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  • A-Z of Gloucester by Roger Smith

    I have been photographing scenes around Gloucester for more years than I care to remember – street scenes, buildings, statues and blue plaques. Several years ago I started posting articles to Facebook’s ‘Our History – Gloucester’ group. My intention was to enhance the group’s knowledge of the city, including its suburbs, churches, listed buildings and vanished landmarks; the history of these places, how their names have changed, and how they have developed into how they are today.

    Baker's clock with Father Time and figures representing Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    After writing nearly 50 articles, many members of the group were asking whether I was going to turn the articles into a book. With this in mind I submitted a proposal to Amberley Publishing enquiring whether such a book would be of interest. The response was that although my proposal didn’t fit in with their current range of titles, it could fit in with their ‘A-Z of …’ series. After reading through the requirements defined in the A-Z Author Guide I considered it was well within my scope, and more importantly, I already had most of the information to produce such a book. The only proviso, apart from the word and image count, was that there should be at least one entry for every letter of the alphabet.

    The task proved relatively simple for most of the alphabet, but letters X and Z were initially problematical. Then one day a photo appeared in the Facebook group of a policeman on point duty at The Cross, the crossroads in the centre of Gloucester, with the caption that at one time this was the busiest crossroads in England. There could therefore be no better choice than to go for ‘X marks the spot’ as it had earned the sobriquet of the crossroads of England.

    That just left the letter Z. Again, a spot of inspiration came when driving back from Swindon to Gloucester one day. After descending the Cotswold escarpment on the outskirts of the city, one comes to Zoons Court roundabout. The Z problem was solved; now I just needed to research the history of the court.

    Gloucester Cathedral's tower and the cloister garden. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    My brief was that the book should run to 20,000 words and include 100 images. The task was simplified by first producing a detailed synopsis, which stemmed from many years experience working as a technical author where a synopsis defined for the client the envisaged content of the finished document. It also avoided any later dispute where the client suggests that x, y or z should have been included.

    I was aware that there are already a large number of books about Gloucester on the market, many of them nothing more than a collection of photographs with just a single sentence caption. They leave the reader unaware as to the history or significance of what they portray. For example: how many people know that John Stafford Smith, who composed the music for the American national anthem, was born in Gloucester; or that it is the place where the oldest peal of bells in North America were cast; or that it is the place where the world’s first Sunday school was held. To make mine distinguishable from these other books, I determined that my descriptions should run to more than just a single sentence for each topic.

    As I developed my proposal I became more rigorous in what I should or should not include. Here I was guided by the book’s sub-title ‘Places, People, History’. From an initial list of over 100 topics, I selected 66 that I deemed to be of most interest.

    There were certain places that just had to be included: the docks, which was granted port status in 1580 by Queen Elizabeth I, it is the UK's most inland port, and whose old warehouses have provided ideal backgrounds for shooting scenes for many films and period television dramas. ‘The World of Beatrix Potter’ shop which replicates illustrations of the tailor's shop in Beatrix Potter’s story The Tailor of Gloucester, the actual tailor’s shop being in nearby Westgate Street. There is Baker’s Clock, the city’s most-recognisable public clock with figures representing Father Time and people from each country of the British Isles; Bull Lane, Gloucester’s narrowest street; Maverdine Passage, which conceals a medieval merchant’s house with a Georgian frontage that is reputed to be the finest example in Britain of a timber-framed town house. You also have Pinch Belly Alley, which has stones in its walls positioned to stop cattle escaping from the butchers’ quarter into Westgate Street’s upmarket merchants and Kingsholm stadium, known world-wide as the home of Gloucester Rugby, one of England’s top rugby union teams.

    Tall ships in Gloucester Docks during filming of Alice Through the Looking Glass. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    With a history going back 1,500 years, there was plenty of scope for historic entries. You have the Cathedral, which is considered to be one of the seven most beautiful cathedrals in the world, and the only place in England outside Westminster Abbey where a king has been crowned. The New Inn, which is the most complete surviving example of a medieval courtyard inn with galleries in Britain. The Fleece Hotel, one of three major inns in Gloucester that provided lodgings for pilgrims visiting the tomb of Edward II in the cathedral.

    The choice of people to include gave plenty of options. And threw up some surprising choices: Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred the Great; Sir Thomas Bell, largely unknown by most Gloucester residents but was one of the city's largest employers and one of its wealthiest citizens; Bishop Hooper, a Cistercian monk who was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake; Dick Whittington, who went to London to make his fortune, became the greatest merchant in medieval England, and was mayor of London four times; and James ‘Jemmy’ Wood who became nationally known as ‘The Gloucester Miser’, and was known as the richest commoner in His Majesty's dominions.

    Throughout the project I tried to put myself in the place of a first-time visitor to the city who didn’t have the benefit of a tourist guide. Does A-Z of Gloucester achieve this? I believe it does.

    Roger Smith's new book A-Z of Gloucester is available for purchase now.

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