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  • The Origins of Sheffield Wednesday by Jason Dickinson

    It may seem strange to modern day followers of the ‘beautiful game’ that as relatively recently as the mid-19th Century the game of Association Football was still a pastime only practised in a handful of public schools and universities in England. In fact that early form of the sport was more akin to rugby than it was football with handling, charging and tripping all allowed in a rather crude and somewhat rough early incarnation of today’s multi-billion pound product.

    Sheffield - Microsoft Word - Document1 Wednesday FC team photograph from the late 1880s

    The first shoots of today’s game started to grow in the Northern cutlery town of Sheffield in 1857 when two gentlemen – silver-plate manufacturer Nathaniel Creswick and wine merchant William Prest – formed the club’s first and oldest football club, Sheffield FC. The rise of the game amongst the populous was actually accelerated in that period through two acts of Parliament with the 1847 and 1850 Factory Acts dramatically changing the day to day lives of the working man and woman. In short, the working week became significantly more defined and crucially a Saturday half-day was introduced with all factories expected to be closed by 2pm. Suddenly there was more free time to pursue leisure activities and the main social activity to benefit was the new and exciting sport of Association Football. The new sport was also embraced by the Victorian gentry who had initially supported the game of cricket in the early 19th Century as it pulled the populous away from awful and inhumane sports of yore, such as bear baiting and dog fighting. The new game was also promoted as a pastime that improved both mind and body and as the 1860s dawned clubs started to spring up around the UK, with Hallam FC providing a rival for Sheffield in the town and the likes of Notts County (1862) & Nottingham Forest (1865) being formed. The sport was also starting to thrive in the south and it was not long before the Football Association was formed (1863) with football played under ‘Cambridge Rules’ by the southerners and ‘Sheffield Rules’ by the northerners!

    Sheffield - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Cromwell Cup - the second oldest trophy in world football, won by Wednesday Football Club in 1868 and still in the club's boardroom today.

    The year of 1867 was significant as the first ever football trophy – the Youdan Cup – was competed for in Sheffield (won by Hallam FC) while a year later the Cromwell Cup (won by new boys Wednesday FC) showed there was great interest in the knock out format of the game. In fact the town of Sheffield is rightly lauded as contributing more to the game than anywhere else as in addition to cup-tie football the goal kick, corner flag, neutral referee, throw in, goal kick, half-time, trophies and extra time were all introduced in the town, amongst many others than remain in the rule book today. As the game took root in the nation’s heart, the FA Cup was introduced in 1871 with the Sheffield Challenge Cup commencing in 1876, won by the Wednesday Club – both competitions continue to be played today although the entrants in the respective tournaments do now differ quite considerably!

    The Sheffield and Cambridge rules ceased in 1878 – the sport was played under one defined set of rules from that point forward – and by the late 1880s the game was being played in every village, town and city in England. It was Aston Villa Chairman William McGregor who thought it would a good idea to start a league competition, guaranteeing regular and competitive matches and duly in September 1888 twelve clubs commenced the first season of the new Football League – the game would never be the same.

    Sheffield - 9781445619521

    Jason Dickinson's The Origins of Sheffield Wednesday is available for purchase now.

  • From beer blog to book, the long way by Martyn Cornell

    Nobody should ever take lessons in blogging from me. I break two of the biggest rules of the blogging trade on my blog, Zythophile (it means "beer lover" in Greek), the ones that say that to build up a big audience you should blog frequently, and keep those blog posts short. I don't normally manage to blog more than twice a month, sometimes only once a month, and when I do blog, I blog long – seldom fewer than 2,000 words, sometimes 4,000 words or more. They're more in the nature of essays than blog posts.

    Still, in the seven years I've been blogging, I've built up around 1,200 signed-up followers and I get about 600 to 800 hits a day, which isn't bad – indeed, it makes Zythophile one of the best-read beer blogs in the UK. I've also written more than 700,000 words in those seven years, on a huge range of topics related to beer and pubs – and picked up four awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers for my writing on the blog, including awards for beer and travel writing and beer and food writing.

    Despite that, the main thrust of the Zythophile blog is meant to be about the history of beer, of beer styles, of brewing and breweries, and of pubs. I've blogged about the earliest mention of the term India Pale Ale, the peripatetic Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, the history of brewing in Hong Kong, the origins of Imperial Russian Stout, the revival of a 19th century strain of barley, and tasting beer brewed in 1875 for an expedition to the Arctic, among many other subjects.

    I don't make any money at all from the blog: I get offers occasionally from companies who want to put sponsored entries on it, but I value my credibility too much to take sponsorship. Frankly, I'd write the blog even if I didn't have a single reader: I get huge pleasure from doing the research, and I also enjoy enormously writing it up. Still, when you've got the equivalent of nine novels-worth of words sitting on a blogsite, the question arises: "Is there a book I can get out of this, to put in front of a few more people"

    Great Beer Flood Meux's brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, pictured in 1830, sixteen years after the Grea Beer Flood. (Author's collection)

    The answer, of course, is "Yes, definitely". It didn't take too long to pull out 28 true stories from the hundreds of blog entries that, put together, make up what I hope is an entertaining read for anyone interested in beer, and even for people not interested in beer at all. The story of the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, for example, in which eight people, all women and children, died when a vast vat of beer broke at the brewery that once stood on the site of the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, is a great tale in its own right.

    Beer - Antoine Santeere Antoine Santerre fleeing from the Vendeans in 1793, by Jean-Baptiste LeSueur. (Musee Carnavalet, Paris)

    Similarly you don't have to be a beer drinker to find the story of Antoine Santerre, the brewer who led Louis XVI to the scaffold during the French Revolution, and who has ended up as a character in works of fiction by everybody from Victor Hugo to Anthony Trollope, one to pique your fancy.



    So: are there lessons for other bloggers here? I didn't write my blog in order to have enough material for a book, the book came later, but yes, I think it would be perfectly possible to write a blog with the specific intention to end up with something worth publishing between covers after a while. All the same, I'd still recommend, if you want a following on your blog, that you keep your actual posts short and frequent …

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    Martyn Cornell blogs at and his book Strange Tales of Ale is available for purchase now.

  • Defining a Gem in the Yorkshire Dales by Mike Appleton

    “Defining a ‘gem’ is as much down to personal choice, affiliation and affection as it is to conform to a set checklist of what beauty or a landmark should be.”

    That's the opening line from my new book 50 Gems of the Yorkshire Dales published by Amberley. The tome seeks to discover some of the best places the area has to offer; being distinctive, historical, picturesque, geologically fascinating and above all personal.

    Identifying a 'gem' is something I thought would be easy. As my introduction says: “We can all identify an icon, a symbol, an area of outstanding natural scenery; in fact we do it every day in the choices we make”. Holidays are often based around lakes, mountains and ravines; drives and cycles in the country end up in fantastic pubs or cafes; we can all name a stunning vista from our childhood.”

    The Dales is my gem and I have been able to transform that love into narration and the ability to use the knowledge I’ve gained, foot by foot, step by step, in language.

    Surprisingly though, that adoration was tested to the full when I was asked to photograph, capture and name 50 of the best places in the Yorkshire Dales. Quite simply, for an area that has so much natural beauty, how can you choose one particular ‘sight’ over another? How can you rank a gem? In a time of bucket lists and must dos, how do you choose the ‘big’ numbers, the scenery that everyone must see? What happens if the smaller fells, a rock in an odd place or setting should be on the sheet too?

    In the end I had to make a choice as I wanted the gems to be as personal as possible. They needed to connect me to a landscape I know and love so much. They are my 50 and as a result there had to be a certain amount of trade-off to make sure I drafted a list I could be happy with.

    They also had tick the boxes – I hate that phrase – of what Amberley does best. Local, Historical, Geographical and Accessible. I think I achieved that.

    Here are some of my favourites:

    Yorkshire - Ease Gill

    1. Ease Gill, near Casterton

    It takes a hardy (if somewhat mad) soul to go underground through the multitude of passages that honeycomb the Dales, but the rewards are immense.

    Ease Gill is part of the Three Counties System, the longest and most complex cave system in Britain, and lies below the Casterton, Leck and Ireby Fells around the 2,057ft Gragareth. So much so that nearly 90km of passage has been found to date – with discoveries continuing all the time.

    Cavers don't have it all to themselves: you can enjoy what's happening above the surface too. Simply follow the beck from its full flow, right through to where it disappears underground and then into spectacular gorges.

    Its remote location means it is very rarely visited. It's serene, colourful at all times of the year, and the perfect place to reflect.


    Yorkshire - Semerwater

    2. Semerwater

    Semerwater, near Bainbridge, is the second largest natural lake in Yorkshire after Malham Tarn – and legend has it that it was once the site of a prosperous city in the Dales.

    The story goes that an old man came to the city in search of food and drink. He knocked on each door, being rebuked every time, before he found a welcoming ‘hovel’ where a poor couple pitied and took him in.

    After enjoying the couple’s hospitality, the old man turned to face the town and said: “Semerwater rise! Semerwater sink! And swallow the town, all save this house, Where they gave me meat and drink." Immediately, the waters of the lake rose up and flooded the area drowning all of its citizens, except for the couple who took him in.

    Today the lake is rarely busy, usually glass-like and great for the many birds that visit its shores.


    Yorkshire - Ingleborough

    3. Cheese Press Stones, near Ingleton

    Take the path to the Turbary Road from Ingleton to experience this eerie scenery at its finest. You climb into an area of dense limestone, boulders and pavement, before the going is fairly flat and grass-like with Gragareth stretching ahead. Here, in this superb setting – in the stunning Kingsdale – are the Cheese Press Stones.

    These stones were more than likely left stranded in this location by ice movement in the Ice Age. Since then, unlike the limestone which is nearby, they have been shaped and smoothed by the elements, not contorted or cracked.

    The view from here across the Dales is equally as impressive.


    Yorkshire - Gunnerside4. Gunnerside

    Long before farming and tourism became the dominant way of making a living in the Dales, heavy industry shaped some of the countryside we visit today.

    Take a walk around Gunnerside – particularly Gunnerside Gill – and the impact of this activity, albeit hundreds of years ago, is there for all to see. This picturesque dale, Swaledale, was the site of a major lead mining enterprise.

    The valley still contains much of its industrial past with dammed streams and old workings dotted around the gill. Sure, it sounds a bit bleak – but in a strange way it adds a certain charm to some of the best countryside the Dales has to offer.


    5. Some little-known pubs...

    Yorkshire and pubs go together – and after a walk there are several you can enjoy. My favourites are:


    Yorkshire - WoolpackThe Falcon Inn, Arncliffe

    The original Woolpack in long running soap Emmerdale. It’s the way it serves its beer that is the real gem.

    The ale of choice, Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, is poured from a jug to a glass. It’s the traditional way of serving beer which keeps the ale at room temperature and ensures its great condition.




    The George and Dragon, Dent

    The tap house for Dent Brewery! Say no more!

    Station Inn, Ribblehead

    Remote and in the shadow of Ribblehead Viaduct and Whernside, this pub offers breathtaking scenery and great ale!


    Yorkshire - 9781445645605

    Mike Appleton's book 50 Gems of the Yorkshire Dales is available for purchase now.

    To find out more go to

    All photos by Mike Appleton.

  • August 1415: The Agincourt campaign off to a stuttering start…

    The armada sailed across the English Channel at last. The preparations were over, the die was cast and even a last minute plot to depose Henry V could not stop the invasion. The crossing was no doubt nerve-wracking but the weather behaved itself. Then came the really anxious time when the ships approached their final destination. Like all amphibious operations the most dangerous moment was when the men started to disembark. If an opponent attacked before they were properly assembled then disaster might follow.

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

    And so they moved in close to land, their target at last clear. It was Harfleur, an important sea port (near to modern Le Havre which would eventually replace it) which dominated the entrance to the mighty Seine river. From here Rouen and even Paris would be under threat. With baited breath, the English army started to move onto land. Would they be faced with stern opposition and would the campaign be stopped dead in its tracks?

    The answer was no. There were no French soldiers to stop them and with great relief the army made its way ashore. Supplies were unloaded along with thousands of soldiers. The English got themselves into position, laying siege to the town. The landing could not have gone better. It was a great start; it was not to last.

    For one thing Harfleur was strongly fortified. Its walls had been strengthened not too long before and the defenders even had access to a cannon. As for the men manning those walls they were heavily outnumbered by the English army crowded around laying siege but they would soon show that they had the stomach for a fight.

    Agincourt aug pic Thomas, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s eldest brother. Thomas was invalided back to England after the siege of Harfleur. (Courtesy of Jonathan Reeve)

    The English could not afford a long delay. The campaigning season was moving on. Although it was not yet clear what Henry’s next move would be, once they had taken Harfleur presumably it would involve moving onto the offensive. If they were to do so as the autumn rains hit, that could cause problems.

    So Henry wanted a quick surrender so that he could move on. He was not to get it. The defenders were further encouraged when early on reinforcements arrived and badly deployed besieging forces were unable to stop them. Henry learned the lesson quickly: the noose was tightened and there would be no repeat. But to a large extent the damage had already been done.

    The siege settled down to a hard grind. English cannon and more old-fashioned siege engines battered the walls remorselessly but there was no sign of any weakening in the defence. Each passing day not only slowed up the English, it also made the arrival of a large French relieving force more likely. They could attack the besiegers from the rear with disastrous results. Henry settled in for a longer than expected siege whilst at the same time not knowing what to expect in terms of a counter-attack from the direction of Rouen. Just weeks in things were already starting to go badly wrong.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • The Story of the World by W.B. Bartlett

    How do you write a story of the world? The subject matter is of course vast to the point of almost being infinite and what to put in and what to leave out becomes a monumental challenge of Herculean proportions. In the end it is all a matter of personal choice.

    Yet some informal guidelines help. For one thing I had decided from the start of writing this book, which took several years of my life to complete, that I would adopt a strictly chronological approach. World histories often adopt a thematic rather than a time-based view of things. I fully understand that but I also feel that there is an interest in knowing what was happening when. As a result the book was divided into chapters each covering a period of time, typically a century but as it moves towards modern times for shorter periods.

    Story of the World 1That though posed a different challenge. The further back in time we go, the less agreement we have on when exactly things happened. When we get to the ‘BC’ period, there is a wide variation in estimates of when events took place. There is also the issue that new discoveries are being made all the time. As a recent example, news emerged in March this year that the origin of man has been pushed back half a million years with the discovery of a fossil that is 2.8 million years old in Ethiopia. One has to accept that this is happening all the time, and so too is the story of the world being written all the time.

    At the back of my mind when writing this book though was the question ‘how did we get where we are today’? As a result I was on the lookout for major events and civilisations. Some I knew a good deal about already. My background as a medievalist prepared me well for that era in Europe. I had always had a passing interest in Ancient Egypt or Rome too.

    But other areas required more research. I wanted to avoid making this too Eurocentric a book, so I studied the history of China and India, or the Americas and Africa, much more than I had done previously. Hopefully there is a bit of a balance in the book as a result.

    Story of the World 2I also wanted to talk about people as well as civilisations. History really begins when we can talk about a person called ‘X’. When we go far back in time, into prehistory, we cannot pick out much about the lives of individuals. Archaeology can help to fill in some gaps but only up to a certain limit. It is writing that enables us to (almost literally) put some flesh on the bones of lives now long gone.

    At the end of this rather large and challenging project, is there an overall conclusion to be made? There are perhaps many but one thing stands out for me. For many countries in the world, it is geography that shapes their history. Britain, with its narrow seas, has been largely protected throughout the past thousand years because of its island status. Other countries on the other hand live on political fault-lines which often expose them to stresses: Israel, Georgia, Romania for example. Or even the country where I am writing this blog from, Moldova in Eastern Europe, where half the population is of Romanian heritage and the other half Russian. Next door to Ukraine as it is, Moldova is well aware of the danger of being too close to conflict zones.

    It was in any event an enjoyable book to write and I hope it will be an enjoyable one to read too. It will though need an update in 25 years’ time because much will surely happen in the intervening period that we do not currently anticipate.

    World - 9781445646992

    W.B. Bartlett's paperback book The Story of the World is available for purchase now.

  • Who was Thomas Telford? by Chris Morris

    The technical answer is - possibly the most significant engineer of the industrial revolution.

    Thomas Telford 3 Menai Suspension Bridge

    Telford, born son of a shepherd in 1757 in the Scottish Borders, trained as a stone mason and had ambitions to be an architect. By the last decade of the eighteenth century good fortune placed him as County Surveyor of Shropshire. Ah, you are saying, he built the iron bridge at Ironbridge. No – that was already there before his county job, built by the iron founder Abraham Darby the third. This first iron bridge is within the boundaries of the 1940s new town, and yes, it is named after our heroic engineer (apparently only after a meeting of new town worthies chose Darby as the town’s name, only to realise that the long established Derby, whatever the spelling, would cause confusion).

    Thomas Telford 1 Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

    Let’s get back to the tour. Inspired by Darby’s bridge, and surrounded by fervour of canal building heralding the coming industrial revolution, Telford took up the use of iron and rapidly became the most celebrated engineer of his generation, with two particular works, the Menai suspension bridge and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct cementing his reputation. In tremendous demand his workload had him travelling between projects scattered from the Severn, to the Pennines, and most extensively in Scotland. He had no permanent home till the very end of his working life, and was constantly on the move. Like a giant life-long tour.

    Thomas Telford 2 Craigellachie - Although Telford was a skilled mason, it was his use of iron that made him famous.

    You do not need to have an interest in engineering history to be a Telford Tourist. The settings of his bridges are often magical statements in wonderful landscapes, the routes of his canals and roads a handsome addition to some of Britain’s best topography. Even to plan an itinerary is exciting, wondering how many pretty east coast harbours you can include, whether you’d have time to take a trip into Standedge canal tunnel, what time of day would be best to be at Tobermory (if you haven’t booked a night in Mull you need to know the times of the last ferry!).

    The latest Amberley edition of the book is re-arranged to include more photographs, many from Scotland, so the Tour is now extended to 160 pages.

    Thomas Telford - 9781445650579

    Chris Morris' book On Tour with Thomas Telford is available for purchase now.

  • Agincourt - July 1415: Henry V survives the Southampton Plot by W.B Bartlett

    Henry V was now ready for war as July 1415 began. The last ditch attempts of the French to stall through more peace negotiations having failed, he moved off to Portchester on the shores of Portsmouth Harbour where his great armada was assembled. En route he spent some time at the monastic house at Titchfield where he fortified himself spiritually for the great invasion of France that was at long last imminent. Everything was ready and time was of the essence. The campaign season was already quite advanced and any more delay could create problems.

    Unfortunately for Henry his plans were to suffer a spectacular setback. He was far from a universally popular king yet and one man in particular had an axe to grind. This was Richard, Duke of Cambridge, himself a member of the royal bloodline and a man who felt that he had not been well treated by the king. Even as the time for departure drew near, he was at the heart of a plot which had as its aim no less than the removal of Henry from the throne of England.

    Who was to replace Henry? The man identified to do so was Edmund Mortimer, the Fourth Earl of March. He was also in the royal bloodline and in the time of the late king Richard II had indeed been the heir to the throne. But although he was also probably ambitious enough, he was not well-equipped for the part of a plotter. He lacked much military or political experience and he does not seem to have had a lot of personal attributes to compensate for these shortcomings. However he had recently had a bad falling-out with the king who had issued him with a heavy fine for marrying a prominent heiress (also part of the royal bloodline) without getting permission to do so.

    So March allowed himself to be convinced. He went along with the plan which basically foresaw the Earl and his supporters escaping to Wales with their men just as the fleet was about to sail for Wales. As the month of July went on, Henry remained blissfully unaware of the plot. But as the decisive moment approached, March got cold feet. He reasoned that the plot would be a terrible failure and that the personal consequences for him would be fatal.

    Things were so far gone it was difficult for March to stop the momentum of the plot. The only way out that he could see was to throw himself on the far from certain mercy of the king. This is what he did, making his way to the great castle at Portchester. Breaking the news to Henry in an interview which must have been a terrible ordeal, Henry was both shocked and angry. Shocked because of the betrayal and angry because the date of the invasion would have to be delayed.

    March survived the fallout though he was a marked man. His co-conspirators were not so lucky. The Duke of Cambridge was executed in Southampton for his part in the plot, along with several other prominent plotters. The invasion was further delayed and Henry V was faced with the far from welcome prospect of leaving the country when the after-effects of the plot were still playing themselves out.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Dunkirk Little Ships by Nigel Sharp

    I was delighted to be asked by Amberley Publishing to write this book. I had already spent about three years researching and writing another book (Troubled Waters: Leisure Boating and the Second World War – also soon to be published by Amberley) and the story of the Dunkirk evacuation features, in a relatively minor way, in that.

    Dunkirk 1So I had met John Tough - the current Hon Archivist of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and grandson of Teddington boatbuilder Doug Tough who in 1940 had assembled about 100 privately-owned motor boats and made them ready for the evacuation – and read enough about the operation to realise what a truly inspiring story it was. The number of troops successfully evacuated was well in excess of that initially predicted by the British government. This was partly because of a gallant rearguard action by Allied troops and some controversial decisions by the Germans which allowed more time; but it was also thanks to the extraordinary contribution made by the fleet 700-or-so non-military vessels which was assembled with enormous haste.

    Dunkirk 2Over a hundred Little Ships are known to have survived and there could be many more. In May forty-eight of them took part in the 75th anniversary Commemorative Return from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and I was lucky enough to be on one of them, Alan and Ann Jackson’s 57ft 6” motor yacht Riis I which was built in 1920. Half a dozen Dunkirk Veterans also took part but it is a sad inevitability of life that there will come a time when they will be no more. From then on the ongoing survival of the Little Ships themselves will hold even greater significance.

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    Nigel's book Dunkirk Little Ships is available for purchase now.

  • 8 Weird and Wonderful Victorian Discoveries

    Victorian - 9781445645421It was an age of experimentation and innovation, and of great advances in the steamship, railway and the electric telegraph. But the Victorian period also saw a number of more unusual discoveries…

    In her new book, Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions, Caroline Rochford examines some of the incredible findings made across the world between 1875 and 1895. Here she shares some of her highlights…

    The Victorians lived in an age when knowledge could be shared faster than ever before. New railways and steamships had made it easier for intrepid explorers to visit regions of the world hitherto unseen by western eyes; telephones enabled communication across vast distances, and speedier printing presses ensured the delivery of the latest news to almost every household in the land. Meanwhile, those with a thirst for knowledge were able to read about the astounding discoveries of natural historians, who published thrilling accounts of the strange new plants and creatures they’d encountered during their forages.

    Indeed, modern technology had kick-started an information revolution in every field of science. With the aid of photography, microscopes and other new contraptions, researchers were happening upon daily discoveries that promised to change the way the world worked. These many remarkable discoveries were described in the pages of forgotten Victorian compendia, which revealed the wondrous experiments and bizarre theories of the great – and not-so-great – minds of science, engineering and natural history.

    1) The four-legged bird

    Since the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, mankind has been captivated by the theory of evolution. In 1885 an American naturalist, Edward Morris Brigham, took great pleasure in announcing the discovery – made in 1881 – of an astonishing type of bird that lived by the banks of the Amazon River: the creature’s most incredible characteristic was that it was born with four feet.

    The discovery was so contrary to the accepted order of things that it baffled scientists of the age. Even more curious was that this South American creature was four-footed only in its early life – one pair of legs developed into a set of wings some time after hatching. This was a trait akin to the regenerative power of lizards, which have the ability to regrow lost limbs, thus Brigham’s discovery seemed to confirm the evolutionary theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

    Brigham was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature, and he compared its likeness to a pheasant. The bird, commonly known as the ‘cigana’ or ‘gypsy bird’, couldn’t sing; instead it uttered doleful and demonic cries, as if in mourning. This was an eerie sound in the dead of night, when the bird was active.

    Victorian - Microsoft Word - Document3

    2) The electricity plant

    In 1885 an unusual, tropical plant termed the phytolacca electrica was discovered on the torrid plain of Hindustan [the northern/northwestern subcontinent]. When in full bloom, this extraordinary species generated a strong current of electricity that flowed all the way through it, from root to tip.

    The indigenous people who lived in the region regarded it with awe and reverence, never daring to get too close. Birds and insects that came into contact with the tree were killed at once, but most had learned to keep well away.

    When the stem of the plant or a twig was snapped by hand, an intense electric shock was felt, reportedly causing even the strongest man to stagger backwards. Magnetic compasses – even at a distance of up to 20 feet – were reportedly affected by the plant’s power.

    Curiously, the electric current was said to vary throughout the day, being at its strongest at about 2pm and most feeble during the night. In the rainy season the plant became completely dormant, yet its energy increased by a marked degree during thunderstorms.

    3) Local anaesthetic

    Victorian surgeons had long sought an anaesthetic which, when applied externally to a given part of the body, would render it completely void of feeling for a certain length of time, without the need to send the patient to sleep. This numbing property was discovered in 1884, completely by chance, by a German medical student, whose research quickly spread to America.

    The substance in question was hydrochlorate of cocaine, which had been known about, but not widely used, since the mid-19th century. After accidentally splashing some of it in his eye, the student was surprised to find that it caused his eyeball to become insensitive to the touch. Further trials served to confirm this remarkable observation, and an eminent oculist in New York later performed cataract surgery on the eye of a patient without causing her any pain whatsoever.

    Had it not been for this total fluke – and the absence of safety goggles – this early local anaesthetic may never have been discovered.

    4) The land of the giants

    Mankind’s oldest legends are peppered with tales of giants who once roamed the landscape, causing unspeakable mayhem for the regular-sized inhabitants of the earth. From David and Goliath to Jack and the Beanstalk, so frequent were the references to oversized beings that the Victorians seriously wondered whether or not a race of exceedingly tall men once existed on earth but later became extinct.

    One of the investigators was Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge, a French anthropologist who made a remarkable discovery in a prehistoric burial ground at Castelnau-le-Lez, near Montpellier. In 1890 he uncovered portions of a human skeleton from the Neolithic period, which, by his calculations, came from a man who stood nearly 12ft tall. The remains were sent for examination by a team of professors at the University of Montpellier, and later by the Montpellier School of Medicine, who confirmed that the bones appeared to belong to a race of “very tall” men.

    Strangely enough, an old French fable placed the cavern of a giant in the same valley of Castelnau.

    5) Mankind’s lost magnetic sense

    In 1883, the great scientist Lord Kelvin proposed a theory that the human race possessed both a ‘sixth sense’ – heat and force combined – and a ‘seventh sense’: that of magnetism. As such, the phenomenon of clairvoyance could be explained by the fact that some people were in tune with their magnetic sense much better than others.

    Unaware of what they were picking up on, they interpreted the sensation as the presence of some invisible being, perhaps even a spirit from beyond the grave. Following a series of experiments, several people were found who, when their heads were placed between the poles of a strong electromagnet, could tell when it was turned on.

    Kelvin’s theory was largely forgotten about until the 1970s, when a team of scientists revisited the subject. Through their researches they discovered that the human nose consists of bones and sinews that may once have been receptive to the earth’s magnetic field, thereby acting as a kind of in-built compass, which, during the course of evolution, became functionless.

    The presence of such magnetic bones offers an explanation for how migratory animals manage to successfully navigate vast distances, and also points to the likely etymology of the old expression ‘follow your nose’.

    Victorian - Microsoft Word - Document3

    6) Ball lightning

    Nobody truly knows how or why the extraordinary phenomenon known as ball lightning is caused, but during the 19th century, hundreds of well-attested instances were chronicled.

    Owing to its rarity, no photographs of the lightning had ever been taken – until, that is, 17 July 1891, at about 10.15pm. If genuine, this is the first ever photograph of ball lightning, and for more than a century it remained the only known example in existence, until Chinese scientists succeeded in capturing the phenomenon on film during a lightning storm in 2012.

    The photograph of 1891 was taken by Mr Dunn, an ironmonger’s son, from the window of his father’s residence in Newcastle-on-Tyne, which overlooked the river. A thunderstorm was raging overhead, and a great ball of fire suddenly appeared over the river, reportedly moving as fast as a man could run. It was estimated to measure about 2ft in diameter, and when it came opposite the Dunn household it vanished. But before it did so, Mr Dunn managed to expose a plate in his camera.

    Over the centuries, further sightings have continued to shake the nerves of witnesses and rattle the brains of many leading experts, who thus far have been unable to offer a definitive explanation for the phenomenon.

    Victorian - Microsoft Word - Document37) Wearing newspapers

    The innovative Victorians were always searching for new ways to improve their quality of life – from generating cleaner energy and recycling waste, to trying out new gardening and interior design techniques.

    Without the luxury of central heating or electric blankets, winter nights were often long and cold. In the days when diseases were harder to cure, it was essential to keep warm, thereby reducing the risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness such as pneumonia.

    In 1875 health officials recommended that before covering up for the night, two or three large newspapers were to be spread over the entire body and blankets thrown over the top. The result was a warm and comfortable sleep.

    Similarly, before taking a cold ride on a boat or coach, or a long walk against the wind, if a newspaper was spread over the chest before buttoning up the overcoat, no chill was felt. No other method for keeping warm was found to be as cheap or effective as this.

    8) The discovery of Atlantis

    With so much exploration underway, the ancient legend of Atlantis [a fictional island mentioned within an allegory in Plato's works Timaeus and Critias] was once again revisited by learned men of the late 19th century, keen to learn its true location at last.

    The notable zoologist Charles Émile Blanchard believed that at some point within the human geological period, the region of Labrador in Canada was once connected to Europe by a now subterranean link of land that ran from Scotland, through the Orkney and Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland. Upon investigation, the sea over this supposed tract of land was found to be comparatively shallow, and the islands in questions were therefore, Blanchard deduced, vestiges of the lost land.

    His theory was supported by the fact that European animals and plants existed in America alongside species that were atypical to the western continent. Anemones, violets, roses, orchids and lilies were common to both. Certain beetles, spiders and other insects were also found on either side of the Atlantic. The reindeer of Lapland was plentiful in North America; the beaver was a native of the two continents, and so was the river perch, which never left fresh water. This being the case, how did this fish cross the salty Atlantic ocean if the two continents were never connected?

    It wasn’t the main thrust of his research, but had Blanchard’s study led him to the discovery of this mythical lost land?

  • My favourite agents by Robyn Walker

    Even before my book The Women Who Spied for Britain was published, almost everyone with whom I shared the manuscript with would ask me which one of the secret agents was my favourite. The questions continued after the book was published... interviewers and fans alike all seemed to want to know which agent I enjoyed researching and writing about most. It almost seems disrespectful to pick one above the others (I suppose with the exception of Mathilde Carré, whose treachery should make her ultimately unlikeable), since they all put their lives on the line in defense of their country. How do you quantify which one was best, which one was most heroic?

    Then I realized that I was not being asked to provide a value judgement, people were simply interested in which secret agent I found most interesting. And after talking to several people who had read my book, I was amazed to discover that when I asked them about THEIR favorite agent in the book, their answers and reasons were both varied and fascinating. People connect with stories and individuals in so many different ways, and I was intrigued by the reasons readers connected with different agents and their missions. This forced me to do a little self-reflection about the subjects of my book, and I was amazed at what I ultimately discovered regarding my own feelings about the women who spied for Britain!

    Agents - Noor Inayat Khan Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine)

    Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine) has a special place in my heart since it was her story that first got me interested in the female secret agents of WW2. I first ‘discovered’ her when I was 10, after watching the miniseries A Man Called Intrepid. I thought her story was incredible and immediately begged my dad to buy me the book. Book in hand I went immediately to the index and proceeded to selectively read all parts of the book that dealt with the intriguing Madeleine. For years (well before the age of the internet) she represented all I really knew about female agents of the Second World War, and her story made thirst for more. Khan truly was my starting point, and because of that I found this chapter quite enjoyable to write.

    Agents - Odette Sansom Odette Sansom

    Odette Sansom was another agent I discovered through A Man Called Intrepid. Sadly, for me, she was simply a one name reference in the index (p. 254), and I learned only that she was a “young mother who left her children in Kensington to wind up in a Gestapo torture chamber”. I had no idea of her last name, let alone what her full story was. The name Odette seemed incredibly fierce and dramatic, and I spent many hours creating my own stories of Odette’s missions. When I finally learned her true story, I have to admit my imaginings weren’t anywhere close to accurate. Still, her chapter was an absolute delight to write. I think, in part, it was because after so many years of imagining her story that I finally found the truth. There’s also a plethora of material available about Odette which made this chapter ‘easier’ to write than some of the others. And finally, I absolutely LOVE the anecdote at the end of the chapter where the thief who stole Odette’s medals returns them via the post. I laugh every time I read his apology!

    Agents - Diana Rowden Diana Rowden

    I loved writing the Diana Rowden chapter. It was by far the most difficult since there has been far less written about her than the other agents. Yet I found writing her chapter incredibly rewarding. As I learned more about her I definitely got the feeling that she and I could have been friends and it really bothered me that her story had been somewhat overlooked. There’s no way to know why this is, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it had something to do with the fact that she lacked the ‘glamour’ or physical appeal of the other agents. Certainly her bravery, contribution to the war effort and her tragic death were all compelling enough to make for interesting reading, so it really puzzled me that her story was not better known. Her chapter became my personal mission and it was incredibly exciting to discover the little facts about her life.

    Agents - Nancy Wake Nancy Wake

    Ahh, Nancy Wake. The whole time I was writing about her I was both in awe and doubled over with laughter. She seemed incredible and fearless and almost, in my opinion, like some sort of super hero. Her story has it all, running away from home, love affairs, secret agent school, narrow escapes, gun battles, attempted assassinations and... a relatively happy ending. If her life story isn’t perfect for a big screen movie I don’t know what is. This chapter was fun, fun, fun from start to finish!

    Agents - Violette Szabo Violette Szabo

    The chapter on Violette Szabo was the very first one I completed. She was so beautiful, it was hard not to be intrigued by her. I had trouble with this chapter in the beginning, since so many of the secondary sources I read offered vastly different accounts of what actually happened to her. My search for the truth led to my interview with Robert Maloubier, who served with Szabo. It was incredible hearing the REAL story from someone who had actually been there. His eyewitness account made the story really come alive, and added a special dimension to this chapter. The Szabo chapter also resulted in my making a new friend, the wonderful author Susan Ottaway, who had written an absolutely fantastic biography of Szabo. This was a chapter of interesting research and new friends!

    Agents - Christine Granville Christine Granville

    Was there a chapter I enjoyed least? Yup. Christine Granville. Not that her story isn’t compelling. There’s just so much to it, combined with confusing Polish place names and given names the spelling of which seemed to change with every source I read. This chapter was very challenging, since her career as an agent was so long and she served in so many different locations. Granville’s sad end was also incredibly depressing for me for some reason. The complexity of Granville’s story and the overall feeling of gloom as a result of her murder took away from my overall enjoyment of writing this chapter, yet my mum informs that this was her favourite one to read!

    Agents - Mathilde Carre Mathilde Carré

    I admit to feeling a sense of guilt when I confess that I liked writing about Mathilde Carré. She really was quite an awful person, and yet there was something about her self-centred awfulness that I really understood. Perhaps knowing that there are people as flawed as she was what made me feel better about my own short comings. Or perhaps I just know enough about myself to understand that if I was faced with the choices she was faced with, I might have done the same thing. So, she was not noble, there will be no plaques commemorating her role in the war, but her story is darn interesting and I really believe there is a little bit of Mathilde in all of us. Just hopefully not too much : )

    Agents - Sonya 1 Sonia Butt

    My favourite, hands down, was the Sonia Butt chapter! Her story had all of ‘cool’ elements (like Nancy Wake’s), her family was incredibly generous in sharing their memories and photographs, she had a Canadian connection (cool for me) AND she had the glamour factor. All of these are compelling reasons for me to have loved this chapter best but... the real reason is, Sonia was exactly who I would have wanted to be! I connected with her on a deep level, and I have convinced myself, that had I lived during WW2 I would have been just like Sonia. I saw so much of myself in Sonia that every minute of writing her story was like living it myself. I’ve had to update my book to include Sonia’s death, this past Christmas, and it left such a strange and hollow feeling inside me. It was like saying good bye to an old friend.

    Agents - 9781445645841

    Robyn Walkers paperback edition of The Women Who Spied for Britain is available for purchase now.

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