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  • Alvis Cars in Competition by Clive Taylor

    Harry Ratcliffe racing at Oulton Park in 1961. He raced the cars in the 1950s and early 1960s. Car details: 1926 TE 12/50; Registration No. RW 7329; Chassis No. 4321; Engine No. 9102; Car No. 9690; Body Maker - Carbodies. (c. Mike Webb Collection, Alvis Cars in Competition, Amberley Publishing)

    Celebrating the centenary of Alvis Ltd. Coventry

    T.G. John (Thomas George John) was born in Pembroke on the 18th November 1880 and the founder of the Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd. during 1919 in Coventry. Initially he bought the American company Holley Brothers in Coventry who specialised in the manufacture of carburettors.

    From the rudiments of manufacturing static engines, he became involved with Geoffrey de Freville and from this association he started to build a four-cylinder side valve engine, which was incorporated into the first Alvis Car known as the Alvis 10/30.

    From the outset, Alvis cars were known for high quality construction and engineering. All major components were either stamped or embossed with part numbers, an indication of attention to detail and thoroughness.

    Alvis used the popular means of competition to attract the public to their successes by entering races at the Brooklands Track in 1921 and also public long-distance trials such as the London to Holyhead Trial, winning a gold medal, and the London to Edinburgh Trial, winning a Silver Medal.

    Publicity was paramount to successful car sales and as the company grew soon a distribution network was required. The earliest and successful main distributor was the famous H. G. Henley company usually known to everyone as Henlys, based in central London with city branches elsewhere as well.

    Resting at home, ready for more action. Car details: 1931 Silver Eagle Tourer TC 16.95; Registration No. OF 9257; Engine No. 9145; Car No. 13746; Body Maker - Rod Jolley, Carbodies design.(Author's Collection, Alvis Cars in Competition, Amberley Publishing)

    Following the success of the side valve 10/30 model, larger capacity engines were built, known as the Alvis 11/40 and also 12/40, the last figures indicate the brake horse power. All these models had bespoke coachwork built by various body builders. In close succession, the universally popular model Alvis 12/50, with an overhead valve engine was born. In racing form at Brooklands, the 12/50 scored a resounding result in the 1923 200 Mile Race by Alvis works driver, Cyril Maurice Harvey winning the event. This type of engine had also been supercharged and used in competition by Harvey. Today the 12/50 model is universally recognised as one of the most popular and versatile models produced by Alvis and also the 12/60 with a larger engine capacity.

    The next significant model designed and built by Alvis was the Front Wheel Drive car. For the general public, sales were selective to new purchasers due to the power and maintenance required to keep the car in peak condition, especially as the four-cylinder model could also be supercharged.

    Alvis were also pursuing the development of the FWD with a straight eight-overhead camshaft engine with major success, but also at a crippling cost to the Alvis company.  Eventually Alvis officially withdrew from racing, but the success continued by the efforts of people like Bill and Ruth Urquhart-Dykes racing their own Alvis 12/50, not only at Brooklands but also in Belgium and France.

    Winning my first trophy - the Holland Trophy - in the Silver Eagle Racer at VSCC Pembrey, Wales, in 1995. Car details: 1930 Silver Eagle Racer, Chassis No. 7059; Engine No. 8799. (c. Terence Brettell, Alvis Cars in Competition, Amberley Publishing)

    The Alvis Firefly 4- cylinder 1496 c.c. and the Alvis Firebird 4-cylinder 1842 c.c. were produced in good quantities, and later their chassis and running gear provided the basis for many Alvis engined Specials.

    The next significant model to be built was the Alvis Silver Eagle, a straight six-cylinder overhead valve - engine 2.2 litres. This model had the potential at the time to continue the successes for Alvis in competition, but Alvis did not pursue it. Post-War this model has been used by private enthusiasts including being supercharged with significant success.

    Alvis continued with six-cylinder models with the Crested Eagle, Speed 20, 3 ½ litre, Speed 25 3.5 litre and finally the swan-song 4.3 model. All the six-cylinder models have been used in various long-distance road trials, road rallies, hill climbs and sprints both before and after the Second World War. Purchasers for these new models could select from various coachbuilder’s designs, including saloon, tourer, drophead, coupe and three-quarter coupe designs, plus the facility to make special one-off bodies with personal extras included to the customers desires.

    Alvis were sensitive to the market demands for a four-cylinder model, when the 12/70 design of 1842 c.c. became a reality in saloon and drophead options. This was the last new model to be produced before the Second World War.

    Post-War, Alvis models started with the remnants of the 12/70 engine and some components until the new design of the TA 14 commenced, with saloon bodywork by Mulliners and a drophead design by Tickford and sports TB 14 by AP Metalcraft. This model with several body options proved to be very popular and continued production into the fifties.

    Paul Holdsworth with Rod Jolley in the car at VSCC Oulton Park. Car details: Giron Alvie 1932/37. (Author's Collection, Alvis Cars in Competition, Amberley Publishing)

    The new 3 Litre model designated the TA21, used a straight six-cylinder overhead valve engine. The car had supreme comfort and a high cruising speed carrying four adults and also used in the TB 21 Sports Tourer. The later model TC21/100 benefited with the improved engine including twin carburettors.

    In the 1950’s a new body design by Hermann Graber designated TC108/G was made by Willowbrook, then Mulliner Park Ward retaining the three-litre engine. In 1960 another body design influenced by Hermann Graber in Switzerland produced by Mulliner Park Ward was used on the TD 21 Series I in coupe and drophead form. The front of the car and interior ventilation was revised on the Series II model incorporating the air vents around inset fog lamps.

    During 1964 the frontal area was changed with twin vertical lamps for a more modern look designated TE 21. In 1966 the last car the TF21, had a modified head with three carburettors with 150 BHP and dashboard instruments placed around the steering column in a binnacle setting.

    Alvis sold various running chassis to Hermann Graber, producing a unique body for each of his cars known as a Graber Alvis. Rover bought Alvis in 1965 and Alvis ceased building luxurious cars in 1967.  Eventually both companies were absorbed into the British Leyland Motor Corporation.

    My book contains a selection of stories provided by owners of various models using their cars in many competitive disciplines, without their contributions the content of this book would not have been possible.

    Clive Taylor's new book Alvis Cars in Competition is available for purchase now.

  • The North British Locomotive Company by Colin Alexander

    Urie's London & South Western Railway Class N15 express 4-6-0 was perpetuated by the Southern Railway after the Grouping. (Author's collection, The North British Locomotive Company, Amberley Publishing)

    In July 1980, aged 16, during a family holiday in the Cotswolds I made the pilgrimage to South Wales and the legendary Woodham’s scrapyard on Barry Island. As well as wishing to photograph the rusting hulks of over a hundred ex-British Railways steam locomotives which had languished there since the 1960s, there were two other items of interest that I was keen to see. They were the last two remaining ex-BR main line diesel locomotives built at the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow.

    One was D601, once the pride of BR Western Region, and previously carrying the name ARK ROYAL. She was one of five 2000hp ‘Warship’ class diesel-hydraulics ordered as part of BR’s Pilot Scheme. Delivered in 1958 she and her sisters would last in service only until 1967, when withdrawn due to their non-standard status. They had never been the most reliable locomotives and after initial use on glamorous services like the ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ they were quickly demoted to secondary duties. Upon withdrawal, D602-D604, named BULLDOG, CONQUEST and COSSACK respectively, were quietly cut up at Cashmore’s scrapyard in Newport. D600 ACTIVE and D601 however made it to Barry.

    Of almost 300 BR locomotives consigned to the legendary Dai Woodham's scrapyard at Barry in South Wales, only one was an ex-LNER engine. Thompson Class BI 4-6-0 No. 61264 arrived there after departmental service and was fortunate enough to be one of the 213 locomotives to be rescued from Barry for preservation. (Author's collection, The North British Locomotive Company, Amberley Publishing)

    Dai Woodham famously tried to avoid cutting up locomotives, as he knew that the preservation movement would salvage most of them for posterity so as much as possible his workers concentrated on cutting up redundant mineral wagons and the like. Indeed all but two of the steam locomotives I saw that July 1980 day would escape to preservation, and many have since steamed.

    ACTIVE, proudly wearing the new BR Blue livery she wore in service for a few short months was dispatched after a few years in the open air of Barry Island but ARK ROYAL hung on until 1980.

    Meanwhile back in the 1950s, North British had also built a much more numerous class of fifty-eight diesel-electric locomotives numbered D6100 and D6157. They were of 1100hp and found work on the Eastern and Scottish Regions, although before long all were concentrated north of the border.

    They were just as unreliable as their illustrious named Warship cousins and despite twenty of them being re-engined to extend their lives, all were gone by 1972. All that is except for D6122. Following withdrawal in Scotland she found herself dumped at Hither Green in Kent and there she suffered the indignity of being used for re-railing practice. She ended up at Barry with D600 and D601 and like ARK ROYAL she lasted there until 1980.

    A rare NBL diesel success came with the 3 ft 6 in. gauge diesel-hydraulic 0-8-0 for East African Railways & Harbours. (Author's collection, The North British Locomotive Company, Amberley Publishing)

    Unfortunately for me, when I got there, the cutters had beaten me to it and all I could find was one solitary rusty NBL/MAN diesel engine on the ground. It could have been D6122’s or it could have been one of the pair of identical units from D601. I will never know. I had missed them by a matter of weeks. There ended the story of BR’s NBL main line diesels.

    NBL was formed in 1903 by the merger of three established Victorian Scottish locomotive manufacturers, and it became the largest such concern outside of the USA. It gained an excellent reputation through the export of countless dependable locomotives all over the world and for many domestic railway companies. That reputation was shattered when NBL’s BR diesels began to fail and the company closed down due to the cost of repairing its errant products under warranty.

    Many North British steam locomotives survive globally as a living testimony to the company’s success and influence, but the burgeoning diesel preservation movement in the UK came too late to save D601 and D6122, just as I arrived too late to take their photographs.

    Read more about the North British Locomotive Company story in my new book The North British Locomotive Company, published in May 2018. You can still purchase a copy of my other book The British Railways Pilot Scheme Diesel Locomotives. Proceeds from sales of this title contribute directly to two related heritage diesel projects. They are the restoration of a true diesel ‘dinosaur’, the unique surviving Metropolitan Vickers Co-Bo D5705 at the East Lancashire Railway; and the recreation of another extinct class, a Napier Deltic engined English Electric Type 2, being built by the Baby Deltic Project at Barrow Hill Roundhouse.

    Colin Alexander's new book The North British Locomotive Company is available for purchase now.

  • False Economies by S. D. Tucker

    The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time

    Pies in the Sky: Defeating Communism with Chocolate Coins - examining the bizarre use of chocolate coins as a real-life currency in North Korea.

    Life within the Communist hell-hole of North Korea (or DPRK, as it is officially known) is hard. Its economy is, for the most part, centrally planned, condemning most of its people to have to live in poverty. Ever since the days of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding father who still technically rules the place even though he is dead, North Korea has pursued a policy of juche, or ‘self-reliance’, which is just another way of saying ‘self-imposed economic isolation’.

    The North has failed to publish any official economic data since 1965, which implies that the only people doing well out of the closed command-economy are the military. Because the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is about as open to outside penetration as a nun’s chastity belt, it seems that most people there don’t have a particularly good understanding of the notion of capitalism – which is why attempts have been made over recent years to try and undermine the nightmare dictatorship’s economy via the use of chocolate biscuits.

    Following a disastrous 1990s famine, the DPRK’s top brass have thankfully allowed some limited economic reforms to take place, the most significant being the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2002 under the auspices of Kim Jong-il, father of the current chunky little leader, Kim Jong-un. The KIC was a special economic zone in which sealed-off factories operated by 120 South Korean firms employed 50,000 North Korean workers, getting to pay them lower wages than they would back home whilst simultaneously opening up the North to outside influences, or so it was hoped.

    The real motive of the DPRK was to increase their foreign currency reserves; workers’ wages were paid direct to the North’s government, and they then passed back the equivalent sum in North Korean notes to the factory staff – minus some ‘necessary deductions’, naturally. The KIC is currently closed down due to deteriorating relations between North and South, but even whilst open it proved a source of severe controversy because of one particular product its factories were producing … Choco Pies.

    Choco Pies are the Far Eastern equivalent of Wagon Wheels, being two little circles of cake filled with marshmallow and covered over in chocolate, manufactured by a South Korean company called Orion. Such items may seem unremarkable in the mouth of a capitalist, but confectionaries of this kind were like miracles to the Communists of the North, to whom buttered cardboard is doubtless considered a culinary luxury. To the downtrodden workers of the DPRK, the KIC’s factories contained many hitherto unknown wonders such as toilet-paper (and indeed actual toilets) and the Choco Pies were yet another piece of magic from within Aladdin’s Capitalist Cave.

    The South Korean bosses in the KIC factories started paying their workers with free Choco Pies as a non-monetary bonus supplement, hoping to boost morale and increase productivity. The workers seemed pleased with their new bounty, describing them as producing ‘ecstasy’ upon their very tongues, but inspections of the factory workers’ bins revealed something strange – there were no Choco Pie wrappers in them. Why not? Apparently, it was because the workers were taking them home to use as a makeshift currency, deeming them more valuable per unit than many North Korean banknotes were. The chocolate biscuits had become chocolate coins!

    At the height of the craze 120,000 Choco Pies were doled out to the biscuit-hungry plebs each day, with even corrupt soldiers guarding the KIC site demanding their customary bribes in Wagon Wheels instead of banknotes. If you believe the highest estimates, some 2.5 million Choco Pies were being used as coins per month, and trading at a value of £6.40 each, compared to their usual price of 16 pence in South Korea. A more realistic estimate of their value was 25 pence, but this was still 1 per cent of the average weekly wage of £25. So valuable did they become that KIC workers started holding sporting contests and placing massive bets in biscuits.

    This was all quite disturbing to the DPRK authorities because, as well as helping undermine the economy, the mass distribution of Choco Pies was helping undermine the ideological concept of juche as well. If capitalists were so bad, then why were their biscuits so tasty? The phenomenon was dubbed an ‘invasion of the stomach’, and the regime got nervous, remembering the old argument that the Iron Curtain ended up being torn down because the suppressed proletariat of Eastern Europe, jealous of blue Levis, had wanted to get their hands on more Western consumer goods.

    Several measures were adopted by the DPRK Politburo to stem the crisis, with all Choco Pie bonuses being banned in 2014 in favour of wage top-ups of free sausages instead. Another tactic was to spread fake news about the Choco Pies; according to North Korean media, the biscuits had been infected with unspecified ‘weird substances’ by the South, intended to ‘shake our national defence’ or cause illness. In some sense the Choco Pies were really undercover secret agents, which were ‘spying and scheming’ upon behalf of their capitalist masters, hoping to create a situation where ‘the ideology of the people could wither at any moment’. These ‘sweet symbols of capitalism’ were then replaced by the North with cheap forged knock-off versions, a breed of pirated pies which just didn’t taste as nice, thereby undermining the pseudo-currency’s value.

    Alternatively, DPRK officials warned that the Oriental Wagon Wheels contained miniature bombs or highly powerful biological agents which would immediately give you cancer ‘and make your body suffer’ if you so much as touched one. Foreign food, it was said, ‘contains material that is harmful to socialism’, so had to be prodded away into a designated safe area with a long stick. According to one South Korean academic, ‘When North Koreans see high quality consumer goods [like Choco Pies] produced overseas, they begin to understand that their economic system doesn’t really deliver.’ If it can so easily be undermined by generic marshmallow treats, then the North Korean economy really must be in trouble; should all the currency within the DPRK’s Treasury come one day to be made entirely from confectionary, there is a severe danger Fat Boy Kim might just eat it.

    S. D. Tucker's new book False Economies: The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time is available for purchase now.

  • Bristol Omnibus Company by Stephen Dowle

    No. 2957 (977 DAE), a MW5G dating from 1959, was photographed at Lawrence Hill depot on Wednesday 26 March 1975. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The provincial "company" bus undertakings that merged into the Tilling and BET groups included many famous operators with interesting histories, but the Bristol Omnibus Co. was one of the largest and may perhaps be considered the most distinguished. One of the reasons for its eminence was that as well as operating buses it also constructed them, making its name familiar throughout the industry. The operating and construction divisions became separate concerns in 1955, a date which may be taken as the high water mark of the industry's prosperity.  Thus, when I joined the company as a humble conductor in 1970, it had already been in decline for some years.

    The twenty years that followed fell neatly into equal halves. During the first, old ways persisted and the company was still recognisably itself, operating a fleet of mainly Bristol-ECW manufacture. Time-honoured practices survived, the job's management structure was unchanged and many services continued little altered from the earliest days of the motor-bus. The one big upheaval of those early years was conversion to One-Man Operation (OMO) which, by 1980, was essentially complete. In that year the Market Analysis Project was undertaken. This sought to "identify future passenger needs" which, being interpreted, meant identifying loss-making services and getting rid of them. Everything began to change as the industry was slimmed down to make it a more attractive proposition for future privatisation. From 1986 buses would operate for profit, with loss-making services discontinued where the local authorities were unwilling to subsidise them. "Providing a public service" came to be a quaintly old-fashioned concept. When, in 1990, an opportunity arose to leave the job, I went like a flash.

    With FLFs now being withdrawn from the main fleet, No. L8537 (989 EHW) muat have been one of the last LDs to be converted to a driver trainer. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    But still, for students of the industry they were interesting times – though it was seldom possible to approve of the "interesting" developments. As the number of passengers dwindled year by year and fare increases came barely months apart, the company's activities contracted: service frequencies were reduced, the fleet became smaller, buildings were vacated and depots closed.  In the eternal cycle of any fleet, elderly vehicles were retired and, like mushrooms springing up overnight, long lines of their shiny replacements, reeking of fresh paint, appeared in the yard of the company's main depot and Central Repair Works at Lawrence Hill. It was the impending disappearance of the handsome Bristol KSW, a favourite type of mine since boyhood, when I'd been a notebook-carrying "bus spotter" that first prompted me to take a few commemorative photographs. Finding myself suddenly a driver not long afterwards re-ignited my schoolboy interest in the subject. The photographs in this book date from this period – roughly the second half of the 1970s – before the developments mentioned above killed my enthusiasm.

    There was plenty to keep my camera busy. At the beginning of the period covered in the book the last rear-entrance buses in the fleet were being withdrawn, but the coming of OMO implied the disappearance of all traditional front-engined, half-cab buses operated by two-man crews.  As the period closed the company was persuaded of the need for more buses with high seating capacities – which essentially meant double-deckers – and many fewer small single-deckers. For the time being the short-wheelbase REs and their dual-door longer brethren continued to pound the tarmac: it was not foreseen that they would all be gone in a couple of years, well before their time. The LH-type would also disappear, with some examples disposed of after not much more than a year's service.

    Gardner-engined LD No. L8394 (WHY 947) had been new in 1956 and was withdrawn on the last day of 1972. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    On Saturdays, when Lawrence Hill's yard was deserted, I sometimes took my camera to work in search of any photo-worthy behind-the-scenes subject, not neglecting the interesting "works" fleet. In 1977 I transferred to Bristol's bus station – as a depot known as Marlborough Street – where routes and fleet were more varied. Viewed through my customary rose-tinted spectacles, the few years that followed return to me as a time of lost enchantment. Although somewhat reduced since the company's great days, the network of rural services that spread out from Bristol was still substantially intact. Beneath the Cotswold Hills, in the Vale of Berkeley or the Chew Valley, little-frequented routes linked villages to their nearest towns; buses called at roadside shelters half drowned in nettles and cow parsley to pick up farmers' wives, or at lonely crossroads where, at the gates of their cottages, old ladies waited, clutching their shopping bags. With hindsight it should have been obvious that these things were at an end. I am grateful that I was in time to experience them during their final years. They have endured with a kind of super-reality in my memory. I was happy but, of course, didn't realise it at the time.

    My tireless camera sometimes accompanied me if I was due to work some obscure service or there was the promise of an interesting vehicle, such as one of the dwindling number of five-cylinder MWs, an "upgraded" LS-type, or one of the vile early LHs the company had acquired second-hand from another National Bus Company subsidiary, Alder Valley. These, with the photographs taken on company premises and others I took "out of uniform" in my spare time, form the basis of my book. I have tried to provide informative captions, giving more that the bare details of bus, location and date. The introduction gives a more complete account of my association with the company. The book covers the last phase of this distinguished company's long existence, before it changed into something different and was broken up into "operating units" to be sold piecemeal into private ownership.

    Stephen Dowle's new book Bristol Omnibus Company is available for purchase now.

  • Nursing Churchill by Jill Rose

    Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse

    Doris receives her Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing from Miss Ruth Derbyshire, Head of the British Rad Cross and a former Matron of St Mary's Hospital, while the current Matron, Miss Mary Milne, looks. on. (Courtesy of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Archives, Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    My mother, Doris Miles, was a nurse at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington during the war.  In February 1943, at a critical time in the conflict, the 68-year-old Prime Minister Winston Churchill was stricken with pneumonia. His personal physician Sir Charles Wilson, Dean of St Mary's Hospital Medical School, asked the hospital to send their very best nurse to take care of his illustrious patient. Doris was the recent winner of the prestigious Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing and the daughter of a former Dean who had been once Sir Charles's mentor, so she was the obvious choice.

    I've lived abroad almost all of my adult life, and 'What did you do in the war?' was seldom a topic of conversation on my visits home. It wasn't until 2001 that I discovered that Mum still had in her possession a cache of letters that she had written to her husband Roger (my father-to-be) while he was serving as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Navy during the war. The correspondence covers her time nursing Churchill, as well as her life in London in the preceding months and immediately afterwards, and forms the core of my book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse.

    Doris was on night duty, and she and Churchill would talk in the wee hours. On February 23rd she wrote to Roger:

    Been having a long chat with the old boy, he’s been telling me his daily habits, did you know that he stays in bed until 12, sleeps from 3 to 5, never goes anywhere before 5, and never goes to bed before 2. What a man. He also tells me that he hates cigars, and never smokes more than a quarter of one! (Believe that or not). We have also discussed the progress of the war and the Beveridge Report, give me a little time and he’ll get my views on the Rushcliffe Report on Nursing! 

    The signed photography that Winston Churchill gave to Doris, March 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    During the PM's convalescence at Chequers in March, Doris had to cajole him to take his medicine or do his breathing exercises, matching her own strong will against his. At 1 a.m. she wrote,

    'I’m just pushing back hot coffee and biscuits, while waiting for the Patient to finish his whiskey and come and do his exercises before going to bed. There’s going to be trouble over the said exercises I foresee!  As I was away this afternoon he’s only done one lot today, and he will argue – quite rightly – that 1:30 a.m. is not the time to be doing exercises. I wonder who will win – somehow I don’t feel much like arguing tonight'.

    Her letter continues a few hours later: 'Well I won the argument and the exercises were duly performed. As a matter of fact it wasn’t an argument at all, I just said, “you’ve got to do some more exercises”, and he said, “no I won’t, I’m too tired”. So I said no more, and in about five minutes, during which time I did my best to look reproachful, he said, “Oh well, if you want to we’d better do them”. If I wanted to!!  Anyway they were done'.

    Doris and the others in his medical team saw the Prime Minister in a uniquely intimate and vulnerable position. She became very fond of him, despite his many idiosyncrasies. She had been told by Sir Charles at the outset, 'I must warn you, Nurse, the Prime Minister doesn't wear pyjamas', and indeed he didn't, preferring a natty little silk vest which barely covered his bottom,  a velvet jacket with a diamond V on the lapel, and slippers of velvet with 'PM' embroidered on the front.

    Doris and Roger at St. Peter's Church, Vere Street, 8 January 1942. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    As well as the perceptive and amusing descriptions of her time with the ailing Prime Minister, the letters paint a vivid picture of wartime life in a major London hospital. And it's also a poignant love story; Doris and Roger had been married just a few weeks when he went to sea in early 1942, and their relationship grew through their correspondence.

    As I transcribed my mother's letters in 2001, I would ask her about the people and events she had written about, although she was 85 by then and her memory was fading. My father had died of Parkinson's disease in 1990 so there was no one else to ask. There were no letters from Dad, and I wondered what had happened to his replies. Mum couldn't remember when they had disappeared; they must have been cleared out during one of the family's several post-war moves, she said with obvious regret.

    I put the letters away for the next 15 years, and didn't think much more about them until after my mother's death in November 2016, at the age of 100. Re-reading them in the spring of 2017, I was struck again by what a great story this was, and I felt sure that there would be considerable interest in a book.

    Fortunately the editors at Amberley Publishing agreed. I contracted to write an additional 50,000 words about the war, Churchill and my family to put the letters into their historical context.

    My sister still has my mother's old photo albums and quite a lot of parental memorabilia, as well as the original letters. However, once I got started on the book, I realised that there is so much more that I could have and should have asked my parents. I wish I had talked more to Mum about her letters when I first came across them. Dad rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but I think he would have elaborated if only I had shown more interest. When I was a teenager my Granny told me many stories about her eventful life, but I was young and, like all teens, very much wrapped up in my own concerns, so I didn't take much of it in and now only a few tattered, tantalising scraps of memories remain.

    Winston and Clementine Churchill returning to 10 Downing Street, June 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what I needed to write the book. To fill in the details and the gaps in my research I contacted several experts, and I was touched by their enthusiasm for my project and their willingness to share their time and expertise with me. The well-known historian Andrew Roberts wrote a very complimentary endorsement. I sent a copy of the manuscript to Emma Soames, and she contributed a lovely Foreword, way beyond my expectations. I'm so grateful for the generosity of these kind and helpful people.

    Doris writes about colleagues and friends at St Mary's, several of whom remained life-long friends, and I had great pleasure making contact with the children of some of them, including John and David Suchet, and pooling our recollections of our parents.

    I spent hours hunched over my computer digging around in the historical records, and found lots of information about my grandparents and great-grandparents. Not all of my research is directly included in the text, of course. However, all of it has added to the richness of the back-story and I believe my book is the better for it. Everything that I have learned and discovered has greatly enhanced my knowledge of my family, the circumstances into which I was born, and contributed to my personal journey.

    Doris was on duty at St Mary's Hospital during the terrible nights of the Blitz in the Fall of 1940 as the victims of the bombing were brought into the operating theatre. Working alongside her was the handsome Casualty Officer Roger Miles. They fell in love and were married on January 8, 1942.  It was just over a year later that Doris received the fateful summons from Sir Charles Wilson to attend the Prime Minister.

    Nursing Winston Churchill in February and March of 1943 was a defining experience in my mother's long life. She lived to be a hundred years old, and by the end of her life she could remember very little of her past, but she still knew that she had once been Churchill's nurse.

    Jill Rose's new book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse is available for purchase now.

  • Ham & Petersham Through Time by Paul Howard Lang

    Ferry to Twickenham - The ferry crossing gave access to the nearby Ham House and had existed at this spot from the late seventeenth century. (Ham & Petersham Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Ham and Petersham have such a large concentration of historically significant houses that I felt they needed to be better known. This was one of the leading factors that encouraged me to research these areas. There are relatively few books on these parishes compared to other parts of the London borough of Richmond upon Thames.

    Ham House being a National Trust property has a high profile and is well known, but to a certain degree some of the other houses in the vicinity have been overshadowed and their importance, I think, needs to be highlighted.

    Star & Garter Hotel - Stands at the north-east extremity of Petersham, on the boundary with Richmond. (Ham & Petersham Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Some extremely distinguished persons resided in both Ham and Petersham, for example Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) the famous navigator, lived in Petersham at Glen Cottage in River Lane and he was buried in St Peter’s churchyard not that far away from where he lived. Vancouver died tragically young at the age of forty so it is remarkable that he achieved so much in such a relatively short span of time. The house that he lived in ‘The Glen’ dates to the 1670s, so is far older than appearances would indicate. It is very likely that Vancouver wrote his seminal work at this house ‘Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific and Round the World’.

    Another famous name linked to Petersham was that of Charles Dickens who resided at Elm Lodge, and periodically took his friends for various celebrations to the Star and Garter Hotel. No doubt he would have gone for long recreational walks around Petersham, which would have been far more rural at that time than it is now.

    Montrose House, Petersham Road - Named after Caroline Maria, Dowager Duchess of Montrose who resided here from 1836 until her death in 1847, the property actually dates back to the late seventeenth century. (Ham & Petersham Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister from 1846-52 and from 1865-66, lived at Pembroke Lodge in Petersham and died at the lodge on the 28th May 1878.

    As regards to Ham, the writer Miss Hesba Stretton, who contributed stories to Dickens’ ‘Household Words’ and to ‘All the Year Round’, lived at the Little House on Ham Common from 1891 until her death in 1911.

    As to more contemporary persons of note, Tommy Steele, the well-known pop star of the late 1950s and early 1960s lived at Montrose House. Many people associate this house with Tommy Steele, but there have been other distinguished residents before his occupancy. The Dowager Duchess of Montrose lived here from 1836-1847, the house being named after her.

    I have also included some rare photographs of the gravestones and memorial slabs of famous dignitaries buried in the churchyard of St Peter’s church. These include the Berry sisters, Agnes and Mary, who were friends with Horace Walpole and another notable person is Theodora Jane Cowper, the cousin of the famous poet William Cowper (1731-1800).

    Hornby & Clarke's Milking Sheds, River Lane. (Ham & Petersham Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    The book also portrays an unusual plaque in St Andrew’s Church in Ham of the Australian explorer Edward Boradaile (1845-1874) who it is believed perished of starvation whilst trying to reach Port Essington in the Northern Territories. A mountain in Australia was subsequently named after him.

    Some rare photographs never published before are shown in the book, in particular, the view of the back of the cottages in the Petersham Road taken in the 1950s. Also the schoolhouses in Ham Street which date to the 1840s and to my knowledge have not been researched before.

    The book also contains photographs highlighting Petersham’s agricultural past, notably, Walnut Gathering, Petersham with Richmond Bridge in the Distance and Haymaking in Petersham, 1890. There are two nostalgic photographs of Hornby and Clarke’s dairy, one depicting the milking sheds along River Lane, which no longer exist and another showing some of the employees with milking stools and containers. Hornby and Clarke’s dairy was in business from 1870 until 1935 and they grazed their herd on Petersham Meadows.

    I hope this book will show that despite the inevitable changes that the 21st century has brought to Ham and Petersham, both have, fortunately, retained something of their former rural identities and that many of the important houses have survived and have important histories to divulge.

    Paul Howard Lang's new book Ham & Petersham Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Northampton Buses by John Evans

    Northampton buses in Wellingborough Road in the 1960s. (Author's collection, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    We hear a lot about classic car and railway preservation. But buses? Not so much. After all, why would anyone dig deep into their pockets to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds and preserve that most humble of transport vehicles, an old bus?

    Yet in recent years there has been a flurry of restorations. Take John Child’s perfectly-restored wartime Daimler, for example, which spent all its working life on the streets of Northampton in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually No. 129 made its last melancholy journey, along with several others, to a Cambridgeshire scrapyard run by Romany bus breaker Joe Hunt.

    John Child's Daimler No. 129 sleeps away in Joe Hunt's scrapyard, with sister No. 136 behind. Both would escape to live new lives. (c. John Child, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    For some reason Joe decided not to cut up these vehicles. So for thirty years they sat in his yard, most of them exposed to the wind and rain, gradually deteriorating and robbed of parts. Old No. 129, however, led a more charmed life, as it had been stored under cover.  It eventually emerged, battered and bruised yet still restorable, to win a place in the heart of Mr. Child. He acquired it in 2000 and with the help of a team in Lincolnshire, lovingly brought it back to life.

    John Child is not alone. One other Northampton bus, No. 146, in much worse condition, was also rescued from Joe’s yard and beautifully restored. Others were bought direct from Northampton Transport in the 1970s by enthusiasts.  And No. 154, a 1947-built training vehicle kept at St. James’s Garage after retirement from everyday service, found its way into preservation when it was used to promote the opening of a new bus station. Yet another Northampton bus, No. 267, was the very last open platform, front engine bus delivered in the UK, and also survives. These were the last buses that needed a conductor and driver.

    Refugees from Hunt's yard reunited; John Child's wonderful wartime Daimler No. 129, restored to pristine condition with the correct adverts on the side, is seen in Northampton with Crossley No. 146. (c. John Child, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    With so many old Northampton buses winning the hearts of enthusiasts, it might be thought that the town had one of the more important bus fleets in the country. Not so. But it was one of the more interesting. For a start it was very late making the change to one-man operation (one person these days, of course). Under Deputy Transport Manager Ken Dyer, Northampton Corporation also maintained its buses to a very high standard – by the late 1960s the town had 70 almost identical Daimler vehicles still with conductors and gleaming in pristine vermilion red.

    Recently, a few of them have returned annually to ply the streets of the town, bringing enjoyment to those with long memories and enlightenment to younger passengers. They are as important a part of the town’s transport heritage as the corporation’s old Allchin steam roller, the tram shelters at the White Elephant and Cock Hotel or old photos of Castle station.

    A new life for a Northampton CVG6 - still resplendent in its immaculate Northampton livery, No. 258 has been converted to the Bowland Brewery bus bar. (c. Paul Brookfield, www.flickr.com/photos/lancashire, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    Look around the town today and deregulation of bus operations has led to a delightful array of companies and liveries. Your bus may be a pink double-decker or a red, white and blue single deck vehicle; it will have a hi-tech destination panel visible a hundred yards away.  But enthusiasts long for the old days, when route 14 meandered all over the town to get to Kenmuir Avenue, on a cold day a piece of cardboard would be shoved down the front of the radiator grill to keep the engine warm and on a hot one the driver would leave the sliding cab door open to stay cool.

    Researching my new book on Northampton Buses for Amberley was very much a labour of love.  I started with old town records, made a nuisance of myself with the very helpful team in Northampton Public Library’s local history team and was given free access to all the photos stored by the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. I also had hours of fun sorting and scanning the dozens of colour pictures I took of Northampton buses in the 1960s. Even now I cannot quite remember why I took so many.

    Meanwhile, I’m off for a pint served from Northampton bus No. 258. Did I mention it has been perfectly restored – as a bus bar?

    John Evans new book Northampton Buses is available for purchase now.

  • Edinburgh at Work by Malcolm Fife

    Edinburgh owes its existence to the Castle Rock, which could easily be defended. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    There have been untold numbers of books on the history of Edinburgh. Few of them, however, have been devote to the City’s economy and industries. My book, ‘Edinburgh at Work’ should go some way to remedy this situation. Its development was very much bound up with the skills of its tradesmen and the enterprises of its merchants. There is evidence that the inhabitants of the region traded with the Romans when they built their fort at Cramond, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

    In the early Middle Ages a small town grew up in the shadow of the Castle which was perched on a rocky hill. Although Edinburgh had yet to become the official capital of Scotland, its kings often resided in its Castle or at the important abbey of Holyrood. This created a demand for luxury items some of which were manufactured locally by craftsman living in the town. Others, particularly wine from France were imported through the nearby port of Leith. Over the centuries Edinburgh’s merchants built up considerable fortunes. They often acted as an early form of bankers lending out their money for business ventures or the purchase of land.

     

    In the days before steam, watermills were the main source of power for driving industrial machinery. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Towards the end of the 16th century a university was established setting Edinburgh on course to be an important centre of learning. It was also becoming an important legal centre with numerous lawyers among its inhabitants. The thirst for knowledge and the demand for legal documents   gave rise to a flourishing printing industry. The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 were a setback for this as well as the development of the City. The King and his court moved to London taking with it their considerable spending power. The Scottish Parliament, however, remained in Edinburgh which somewhat cushioned the economic blow.

    The 17th century also saw the introduction of new skills such as watchmaking and the manufacture of surgical instruments. One of the first attempts to produce beer on a large scale was undertaken by an Englishman who built a new brewery at Yardheads, Leith. The prosperity of Edinburgh was dealt a further blow with the Act of Union in 1707 with an exodus of numerous members of the aristocracy to England.

    Towards the latter part of the 18th century, the City experienced a period of unprecedented expansion. It broke free of the confines its old town walls with the construction of the New Town. This created work for thousands of stone masons and artisans. Large quarries, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, were opened up on the edge of Edinburgh to supply building material. With many of the well to do now living in spacious houses there was more room for household items such as furniture. Large numbers of women found employment as maids looking after the new residences. Horse drawn coaches began to appear on the streets in increasing numbers. Many were built locally. Such was the reputation of their quality that many were exported overseas.

    Statue of James Young Simpson in West Princes Street Gardens. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh also had a booming textile industry manufacturing woollen goods and high quality linen items. With the Agriculture Revolution taking place in the surrounding countryside numerous former farm labourers made their way to Edinburgh in search of employment. Many were unsuccessful and had to resort to begging.

    The coming of the railways in the mid-19th century had a profound effect on the way Edinburgh developed. Up until that point many of its industries such as paper making were concentrated along the Water of Leith their machinery driven by mill wheels. Coal now became the main source of power and industries now became concentrated next to railway tracks particularly in the vicinity of Haymarket and Gorgie.

    Brewing which had first been practiced by the monks at Holyrood now became one of Edinburgh’s most important economic activities. By 1896 of the ninety nine breweries in Scotland, thirty one were located in Edinburgh. Another more recent industry which Edinburgh became noted for was the manufacture of biscuits. The well-known firm McVitie’s started life in a shop in Rose Street in 1830. Somewhat unusually, the City also became a noted centre for the manufacture of rubber goods including Wellington boots. This was due more to a quirk in the patenting of certain forms of rubber manufacture than to any natural advantages of the location.

     

    The Tennent Caledonian Brewery at Roseburn in the mid-1980s. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh had the distinction of having a higher proportion of professional workers than most other cities in Victorian times. It had risen to become the most important financial centre in Britain outside London. Several banks had their head offices here as did numerous insurance companies. With the growing availability of consumer goods in the 20th century, Edinburgh became an important retail centre serving south east Scotland. Princes Street was home to many well-known department stores some of which were household names. There were also thousands of small shops scattered across the City. In the early 20th century, the manufacture of electrical goods such as refrigerators and radios became increasingly important activity in southern England. Edinburgh was initially slow to adopt these new innovative industries tending to rely on its traditional activities.

    During the Second World War, however, Ferranti established a factory to manufacture gun sights for Spitfires. By the 1960s it had become the City’s largest employer manufacturing radar and missile guidance systems. The long established industries, however, such as brewing and the printing of books at this point in time continued to flourish. The situation changed drastically as the 20th century drew to a close. International competition and the mergers between many long established companies saw the almost total extinction of the important brewing, biscuit and printing industries. Many other once important sources of employment also suffered including food processing and engineering.

    Construction cranes in the centre of Edinburgh at sunset. With a booming financial sector there is a constant demand for new offices. (Edinburgh at Work, Amberley Publishing)

    Edinburgh, however, successfully adopted to meet these new challenges. The growth of the tourist industry and associated services has more than compensated for the loss of jobs in other sectors with some 30,000 jobs now depending on it.  Edinburgh is the second choice for foreign visitors as a destination to visit after London. It has also become an important destination for cruise ships.

    Another major source of employment is the financial sector which has a long legacy in Edinburgh. It is second only importance to that of London and is of international importance. The Royal Bank of Scotland has its headquarters, close to the airport and new financial institutions are also well represented including Tesco Bank. Digital technology now plays a vital role in financial transactions. Edinburgh has gained a reputation a reputation as a driving force in the evolution of the fintech sector which includes e-commerce and mobile banking.

    By 2017 Edinburgh had over 25,000 people working within the digital sector and the number of software companies number over 100, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in Britain. The City’s overall place as a centre of learning has also continued to grow in importance. A hundred years ago there was only one university. The number has now increased to four. The 82,000 university and college students drawn from numerous countries across the world provide a major stimulus for the local economy with their demand for accommodation and services. In 2017 one survey named Edinburgh the best city in Britain to launch a business. It ranked ahead of London, Bristol and Glasgow because of its ‘speedy internet connections, reasonable office rent and a host of university graduates’.

    Malcolm Fife's new book Edinburgh at Work is available for purchase now.

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  • Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History by Carol McNeill

    The three-masted Lord Gambier, built in Newcastle, was one of the Kirkcaldy whaling ships. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    Kirkcaldy harbour has a long and fascinating history, and as a local history researcher and author I’m surprised at myself for taking so long to start tracing its background!

    Its recorded history goes all the way back to the 16th century when James V of Scotland sailed from Kirkcaldy to France with seven ships to collect his French teenage bride, Madeleine de Valois, in 1536. It was also the last place that the Marquis of Montrose saw before he was taken to Edinburgh to be executed for treason in 1650.

    Kirkcaldy captains and seafarers led adventurous and dangerous lives; it seemed to be all in a day’s work to sail to the continent and indeed as far as Russia on trade missions.

    Elise Schulte was one of the huge ships to transport grain in the 1950s to what was then Hutchison's flour mill. (c.Tom Mutch, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    There was also a whaling fleet of several ships which sailed to the Arctic for the lucrative trade in whale oil and meat: an uncomfortable period to read about now but it was of its time, and has to be recorded. It was also a dangerous business for the captains and crew, when the whaling ships became stuck in the polar ice for weeks on end until the spring came. With the extreme conditions and rations fast running out, there was a high mortality rate and no opportunity even to bury the men whose bodies could only be placed overboard on the thick ice.

    But there were easier aspects to research; in particular, the grand houses belonging to ships’ captains and owners which overlooked the harbour – three of which have escaped the developers and have been restored to their former glory with intricate panelling and plasterwork revealed.

    Nairn's canvas factory was built right opposite the harbour. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a tremendous stroke of good fortune and unlooked for assistance in writing this book, when I was handed the copy of a memoir with first hand reminiscences of life at Kirkcaldy harbour in the early 18th century. It contained interviews with ship owners and captains and included actual eye witness accounts of John Paul Jones’ American ships threatening Kirkcaldy: The ships were so close to the shore that we could see they were Dutch built, and that those on board were wearing red shirts.  The local minister prayed for the wind to change direction; it did, and the ships were blown off course and away from Fife.  It also recorded the time when a local ship sailed to Russia, probably for the flax trade, which was a fairly regular occurrence. On this occasion however, the captain was met on the quayside and told that since he had left his home port, their two countries were at war, and he and his crew were put under house arrest. The captain had been prepared to give the Russian officers some liquor which he had brought specially from Scotland: but when he was met with this news, he promptly asked the officers for his bottles back!

    Now the only ships which come into our harbour are the long low grain ships servicing the huge flour mill; if it weren’t for that very welcome commerce, no doubt the harbour would now have been completely shut down and remain just a fond memory.

    Carol McNeill's new book Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of South-West Wales by Geoff Brookes

    The selection of places for this book was very hard to make – of course it was. It is such a wonderful part of the country, full of beauty, history and mystery, and there are always discoveries to be made, always hidden pleasures to unearth. Writing this book has given me the perfect excuse to wander around these beautiful and much-loved locations, and also some which I hope are less familiar but equally deserving of your attention. Because wherever you stop, if you pause and look around, you will find a ‘gem’. That is the point of the book: to urge you get out of the car and be a part of the countryside you see around you. It is hard to think of anywhere richer in history and beauty, more appealing than South West Wales. So here’s a gem to get you intrigued.

    The Church of St Brynach. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of South-West Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    Cwm yr Eglwys

    The Royal Charter Storm

    This is a real gem, an enchanting place forever touched by the sea. It is on the eastern side of Dinas Head facing Newport Bay. You need to leave the A487 between Fishguard and Newport and take the signposted road east of Dinas Cross to Cwm yr Eglwys. The narrow road drops down for around a mile and you will see the superb views to your right that are the reason for your journey. You can park easily close to the beach where you will find safe bathing and easy access to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

    It has a very sheltered position and reputedly has its own warmer microclimate. At the end of the nineteenth century it was claimed that no one in Cwm yr Eglwys died under eighty. It is an achingly pretty place and yet carries within it a striking reminder of the brutality of the sea.

     

    The model of a cwm trader, a coastal trading vessel, at the entrance to the churchyard. (Author's collection, 50 Gems of South-West Wales, Amberley Publishing)

    Above the beach and behind the sea wall you can see all that remains of the twelfth-century Church of St Brynach. The rest of it was washed away in the enormous storm of October 1859, a hurricane in which 133 ships were wrecked and ninety were badly damaged. It became known as the ‘Royal Charter Storm’ when the ship The Royal Charterreturning from Australia to Liverpool was wrecked off Anglesey and at least 450 people died. The hurricane ravaged the whole of the west coast and Cwm yr Eglwys did not escape. There had previously been storm damage in 1850 and 1851 but nothing like this. A storm surge 15 feet above normal high water carried away the side wall and roof of St Brynach, ‘together with a wide slice of the churchyard’. A witness interviewed in 1897 remembered that ‘human remains in large quantity’ were exposed as the earth was washed away. She saw the coffins of the vicar’s six dead children exhumed by the waves and carried out to sea. Two ships were lost in the bay and eight bodies were subsequently washed ashore or recovered from the cliffs.

    The ruins stood until 1880 when they were demolished, leaving just the end wall of the chapel you can see. The sea wall was built in 1882 to serve ‘as a rampart resisting the devastating inroads made by the sullen sea’. The churchyard is now an attractive grassed area ideal for picnics, and it is hard to equate what you see now with the terrible devastation the village and the church once suffered.

    You can use the postcode SA42 0SJ to find Cwm yr Eglwys. The sea has never needed any help to find it.

    Geoff Brookes new book 50 Gems of South-West Wales is available for purchase now.

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