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  • Secret Southampton by Martin Brisland

    In October 1971, Muhammad Ali was in a local supermarket in Hedge End. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    Saturday 15th July 2017 was a day to remember. Well it would be if only I could remember it. I know I was in bed having not been awake long. Then a thunderclap pain in the back of my head hit. I recall taking two paracetamol and lying down. It was about six weeks later before I was well enough to realise what had happened. I had had a severe brain haemorrhage which is fatal in 6 out of 10 cases. The main basal artery to the brain was bleeding. No warning signs at all. Out of the blue. I had two operations and spent eleven weeks in hospital. So many thanks to the Neuro unit at Southampton General Hospital and many other medical professionals who gave me a second chance.

     

    I am retired having spent my working life in Further and Higher Education jobs. A lifelong interest in local history led me to becoming a qualified tour guide and being part of See Southampton. When the chance to write the book came my other half was naturally protective and thought it might be too onerous a task but I was determined. It became my recovery project and gave me a real focus so I could spend less time worrying about the after effects of the haemorrhage.

     

    In 2004 a sculpture of the Spitfire was unveiled outside Southampton Airport. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    My main problem was not what to find to put into the book but what to leave out. Being a major port Southampton has so many stories to tell. A lot of the content I knew but the research led me to many other places. The city’s history goes back to a Roman settlement on the bank of The River Itchen. We then had Danes, Vikings, Saxons and Norman leaving their mark. Southampton was the major embarkation point for troops going to fight the Battle of Crecy in 1348, for Henry V’s troops en route to Agincourt in 1415. Later troops passed through on their way to the Boer War in South Africa around 1900, to fight in Flander’s fields in the First World War and in the Second World War with three and a half million Allied troops, including over two million Americans. Locals said they were “Overpaid, oversexed and over here”. A comment possibly justified by the fact that there were around 5,000 births locally fathered by US servicemen. They had money, chewing gum and nylons which obviously had an effect. Late in 1945 Churchill even arranged free passage on the Queen Mary for any local women who wanted to track down the father of their baby. Over half returned – possibly having found out that there was already a wife the other side of the pond. Southampton was also the ‘Home of the Spitfire’ and was therefore a prime enemy bombing target in the Second World War. About 70% of the inner town was destroyed. The post war Brutalist rebuilding was functional but is now tired. In recent years there has been much redevelopment and the place is being reborn. The two main sources of income today are: students with around 40,000 at our two universities; and the Docks with its famous double high tide which allows 550 mainly cruise and container ship movements per year.

     

    The boat that does not float. (Secret Southampton, Amberley Publishing)

    Secret Southampton is divided into sections on people, places and stories. One of my personal favourites is the day Muhammed Ali came to town. He was touring England in February 1971 promoting Ovaltine – the only product he ever endorsed. He went to a supermarket, signed tins then gave a press conference in his hotel. Another is the man who for the last 50 years has been building a full size boat in his garden. He is now very elderly, it will never be completed and is in poor repair. Symbolic of human dreams and ambitions that we may never realise but at least we tried.

     

    One of my aims in writing the book was for people to say “I have passed that many times but never knew the story behind it”. So far the feedback has been to that effect. It has led to a double page feature in the local paper, a local TV interview, some lovely reviews and many upcoming talks to local history groups. So once again thank you to the NHS for giving me the chance to be able to write Secret Southampton.

     

    Martin Brisland's new book Secret Southampton is available for purchase now.

  • South East England Buses in the 1990s by David Moth

    Guildford & West Surrey Leyland Olympian 903 (F573 SMG) is seen outside Camerley railway station on 8 April 1995. (South East England Buses in the 1990s, Amberley Publishing)

    The 1990s was an interesting time for bus operations as it saw the consolidation of the bus operating industry where a lot of companies that had been privatised and sold to their management teams in the late 80s were sold on to the emerging big groups. Such as Badgerline, Drawlane, later British Bus, and after that, Arriva and Stagecoach. Also a lot of the operators still showed their NBC heritage by the large number of Bristol VRTs still in service. Maidstone & District and East Kent Road Car were both smart fleets with a high proportion of double deckers in their fleets. It was a real shame that these companies inevitably got swallowed up by the big groups and eventually lost their individuality. Southern Vectis remained independent until 2005 and was well regarded by enthusiasts for their attractive livery and vintage fleet.

    Seen on 30 July 1994 is Luton & District Bristol VRT 934 (SNV 934W). (South East England Buses in the 1990s, Amberley Publishing)

    Reading was an interesting place to visit as council owned Reading Buses had a smart fleet of various types of buses. Plus from 1994 onwards there was the independent operator Reading Mainline that were extremely unusual in that their entire operational fleet was composed of just one type – Routemasters.  Reading Mainline were taken over by Reading Buses in 1998 and operations ceased in 2000. Another operator using Routemasters was Timebus who for a short while operated Routemasters on services around Watford. Although their bus services didn't last long, Timebus is still in business as a private hire operator and still has several Routemasters today. Luton & District was another interesting former NBC operator that was formed from the part of United Counties that was transferred from Eastern National in the 1950s. They had an interesting fleet with a high proportion of double deckers and took over neighbouring London Country North West before being taken over themselves by British Bus in 1994. A particularly favourite fleet of mine was Southend Transport which had a fascinating, but aging fleet in the 1990s, with a very high proportion of second hand buses in its fleet, including several Routemasters, Leyland Olympians, Leyland Nationals and Bristol VRTs.

    All the photos in this book were taken by me in the 1990s for my own enjoyment and for my friends. Which is why some areas are very well represented, i.e. Kent and Southend, and some are very much over looked, i.e. Sussex and Oxfordshire.

    It is a matter of regret that I didn't keep the bus photos I took during two visits to Brighton in the 1990s and several photos taken in Kent and Oxford in 1992.

    David Moth's new book South East England Buses in the 1990s is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Aldershot by Paul H. Vickers

    What is ‘secret’ about the history of Aldershot? The story of Aldershot’s growth from a small, rural village to the famous ‘home of the British Army’ and a thriving town has been told in various publications, including my previous Amberley titles Aldershot’s Military Heritage, Aldershot Through Time, and Aldershot History Tour. However, within the overall narrative there are many lesser-known stories of people and events which add to the richness of Aldershot’s history and give added insights into the making of the town’s unique character.

    The promontory of Caesar's Camp, seen from Long Bottom. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    The impression is sometimes given that Aldershot’s story only begins with the arrival of the Army in the mid-nineteenth century, but the area has been inhabited since ancient times. Secret Aldershot begins by delving back into early history and looking at some of the mysteries of archaeological sites such as Bat’s Hog Stye and Caesar’s Camp, the medieval village and the great landowning families, and how even tiny Aldershot was not immune from the violence of the English Civil War.

    Some of the stories revealed in the book were genuinely ‘secret’ as the files were highly classified when they were created and have only recently come into the public domain. The plans for defending the garrison against German invasion in World War Two were, of course, a wartime secret. Study of these reveals not only disagreements among generals about what were the priority area for protection but also that work on the defences progressed so slowly that they were unlikely to have been any real obstacle to an advancing invader. Equally classified were details of an underground headquarters into which the command staff would have moved in the event of attack from land or air, and how a Tunnelling Company of Royal Engineers struggled to build this in extremely difficult conditions and against a tight timetable. Moving to the Cold War era, the previously Top Secret 1960s mobilisation plans for Aldershot in the event of a nuclear world war have only recently been declassified and made available at the National Archives, and details are published for the first time in this book.

    Print of 1872 showing Fell's Aldershot railway viaduct. (Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    There are numerous events which were notorious at the time but have since been forgotten, such as the problems with maintaining law and order for both the civilian and military authorities. Owing to sensational stories in the national press of trouble and vice in Aldershot’s many pubs, beer-halls and cheap music halls, Aldershot gained a reputation for crime, drunkenness and immorality. Notoriously, in 1861 Captain Pilkington Jackson, who was ordered by the Secretary of State for War to report on conditions in Aldershot, said the town was “inhabited principally by Publicans, Brothel Keepers, Prostitutes, Thieves and Receivers of stolen property”, which predictably caused outrage among the local citizens when this was published in the national press. Such was the reputation of Aldershot that into the story came Victorian and Edwardian moralists and campaigners who were determined to reform the town and turn soldiers away from temptation to the paths of virtue.

    The Infirmary Stables, c. 1993. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite these early scandals, Aldershot has a great deal to be proud of. It was the site of many pioneering developments. Here the first steps were taken towards military aviation, with the establishment of the Royal Engineers’ Balloon School and experiments not only with balloons but also with man-lifting kites. With the huge numbers of animals used by the nineteenth century Army, important advances were made in early veterinary science and animal welfare, and the veterinary hospital established for the care of Army horses was a “state of the art” facility. There were also some novel innovations which failed, such as John Fell’s experimental military railway of 1872, of which there is now no trace left but for a short time looked as if it could have transformed military transportation.

    Aldershot Town FC, Southern League champions, 1929-30. (c. AMM, Secret Aldershot, Amberley Publishing)

    To Aldershot’s various entertainment venues came many performers who went on to become household names, and it is amazing that in a town like Aldershot you could have seen the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Even in the 1980s, up and coming bands played Aldershot’s West End Centre, including the Stone Roses, Pulp, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, and many others. In the world of sport, Aldershot has seen many more famous names and sporting events than most towns of its size, with international footballers playing for Aldershot FC in the war years, the great cricketer Don Bradman and the Australian test team playing against the Army in the 1930s, and in 1948 some of the Olympic Games events were held here.

    It was very satisfying and enjoyable to write Secret Aldershot and to tell these forgotten stories, which I hope readers will find interesting, revealing or amusing.

    Paul H. Vickers' new book Secret Aldershot is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Romsey by Ian Dickerson

    The jam factory chimney. (Courtesy of the Vine family collection, Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

    Romsey is a small market town nestled on the River Test and caught roughly midway between Winchester, Salisbury and Southampton in the South of England. It may be small but it has a lot of history. Sure it’s not as old as nearby Amesbury, which is just twenty five miles or so away and dates back around five thousand years, but with an Abbey that’s been around for over a millennium there’s plenty to tell.

    And therein lies a problem for unsurprisingly in a town this age, there have been plenty of people keen to tell the town’s story, starting perhaps in the eighteenth century with Dr John Latham, who amongst other things prepared for publication seven quarto volumes on the history of Romsey Abbey. Then there’s a local history society that’s been around for over forty years and who have published numerous books on the area and aspects of its history. Was there really room for one more?

    Having lived in the town for nigh on two decades and written a number of books on various subjects I was really hoping there was. I wanted to do something to celebrate a town that my family and I love.

    The research was fun; I dug into the history books and learnt about Ethelflaeda, who used to run the town’s nunnery and stand naked in the River Test in the middle of the night reciting religious chants for hours on end…which was interesting. Then I delved into one of the local history group’s publications called ‘So drunk he must have been to Romsey’ which was a great title for what turned out to be simply a list of pubs that used to be and could still be found in the town. Not really a book, more a catalogue.

    So I picked up another one, The Story of Romsey, which tried to encapsulate three thousand years of history—yes, it started with the history of the area in 1000 BC—in, erm, seventy-six pages. Granted it mentioned the likes of Jane Wadham, a niece of Queen Jane Seymour and Henry VIII’s third wife (in case you were wondering), who was a nun at the Abbey. She married John Foster, a local priest, causing great scandal. I’m sure they’d both be bemused to discover that they both have roads named after them on a new local development, and that you can walk from one to the other in just a couple of minutes. But when trying to tell a story of that scale in just a few pages, well let’s just say it lacked narrative.

    Front page of the Daily Mirror commemorating the death of Florence Nightingale. (Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

    We even went on a tour of the town given by one of the leading lights of the historical society. It was interesting enough but only after the event did I realise what bugged me about it; it was all about the buildings, the river and their respective histories. It wasn’t about the people. We met in the town centre, under a statue of Lord Palmerston, a nineteenth century British Prime Minister who was born and indeed died at Broadlands, a stately home on the outskirts of the town. He didn’t get a single mention in what was quite a lengthy talk.

    I realised that was it; the crux of my book and what was missing from the talk; the secret Romsey was the people and the community. Sure, buildings play a part, after all they don’t just build themselves. But it’s the people who live in them, the people who make them what they are.

    So with renewed focus I set about my work and I discovered more stories about the people of Romsey; poor Mrs Arter, a dung collector in the early 19th century who drowned when she dropped her kettle in a local stream and tried to rescue it; Arthur Gregory who was hauled into court for exceeding the five mile an hour speed limit with a 12 ton steam engine; and more well-known local folk like Florence Nightingale, David Frost and the Rev. W.E Awdry.

    And I spoke to people, many of whom had lived in Romsey all their life. One mentioned the smell of warm strawberry jam that would creep through the town on a summer’s day thanks to the jam factory that was on the main thoroughfare. Another mentioned how the community came together to build a boat for the boy’s brigade and yet another, well, she was the widow of the town’s newspaper editor for many years and boy did she have some stories. And some photos—many of which she was kind enough to let me use in the book.

    I learnt a lot about my home town in writing this book. Hopefully readers will too!

    Ian Dickerson's new book Secret Romsey is available for purchase now.

  • Aldershot's Military Heritage by Paul H. Vickers

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 1 Grenadier Guards drilling in Blenheim Barracks, North Camp, Aldershot, c.1906. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Aldershot has, for over a hundred and sixty years, been famous as an “Army town”; indeed its name has become synonymous across the country with the Army. Yet now it is a town undergoing considerable change. Not only has the garrison recently been completely rebuilt, but 148 hectares of old Army land has been given over to civilian redevelopment, on which the new Wellesley housing estate is beginning to rise. This massive development will take around 10-12 years to complete, and will transform the character of the old South Camp. So the time is right to evaluate the impact of the Army on Aldershot, the relationship between the military and civilian communities, and whether Aldershot can still claim its proud title of “Home of the British Army”.

    Any modern-day changes are dwarfed by the impact of the Army’s first arrival in Aldershot. Before 1854 Aldershot was a small rural village, with a population of 875 who earned their living from agriculture or essential local trades such as baker, blacksmith and carpenter. To the north west of the village was the huge empty land of Aldershot Heath, ideal for the Army to set up its first permanent training camp. Given added urgency by the Crimean War, soon two camps were built either side of the Basingstoke Canal, and by 1859 some 15,000 soldiers were here. The character of the area changed very quickly, as entrepreneurs were quick to see the potential for businesses serving not only the thousands of troops but also the huge numbers of workers employed on building the Camp. As it became clear that the military were here to stay, the wooden shanties in which these businesses initially operated were replaced by smart new buildings, and a new Aldershot town centre grew up immediately south of the Army Camp and about a mile west of the old Aldershot village.

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 2 The Band of the Welsh Guards leads the Regiment’s welcome home parade through Aldershot town for their return from the war in Afghanistan, December 2009. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Since that time the fortunes of the Camp and town have gone hand-in-hand. The Camp reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century, and the burgeoning prosperity of the civilian town was shown by its achieving its Charter in 1922. In the 1960s the Victorian Barracks were swept away as a new Military Town was built for the late twentieth-century Army and Aldershot became the home of the Airborne Forces. However, with the many defence cuts and re-organisations, the overall numbers in the Army have fallen back and so, in turn, has the size of the Aldershot garrison. The 1960s barracks were designed for 10,000 troops, in the twenty-first century numbers are around half that. As a result the garrison has consolidated onto land in the northern part of the old Camp, leaving the southern area to the Wellesley development.

    For the first hundred years of its existence, Aldershot was the country’s largest and most important Army camp, and it sent men to fight in all the major conflicts from the Zulu War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both the First and Second World Wars, the Aldershot Divisions were the first to be mobilised and in both wars they became the First Corps of the British Expeditionary Force. The pivotal role of Aldershot makes its story of not just local interest but of national importance. Today the numbers may not be what they once were, but Aldershot is the headquarters for the Army’s national Home Command, along with 101 Logistic Brigade and 11 Infantry Brigade. It remains the centre of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, and it is the Army’s “Centre of Sporting Excellence”.

    Aldershot's Military Heritage 3 Memorial to the men of Aldershot’s resident 2nd Division who died in the First World War. (Aldershot's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Against this background, I was very pleased to be able to write Aldershot’s Military Heritage for Amberley. In this book I have been able to look at the development of the Camp, its role in the nation’s wars, and some of the many colourful characters who have passed through in the last 165 years. Military heritage is visible across Aldershot, in the buildings, monuments and memorials, and in the continuing role that the military plays in the life of the town. This was wonderfully demonstrated recently when the population turned out in huge numbers to line the streets as the veterans of the Parachute Regiment who fought in the Falklands War marched through the town to mark the 35th anniversary of this conflict. In the Wellesley development, the old barracks, battles and notable soldiers are honoured in the names of the roads and buildings, and work is underway to establish a series of Heritage Trails across both the Camp and Town. Truly this is the right time to celebrate Aldershot’s military heritage.

    9781445665900

    Paul H. Vickers new book Aldershot's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

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