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Tag Archives: An Illustrated History

  • The British Seaside by Stuart Hylton

    I didn’t always like to be beside the seaside

    The beach at Cromer - undated, but the presence of bathing machines further up the beach suggests it may be early twentieth century. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    For most of us, our stock of childhood memories include visits to the seaside. Hopefully, most of these memories will be happy ones, but the sea was not always the welcoming haunt of the holidaymaker. Going back to Old Testament times, the sea could be seen as the bringer of death and disaster (think Noah), or the home of mysterious gigantic creatures, ready to devour the unwary (as Jonah found out). People would generally only venture away from dry land if driven by the imperatives of earning a living or military conquest.

    The change began around about the eighteenth century, when near-miraculous powers of rejuvenation started to be claimed for the seaside and sea water (and for its cousin, the inland mineral water spring). Before too long, well-to-do people were flocking in considerable numbers to the seaside, to drink and bathe in its water. The cure, as it came to be known, could last for a considerable time and there was only so much sea bathing or brine drinking that even the most assiduous patient could take. Other, hopefully less objectionable, diversions had to be found to fill the time, and it was from these that the seaside resort evolved.

    Bikini girls c. 4 BC - part of a Roman mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    But it was with the coming of the steam ship and, more particularly, the railways, that the seaside began to change from the preserve of the leisured and rich to the holiday haunt of all but the poorest members of society. My book The British Seaside: an illustrated history tells the story of the transformation of the British coastal resort from a number of points of view.

    One sometimes heated debate that has run for centuries has been the appropriate dress (or rather undress) code for sea bathing. Every school of thought has been represented in it, from those who favoured shapeless head to foot canvas garments, to variations on the next to nothing theme (culminating in nothing whatsoever). There was even the bathing machine, a species of garden shed on wheels in which the bather could be rolled into the sea, their modesty intact.

    Given that it is a book about the British seaside, it could not ignore what happens when the weather rules out the beach. Seaside resorts have made several distinctive forms of architecture their own. Notably there was the pier, which started life as a purely functional means of getting arrivals by boat onto land with dry feet, before evolving into an all-singing and dancing palace of varieties.

    A rare photograph of a lady emerging from her bathing machine in about 1893. (Wikimedia Commons, The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    Some individual seaside entertainments also had colourful histories. The “what the butler saw” machine had its origins in a scandalous Victorian society divorce case, in which the key witness was the butler, who apparently observed his employer’s dalliances through the keyhole of the dining room. The roller coaster had its origins in eighteenth century Russia and the first ones did not even have wheels – they were giant sledges, sliding down man-made ice hills to entertain visitors to Czar Catherine II at the Oranienbaum Palace, near St Petersburg.

    Dodgem cars should correctly be referred to as bumper cars (Dodgem being a brand name for one make of them, patented in America in 1920). Some of the early ones were apparently very rickety indeed, liable to fall apart at the gentlest of impacts and with steering that bore only the vaguest relationship to the direction in which you were going.

    Punch and Judy is a much earlier entertainment, appearing as it does in Samuel Pepys’ diary and with links back to Roman times and the Lord of Misrule. It gradually went from being an adult entertainment to one for children, and was softened in the process. The modern health and safety conscious Mister Punch is much less likely to murder the baby or feed it through the sausage machine, or to leave parents to explain his relationship to his mistress, Pretty Polly, to their children.

    But one of the most striking seaside rides was developed in 1904 by Sir Hiram Maxim (inventor of the machine gun). This steam-powered ride (the Captive Flying Machine) was originally intended to give customers the sensation of operating a flying machine (Maxim had recently made a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to construct the real thing). Perhaps wisely, the health and safety authorities of the day rejected some of Maxim’s more adventurous features, leaving him, as he saw it, with a toothless “glorified merry-go-round”. A version of this may still be seen at Blackpool.

    The Palace Pier, Brighton in about 1914. It was built in 1899 to replace the 1827 Chain Pier, destroyed in a storm in 1896. Today it is known just as Brighton Pier. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    The Second World War bought an end to the seaside holiday, as many of the nation’s beaches were barred to the public, mined and covered in tank traps. Instead local authorities were encouraged to make worthy (if not universally successful) efforts to create holidays at home, turning parks, rivers or whatever amenities a town had to offer into makeshift “seaside” resorts. Even Punch and Judy got conscripted, with Hitler replacing the character of the hangman (whom Mister Punch invariably tricked into hanging himself).

    But most of all this is an illustrated history of the seaside, and researching it has been a splendid excuse for visiting many of the country’s resorts, and collecting illustrations – ancient and modern - of their development over more than a hundred years. These pictures, and the thumbnail histories of the resorts that accompany them, form the second half of my book.

    Stuart Hylton's new book The British Seaside: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • Bell Rock Lighthouse by Michael A. W. Strachan

    More than Stevenson and Rennie

    Historians now debate whether Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) or John Rennie (1761-1821) deserve the credit for the engineering behind the Bell Rock. While Rennie was Chief Engineer, Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef arguable allowed him to construct from his own plan. (National Galleries Scotland, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    When I was first approached by my Amberley editor regarding the possibility of writing a book about the Bell Rock Lighthouse my almost immediate answer was absolutely not. In my view there had been enough books written about the Bell Rock, most of which were nothing more than edited versions of Robert Stevenson’s 1824 Account of the Building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. What new information was there still left to find? In the end I was persuaded to write the book by one of the Bell’s many enthusiastic fans: a person from Dundee who had tried to convince me of its superior status among lighthouses.

    The Bell Rock was built 12 miles off the coast of Arbroath between 1807-10. The light was first exhibited from 1st February 1811. (Taken from Stevenson's Account of the Building of the Bell Rock, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The Bell Rock, long seen as the lighthouse that made the name of the Stevenson Engineers, was built between 1807-10 to mark the deadly Inchcape Reef. As one might expect from the wealth of material published regarding the construction of the tower, it was not only seen as a monumental feat of engineering in its own time, but one which continues to draw appreciation and admiration today. To tame the Inchcape Reef, Stevenson and his men would need to build a solid stone tower on a rock which was submerged 12-feet under water at the high water and barely exposed during low-tide. At the outset of the construction it was expected it would take seven summers to build, but thanks to Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef it was completed in less than four summers with the light first being exhibited on the 1st February 1811.

    The Bell Rock was manned by a chain of light-keepers from 1811 until it was finally automated in 1988. (Courtesy of Signal Tower Museum, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite this impressive record, if I was going to write a book about the Bell Rock it was not going to focus solely on the construction: Robert Stevenson wrote that book in 1824 and the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust has made that meticulous text available online. In more recent times authors have studied the construction while questioning whom the credit should go for masterminding the tower: although Robert Stevenson’s name is most associated with the Bell, it is not disputed that he was but an assistant to the project’s chief engineer John Rennie. While history has favoured Stevenson, in the last ten years or so Rennie’s vital improvements to Stevenson’s plans are becoming more emphasised and recognised, particularly following Professor Paxton’s 2011 publication Dynasty of Engineers: one of many works published in that year to mark the Bell’s bicentenary. But if I wanted my book to do anything, it was to show that the history of the Bell Rock lighthouse spans more than 4 years: it is more than just Stevenson and Rennie!

    This new book is different for it purposely goes beyond Stevenson and Rennie to explore the wider history of the Bell Rock, charting how things have changed in the tower through time to the present day. Yes, Stevenson and Rennie have an important part in the book, but they are contained to only two chapters. The majority of the book instead focusses on another aspect of the Bell which in my view draws just as much interest and admiration from pharologists and novices alike: what was it like to live and work on the Bell Rock? The story of how the keepers’ lived on this lonely tower for over 175 years, marooned for six-week periods 12 miles off the Angus coast, is just as fascinating as the over-documented story of construction. The book allows readers to chronologically drop in on the lighthouse during certain periods to see how, in many cases, situations had improved from the previous chapters while in other cases see how persistent challenges remained in what was considered to be Scotland’s worst light to man.

    The interest in the Bell Rock led to the old Signal Tower in Arbroath being refurbished into a museum which tells the history of the lighthouse. (Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    It is acknowledged in the book that the job of light-keeping, particularly on the Bell, could be mundane: like at every other lighthouse there were long periods at the rock where very little changed and where the exact same vigils in the lightroom were carried out night-in and night-out. Such periods were, though, punctuated by the arrival of the engineers in their efforts to update and modernise the station. The more recent engineering challenges have been tackled by non-Stevensons and have been largely overlooked and ignored by pharologists and historians. Among those featured in the book are the four main ‘punctuations’ of the 20th Century: David A. Stevenson’s 1902 improvements; the Bell Rock adaptions for war; Hyslop’s 1963/4 modernization; and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s 1987/8 modifications for automation. While none of the above may match the gargantuan challenge and achievements of Stevenson and Rennie, they are important steps by the direct successors of those two men in the making of a modern and functional lighthouse. These engineering projects are just as fascinating a read and just as important to the history of the tower than those overseen by Robert Stevenson in the century before.

    Mr John Boath (left), last principal light-keeper of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, was interviewed by the author (right) for the book telling of his experience on the Bell. Pictured at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse (Photo: Ian Cowe, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The book is illustrated with 100 images which have largely been taken from the extensive collection of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh as well as from other institutions and private collections, with many historical internal views of the tower. Some of these images have never-before been published which should be of interest to fans of the Bell Rock, and fans of lighthouses in general. The images represent the best collation of Bell Rock images in a single publication on the subject, while the approach to chronicle the full history of the lighthouse represents a welcome break from the traditional and well-trodden focus of that lights prestigious past.

    Michael A. W. Strachan's new book Bell Rock Lighthouse: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

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