, followed by a creditable draw in the first Test – descended into chaos after Mike Gatting lost the captaincy following a trumped-up tabloid scandal. A total of 28 players gained Test caps that summer, with no fewer than 33 being called up to the England squad across six Tests and four one-day internationals. There were, in some cases, circumstances which mitigated the selectors’ decisions: in axing Gatting they acted under obligation to the Test and County Cricket Board, which had announced a crackdown on player indiscipline that spring.

    There were injuries too, most famously the bruised foot that prevented Chris Cowdrey from leading England for a second match and forced England to appoint their fourth captain of the summer, Graham Gooch. But most of the selectors’ decisions are harder to account for. In the third Test at Old Trafford, David Gower made 34 of England’s meagre second innings total of 93; not his most significant innings perhaps, but more than twice the number of runs made by any of his team-mates. Chairman of Selectors Peter May suggested Gower should be dropped for the next match. Thanks to the persuasive persistence of Chris Cowdrey Gower survived, but one match later when Allan Lamb’s torn calf muscle left him as England’s sole experienced middle-order batsman, May still insisted Gower be dropped.

    Then there was Chris Broad. Broad had scored three centuries in seven Tests overseas the previous winter, while also accumulating fines and censure for on-field petulance. Two Tests into the summer, he was dropped amid accusations that he had muttered – to himself, but captured by TV cameras – his displeasure at an lbw decision, and that he never made runs in England. By the fifth Test at the Oval, England’s accomplished and experienced batting order, which even the West Indies had respected a few weeks earlier, had been decimated, and Gooch led out a team which included four batsmen sharing two Test caps between them.

    England’s inevitable defeat – 4-0 in the series – was greeted by much soul-searching within English cricket. Was the defeat down to the pitches in county cricket? The balls? The excess of overseas players? But staring English cricket in the face was the fact that you are unlikely to succeed against the finest team in the world when fielding your second and third eleven. Selectors, journalists and fans alike had fallen into the trap of thinking that somehow a magic combination of eleven players could be found to take on the West Indies and win. It might even have been possible, had they stuck with the same team they began the series with.

    Twenty-seven years later, English cricket has developed a very different culture. Questions may be raised when a player like Adam Lyth struggles to make runs over the course of a series, but not over one or two matches. The need for a young player to be given time to establish himself, and for an experienced one to battle through poor form without being consigned to the outer darkness of county cricket has been generally accepted. The sort of frenzy that could lead to four captains and three entire teams being picked in one summer is now unthinkable. England fans might yearn for a Gower or a Gatting today; the players themselves probably wish they had played their cricket twenty-seven years later.

    Cricket - 9781445637587

    Neil Robinson's Long Shot Summer The Year of Four England Cricket Captains 1988 is available for purchase now.

  • Agincourt - September 1415: Disaster Beckons by W. B. Bartlett

    Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

    The days were hurrying past and Harfleur showed no sign of losing its will to fight. An action that was supposed to last for days had now turned into a siege, a slogging match. The determination of the defenders to slug it out increased the chance that the French king and his generals would be able to raise an army to counter-attack and drive Henry and his men back into the sea.

    Sieges were a lottery. They put great pressure on the supply situation, both for those inside the walls but also for the besieging army. This was made far worse for the latter given the fact that they were far away from home. Ships scuttled to and fro from England bringing provisions with them whilst foraging parties were sent out locally to grab what food they could for the troops.

    Problematic though it was to keep up the flow of supplies, this was not the main issue for the English. Siege camps in medieval times were unsanitary places to live. Thousands of men living close to each other with little concern for hygiene made for a breeding ground for disease. And it was now that one of the medieval world’s greatest killers played its hand: dysentery.

    Soon it started to take its toll, decimating the army. It hit common soldier and knights and nobles alike. On 1 September 1415, Lord Fitzwalter, a mere sixteen years of age, succumbed, having barely reached manhood. By the middle of the month, matters were approaching epidemic proportions. It touched Henry V personally. One of his closest advisers was Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich. He too fell ill with dysentery and it became clear that he had not long for this world. The king himself tended him as he was dying.

    The death of Courtenay hit the king hard. But he could not afford to be overwhelmed by it. With each passing day there was an increased risk of a French counter-attack. Time was running out so it was decided to gamble everything on a shock attack on Harfleur. When it came it was carried out by a group of men who might be thought of as his storm troopers, individuals like John Holland, Sir John Cornwall, Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir William Bourchier.

    The English has been busy, smashing the walls with their cannon and breaches had been made. Through the shattered defences the English charged. A counter-attack was launched but the English were ready for them. Archers carrying fire-arrows shot their missiles into the French ranks and they were forced back. The barbican, an important part of the outer defences of Harfleur, had fallen.

    Agincourt - King_Henry_V_from_NPG Henry V

    The defenders were now beginning to realise that they were running out of time. A delegation was sent to Henry V, asking for terms if no help from the French king was received. Permission was granted to allow a rider to make his way to the headquarters of the French seeing if help would be forthcoming in time. He returned with the news that they would not.

    So at 8 o’clock in the morning of 22 September a procession of hostages made its way from out of Harfleur and towards a waiting English king, seated imperiously in front of his royal pavilion with a stern look on his face. He kept them guessing. By the harsh terms of medieval war, he would have been within his rights to slaughter the menfolk of the town who had resisted his calls to surrender. But he decided that on this occasion he would be magnanimous.

    The men would be allowed to live, though the more important of them would be forced to raise ransom before they would be released. The humbler of them would be allowed to stay in Harfleur thought this would soon be turned into an English enclave, a counterpoint to Calais further to the north. The women though were forced to leave, useless mouths to feed in a town that was short of supplies. Their lot would be a harsh one.

    With Harfleur fallen, Henry entered its shattered walls, walking barefoot through its gates like a Christian pilgrim. It was a great moment no doubt but it was a worried English king who acted the part of humble conqueror. The time spent on taking Harfleur had allowed the French to organise their defences further afield. Quite what to do next was a major concern. The most obvious next move perhaps was to hold what he had taken and send the part of the army that would not be needed back home.

    That was the safe option but having thought long and hard about what to do next, the decision when it came was surprising and to some no doubt alarming. Henry would march its way to Calais and return home from there. The only problem with this was that it meant crossing over 100 miles of French territory with the strong possibility that the enemy’s army would be lying in wait for them. Henry V had turned gambler and the stakes for which he was playing could not have been higher.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W. B. Bartlett's Agincourt Henry V, The Man-at-Arms & the Archers is available now

  • 10 Greatest Ships of the Royal Navy by John Ballard

    Except for possibly the legions of Ancient Rome, no military force has ever left an imprint as large as the Royal Navy.

    Royal Navy - Microsoft Word - Document1 Warspite engaged in shore bombardment off the coast of Normandy

    Napoleon and Hitler's armies both rampaged across Europe bringing destruction and death to the continent until grinding to a halt on the frozen Russian steppe. Yet for all the power they wielded even these two tyrants failed to shape or change the world as drastically as Britain's Senior Service.

    Like the Romans, the Royal Navy carved out a vast empire that created many of the countries, governments, institutions, laws, treaties and alliances in existence today.

    Royal Navy - Microsoft Word - Document1 Hood at Scapa Flow in 1940 (Michael Pocock, MaritimeQuest.com)

    In the early twentieth century, First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher wrote that 'the British Empire floats on the British Navy.' Now this might, to twenty-first century ears at least, sound like the pompous nationalistic boast one could expect from an Edwardian establishment figure, but it wasn't simply a boast - every word of it was true. More than a quarter of the world flew the Union Flag and was run from London because the Navy gave Britain mastery of the seas and oceans and therefore control of the international trade and supply routes.

    Nowadays we often read about and watch television programmes on individuals who changed the world, but no one person has created a wake as sizeable as the Royal Navy's. It was actually while reflecting on the BBC series '100 Greatest Britons' that I formed the idea for my book. It struck me that numerous people on that list - including Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson and Queen Victoria - probably wouldn't even be on the list had it not been for the Royal Navy. Churchill guiding the nation to wartime victory, Nelson's triumph at Trafalgar and Victoria's position as the grand monarch of empire would all have been impossible without the British Fleet.

    Royal Navy - Microsoft Word - Document1 Bulwark at Malta in December 1956 (Michael Pocock, MaritimeQuest.com)

    So while we, quite rightly, honour our great individuals, I feel it's about time we celebrate the navy and ships that helped make them great.

    Starting with HMS Victory and ending with HMS Invincible, 10 Greatest Ships of the Royal Navy tells the stories of, what for my money at least, are the most important vessels to have served under the White Ensign. Whether through war service, revolutionary design, versatility or a combination of all three, the ships featured put the stamp of greatness on the Senior Service.

    I hope you get even a fraction as much enjoyment reading the book as I did writing it.

    Royal Navy - 9781445646527

    John Ballard's book 10 Greatest Ships of the Royal Navy is available for purchase now.

  • The Georgians in 100 Facts by Mike Rendell

    I was sitting on a beach relaxing under the Mozambique sun when I got an e-mail from Amberley – and I was delighted to see that it was a request for me to write The Georgians in 100 Facts. The last few years have seen a plethora of books about The Georgians, but most of them are about royalty and courtiers, whereas what fascinates me is the life of “the man in the street”. Yes, there were kings who made their mark – George III for his madness, his son the ‘Prince of Bling’ for his excesses and debauchery, but for me they are overshadowed by the stories of people like Clive of India, or the Reverend Edward Stone who discovered the pain-killing properties of salicylic acid (later known as aspirin). Give me the man who patented the flush toilet and invented an ‘un-pickable’ lock (Bramah). Give me the brilliance of civil engineers like Smeaton or the engineer (Maudslay). Add in the story of the man who is credited with having invented the toothbrush (Addis) and the agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull and you are beginning to paint a picture of a remarkable century.

    The Georgian Age saw so many changes - the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the loss of the American colonies and the growth of the British Empire, and the enormous changes wrought by those giants who stood head and shoulders above their fellow men – people like Mathew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood. But I have always been fascinated by the odd and quirky aspects of the period – not that James Watt invented the steam engine, but that he invented a portable paper-copier; not that Boulton churned out vast quantities of what were known as “toys” from his Soho Manufactory, but that he re-equipped the machinery in the Royal Mint, as well as producing millions of copper coins known as cartwheels; and that Wedgwood might never have been such a great industrialist if he had not had his right leg amputated and was therefore unable to reach the potters wheel. Also there are so many stories we all think we know about – the South Sea Bubble, the War of Captain Jenkins Ear, the voyages of Captain Cook and the extraordinary events of the Napoleonic Wars. But do we actually know the background to these stories?

    So, I was thrilled to sit down and think of a hundred facts which I thought worth developing. It took me hardly any time at all, and writing them up was a happy task. I have already covered many odd facts on my blog at mikerendell.com/blog - described by a friend as “history-lite” To me, I wanted it to be a book of slightly whimsical stories – not just the mainstream well-known facts, but including the everyday trivia which make history interesting.

    Georgians - John Joseph Merlin Gainsborough’s portrait of John Joseph Merlin

    If I was asked for my favourite character it might well be John Joseph Merlin – technically a Belgian clockmaker, but after he came to Britain as a young man he stayed to become the most prolific inventor. Forget about him making an appearance on the first-ever pair of roller skates while playing the fiddle – and crashing into a mirror because he had not at that stage invented a means of stopping. Instead, consider the remarkable machinery he made for the silver swan, still on display at Bowes Castle Museum at Barnard Castle, and still drawing gasps and applause after 225 years. He also invented whist cards for the blind, a mechanical garden, a ‘perpetual motion’ machine working on atmospheric pressure, a special chair for gout sufferers, a number of musical instruments – and some beautiful clocks. Perhaps even more remarkably, he helped inspire a young man who was entranced by Merlin’s mechanical automata – his name: Charles Babbage. The man went on to become the ’Father of Computing”.

    I had practically finished the book before I finished my holiday, so it is a delight to see it finally reach the printed page.

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    To learn about more of the interesting facts from the Georgian period check out Mike Rendell’s book The Georgians in 100 Facts available for purchase now.

  • Getting Out in 50s York by Paul Chrystal

    The 50s were at the wrong end of the golden years of the cinema in York.

    At the beginning of the 20th century film shows could be seen in the Opera House, the Festival Concert Rooms, the Exhibition Buildings, the Victoria Hall in Goodramgate, the New Street Wesleyan Chapel,  and in the Theatre Royal. The New Street chapel, after renouncing its use for worship in 1908, became first the Hippodrome, and then in 1920, the Tower Cinema, which was still going in 1959. You could also see films at the City Palace, Fishergate, a venue variety concerts from 1910; it was renamed the Rialto, but burnt to the ground in 1935 and replaced by the new Rialto on the same site. It was still going strong in 1959 with variety shows and concerts.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Scala in 1957, shortly before closure.

    The Electric Theatre, Fossgate was opened in 1911 as the first purpose-built cinema in York. Entrance was through a door beneath the screen. From 1951 it was known as the Scala; it closed in 1957 and became a furniture shop although the exterior is still beautifully preserved today. Locally it was known as the Flea Bin – and a visit meant a ‘laugh and scratch’. Admission on Saturday afternoon was 4d – or a clean jam jar - an early example of recycling.

    Three more picture houses were established between 1911 and 1921: the Picture House, Coney Street, was opened in 1915 and converted to shops in 1955;  The Grand in Clarence Street, opened as a cinema and ballroom in 1919 but converted to a roller skating rink and ballroom in 1958;  and the St. George's Hall, next to Fairfax House in Castlegate, was opened in 1921 and still going in 1959. Four more were opened in the 1930's: the Regent, Acomb, in 1934; the Odeon, Blossom Street; the Regal, Piccadilly, and the Clifton , in 1937.   The Regent closed in 1959  but the others survived the 50s. The Regent had the biggest screen in York and double seats on the back row for anyone not that interested in the main feature.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Regent in Acomb in 1959.

    The ten cinemas still showing in 1950s York were the Regal in Piccadilly; the Picture House in Coney Street; the Tower in New Street; the Electric Theatre in Fossgate; the Grand Picture House in Clarence Street; the Odeon in Blossom Street; the Rialto in Fishergate; St George’s Hall Cinema in Castlegate; the Regent in Acomb until 1959 and the Clifton in Clifton. A massive choice.

    Clubs were accessible to the well connected; as well as the usual Masons, Rotarians and Oddfellows there were branches of the Independent Order of Rachabites; the United Order of Druids; the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. The Melrose Club for the Blind catered for the sight impaired.

    The 'York New Grand Opera House' was opened in 1902 and going strong in the 50s; it was built on the site of the corn exchange, King Street, by the owners of the Opera House, Harrogate offering 'varieties' - to avoid direct competition with the Theatre Royal.

    It was known then as the Opera House and Empire.   From 1945 to 1956 F.J. Butterworth owned the Grand Opera House and stars such as Vera Lynn, Laurel and Hardy and Morecome and Wise trod the boards.   The theatre was closed in 1956; in 1958 Shepherd of the Shambles bought it, and it became the SS Empire.   The stage, lower boxes and raked stall floor were removed and replaced by a large flat floor suitable for roller-skating, dancing, bingo and wrestling, reflecting dramatically changing tastes and requirements in entertainment in the 1950s.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The programme for the 1957 production of The Desert Song at the Theatre Royal.

    Theatre Royal and Empire apart, culture thrived in 1950s York through a plethora of arts organisations. There were at least six musical societies and orchestras: York Musical Society; York Orchestral Society; York Symphony Orchestra; York & District Organists; British Musical Society of York and the Rowntree Choral & Operatic Society. There were nine bands including York City Brass Band; York Postal Military Band and Rowntrees Cocoa Works Band. Drama too was thriving with opera and dramatic societies in Acomb and in New Earswick; a community association drama group also in Acomb; the Settlement Community Players and the Rowntree Players at the fine Rowntree Theatre in Haxby Road.

    In a city with such a rich history and so fertile a heritage, it   should come as no surprise to find that in the 1950s there were numerous organisations working to promote and conserve that history and heritage for contemporaries and for generations to come. All did sterling work, then, as now. York Civic Trust Association, York Georgian Society, Yorkshire Philosophical Society; Yorkshire Geological Society; Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society; York Art Collectors’ Society; York Art Society and York Photographic Society, York Film Society and York Science Film Society all contributed to the rich fabric of the city’s magnificent culture.

    But it was not all high brow and earnest : more pragmatic, caring and rehabilitation organisations also existed then such as the Borstal Association, the Infantile Paralysis Association, and York Castle Discharged Prisoners Aid Society.

    In 1955 York City FC were killers of giants when they defeated mighty Spurs to go on to the semi finals of the FA Cup. Sadly they were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle United at a replay at Roker Park. Newcastle went on to win the trophy. York had beaten Scarborough, Dorchester Town (2-5), Blackpool, Bishop Auckland, Tottenham Hotspur (3-1) and Notts County on their way to elusive glory. Arthur Bottom was top York scorer with eight goals. Arsenal were the next giants to fall to York in the 1985 FA Cup semi final.

    Extracted from Paul Chrystal’s York in the 50s. © Paul Chrystal

    York - 9781445640594

    Paul Chrystal's York in the 1950s Ten Years that Changed a City is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Newcastle by Ken Hutchinson

    I was asked to write this book by Amberley Publishing following on from my book on Lost Newcastle published in 2014. Lost Newcastle as its title suggests features buildings and structures that have disappeared from the streets of Newcastle over the years.

    As a direct contrast this book concentrates on features of Newcastle past and present that are all visible today. The reason why they are there is often unknown, has been forgotten, or in other words is a ‘Secret’. Many of the subjects featured in the book are ‘invisible’, in full view to everyone. In other words people walk past them every day taking them for granted, or have never noticed them before, or indeed have walked over them every day for years.

    Newcastle - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Response Memorial, Barras Bridge. It is a narrative sculpture telling different stories of the individuals called in the First World War.

    This was certainly true in my case, as I discovered a few years ago as I trained to be a Newcastle City Guide. All these features were pointed out to me and despite thinking I knew Newcastle like the back of my hand, having lived and worked here for well over 50 years, my eyes were well and truly reopened. Most of the photographs I have used show plaques, statues, sculptures, artworks and buildings that I have walked past for years without realising the reason for their existence, or their significance, both locally and nationally.

    Newcastle - Microsoft Word - Document1 Northumberland Street Scultptures. Thomas Bewick the famous wood carver.

    Newcastle and the surrounding areas have produced some of the most influential people in British and world history as well as great inventors, musicians, artists and politicians. The city has welcomed a wide range of British and international visitors including many visits by Royalty. All of this is recorded in the streets around us, in the centre of Newcastle, if you know where to look. This book has been arranged to follow five different walks around Newcastle. The first four radiate from Grey’s Monument in the centre of the city and the last is based on the Quayside starting at the Guildhall. Most are about a mile in length and are fairly flat and accessible to all. The Quayside walk is slightly longer but starts and finishes close to bus stops linking with the town centre. When I do my guided tours around Newcastle and the surrounding area, I always give out a general health warning at the start. This advises you to take care when you start looking above shop front level and down on pavements. You will discover so many features of interest that you may well forget to watch where you are going and might trip over a kerb or walk into a bollard. So be careful out there you have been warned!

    All the royalties from this book will be divided between St Oswald’s Hospice in Gosforth and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.

    Newcastle - 9781445641270

    Ken Hutchinson's book Secret Newcastle is available for purchase now.

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