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  • Queen Victoria and The Romanovs by Coryne Hall

    Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust

    Much to my surprise, no previous author has ever looked in depth at Queen Victoria’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and its ruling family. Armed with permission from the Royal Archives at Windsor to quote from the Queen’s Journals, I decided to put this to rights.

    Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg (Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia) as a young woman. Stories about her treatment in Russia greatly influenced her niece Queen Victoria. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The reasons for her dislike and distrust were both political and personal. The political centred on the historic British distrust of Russian aims since the expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. The personal reasons centred on the bad treatment of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by her Romanov husband Grand Duke Constantine, Catherine the Great’s grandson.

    As I worked through the Queen’s Journals, I found that there were a lot more communications between Victoria and the Romanovs than I had thought. So many of them visited the Queen at Windsor, Osborne or Balmoral.

    The first to arrive was the future Tsar Alexander II in 1839. Alexander and Victoria were almost the same age. Victoria described him as tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose, and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile.’ His impression of her was less complimentary: ‘[She] is very small, her figure is bad, her face plain, but she’s very agreeable to talk to.’ Nevertheless, when he whirled her giddily around the ballroom she was soon completely bowled over. The feeling (at the time) was mutual. Years later Victoria’s granddaughter described Alexander as ‘Grandmama’s first beau.’

    Tsarevich Alexander (later Alexander II) who completely bowled over the young Queen Victoria when he visited England in 1839. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Nicholas I came to Buckingham Palace and Windsor in 1844. He refused a comfortable bed in favour of his own camp bed from St Petersburg and asked for straw to stuff the mattress. He was an autocrat to his fingertips but Victoria found that ‘his sternness is less remarkable, when one gets to know him better.’  Ten years later the Crimean War broke out and they were enemies.

    On his death in 1855 Victoria’s former ‘beau’ Alexander II came to the throne. Nevertheless, at least once during his reign Britain and Russia were brought to the brink of war.

    What Victoria did not foresee was the Romanovs marrying into her own family. Her son Alfred married Alexander II’s daughter Marie in 1874 after long and tortuous negotiations, when both the Tsar and the Queen proved reluctant to give way on any issue. When Marie arrived in England after the wedding she insisted on being treated as a Russian Grand Duchess. Not only was she autocratic but her jewels dazzled the court and made the Queen and her daughters rather jealous. Marie was soon complaining about the Queen and life in England in letters home.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. To the annoyance of the tsar, Victoria married her Coburg cousin in 1840. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The only Tsar who did not visit during his reign was Alexander III. His wife, Marie Feodorovna, was a sister to Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales. Tsarevich Alexander and his wife came on a visit to her sister in 1873, when the Queen also invited them to Windsor and Osborne but, when he became Tsar after Alexander II’s assassination by terrorists in 1881, he and Victoria did not get on at all. ‘A sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman’ was her comment about Alexander III.  In return, he described her as a ‘pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.’

    The differences in language and culture, as well as the unstable political situation in Russia, explained the Queen’s horror when two of her favourite Hesse granddaughters, Ella and Alix, married into the Russian Imperial family – Ella to Alexander III’s brother Grand Duke Sergei, and Alix to Tsar Nicholas II. The Queen did her best to discourage both young women from going to what she called ‘horrid Russia’ but to no avail.

    Victoria gave an especially warm welcome to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna when they stayed at Balmoral in 1896, but although the Queen liked Nicholas as a person, she didn’t like or trust his country. Her Empire always came before family connections.

    ‘Russia,’ the Queen Victoria once wrote, ‘is not to be trusted.’ It is fortunate that she didn’t live long enough to know that she would be proved right. Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their children and Ella were all killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    Coryne Hall's book Queen Victoria and The Romanovs is available for purchase now.

  • The Austen Girls by Helen Amy

    The Story of Jane & Cassandra Austen, the Closest of Sisters

    The Austen Girls is a joint biography of Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra. It traces their exceptionally close and mutually sustaining relationship throughout Jane’s life and literary career. Cassandra has always been a rather shadowy figure in the background of her famous sister’s life but, as this book reveals, she was central to Jane’s achievement as a novelist.

    Steventon Rectory, a sketch by Anna Lefroy. (Colouring by the author, The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    Cassandra and Jane, who were the daughters of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra, were born and grew up in their father’s rectory in Steventon in Hampshire. Their deep love for each other was evident very early in their lives. Jane always looked up to and adored her older sister. Cassandra, who adored Jane in return, mothered and protected her. The sisters spent most of their time together as children and developed a secret life of their own.

    When Jane started to write as a young girl Cassandra immediately became involved. Jane read her stories to her sister who expressed her opinion on them and, no doubt, made constructive suggestions. By the age of sixteen Jane had filled three copy-books with the work now known as her Juvenilia. Some of these early pieces were dedicated to Cassandra.

    The sisters had their own private sitting-room at the rectory. It was here that they enjoyed shared pastimes as well as pursuing their separate interests. While Jane wrote, Cassandra, a talented amateur artist, drew and painted water-colour pictures, which included the illustrations for a spoof history of England written by Jane.

    It was in this sitting-room that Jane wrote her first three novels. In two of these – Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – she drew on her close relationship with Cassandra when she created the Dashwood and Bennet sisters. Jane’s early novels were written to amuse and entertain herself and her family, who enjoyed reading novels aloud together. These novels were first shared with Cassandra who knew the characters from their conception in Jane’s mind until their appearance on the pages of the finished manuscript. These characters were as real to Cassandra as they were to Jane.

    Jane Austen, painted by her sister in 1804. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    When Cassandra and Jane were separated, usually when they went to stay with one of their brothers, they kept in touch by letter. There was a continual exchange of letters when they were apart because each wanted to know, in minute detail, what the other was doing.

    The Austen’s, like most families, experienced difficult times. The sisters’ close emotional bond enabled them to support and sustain each other at times of crisis. Jane comforted Cassandra when her fiancé died and, with her sister’s help, she was able to endure her sorrow and carry on with her life. Cassandra similarly supported Jane, when a man she met and fell in love with one summer died before they could meet again.

    The sisters supported each other when in 1801 their father retired and they moved with their parents to Bath. They were both unsettled by being suddenly uprooted from their childhood home and the Hampshire countryside which they both loved. According to her nephew it was the beautiful countryside around Steventon which first inspired Jane to write and she was unhappy about the move. With Cassandra’s help, however, she came to terms with it and made the best of her time in Bath. Nevertheless, she only managed to write a few chapters of an unfinished novel while living there.

    It was not until she moved back to rural Hampshire in 1809 that Jane was able to write again. In her new home, and with her beloved sister by her side, Jane wrote her last three novels. The importance of the emotional stability provided by Cassandra cannot be over-estimated. Cassandra helped to create the peaceful and happy atmosphere Jane needed for her creativity to flourish. Jane was often lost in her imaginary world – a world only Cassandra was allowed to enter.

    Jane was always modest about her achievements and was not confident about her writing ability. She had to be encouraged by Cassandra and others to seek publication and always insisted on remaining anonymous. Jane was also surprised that she made a profit from her writing. Needless to say, Cassandra was immensely proud of her sister’s success and noted when each novel was started, finished and published.

    Chawton Cottage, home of Cassandra and Jane from 1809. (The Austen Girls, Amberley Publishing)

    When Jane’s health began to fail at the beginning of 1816 her dependence on Cassandra increased. As her illness – believed to have been either Addison’s Disease, a disorder of the adrenal system, or some kind of lymphoma – progressed, Cassandra hardly left her side. She did all she could to help Jane, including taking her to the spa town of Cheltenham in search of a cure.

    Cassandra accompanied Jane to Winchester a few weeks before she died, so that she could be near her doctor. She nursed Jane devotedly until her death on 18th July 1817, at the age of forty-one. Shortly afterwards Cassandra wrote “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed – it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

    The Austen Girls traces Cassandra’s life after she lost Jane. Her strong Christian faith and her belief that she would one day be reunited with her sister helped to sustain her. Cassandra did her best to keep Jane’s memory alive for her nephews and nieces. These memories were used in family biographies and memoirs of Jane.

    This book also follows the growth of Jane’s literary reputation and fame following her death. She was never more than a minor novelist during her lifetime. It was not until the 1860s that she was finally recognised as a great writer and readers became curious about her life and works. Sadly, Cassandra did not live to witness this. Jane herself would have been astonished at the worldwide acclaim she has achieved. She would have been the first to acknowledge the vital role played by her sister, whose love, support and belief in her helped to bring this about.

    Helen Amy's book The Austen Girls is available for purchase now.

  • London - 'The Flower of All Cities' by Robert Wynn Jones

    The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire

    A large part of London, and almost all of the old walled City that lay at its heart, was burned down over the space of a few short days during the Great Fire of 2–6 September 1666. This book attempts as it were to unearth from the ashes something of the history of the already age-old and burnished City that had gone before. It tells tales of settlement, struggle, conquest, oppression, rebellion, war, plague and purifying fire. The City founded by the Romans in the middle of the first century AD, on the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, and named by them Londinium. The City abandoned by the Romans at the beginning of what some still think of as the ‘Dark Ages’ of the seaborne Saxons and Vikings, and known by the former in turn as Lundenwic and Lundenburg. And the City of the – later – Middle Ages or Medieval period, of the Normans and Plantagenets; and the post-Medieval or early Modern, of the Tudors and Stuarts; one of the first true world-cities, called by some Londinopolis.

    Replica of the Elizabethen Globe playhouse, Bankside, Southwark. The original was built nearby in 1599. (The Flower of All Cities, Amberley Publishing)

    This unique history of old London town encompasses the lives of kings and queens, gentlefolk, commoners and knights, monks and merchant-adventurers and strutting players; of the anointed and ill-fated, the remembered and the forgotten. It is a City tale of “great matter” and “great reckoning”; of bustling waterfronts and imposing walls, of praying spires and vying masts, of consuming chimneys and seducing streets, of plunging shadow and abiding light. That which the poet William Dunbar in 1501 described as “sovereign of Cities” and “the flower of Cities all”.

    The City of London as presently defined incorporates some areas that lie a little outside the original walls (including Southwark, south of the river). Pre-Great Fire Greater London, that is to say the more-or-less continuously built-up area, extended even farther out, especially along the Thames: on the north side of the river, as far west as the West End and Westminster, as far north as Spitalfields and Shoreditch and as far east as Stepney, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall; and on the south side, as far west as Lambeth and Vauxhall, as far south as Borough and Newington, and as far east as Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, but not as far as Deptford, Greenwich, and Woolwich, which remained isolated settlements. The Great Fire was substantially confined to the old walled city.

    Through the story of early London we can trace a busy, beautiful, dangerous city lost forever, but brought back to life here through skilful analysis of the archaeological, pictorial and written records.

     

    Robert Wynn Jones's new book The Flower of All Cities: The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire is available for purchase now.

  • Photographers of the Third Reich by Paul Garson

    Images from the Wehrmacht

    What is it about photos that mesmerize us? When even life and death enemies find themselves smiling for their captor’s camera.

    A group of army officers struggle with various types of cameras, likely in France. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What power do these images hold that in some cases linger with us for our entire lives? Is it because 70% of our sensory input is visual, recorded through our eyes and pasted into the infinite photo album that is our mind? And while we can only “see” a relatively small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, evolution has seen to vision’s effectiveness as a paramount tool for survival. And then comes the camera and war itself, when first seen only in black and white images, seems to have been leached of color, as it were, of life itself.

    But still, the starkness of the monochromatic slips of paper, many such seen here, possess in many cases even more impact that color. Perhaps it is because at night, life itself is reduced to shades of shadow.

     

     

     

     

    Ica Icarette 500. Produced by the Dresden-based company, the 120 (6x9) roll film Icarette first appeared in 1914. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    My life-long co-existence with the camera, shall we say, first took focus more than half a century ago. I was an elementary school student in South Florida and for some reason had been “recruited” by my peers to the semi-vaunted position of Captain of the Safety Patrols. I was given a white belt with chest strap, a white “sailor’s” cap and a shiny badge, all part of my uniform. So outfitted, I found myself purportedly in charge of a “troop” of my fellows, now responsible with safe-guarding our schoolmates primarily during the morning and afternoon frenzy of “drop-offs” and “pick-ups.” As I recall we apparently adhered to the call of duty and no casualties were recorded.

    One of the perks was a group trip to Washington D.C. for the annual national safety patrol convocation that saw Pennsylvania Avenue inundated with marching safety patrollers gathered from all over the country. As I recall, even the President took in the review.

     

     

    Paris Occupied, May 1940. A wounded German mechanised trooper with what appears to be a Voigtlander or Plaubel large format press camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    Such a momentous event found me gifted with a Kodak Brownie camera and rolls of film to record safety patrol history in the making. That little Dakon plastic-bodied camera with its simple fixed focus and single shutter speed (original price of $5.00), found me snapping away in the nation’s capital. While the black and white images eventually were lost in time, the camera would later sprout into a current collection of over 200 vintage cameras, not to mention a number of “modern” 35mm film and digital cameras I would use professionally for some 30 years while working for various magazines. While several hundred of my images would see publication, the ones that would ultimately take precedence, were photos taken by countless others, their names unknown, and who for the most part while wearing the military uniform of several nations engaged in bloody conflict.

    Agfa Karat 3.5 with Deckel Compur Shutter, 1938. The modern-looking German-made Agfa Karat strut-folding camera was produced by Agfa from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    So what was the segue from camera as a utilitarian tool of my profession capturing colorful images for national consumer publications to a tangential role as a “photo-archeologist” drawn to excavating the imagery found lurking the darkness of the Third Reich and the Nazi era? It also began by chance.

    Some 20 years ago, I came upon a photo of German soldiers aboard a motorcycle, shouldering machine guns and smiling for the camera. It turned into a magazine feature about wartime motorcycles which eventually turned into an unending quest for wartime images that evoked both history and the power of the camera. It was also infused with an intellectual response to history’s greatest crime committed by humans against humans and where in the end, relatively very little justice prevailed, even decades later. And so, lest historical memory fade, I began “collecting” the original photographs literally from around the world. It took years, thousands of hours of scanning hundreds of thousands of images, selecting, not to mention purchasing them. Then thousands of more hours reading hundreds of relevant books and gleaning the historical context in which the images rested. Thus the evolution of my “photo” books.

    U-Boat Commander with Siemens C Model 16 mm Movie Camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    This book is actually the fourth in a series published via Amberley, preceded by volumes dealing WWII-era German motorcycles, horses, and police, a fifth following shortly focusing on Children of the Third Reich, all of which are populated by original, one of a kind photographs in my collection of over 3,000 images taken by individuals who lived, fought, killed and often died during the twelve years of Nazi Germany’s reign of terror. In effect, this book can be viewed as the pre-amble to all the other in the series.

    The photos were created by a variety of cameras, some simple, some advanced, a few seen here, examples from my collection, alongside images taken by those handheld light-capturing boxes and in some cases with snapshots of those who pointed the cameras.

    It can be said that the same advanced German technology that created the Panzer and the V-2 rocket also created some of the world’s highest quality photographic equipment feeding into an already world-wide fascination with the camera, millions sold and many taken to war. The Nazis themselves understood that without such imagery they would never have achieved their goals of social engineering a New Germany toward enslaving all of Europe. (Take that one step further, what would the world be like if the now ubiquitous image taking devices were never invented?)

     

    A Russien Army war correspondent poses at the infamous Auschwitz camp, his camera apparently a German Leica. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What has the camera given us? Indelible images of an era seared into humankind’s consciousness? Yes. Individual time machines that capture a flicker of transient human behavior in all its brutal weaknesses? Yes. Self-fulfilling instruments of documentation of Man’s tendency to apocalyptic self-destruction? Yes. But moreover, hopefully a means of facing those tendencies and overcoming them by staring resolutely into the abyss and no longer seeing a reflection.

    Have we learned from our past? Have old cameras given us new insights? Bring out your own camera and start recording for a future answer.

    In the meantime, dwell on this book and its visual record of a time when a part of the world fell into a fatal obedience and vainly endeavored to snuff out all light, but ultimately failed. As part of that process the camera always refused to turn a blind eye.

    Paul Garson's new book Photographers of the Third Reich: Images from the Wehrmacht is available for purchase now.

  • Brexit, King Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

    When I look for something in history that is like Brexit, I find the Scottish prayer-book rebellion against Charles I.

    Charles I - poised and withdrawn. Daniel Mytens. (c. Private collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    In summer 1637 the Scots in their thousands rejected the religious liturgy which the king wanted to impose on them. The year before he had introduced new Canons (church law) and now asked his northern kingdom to accept and use a new prayer-book. It was drafted largely by Englishmen under the guidance of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury. The Scots had not objected to the Canons. They said no to the prayer-book.

    On 28 February 1638 the rebel Scottish leaders produced their manifesto: the National Covenant. It was signed throughout Scotland and is one of the great documents of history. The Covenant proclaimed loyalty to the king but said no to the changes he wanted.

    This was the Brexit moment. A nationalist response to foreign imposition. That was then, this is now. The National Covenant of 1638 was an agreement not only with the other subscribers but with God.

    The prayer-book rebellion was not secession. Scotland was a separate and independent country. It just happened to have the same king as England. The Scots had their own Privy Council, their own parliament, their own laws, their own church (the Kirk). They wanted to keep it that way.

    On the path to war

    It began with a riot in church after the congregation pelted the Dean of Edinburgh, when he started to read from the new prayer-book, with whatever came to hand, including the stools on which they sat (23 July 1637). According to legend the first to attack was Jenny Geddes who rose to her feet yelling ‘Daur ye say Masse in my lug (ear)?’ To Jenny the project seemed ‘Romisch superstition.’ The Bishop of Edinburgh was attacked in the street after the service (but survived).

    The Covenanting movement led to war. First the two Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640, between the Scots and their monarch.

    They were Bishops Wars because the Scots wanted to get rid, not just of the new prayer-book, but of their bishops. In the first Bishops War not a blow was struck. In the second, contrary to the king’s plan, a Scottish army invaded northern England and occupied Newcastle. Incidentally this army was led for a time by the subject of the book I am now writing, James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose.

    More dramatically the Scottish prayer-book rebellion led to the outbreak of civil war in England. There are a hundred twists and turns on the way. But there is no doubt that it was trouble in Scotland that opened the floodgates in England (also in Ireland, the third Stuart kingdom).

    Henriette Marie and Charles I. Engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1634. (c. Rijksmuseum, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast and loose…

    My feeling, when I wrote my biography of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was that Henrietta Maria would have made a better king than her husband, and it remains my feeling. She certainly did what she could for Charles I and the Stuart family, including literally standing in the line of parliamentary fire. As thing were, could she have prevented the Scottish collapse? It seems unlikely.

    Not that I wish to deny the king’s qualities. He was an admirable person, much more so than some of his predecessors and successors on the throne. He was energetic, high-principled, a devoted family man, aesthetically discerning, a stickler for the law up to a point. His eleven years of personal rule in England (1630-1641), the period when he dispensed with parliaments, were unpopular with many influential people. But they were years of legalistic government.

    Still one cannot deny that Charles I played fast and loose with that delicate animal, the English constitution. He imprisoned a number of the men who refused to pay or assist in the collection of his forced loan of 1628. He imprisoned Members of Parliament after undignified scenes in the House of Commons in the last days of the 1628-1629 parliament. One, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower.

    Those undignified scenes included physical assault. The Speaker, Sir John Finch, when he tried to adjourn the session by leaving the House, was wrestled and held in his chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine. Finch was held down to allow a protestation to be read (by Sir John Eliot) against royal policy in religion and finance.

    Charles I, at St Margaret's Westminster. (c. Author's collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature of the king

    Scholars have gone almost mad trying to pin down what went wrong in the seventeenth century. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Civil War. It scared the life out of the ruling classes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and led to the parliamentary system which distinguishes British history.

    In the nineteenth century the Civil War became a romantic dream of cavaliers and roundheads. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish nationalism was reborn and is growing up fast helped by the Brexit vote of 2016. This blog is not the time to explore the history of Ireland but that country above all bears the marks of those struggles four centuries ago.

    On the whole historians agree that the character of Charles I was at the heart of the matter. If he was dealt a difficult hand, he played the wrong cards. However it is hard to challenge the proposal that the king, if perhaps he succeeded as a martyr, was a failure as king.

    The failure of Charles I was not the iron fist of autocracy. His failure was political clumsiness. He could not read minds. He could not, until very late in the day, read situations. He did not judge loyalty well. Unlike his father and his eldest son he could not see that even a king must embrace, from time to time, the art of compromise, perhaps a king most of all. And, far from being his wife’s lapdog, as his enemies proclaimed, it could be said he did not listen to her enough.

    Dominic Pearce's new paperback edition of Henrietta Maria is available for purchase now.

  • The F-14 Tomcat by Terry C. Treadwell

    My interest in aviation started when I was in the Royal Air Force and has continued unabated over the years. Some years ago I became the European Correspondent of Naval Aviation News, which is the official aviation magazine of the US Navy, giving me access to a great amount of material regarding American Naval aircraft. This allowed me to write about the various aircraft in the US Navy and I have written a number of books on these subjects. A few years later I also became the European Correspondent for a magazine called ‘Wings of Gold’, a magazine aimed predominantly at the US Navy and Marine Corps aviation, this gave me access to even more material.

    An excellent shot of an F-14 with its wings swept back. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    In the 1930s the Grumman Corporation became the main supplier of aircraft to the US Navy and Marine Corps and the F-14 Tomcat was just one of a series of Grumman aircraft that were acquired by them. Throughout the Second World War the name Grumman became synonymous with US Naval aircraft and acquired the name ‘Ironworks’ because of their aircrafts rugged construction. Almost all the aircraft had ‘cat’ names, like the Wildcat, Hellcat, Tigercat and Bearcat. The Tomcat however was unofficially named (but widely accepted) after Vice-Admiral Thomas (Tom) F. Connolly championed the development of the aircraft for the US Navy at the cost of his fourth star. The full bitter story of this is in my book the F-14 Tomcat. The Tomcat was regarded by many as being the most lethal attack aircraft in the world at the time and was involved a number of conflicts.

    An F-14D Tomcat taxiing along the perimeter track at NAS Oceana. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)
    F-14s being lined up for launch. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    A number of F-14 Tomcats were sold to the Shah of Persia and in the book there are several unique photographs of the aircraft in Iranian colours and markings. However the Shah was deposed just after the delivery of the aircraft leaving the F-14 in Iran with no spares. The result was that within months they had to cannibalise all but two of the aircraft to keep them flying and even they were grounded within six months because of engineering problems.

    The history of naval aviation is extremely interesting, as it shows not only the development of the aircraft but also the aircraft carrier. It all started using converted cargo ships and warships and developed quite rapidly because of conflicts and wars.  The first carrier landings and take-offs were carried out by a civilian pilot, Eugene Ely in 1910 aboard the USS Birmingham. During the war against Mexico, seaplanes were carried aboard the USS Birmingham and were lowered into the water by crane. It was during the battle for Veracruz that a seaplane on patrol became the first American navy aircraft to be hit by gunfire and to sustain battle damage.

    Early aircraft carriers carried a complement of about fifty aircraft, today’s aircraft carriers like the USS George W. Bush, carries ninety-six aircraft and an array of weapons some nuclear. The development of the angled deck and the ski jump (both British innovations), enabled fast jets to be launched within minutes of each other.

    Amberley Publishing have produced a number of books on aircraft, all of which are of an equally high standard and extremely informative to the layperson without being too technical.  As the years progress so will aviation, but with drones becoming more and more sophisticated who knows what the future holds, but then that’s another story.

     

    Terry C. Treadwell's new book The F-14 Tomcat is available for purchase now.

  • The Wild East by Ian Hernon

    Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier

    I love America. I love the sweep of its history and the speed of change. But all great nations are built of myths. As a child of the 1950s, my early years were spent in front of a black and white TV watching Rawhide, The Rifleman, Wells Fargo, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and many, many more. Even at a tender age I knew that the reality wasn’t so black and white. The essential truth is that often terrible things were done for understandable reasons and good things emerged from evil acts. But expanding literacy, the movies and TV skewed the stories towards the Western frontier of romance, leaving behind the tales of the even more violent East during the same period.

    Or at least, that is what I argue in this book: that the scale of violence was far greater east of the Mississippi/Missouri during the period when the West was won, yet the opposite appears true in the popular, and populist, imagination and recollection.

    An 1890s poster advertising a circus bearing the Buffalo Bill name, evidence that by this time the myth-building of the West was in full swing. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    This book has never been intended in any way to denigrate the Western pioneer ethos, rather to help understand the contradictions inherent in attitudes which downplay the historic role of the East as a hotbed of violent struggle. Those contradictions played a part in the election of the ‘outsider’ Donald Trump, an Eastern billionaire who inherited huge wealth but who purported to be on the side of the working man. An outsider, in other words, who was part of the pampered and moneyed elite rather than the political and intellectual elite.

    In April 2016, while Trump was battling Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination and Hilary Clinton was slugging it out with Bernie Saunders on the Democrat side, I travelled through the cowboy states of Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. I received nothing but hospitality and easy friendship in poor towns where the pioneer spirit remains the culture of ongoing choice. A 30-year-old bartender in a Billings, Montana, micro-brewery summed up the Wild West appeal of both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat/socialist Bernie Sanders: “They’re outsiders. They have a populist message which goes down well in rural areas where folk feel their voice goes unheard amongst the political elite.” That was a view repeated constantly. Such states in the heart of the “real” America provide answers to those in Britain puzzled by the appeal of the clownish Trump.  America’s “rim” is the Washington-central east coast, the west coast and the southern Bible belt, but the vast tract of the mid-west regards itself as the real soul of America and its people felt disenfranchised.

    There the stereotypes repeated in New York, Los Angeles and London are either simplistic or untrue. The three states I visited have a complicated social history which constantly confounds analysts of the Right. Take Wyoming, for example.  Steeped in conservative cowboy culture, with the Republicans dominating the state senate for 80 years, it is proud of being the first state to grant women the right to vote – suffrage for women aged 21 and over was agreed in 1869, 50 years before Britain, while Montana followed in 1916. The reason, according to a grizzled 71-year-old Vietnam vet, was “folk knew it was unfair, and they did something about it.” The veteran, who fitted the cinematic stereotype of a prospector or mountain man but had been fluent in seven languages as a military interpreter, pointed out that Democrat Nellie Taylor Ross was the country’s first state governor in 1924 and was the first female director of the US Mint, serving from 1933 to 1953. “Mind you,” the veteran added, “it wasn’t until 1952 that Native Americans got the vote.” The truck-stop town of Hardin, Montana, on the edge of the Crow reservation, demonstrated the poverty endemic across former native lands and beyond. Here, and in much of the three states, families have a hardscrabble life far distant from the salons of Washington and New York and the studios of Hollywood. Here poverty has given common cause to old enemies, uniting them in contempt for the Establishment. Respect for common traditions, a strong sense of local community, and a distaste for welfare are other unifying themes. “We believe in work, not welfare,” said a motor mechanic in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, “and if Hilary Clinton had her way we would all either get it or pay for it.” A gambler in Deadwood, South Dakota, said: “These are the last three states left where if you break down on the road, the next car will stop. We help each other out here.” Such self-reliance is a matter of pride – if you don’t believe in big government, you shouldn’t claim the benefits of big government. The same is true of attitudes to the environment – this is the territory of Yellowstone National Park, the Bighorns, the Black Hills – and people want to protect their natural heritage to a degree unheard of in most of the US, and in Britain. Although a cynic might say that they want to save animals so they can shoot them.

    New York's Bowery neighbourhood in Manhattan, a notorious den of gangsters at the turn of the twentieth century and proud home of the Bowery Boys. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    Myths and downright fantasies have deep roots across America. Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation had to create its own history. Hence, the adventurer and all-round dodgy character Christopher Columbus was first popularized by Washington Irving in his 1829 biography, a book constructed almost entirely out of romance rather than history. It spun a fable of an individual who challenged the unknown sea, as Americans confronted the promise of their own wilderness, creating a land free of kings and class prejudice. Captain John Smith’s 1624 account of the Jamestown colony was devoured not because of its description of hardship and colonial greed, but because of his fabled rescue by the Red Indian princess Pocahontas, a legend that has persisted ever since. There is no evidence that the Mayflower’s pilgrim father ever disembarked on any rock, never mind Plymouth Rock, and the first written reference was penned 121 years later. And before they arrived, the Thanksgiving holiday had been widely practiced in Protestant Netherlands.

    And there’s much more. The tale that the young George Washington admitted to his father that he had chopped down a prized cherry tree "I cannot tell a lie" was invented by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his 1806 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, and further spread by Mark Twain, the novelist. The politician/planter Patrick Henry is best known for his 1775 speech kick starting the war for independence, saying: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me Liberty, or give me Death!" That was written 42 years later by another “historian”, William Wirt. There is also no evidence that Betty Ross sewed the first American flag – which attribution was first made during the 1876 centennial celebrations.  Add into the mix apocryphal exploits of such invented or exaggerated characters as the New England lumberjack Jigger Johnson, the Massachusetts clipper skipper and giant Captain Stormalong, and the Jersey Devil, and we can see that Easterners have no reason to feel superior or to sneer too much at Western mythologies.

    Little Italy in Manhattan, circa 1900. Italian enclaves such as this popped up in numerous cities and saw the steady growth of organised crime centred on Sicilian families. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    At the opening of the 19th century, 94 per cent of Americans lived in rural settings – by 1900 almost half lived in towns or cities. The population had grown 14 times as large, and the economy 70 times. The concentration was still east of the Mississippi/Missouri, and it is no wonder that the real frontier was by then in the battles between burgeoning capitalism and organised labour, between white supremacists and growing racial minorities, between fathers, sons and brothers to a degree not seen since the wars between the states. These are inconvenient truths. Mass strikes and insurrections in the East have been too often ignored in favour of fantasies going back to the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers. Jeremy Brecher wrote: “It is at such times that the veil of stasis is rent and the opposing forces maintain and undermining the existing forms of society revealed.”

    The author Mike Duncan has drawn explicit parallels between ancient Rome before its fall and modern America: “Rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarisation, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct…” and “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” Robert Harris, the author of a trilogy of novels about the Roman orator Cicero, saw much the same: “Unscrupulous millionaires whipping up the mob to attack the elite and the whole democratic structure crumbling under that pressure…”

    America claims to be a “classless” society, but the momentous upheavals of race, capital and organised labour have been airbrushed out of popular history by vested interests, resulting in a subsequent ignorance of the relatively recent past which leads in turn to aberrations such as misunderstood “populism” and a denigration of hard-won civil and social rights. Trumpism, some might say.

    The docks in New Orleans. A great deal of goods were trafficked through her, making it a key battleground for various organised crime groups. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

    It was not always so. In 1900 The New York Post argued that the biggest threat to the American Dream was the upsurge in the number of millionaires which were seen as an affront to the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Americans dreamt of social justice and looked to government to regulate and control rampant greed, while presidents such as Woodrow Wilson wanted America to be a beacon for democracy across the world. The various “America First” movements corrupted such visions into isolationism, a modern form of nativism and a narrow American identity in the most ethnically-divided nation on earth. Gerard DeGroot pointed to Warren Harding’s campaign to encourage only white immigration, writing: “His supporters complained about fake news and hyphenated Americans. The similarities are hard to ignore.”

    And it is in the success of Donald Trump that we can see an illustration of self-delusion which again goes some way to explain the airbrushing out of popular consciousness of the Wild, Wild East. Many, including Trump’s own sister, have compared the President with the 19th Century huckster impresario P.T. Barnum who grew rich several times over with his freak shows, museums of curiosities, snake oil salesmanship and downright fraud. Both recognised that audiences are less interested in reality than spectacle. Historian David McCullough said that “Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked – the ultimate, delightful phoney from a delightfully phoney era.” And Ben Macintyre wrote: “The similarities are striking. Both Trump and Barnum exhibit the skills of born salesmen, more concerned with profitable entertainment than strict truth. Barnum said he did not care what people thought of him so long as they talked about him, a principle Trump lives by. Both men became more famous and popular with every fresh gust of notoriety.” Audiences – and voters – can be “willingly deceived” and the taming of the West provides a better, clearer, more simplistic narrative than the long, messy, sordid and brutal industrial and racial warfare which created the world’s most successful capitalist economy.

    For the liberal Left, also, that story can make uncomfortable reading. Impoverished Irish immigrants lynched blacks from lamp-posts, trade unionists did their best to enforce colour bars, and socialist ‘heroes’ took back-handers. But overall, the history of the Eastern half of the nation is a story of heroism, fortitude and stamina which more than matches the pioneer spirit demonstrated on the frontier.

    Ian Hernon's new book The Wild East: Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier is available for purchase now.

  • The Baltic Story by Caroline Boggis-Rolfe

    A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples

    The palace of Sans Souci, seen from below the vine-covered terraces. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1969 I moved to Berlin with my husband, who was working in a liaison role with the Soviets. As a result, unlike most people from the West, we both went frequently into East Germany – in my case, a weekly shopping trip across the famous Glienicke Bridge to Potsdam being a regular event. While today the town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site is visited by large numbers of tourists who queue up to see inside the magnificent and well-restored buildings, my experiences fifty years ago were very different. At that time, despite being run-down, the quiet empty palaces and peaceful grounds where I could wander on my own had their own special kind of magic.

    It was here at Frederick the Great’s much-loved Sans Souci that I first came to learn something about his guest, Voltaire. Being still young and very ignorant at the time, I knew little of the Frenchman other than his name, but this early introduction would be the spark that ignited my later interest in the history of the whole region. After choosing Voltaire as the subject of my doctoral thesis, I discovered his writings regarding several of the great individuals of the area – including Peter I and Catherine II of Russia, Charles XII of Sweden, and, of course, Frederick of Prussia. These rulers later became central subjects in my lectures on cruise ships, where I then found just how much the Cold War had affected the experience and knowledge of the majority of my generation, people who had grown up learning almost nothing about the countries lying at that time behind the Iron Curtain. But even today there is little written for the average reader who wants to understand more about the background of this important part of the world, a region that extends all the way from Denmark to Russia. Some academic works focus on certain topics or areas, and an abundance of excellent biographies concentrate on the great individuals, but it seems that little has been published in English for the general reader regarding the other players. I love historical biographies, but their authors like the rest of us have to make decisions about what to include and what to omit. When reading these works, which closely detail the lives of their central figures, I find myself often wanting to know more about the neighbouring people with whom they came in contact. This has been one of the objectives of my book, even though it has meant that I have had to sacrifice some lesser points in order to give space to the wider field.

    Peterhov's Great Cascade with the Samson Fountain that commemorated the victory at Poltava. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    With this broader search being my aim, I draw attention to the multiple connections that have historically linked the separate Baltic regions. From the days of the early traders, neighbours had begun to form alliances, often ratifying them by the exchange of a marriage contact. However, while these arrangements were intended to unite the different groups, all too often the reverse would be true as the dynastic arguments became bitter and gradually escalated into a full-blown conflict. But, despite their own repeated rivalries, throughout the centuries these regional lands would also be key players in the affairs of much of the rest of Europe. While Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany alternated as its leading players, the whole Baltic area would be a centre of east-west commercial activity, and a battleground during many of the continent’s most significant wars.

    Personally, I consider history is best served by looking at it from the angle of the people involved; this, I believe, gives the events a more human face. In the last century there was a turning away from histories of kings, queens, and emperors, all such studies being seen as politically incorrect because they did not prioritise the role played by the majority of people. While that is a valid point, yet I still believe that we cannot avoid focusing on those who were responsible for making the decisions. And, even while putting aside the fact that the vast numbers of poor and needy were in the main unable to influence affairs, for a historian there is an even bigger problem. For the most part, until relatively recently such people left little if anything behind to mark their daily struggle. Therefore, if we want to study history through the individual, we have to find our source material in the letters, documents, portraits and other possessions of the privileged few. Furthermore, even while accepting that it was the rich and powerful who were mainly responsible for the decisions that resulted in wars, massacres, taxation and even famine, we have to acknowledge that it was these same people who also gave us the magnificent art and architecture, scientific discoveries and inventions, transport and better communications, which we still enjoy today.

    Drottningholm Palace, which was rebuilt by Nicodemus Tessin 'the Elder' in the 1660s for the dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

    The Baltic Story is presented as a flowing narrative – in the manner of a French histoire, which is to say as both a story and a history. However, appreciating that not everyone has the same interests, I have constructed it in a way that allows each chapter to be read on its own. To avoid confusing the reader, I have tried to limit the number of individuals mentioned, and with all of them have attempted to give a rounded, honest picture that does not exaggerate their qualities or their failings.

    One thing that particularly struck me while I was writing the book, was the dread with which so many of the rulers faced the unenviable task that lay before them. Rather than being men and women with an unfair advantage in life, many would see themselves as the victims of circumstance – this being particularly true in the case of the later Romanovs. Even some of the ‘Greats’ would feel these pressures. Frederick and Catherine, those self-acclaimed ‘servants of the state’, who worked tirelessly to the end of their lives, would as they aged lose much of the confidence of youth and become steadily more disillusioned by the reality of the growing challenges that were facing them.

    While the book ends essentially with 1914, in a postscript I have set out briefly to summarise events in the twentieth century, when the countries towards the east of the region finally achieved the independence that they had so long sought. The successes of these nations therefore bring to a conclusion the Baltic’s important story that has for so long been largely overlooked by many English-speakers living in the West.

    Caroline Boggis-Rolfe's new book The Baltic Story: A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples is available for purchase now.

  • Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan

    Headlines like this one blared from every newspaper in the U.S. (Author's collection, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    My last two books—A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West, and The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation—were set in the American West of the 19th century.  But I didn’t want to be tagged as just a historian of the Old West, so I decided my next book would involve a 20th century subject. When an editor friend suggested Apollo 11, which of course was the first lunar landing, I didn’t embrace the idea. As a boy I had read a great deal of science fiction, and like many boys followed the U.S. manned space programme and the Space Race with the Soviets, but I wasn’t sure space was the right subject for me, since it involved a lot of science and that subject wasn’t one of my favorites in school. So I lodged the idea in the back of my head and continued to look for my next book subject. But the idea kept sneaking its way into the front of my mind, and at a certain point I realized it might work.

    So I took a look at what had already been published about Apollo 11. There were quite a few books on the entire space program, or parts of it, and several on the entire Apollo programme, but not many on just Apollo 11. Reading science fiction supplied a sense of wonder that I didn’t find in any other kind of reading, and I wanted a book that did that for the “real” SF of the space program. After all, it involved space, and spaceships, and voyaging to another world in our solar system, and it involved great danger—and of course it was tremendously exciting.

    Apollo 11 launches at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969, from pad A, launch complex 39. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    I didn’t find a book on Apollo 11 that gave me that sense of wonder. Most I read either weren’t well-written, or they didn’t cover the full story, or they let the science and technology—and there’s a LOT of that—overwhelm the story and make it hard to read if you don’t have a degree in astronautics. Many were written by science writers who were familiar with the science involved but didn’t seem to realize that most readers weren’t.

    So I decided to take the subject on. But there were a few other reasons I wanted to write this book.

    Most people living today weren’t alive, or old enough to remember, the first moon landing in July 1969. And this is a thing: if one has lived through a significant historical event, when it permeates your experience through various media, you know it happened. You were there, so to speak. But if it happened before one could remember the event, you’re not absolutely sure it really happened—yes, it’s in history books, but so is medieval history, and who’s sure of what happened back then? Even worse, there are some people who steadfastly refuse to believe that it actually happened. Some of those people just prefer to believe in conspiracies, and are not open to evidence and facts. But for open-minded people, I thought a lively and accurate account of one of the most significant events of the 20th century was needed, and might counter that disturbing anti-science (and anti-fact) strain that is far too prevalent in today’s world.

     

     

    Armstrong during the lunar surface EVA, staning near the LM. (c. NASA, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11, Amberley Publishing)

    As I began researching the book, a few more reasons emerged. A simple yet obvious reason is that this is just a great story, and one which works on several levels. It’s one of the great tales of adventure and exploration. It’s also a chronicle of the Space Race, which of course was just the most visible element of the Cold War—and most people today don’t realize how serious that was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Free World was combatting the intended worldwide domination of totalitarian communism. It also involves some fascinating characters—not only the extraordinarily courageous astronauts and cosmonauts, but others behind the scenes: engineers, flight controllers, designers and planners, and yes, even some rocket scientists, who helped make it happen. Few people knew the stories of these “hidden figures.”

    There’s one more reason, and it’s personal, and it goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the love of a young person—me, specifically, but also, I think, millions of others—for that sense of wonder that we got, or get, from SF, or the “real” SF of manned spaceflight. I tried to transmit that feeling in Shoot for the Moon, especially in the first few paragraphs of Chapter One, which begins, “One Saturday morning in October 1957, a fourteen-year-old boy in the small farming town of Fremont, Iowa, woke up to find the world a different place. . . . .” If that sentence intrigues you, then you might be one of the people I wrote this book for. I hope so.

    James Donovan's new book Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Voyage of Apollo 11 is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Cambridge by Andrew Sargent

    It is difficult to write something fresh about a place which is as well known and loved as Cambridge. The run of colleges along The Backs are a vital part of our national heritage, and King’s College Chapel is familiar the world over from the televised Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s.

    Friends asked me to justify offering a new book. The answer is that, while a small slice of the town is a national treasure visited by millions every year, most of its long history passes them by. The focus on the colleges means that much else is hidden in plain sight; more is tucked away and forgotten. I studied and lived in Cambridge for fifteen years, and was aware that even in that time I barely scratched the surface.

    The Mathematical Bridge at Queens' College, originally designed by William Etheridge in 1749, has been rebuilt several times. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Secret Cambridge is probably unique in its approach. It explores the whole town, not just the famous colleges, and it takes in the whole story of Cambridge from its Roman origins to the present day. But it is not just a history: it also looks for the places where events happened, and traces the surviving physical clues to the past – things you can see and touch. It will be as stimulating for Cambridge residents who want to know more about their town as for visitors.

    There was a town here, beside the Cam, a thousand years before the first scholars made it their home. That town continued alongside the growing university, the two becoming increasingly intertwined and their relationship becoming ever more complex. It is easy not to appreciate today, but for much of history Cambridge was a transport hub. It was an important river crossing and the last bridging point before the fens and the sea. It was also the highest navigable point for seagoing vessels, a place where cargoes could be transferred between road and water. The city arms still show three ships riding at anchor beneath a bridge.

    The Saxon tower of St Ben't's Church is the oldest structure in Cambridge. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The Roman conquerors were quick to recognize the strategic importance of this crossing point, and a bridge was soon built. A small settlement sprang up on the bluff overlooking the crossing to service passing travellers, while a suburb grew up on the opposite bank along what is today known as Bridge Street. This settlement – barely a town – appears in itineraries under the name Duroliponte. In the fourth century AD the hilltop town, though not its suburb, was surrounded by a wall; its course is preserved in the street plan.

    Despite this Roman history, the settlement disappeared in the succeeding ‘Dark Ages’ – this was true of most British towns. There was no Cambridge at this date, although archaeology has discovered a lot of rural activity within the area of the modern city boundary. The settlement by the river crossing reappears in the documents in 875 when the Viking army over-wintered there. Notably, this was the first use of the place name Granta Brycge. In other words, someone (perhaps King Offa of Mercia) had built a new (presumably timber) bridge at this important location, and it would be reasonable to imagine a small settlement of entrepreneurs had sprung up around it. From this point onward, the town grew. About 50 years later, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and son of Alfred the Great, cemented its importance by creating a burh (a fortified place) which became the administrative centre for his new shire. The oldest building in Cambridge, the 11th-century tower of St Bene’t’s church, is a relic of the thriving late Saxon town.

    The earthen motte of the first Norman castle offers wide views over the town. Other castle buildings lay beneath the Shire Hill and car park. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The conquering Normans left their stamp in the form of the castle motte (or mound) which commands the view from the top of Castle Hill. Meanwhile, the Norman town prospered, in common with many market centres across the region. What marked Cambridge out was the annual Stourbridge Fair. Originally granted by King John as a fundraising venture for the leper hospital on Newmarket Road, it developed into the most important fair in England, attracting merchants from across Europe.

    The game-changing date was 1209. Oxford University temporarily suspended itself in protest at an unusually severe outbreak of violence by the townsfolk, and its scholars scattered. Most subsequently returned to Oxford, but a group decided to settle in their quiet fenland haven. At first they were probably unnoticed, but gradually the tensions between the civic and academic communities grew. As the conflict intensified, nobles, and even the King himself, were pressed into service in support of one side or the other. The university gained the upper hand, and it was only in the 19th century that relations began to be normalized.

    The great hall of 1290 and seventeenth-century chapel of Peterhouse, Cambridge's first college. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Today the name Cambridge immediately brings to mind the many beautiful and venerable colleges. The early scholars, however, lived simply in rented lodgings. In the 13th century the friars and monks built their own monastic houses in the town where members of their orders could study. The foundation of the first college, Peterhouse, is reckoned from 1284 when Bishop Hugh de Balsham of Ely established a band of scholars in some buildings beside the church of St Peter without Trumpington Gate (now called Little St Mary’s). Even so, it was many years before the small community could afford to erect any new college buildings. Other wealthy and powerful donors followed the Bishop’s lead, resulting in the dramatic remodeling of the town centre which created the Cambridge we know today. A road named Milne Street which ran parallel to the High Street (now St John’s Street-Trinity Street-King’s Parade) was swept away; many houses were bought up and a church was demolished to make way. Unlike today, these first colleges were for graduates only; undergraduates were left to find accommodation around the town. The need to control their unruly behaviour formed part of the drive for students to live in colleges.

    One of the most striking features of Cambridge is the way the countryside seems to wind through the town. It is possible to follow the river from Grantchester to Fen Ditton walking only a couple of short sections on the pavement. This gives the town a unique atmosphere.  Inevitably, it is in part a legacy of the university and colleges’ stubbornness which forced most suburban development to the east of the historic core.

    Today both town and university are growing. The university must add new facilities if it is to maintain its remarkable position as a world leader. As the fields of West Cambridge succumb to these pressures, this flexible town looks towards a new phase in its colourful life.

    Andrew Sargent's new book Secret Cambridge is available for purchase now.

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