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  • Britain's Greatest Bridges by Joseph Rogers

    One thing to note about my first Amberley title, Britain's Greatest Bridges, is that it falls short of thoroughly explaining the detailed engineering methods, techniques and construction concepts that naturally apply to some our nation's most important structures. There is a reason for this.

    Generous access for cyclists and pedestrians on the south side of the Severn Bridge makes for a great run between England and Wales. (c. Karen Rogers, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    The book stemmed from a love for travel, which for me began in 2010 when school had abruptly finished and life in an exciting and endless world invited me to explore and wander, before the grips of employment took hold. In being unleashed on the British landscape, I sought to truly appreciate what exactly the vast numbers of villages, towns and cities had to offer, and in doing so came across a number of distinct landmarks that made a meaningful impression on the adolescent mind.

    One such feature was bridges. A two night break based at the M5's Gordano Services saw me take an excursion running across the Avonmouth Bridge during a cold and clear evening, which resulted in an experience that forced unrivalled adrenaline through the veins, trapped between the fast flow of traffic and the silent depths of the river below. Shortly afterwards, I was doing the same from England to Wales, taking advantage of the first Severn Bridge's generous walkways and the ability to stand so isolated above the Bristol Channel, whilst being in the thick of a major feat in roadway expansion.

    Over subsequent years, this want to become intimate with such landmarks, particularly those with candid public access, became an addiction of almost a decade thus far and one no doubt to last my entire lifetime. The opportunity to shed light on, and share a liking for, some of Britain's greatest bridges was one pounced upon, not to dissect tension, compression, concrete and iron, but instead to celebrate icons of culture, history and geography by including the patently obvious, but also those whose place might not be fully recognised without some understanding of its place in the local landscape.

    Though part of a larger failure to impose the car on Glasgow, Kingston Bridgenow successfully carries ten lanes of traffic via the M8 motorway over the Clyde. (Author's collection, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    The Kingston Bridge in Glasgow is a good example of this, seeing coverage in the book for being undeniably brutal when viewing the Clyde in all its glory. Its inception might have been somewhat disastrous and repairs long-lasting, but with the accolade of Europe's busiest bridge and a place in a music video for local band Simple Minds, it became notable enough for inclusion as one of the greatest. Some would say greatest failure, greatest concrete blot on the landscape, or greatest umbrella from the Scottish weather, but nevertheless a great bridge indeed.

    The sheer size of the Humber Bridge alone marks it as one of the greatest structures in Britain, though at one point it stood globally at the forefront of bridge-building. (Author's collection, Britain's Greatest Bridges, Amberley Publishing)

    Similarly the Humber Bridge, whose construction has been widely celebrated in all formats, was a dead cert for the title, given its feats. As once the longest bridge of its type in the world, much is to be applauded in its design, length, height and technology, especially given its age. But also of interest is its very function, bypassing a route of approximately 50 miles, and linking two sides of the River Humber previously united only under the geographical Humberside banner. Crossing the estuary had been the want of previous civilisations, including the Romans, and doing so by boat became popular over subsequent centuries. It was not until the prominence of the automobile and the industrial advances made by both Kingston-upon-Hull and Grimsby became a factor that the need for a more permanent structure materialised. The bridge's very existence tells swathes about the area's progression and place in British history and this is arguably just as important as the science behind that existence.

    To the book's general audience, the point of celebrating, what are labours of love for engineers and architects, is to instil a sense of awe and pride in simply using or seeing these objects in the wider narrative of Britain's geography. Outlining a brief history and noting obscure facts and trivia might not erect the enthusiasm of those at the forefront of creating and maintaining our treasured spans, but hopefully can perk the interest of the general explorer in appreciating the wider and more subjective feelings that arise from exploring the UK in all its variety. After all, who better to judge the greatness of such structures, than those that use them?

    Joseph Rogers's new book Britain's Greatest Bridges is available for purchase now.

  • Steam in the British Coalfields by Mick Pope

    Trainspotter, a description that has somehow become a term of ridicule, conjuring up an image of some bespectacled nerd who is unable to function in normal society and definitely won’t have any dress sense, wife or girlfriend. Funny how this has come about as an interest in railways in general as the second most popular hobby among men in the United Kingdom after angling. I did wear glasses as a young lad and so I was part way there already!

    Joseph climbs away from the screens at Bold Colliery with loaded 21-ton hopper wagons, probably destined for Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. August 1981. (Steam in the British Coalfields, Amberley Publishing)

    I must admit that my father was the first to encourage me to take an interest in the model variety of trains, having himself grown up as a collector of the old fashioned clockwork, tinplate Hornby ‘O’ gauge ones. I suspect his encouragement was merely to give legitimacy to him continuing his own passion as I had only a passing interest at that time. Then one day I was rebuffed by a school friend when I asked him what we would do over the coming weekend. After a hushed conversation with another friend he declared that he was going to Chester station to collect train numbers. It seemed a bit pointless to me but I tagged along anyway out of curiosity. I was advised to buy a ‘locoshed book’ published by the Ian Allen company as this contained the number of every locomotive working for British Railways, as it was then, plus the place where they normally were based. I was told that I also needed a notebook and that I should write down the number of every locomotive seen and then underline that number in the locoshed book when I got home. It all seemed a bit boring although it had an element of acquisitiveness that is present in most kids. One day and I was hooked! There was just something about the big powerful machines that seemed alive. I didn’t know what I was looking at in any detail but noted that some locomotives had names, that some were green, most were black and some very special ones were a kind of red and these got a special cheer from the assembled spotters. I needed more information and so bought more detailed pocket sized books with photographs and technical details. I learned fast.

    Warrior with a rake of 16-ton mineral wagons. The snow manages to cover what was normally a very muddy environment! (Steam in the British Coalfields, Amberley Publishing)

    With my friends we travelled further afield. Holidays on the south coast, and with relatives in Somerset, introduced me to new kinds of locomotives. We revived a moribund railway society at our grammar school, really just an excuse to obtain permits from British Railways to visit their locomotive depots, although we frequently ‘bunked’ these places, i.e. sneaked in without permission. Being well over six feet tall at age sixteen I could pass as an adult and, telling that little white lie, was allowed to obtain the required permits.

    Eventually, as with many childhood fads or hobbies, many of my friends gradually dropped out. By this stage I had also developed an interest in photography and, again encouraged by my father, owned a reasonably effective camera rather than the Kodak ‘Instamatic’ used by most of my fellow enthusiasts. By this time British Railways was rapidly disposing of its steam locomotives and collecting their numbers had become a bit pointless, you could never see them all which had been the original aim, and so taking photographs of what was disappearing seemed a sensible thing to do.

    Around this time I got a place at Nottingham University and, as bad luck would have it, this was an area where steam power had already been eliminated. Studies in Nottingham and a girlfriend back home took up most of my time and money. One day in 1968, the year steam locomotives were eliminated on British Railways, I was sat in the Social Science library at the university pondering a life without steam locomotives when I spotted a column of steam moving about in the distance. This puzzled me as it was unlikely that anything had strayed from the last stronghold in the North West. Studying an Ordnance Survey map that evening I guessed that the steam was coming from Clifton Colliery. I checked this out and sure enough they had a small steam locomotive. I knew from my GCE ‘O’ level Geography that there were lots of coal mines around Nottingham and therefore there might be other places with steam power. Further research discovered that there was actually a national society for those interested in industrial locomotives and that they published books recording every location and what could be found there. My studies took a downward turn and I was out and about, ironically photographing not the coalmining locations, few had steam power working by then, but the ironstone quarries in Lincolnshire, Rutland as was, and Northamptonshire.

    Descending from the colliery, a loaded train passes the mangled remains of a recent load that ran away on the steep gradient and derailed. (Steam in the British Coalfields, Amberley Publishing)

    Returning home to Liverpool once I graduated – with a very moderate degree – I found that the coal mines of Lancashire were still home to many steam locomotives as were those a little further afield in Cumbria. By the early 1970s my younger brother had also become something of an industrial steam nerd by this time, being handy for the last strongholds in North Wales, and so we went on expeditions together.

    Sadly even this means of satisfying our appetite was diminishing and in 1975 I made my first trip abroad to photograph steam locomotives in East Germany, Poland and, with my wife to be in tow, Spain and Portugal. By the end of the 1980s I had added, with several visits, India, China, South Africa, Turkey and Zimbabwe to the list, photographing both steam trains on the national lines of those countries but also industrial sites. When asked if I had seen the ‘Terracotta Army’ on a trip to China I had to answer ‘No but I did go to the steelworks at Anshan and the forestry line at Langxiang’ [where we taught the local workers how to play musical chairs at a social evening]!

    I had many adventures on these trips, some printable, some not! I also have a cupboard full of negatives and colour slides that I need to transfer into digital format before they fade away. So call me a nerd if you must but I have seen far more of the world than most and don’t regret it one bit. See my photos and judge for yourself!

    Mick Pope's new book Steam in the British Coalfields is available for purchase now.

  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

    The Chinese Magicians, Drury Lane, 1854. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the earliest Chinese to travel to Britain were Chinese Jugglers. Although described as jugglers, their acts also included acrobatics and magic. The first recorded troupe arrived in 1816 and were well received; ‘The Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, are most respectfully informed that The Chinese Jugglers continue to exhibit their wonderful performances every day, and to attract numerous spectators; many of whom do not tire of repeatedly witnessing the astonishing feats of these foreigners.’

    In 1818, the troupe had an unusual booking in London when they performed in the nude at a Royal Academy lecture on the naked figure. ‘Some have been so illiberal as to censure such exhibitions at the Royal Academy, but this extraordinary display of the muscles in forms and uses never before beheld, was a circumstance of the utmost service to Artists; it was a display that might never again appear in Europe; the actions of an African, at the Academy, had surprised them, those of the Indian Jugglers had astonished them, but the present ones surpassed all belief or power of description. The Chinese Jugglers then, performed their positions, and the distortions of their extremities surpassed everything that could have been conceived of them. The room was immensely crowded; the applause at the conclusion was general.’

    In 1853, another troupe included Tuck Guy whose knife-throwing trick was a standout of the show; ‘Placing his daughter, a prepossessing girl of about thirteen years of age, at one end of the stage, and causing her to stand with her back against some soft wood, her hands expanded and her fingers separated, he retires to distance. A parcel of very large knives are produced, he picks them up one after another, and, apparently without taking aim, or occupying any time in preparation, slings them recklessly at the child. With wonder amounting to amazement the spectator perceives that every knife has been aimed in the most accurate manner, and that they have been planted one between each of the girl’s fingers, one on each side of her cheek, and others close around her neck, but that not one has grazed her skin, though all have entered deeply into the wall behind her. This unique and unrivalled specimen of sharp practice—if it may be so termed—was well deserving of the applause which was elicited.’

    James Legge and the three students who attended Duchess of Gordon’s school in Huntly in 1846, engraving by J. Cochran after painting by Henry Room. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Victorians also delighted in exhibitions of human ‘freaks’ and in 1864 James ‘Marquis’ Chisholm, a Scottish musician, was touring in China and noticed Chang Yu Sing. Chang was not a man easy to miss as he was at least 7 foot 8 inches in height and Chisholm saw a money-making opportunity.  He convinced Chang to travel with him to Britain, along with a dwarf, Chung-Mow. Chang the Giant and Chung-Mow were exhibited to great success at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly accompanied by Chisholm playing his specially composed The Great Chang Polka. Chang swiftly gained star status. He was invited to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House and at the request of the royal children, wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall at a height of ten feet from the ground. He later toured to America and Australia, as well as within Britain, and he settled in Bournemouth, where he and his wife, Kitty, ran a tearoom and an 'Oriental Bazaar' selling Chinese curios.

    The Chinese in Britain offers a fascinating portrayal of these and the many other Chinese travellers to Britain since the first in 1687, including seamen, students, cooks, brides, diplomats, servants, sportsmen, bureaucrats and writers. As China becomes a pre-eminent world power again in the twenty-first century, this book uncovers our long relationship with the country and its people.

    Barclay Price's new book The Chinese in Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain by Bernard O'Connor

    Most people have no idea that in the 1930s and early-1940s there was what has been called a ‘spy-psychosis’ or ‘Fifth Column neurosis’ in Britain. Many of the most popular films were spy thrillers. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Night Train to Munich (1940) were all box-office hits.

    Films released in 1939 included Spy for a Day, The Spy in Black, Spies of the Air and Traitor Spy. Beloved familiar characters of the time such as Inspector Hornleigh got in on the act by capturing spies on an express train in Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1940). Cottage to Let (1941) included fifth columnists and secret inventions. In low-budget comedies, Arthur Askey and George Formby would foil the plots of swarms of German spies as well as unmask quislings and traitors, and everything would turn out nice again. All these films reinforced the Government-endorsed message that not only did careless talk cost lives; anyone could be a spy and a traitor.(1)

    Camp 020, Latchmere House near Richmond, where 480 enemy personnel were interrogated during the war, including most of the saboteurs sent to Britain. (Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    There were rumours of Nazi agents disguised as nuns operating from a disused London Underground station. The population was encouraged to report any suspicious activity, especially by foreigners, to the police. Lt General Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, claimed to be able to identify German agents from the way they walked, but only from behind. General Sir Walter Kirke, Head of the Home Forces, claimed that ‘the gentlemen who are the best behaved and the most sleek are the stinkers who are doing the work and we cannot be too sure of anybody.’(2) There was a fear that enemy agents were using carrier pigeons to send their messages.

    In January 1939, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued an ultimatum to the British government to withdraw all their troops from Ireland or they would launch a sabotage campaign against Britain. When their ultimatum was ignored, the IRA started attacking targets in London and other major British cities.

    What was not realised at the time was that the Nazis were providing financial and technical support to the IRA, promising them independence for Ireland in return for helping their plans for a British invasion. German saboteurs were involved in the campaign with their bomb attacks being attributed to the IRA. These attacks continued throughout 1939 and after war broke out in September, the Security Forces started finding evidence of Nazi involvement. The British Government began to be seriously worried that the Nazis were supporting the IRA and planning to sabotage important military, industrial and communication targets before invading Britain.

    Waterpiplines leading to HEP station at Fort William. Target for James Walsh, Irish agent. (Courtesy of Martin Briscoe, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Government initiated a widespread counter-sabotage programme. You may well have read books or watched films about the sabotage attacks undertaken by British or British-trained agents in enemy-occupied Europe; how they destroyed aeroplanes, trucks and trains with plastic explosives; how they blew up canal lock gates, railway lines, electricity power stations, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts and tunnels; how they sank ships with limpet bombs and halted production at mines, engineering works and factories; how they brought down pylons, telegraph poles and cut cables with strategically placed and often cleverly camouflaged explosive devices. But where are the stories of the IRA’s sabotage attacks? Where are the stories of the German-trained agents infiltrated into Britain to attack important targets? Where are the documentaries? Where are the films?

    I researched Station 17, Brickendonbury Manor, the requisitioned country house outside Hertford, Hertfordshire, where overseas ‘students’ were trained as secret agents for my book Churchill’s School for Saboteurs. Later the house was used to provide agents with specialist courses in industrial sabotage before being infiltrated to undertake attacks on targets across Europe. Before researching sabotage in Poland and Italy, I got waylaid by writing an account of the women involved in deception schemes during the war.

    I spent several years poring over and transcribing secret agents’ personnel files and mission papers from the National Archives in Kew, downloading files from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s website, trawling the Internet for details, reading biographies, autobiographies, newspapers, history books and journals, and writing numerous accounts of top-secret sabotage operations during the Second World War. I discovered that the IRA and the Nazis made numerous attempts to sabotage targets in Britain and that the British Intelligence Services made concerted efforts to stop them. This book provides a detailed account of their successes and failures.

    Ronnie Reed, ZIGZAG's case officer in front of the transformer house at de Havilland Factory, camouflaged to look as if it has been sabotaged. (TNA KV 2/458, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    I have to acknowledge the research done by Rupert Allason, Mary Berbier, John Bowyer-Bell, Giles Colchester, Terry Crowdy, T. Ryle Dwyer, Bryce Evans, Lalislas Farago, Thomas Hennessey, Mark Hull, John Humphries, Tommy Jonason, David Johnson, Ben Macintyre, John Masterman, David O’Donoghue, Eunan O’Haplin, Simon Olsson, Terence O’Reilly, Adrian O’Sullivan, Frank Owen, Günther Peis, Lee Richards, Mike Scoble, Adrian Searle, Claire Thomas, Des Turner and Charles Wighton.

    The staff at the National Archives in Kew and the CIA online archives need especial thanks for generating a searchable catalogue and allowing many of the documents I found to be downloaded. The staff of the Lancashire Archives also helped provide access to their files. Steven Kippax, Phil Tomaselli, Stephen Tyas and fellow members of the Special Operations Executive Yahoo user group have been particularly helpful in providing files and answering my many queries.

    Martin Briscoe kindly provided photographs of the Fort Willliam hydroelectric power station, Mal Durbin the photograph of Cray Reservoir and David Howard the photograph of 35 Crespigny Road. I acknowledge with gratitude a number of websites on which I found other illustrations.

    Trying to provide a detailed account of what were considered at the time to be top secret activities over a six-year period has been a challenge, based as it is on often redacted transcripts of interviews, memoranda and correspondence. There may be gaps; there may be errors, but this book is more the work of an archaeologist than a historian. It is an attempt to piece together bits of information so that they tell a human story, one which I hope will not only give you fascinating details about little-known aspects of British wartime history but also an insight into the mind-set of the people involved in the British and German Intelligence Services, the saboteurs and the counter-saboteurs.

    Bernard O'Connor's new book Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain is available for purchase now.


    1. http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A87786102
    2. TNA INF 1/264-8
  • What the British Invented by Gilly Pickup

    My latest book, What the British Invented – From the Great to the Downright Bonkers, was a delight to research and write. Of course before I started out on the task, I knew that as Brits we are a remarkably creative bunch, but I didn’t quite realise the extent of our inventiveness until I actually started to write.

    What the British Invented - chocolate An 1851 chocolate bar (c. Frenchay Village Museum)

    These inventors have not only done so much to improve our daily lives, but in many cases have also changed the world around us. Marvellous British inventions have helped us win the Second World War courtesy of Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt’s radar; smoothed the path of travel by way of Edgar Hooley’s tarred road surfaces and literally lit up all our lives thanks to Joseph Swan who developed the modern incandescent lamp – did you know his house was the first in the world to be lit by electricity? Ah and what about chocolate, surely a world without the stuff would be unthinkable – at least it would be so if you’re a chocoholic like me. Bristol Company Fry and Son made the first bar of chocolate from a mixture of cocoa powder and sugar with a little melted cocoa butter that had been extracted from the beans. Coarse and bitter by today’s standards, but nevertheless still a revolution. Yes indeed, 18th century France produced tablets and bars, but Fry & Son made the first bar of chocolate as we know it today.

    In the field of medicine, Brits led the way again with everything from aspirin, ibuprofen and chloroform, to penicillin, hypnotism and the hypodermic syringe.

    Brainy Brits also came up with the idea of the jet engine, the glider, tin cans, the collapsible baby buggy, refrigeration and even Buick cars. David Dunbar Buick, born in Arbroath in Scotland, founded the company that became known as General Motors Corporation of America, a mighty car making empire. A clever chap, he also invented the enamel bathtub.

    What the British Invented - P & O Britannia (c. P&O Cruises)

    Most of us take a couple of holidays every year – and guess what? – Yes, Thomas Cook from Market Harborough, is credited with inventing the package holiday. Meanwhile in 1835 Shetland sailor Arthur Anderson, a man of remarkable negotiating skills, proposed the idea of sailing for pleasure as a passenger in an ocean going vessel. He co-founded the General Steam Navigation Company, later the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company and now known as P&O, a major operator of passenger liners.

    Quite possibly though, the one invention which has completely changed the world is the World Wide Web. London born Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist and computer scientist, was the brains behind this one. By late 1990 he had built all the elements necessary to deliver his new concept, including the first browser and the first website http://info.cern.ch.   While looking for a name for this new invention, he turned down ‘The Information Mine’ - TIM - his initials and modestly called it the World Wide Web.

    My book is an amalgam of facts to interest the trivia buff, the downright curious and those of us who know that Britain is of course ‘Great’ but occasionally need a prod to remind us why. Whether you want to learn something, to smile, be amazed or need an extra boost of patriotism, there is something here for you. You can read it from cover to cover or open it at random. I guarantee you will stumble upon something to interest you.

    9781445650272

    Gilly Pickup's What the British Invented is available for purchase now.

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