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  • Bristol From The Post and Press by Maurice Fells

    It’s surprising what fascinating stories can be found in old newspapers. When I say ‘old’ I’m talking about papers which were published 50, 80, 100 years or more ago.

    I’ve been delving through those published in my native Bristol for my latest local history book. It’s amazing that in 1908 the people of Bristol weren’t short for choice when it came to buying a paper. Three were published in the morning and another three in the afternoon. Today the city has just two papers, the Western Daily Press and the Bristol Post, formerly Bristol Evening Post. Both roll off the presses overnight and are available in time to be read with the bacon and eggs at the breakfast table.

    I was searching through the papers to find the events and the people that over the last century or so had helped to make Bristol the great city that it is today. However, my book, Bristol from the Post and Press also contains some rather quirky stories like the one about the 17-year old lad who jumped from a plane flying across the city, just for a dare. Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale to the local papers and was completely uninjured.

    The Grand Hotel has entertained many politicians, pop stars and captains of industry. (Courtesy of Andrew Gustar under Creative Commons 2.0, Bristol From The Post and Press, Amberley Publishing)

    Then there was the occasion that the Rolling Stones were turned away from the restaurant at the Grand Hotel where the group was staying for a night. The hotel’s head waiter Mr. Dick Court told the Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger that his sweat shirt and jeans were not in keeping with the hotel’s dress code for its restaurant. Mr. Court told him that he could borrow some suitable clothing - a jacket and tie - but the singer was having none of that. With the rest of his group he made off to a restaurant elsewhere in the city. It was a story that the made the front page of the Evening Post.

    My book starts though with a report from the Western Daily Press in 1899 of an investiture held in the centre of the city. Usually these important events are held by the monarch of the day in a royal place. But Queen Victoria decided to make her way to Bristol to confer a knighthood on the Mayor of the city, Cllr Herbert Ashman.

    The Western Daily Press, then a broadsheet, reports the visit in much detail giving its account a whole page. Readers were told everything from descriptions of the dresses of the civic dignitaries on parade to details about the music being played by a military band whilst the crowds waited for the royal procession to arrive.

    The first edition of the Bristol Evening Post. (Photo credit: Trevor Naylor, Bristol From The Post and Press, Amberley Publishing)

    However, the story takes a strange twist when we read that Cllr Ashman was not knighted inside one of Bristol’s grand buildings but on the pavement in the centre of the city – admittedly it was covered by a red carpet. Queen Victoria didn’t even leave her open-top carriage for the ceremony. She borrowed a sword, leant out of the horse-drawn vehicle and commanded the civic leader, who was kneeling, to “arise Sir Herbert Ashman”. After the brief ceremony the Queen made off for her next engagement.

    Unfortunately the paper didn’t explain why the investiture was held in Bristol, or in the open air, or why Her Majesty never left her carriage. The latter may be explained that through her advancing years she was frail.

    A few months before the ceremony Queen Victoria had announced that in future Bristol’s Mayor would be called the Lord Mayor. Cllr. Ashman was the last Mayor and first Lord Mayor of Bristol.

    Another story that I found fascinating involved Queen Elizabeth II who visited a pub completely unannounced to shelter from the snow.

    Apparently, she was delivering Christmas presents to members of her family in Gloucestershire when her car got caught up in a blizzard. She sought refuge in the Cross Hands Hotel at Old Sodbury on the edge of Bristol. Her Majesty was secretly taken into the landlord’s private quarters where she had a meal and met his children. It meant that none of the customers in the bar were aware of how close they were to the monarch.

     

    Maurice Fells new book Bristol From The Post and Press is available for purchase now.

  • Bradford in 50 Buildings by George Sheeran

    Bradford, a Wool City isn’t it?

    Bradford in 50 Buildings 1 Saltaire Mills, Saltaire, the 1853 building (Bradford in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Ask anyone what Bradford made its money from in the nineteenth century and there will be one answer – wool. ‘Wool city’, the capital of the wool industry, the richest city in Yorkshire with a millionaire on every corner, and all based on wool. Yet if this were true, why did William Cudworth, a journalist and historian working in Victorian Bradford, entitle his history of the rise of the industrial city, ‘Worstedopolis’?

    The first thing we need to clear up is the difference between woollen and worsted cloth. Wool yarns are made from short, hairy fibres and woollen cloth derives its strength partly from the tendency of these fibres to entangle and felt together. Those of us who are old enough to remember the woollen blankets of pre-duvet days will know what I mean – ‘The rough male kiss of blankets,’ as Rupert Brook put it.  Worsteds, on the other hand, are made from long-fibre wools which are combed straight before being spun into a strong, fine yarn.

    So what? I hear you say, It’s still wool. Yes it is, but in the early years of the nineteenth century some European and American textile manufacturers began to experiment with a cloth made with cotton warps (the threads that go up and down) and wool worsted wefts (the threads that go across), to produce a strong cloth that became known as ‘Orleans’.  But it had a major drawback. Being made of plant and animal fibres Orleans was difficult to dye, different fibres taking up dye at different rates.

     

     

    Bradford in 50 Buildings 3 Brigella Mills, the Briggs family, spinners of worsted and mohair yarns; manufacturers of umbrella coverings.

    Despite these technical difficulties Bradford manufacturers took up the challenge in the mid-1830s. They solved the dyeing problem, and Bradford was to become a centre of Orleans production. What is more, they were to introduce other animal hairs into the mixture such as Alpaca hair and mohair (the hair of the Angora goat), which replaced woollen wefts, and thus originated a new form of worsted. While fine wool worsteds had formerly been the preserve of the better-off, these new products were cheaper, hard-wearing, could be dyed in a range of colours and had a lustrous finish. Lustre cloths, as Orleans became known, were also ‘boardy’, that is, had a stiffness, and this was a stroke of either genius or luck, because it meant they were an ideal material for laying over crinoline hoops, the crinoline becoming fashionable from the 1850s.

    Between about 1850 and 1870 such lustre cloths became a fashion fabric and production boomed. It is said, for instance, that Saltaire Mills at Saltaire were producing 30,000 yards of alpaca-based lustre cloths a day at the height of their production. Elsewhere in Bradford, fortunes were made and business empires were built on this trade, the ‘Bradford trade’ as it was known, and mills big and small were built for spinning, dyeing and manufacturing lustre cloths. Yet much of this cloth did not have an ounce of wool in it.

    Bradford in 50 Buildings 4 The Wool Exchange, 1864-67 (Bradford in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Given this story of success, what could possibly go wrong? Well two things, actually.  Firstly, the crinoline was beginning to pass out of fashion by 1870 and lustre cloth along with it in favour of softer materials. Secondly, a trade recession halted the building of new factories and warehouses as international demand for Bradford goods slackened. The result was that numbers of Bradford firms went out of business; others diversified into linings or men’s suits and trousers, a more stable market; some went into more specialised products – umbrella coverings, for instance, which, because of the long-lasting qualities of the Bradford product, became known as ‘durables’.

    So here’s the secret of Victorian Bradford’s success – fashion and the specialised fabrics that went with it. And when the women’s dress goods market became a quagmire for some, expertise gained in producing mixed fibre worsteds was put to use in other areas. But let’s make no mistake: wool, yarns for export and wool textiles remained a vital part of Victorian Bradford’s economy. The point is it was an economy made up of a diversity of textiles and raw materials. When the town’s Wool Exchange opened in 1867, it became an international trading floor not just for wool, but for other fibres and hairs as well – and the most important such exchange in Britain. William Cudworth then reflected this in the title of his history: not ‘Wool City’, but ‘Worstedopolis’.

    9781445668482

    George Sheeran's new book Bradford in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • The Severn Estuary Crossings by Chris Witts

    The Severn Estuary Crossings 1 The long walk across the Severn. (Tim Ryan collection, The Severn Estuary Crossings, Amberley Publishing)

    Many years ago the Severn Estuary, with the second highest tidal range in the world, was a barrier between two nations. Powerful tides made crossing the estuary very difficult even though great engineers like Thomas Telford once spoke of bridging this dangerous river.

    Until the Severn Bridge was opened in 1966 the only way to cross the Severn Estuary was by ferry or railway tunnel. Telford’s plan for a bridge was far too expensive thus the railway tunnel was built. From 1926 until the Severn Bridge opened, the Old Passage Severn Ferry Co. Ltd. Operated from Aust to Beachley. Motorists faced either waiting in a long queue to join the ferry or a tiring 60 mile journey via Gloucester. In 1958 construction began on the new Severn Bridge between Aust and Beachley, with a design that has since been copied on similar bridges throughout the world.

    The Severn Estuary Crossings 3 The Severn Bridge painted white. (The Severn Estuary Crossings, Amberley Publishing)

    As traffic increased it became apparent that a new bridge was needed and in 1966 the Second Severn Crossing was opened, becoming the longest river crossing in Britain.

    Chris Witts in his book has sourced many photographs, both colour and black & white, showing the Aust ferry and the building of both the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing. His stunning photographs taken recently show what a remarkable feat of engineering both bridges are as they grace the skyline across the Severn Estuary.

    9781445669021

    Chris Witts' new book The Severn Estuary Crossings is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Kendal by Andrew Graham Stables

    Secret Kendal 1 Brigsteer Road with Kendal sign and racecourse in background. (Secret Kendal, Amberley Publishing)

    As I wrote this blog I became aware it was exactly 196 years since the first horse race was held on Kendal Racecourse on 7th August 1821 and I further recognized in my previous book about Penrith, and my future book looking at Teesdale, they all feature redundant racecourses. To the west of Kendal, off Brigsteer Road and below Scout Scar, are the remnants of Kendal Racecourse. The site, originally called Fishers Plain was built by raising a subscription from wealthy locals and after that first race meeting in August, there followed a three day meeting every June.

    The stand out race was the Kendal Gold Cup with a substantial first prize of £50 and the first ever winner was called Miss Syntax, owned by Lord Queensberry.  The last meeting of this first spell was held in 1834 with further meetings held from 1879–82 and offered both ‘flat’ and ‘hurdle’ races over 2 miles. It was also used for different events like the Kendal Steeple Chase, and some racing was held during the First World War, but it was generally abandoned thereafter.

    Secret Kendal 2 Kendal racecourse. (Secret Kendal, Amberley Publishing)

    Other uses have included practice ground for the Kendal/Westmorland Yeomanry and even the establishment of a small golf course for a short time. Still clearly visible as a raised flat platform, the site can be accessed from a public footpath and other remnants include entrance gates, raised banks for racegoers to stand and rubble from old buildings.

    Penrith racecourse was located off Salkeld Road to the north of the town and was in use from the 1770’s until 1847. The principle races were the Penrith Town Plate, the Cavalry Cup and the Inglewood Hunt 5 Guineas Sweepstake until it was used as practice ground for the Kendal/Westmorland Yeomanry. Eventually in 1890 the course was converted into a golf course with the old stand converted to a clubhouse.

     

     

    Secret Kendal 3 The racecourse and public access. (Secret Kendal, Amberley Publishing)

    Finally, the racecourse celebrated as the greatest course in the north of England was located at Gatherley Moor, just off the A66 and was regarded as the Newmarket of the north with royalty buying horses and racing in this famous field. Races were held here from at least the 15th century and the area was well renowned for breeding from the local stud farms. George III is said to have exclaimed on his deathbed, 'Oh for a gasp of Gatherley air!' with the moor being on his usual route to or from Scotland. Gatherley Moor remained a renowned hunting ground and race course until the 1816 enclosure act. The area is now cultivated land with little evidence of its illustrious past.

    9781445668048

    Andrew Graham Stables' book Secret Kendal is available for purchase now.

  • Cornwall in Photographs by Gabriel Fuchs

    Cornwall in Photographs - Golitha Falls Golitha Falls on Bodmin Moor. (Cornwall in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    So what’s so special about Cornwall? Few places in Europe are as awe-inspiring. It is an ancient Celtic land and as such has inspired tales and legends ever since. It has a dramatic nature with treacherous cliffs, sandy beaches, and mysterious moors. It was a gateway to the rest of the world when the English ruled the waves, and a mining centre during the Industrial Revolution, which very much lay the foundation of what we now call western modernity. Today it is the sum of its history, with a foot left in what it used to be.

    Cornwall is indeed a peculiar place on the far south-western fringes of Great Britain. It has a relatively small population of around 550,000 and it has only one officially designated city, Truro. Yet, Cornwall has the largest collection of plant species in the British Isles and its coasts boast more varieties of fish than anywhere else in the UK.

    Cornwall in Photographs - Polperro Polperro. (Cornwall in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    Cornwall is also one of only two royal duchies in England. The Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337 and its purpose is to provide an income to the heir apparent to the throne. As such, Cornwall can be regarded as the mother of all trust funds.

    Considered to be one of the six Celtic nations, Cornwall offers a culture that remains somewhat different from the rest of England. Being out in a corner of Great Britain and with a distinct geography, Cornwall possesses a combination of a rough coastline, barren moors, and plenty of gardens in between. All of these factors make Cornwall distinctly different not only from the rest of the UK, but from the rest of the world.

    Cornwall in Photographs - Porthcothan Sunset at Porthcothan. (Cornwall in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    Furthermore, the weather is changeable even by British standards and it is perfectly possible to have pouring rain, clear blue sky, and then pouring rain again, all within an hour. This means that forecasting the weather is actually not much of a problem; just look out the window. A Cornish weather forecast is rarely more precise than what you see with your own eyes.

    No matter what the weather, having the longest coastline in Great Britain, Cornwall tends to be windy. As the wind usually comes from the Atlantic in the west, it is striking to see how trees are leaning to the east, being pushed by these winds. If one gets lost in Cornwall it is possible to navigate just by looking at the trees.

    Cornwal in Photographs - Lands End Land's End. (Cornwall in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

    Given its harsh and unique nature, Cornwall remains an inspiration for painters and writers alike. Many tales and legends have taken place in Cornwall, including the mystical King Arthur and the sunken country of Lyonesse from where Tristan came. There are also a great deal of crime stories in Cornwall, which is ironic given that there are no prisons – the last one closed in 1922.

    The combination of a splendidly desolate landscape, a rich fauna, some magnificent beaches, and trees leaning to the east – this prohibiting anyone from getting really lost – attracts tourists of all kinds. There are the families, the hikers, the sea-sport enthusiasts, the birdwatchers, the photographers, the artists and the writers. All are kept at an even pace, thanks to the narrow and winding roads that rarely allow anyone to get anywhere too quickly.

    The photos in this book represent a bit of everything that Cornwall has to offer in terms of nature, activities, and beauty. Not all photos are sunny and with a blue sky because it does rain in Cornwall too. However, few things can be as moody and impressive as a good rainstorm when the waves come crushing in on desolate rocks. This combination of sun, rain, and wind is, to many, what really makes Cornwall stand out. And stand out it does!

    9781445671246

    Gabriel Fuchs' new book Cornwall in Photographs is available for purchase now.

  • Kilmarnock The Postcard Collection by Frank Beattie

    Kilmarnock The Postcard Collection 1 A fine example of a postcard just before the introduction of the divided back. The producer wanted to maximise the impact of the picture, leaving little space for a message. (Author's collection)

    The influence of postcards on our culture should not be underestimated. They are part of our social history.

    The phrase ‘wish you were here’ is a common enough expression that grew out of sending postcards home from holiday.

    Most people now associate postcards with holidays, but it wasn’t always like that. Britain’s first postcards were produced in 1870 by the Post Office, not that we would recognise them as postcards today. They were plain card; one side was for the address and the other for a quick message. Britain simply adopted a scheme that had been launched in Austria a year before.

    Of course, it could be argued that the Romans invented the postcard as something very similar was used to send messages home from places like Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall.

    European countries soon adopted the idea of putting an illustration on them. For some reason Britain was rather slow to come to this way of thinking and did not approve such things being produced by private businesses until 1894.

    The popularity of the postcards started to gather pace. Postcards were cheaper to send than a letter and with several deliveries a day in some cities and towns a postcard could be delivered the same day that it was posted.

    At the start of the 20th century most postcard illustrations were simply photographs of streets. Some postcards were published commemorating events in the South African war or royal events.

    The brake on further development was that the picture and the message had to be on the same side and the bigger the picture, the less space for a message.

    Kilmarnock The Postcard Collection 2 Postcard producers wanted to best impact on the postcard rack, so many pictures taken in black and white were painted in colour. The artist did not always get it right, as in this case. Kilmarnock trams were green! (Author's collection)

    Then in 1902 the Post Office relaxed the regulations and allowed what became known as the ‘divided back’ postcard. That’s the style of postcard we know today with the message and address on one side and a picture on the other. The UK was again showing initiative and was the first country to adopt this style of postcard.

    During the next decade the use of postcards exploded, and they quickly became the standard medium for short messages.

    The First World War changed everything, as did the increasing use of the phone. Postcards never quite recovered the high popularity of the first decade of the 20th century. Their use changed from sending informative messages to sending greetings. In the last quarter of 20th century they became more of an advertising or art item.

    There is also a lot more to postcards than just the photo. Postal historians take great delight in studying the stamps and the postmarks on postcards. They have just as much validity as the stamps and postmarks on covers (envelopes).

    The messages written on postcards can also be interesting, some carry urgent family news such as: ‘Little Mary was born today. She and her mum are doing well.’

    The imprint on postcards can tell us about local postcard producers. Whatever way we look at them, postcards are little snapshots of daily life taken over the last 120 years or so from villages, towns and cities across the country.

    9781445670348

    Frank Beattie's new book Kilmarnock The Postcard Collection 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.

  • A-Z of Reading by Stuart Hylton

    A-Z of Reading 1 The monument to Henry Zinzan in St Michael's Church, Tilehurst. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    When the publishers said to me “how do you fancy doing a book on the A to Z of Reading’s local history” I knew straight away what I did not want the book to be. Reading is fortunate in having the key points of its local history well documented (perhaps I should put the word ‘fortunate’ in inverted commas, since I wrote part of that body of work). But I would not want this book to be simply those same key points in alphabetical order. I set out instead to find some sidelights into our town’s history that might be of interest, and at least some of which might be new to the reader.

    I tested my approach on the editor with a story about a local fish sauce manufacturer whose product was, in its day, as popular as the Worcestershire variety. It even earned a place in literary posterity by being referred to in Jules Verne’s Around the world in eighty days. Jules Verne obviously swung it with the editor and I was unleashed on the other twenty-five letters of the alphabet.

    It was then that I started to realise what I had taken on. ABC may be all very easy but my deliberations had not taken me as far as XYZ. How much history was associated with them? Z proved to be unexpectedly straightforward. Reading had a noble family of Italian extraction called Zinzani, whose association with royalty went back to the days of Henry VIII. There was even a street named after them and a monument to them in a local church, which solved the problem of illustrating the letter Z, for the publisher wanted copious illustrations.

     

    A-Z of Reading 2 Greyfriars Church, seen here in its derelict pre-Victorian restoration state. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    Y led me to think of the mediaeval Yield Hall (or Guildhall) and the lane which bears its name. The trouble was the original yield hall vanished centuries ago and no image of it appears to exist. The current yield hall lane is by no stretch of the imagination picturesque. This led me to broaden the search to Reading’s peripatetic seats of local government, which over the years have included a derelict church, the remains of a mediaeval abbey, a Victorian complex designed by four different architects over more than a hundred years and a recently-demolished post-war office block. The link with the original Yield Hall was maintained via an early twentieth century photograph of the lane, by then occupied by an iron founder and pioneer motor mechanic.

    A-Z of Reading 3 The Beauclerc Cross, erected in the Forbury Gardens in 1909, 'somewhere near' where Henry I was thought to have been buried. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

    But X had me stumped, and the publisher’s stern instruction was that no letter was to be missed. I had to resort to a cheap trick. One of the Kings of England – Henry I – is buried somewhere amid the ruins of Reading Abbey. The trouble is no one knows exactly where. So this conundrum is discussed beneath the caption ‘X marks the spot – but Where’s King Henry?’

    Another constraint was the publisher’s requirement to keep to about 500 words per entry. Some topics were easily contained, like Reading’s Civil War army commander who was so unpopular that his own troops took advantage of a dark night and a dark alley to assault him. He was eventually beaten to death with his own wooden leg by the opposition. But others were much wider in their scope – such as elections. There space did not permit me more than a brief exploration of the elections of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – what I characterised as ‘Reading’s golden age of electoral corruption’.

    Even where the words come together readily, illustrations may be more elusive. Where do you find images to represent Reading at the time of the Domesday Book, for example? But while the format may have been more challenging than it first appeared, I hope the outcome has proved diverting, and will cast a little light on some neglected corners of Reading’s history.

    9781445670362

    Stuart Hylton's new book A - Z of Reading: Places - People - History is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Barry Island by Mark and Jonathan Lambert

    Secret Barry Island 1 Late medieval pilgram's ampulla found near Barry. (c. Author's collection, Secret Barry Island, Amberley Publishing)

    Barry Island - a renowned holiday destination for generations of working class tourists from the late nineteenth century until the present day; they not only came down from the South Wales coalfields but from further away places such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester as well as beyond. With the notion of a holiday becoming the norm for the masses, we see Barry Island’s sweeping sandy beach, Whitmore Bay, in times-gone-by with not an inch of sand visible for the sheer number of people present during the summer months. During the 1960s, a Butlin’s holiday camp was constructed on Nell’s Point, further adding to Barry Island’s fame and popularity as a tourist destination. Despite Barry Island being renowned as a place of leisure, its history from its tourism era is very well known. Secret Barry Island offers something a bit different and answers a need for a book with more substance, one which is concerned with a more distant and elusive history.

    The authors of Secret Barry Island both graduated from Cardiff University after studying archaeology, and have been present on many interesting excavations throughout South Wales. During the course of many years research into our locality, to our surprise, we noticed that there was not one single publication dedicated alone to the history of Barry Island, although there was certainly scope for such a work – a vision was formed. Secret Barry Island, which was originally going to be called ‘Saints, Smugglers and Sand – the Barry Island Story’, is the first history book to have been written which deals exclusively with Barry Island and began life as a series of articles that were later adapted for a book format.

    Secret Barry Island 2 Roman key handle found in the Barry area. (c. Portable Antiquities Scheme Wales, Secret Barry Island, Amberley Publishing)

    The choice of Barry Island for a first book was a mixture of a personal connection to the place and also a need for such a book considering how popular this location still is as a place of leisure. It may come as a surprise for some, but we have both been asked on more than one occasion by residents of Barry and beyond…. “Did it [Barry Island] used to be an island then?”

    Previous to our book, one could gain snippets of information about the history of Barry Island in various old and out of print publications, but nothing particularly detailed or anything which formed anything close to a cohesive whole. They all seemed to lack something whether it be detail, periods from Barry Island’s past which were omitted, or were written in a dated style.

    We are also fortunate that during the formative years of the island’s development during the late nineteenth century, antiquarian archaeologists such as John Storrie and John Romilly Allen (not related to Barry Island’s late nineteenth century owner Lord John Romilly) took an active interest in the extant remains and recorded what they could for posterity. A good deal of the nineteenth century archaeological material we used was hidden away in various old and musty Victorian journals, and a part of the way in which we approached the book was to soften the primary archaeological material and ‘humanise’ it for a general audience. If anyone has ever read their way through a typical dry archaeological site report, they will understand the need to do this. We wanted to form a narrative which flowed, was free from jargon but most importantly, told a story.

    Secret Barry Island 3 The remains of the old port of Barry (c. Author's collection, Secret Barry Island, Amberley Publishing)

    With the clear aim of writing the book in a manner which is accessible yet informative, we take the reader deep into the long distant past of Barry Island to elucidate elements to Barry Island’s history that are genuinely not very well known. Secret Barry Island covers a wide range of periods and has something for everyone, from its enigmatic Bronze Age cemetery, its renowned status as a place of medieval pilgrimage through to its post - medieval lonely isolation. It also has its place in Welsh history as a part of the South Wales coast smuggler’s network. The book finally explores Barry Island’s successful reinvention as a place of recreation; one way or another, whether it was in the high medieval period of pilgrimage or the twentieth century, Barry Island has always attracted crowds of people!

    Overall we are very pleased with the end product, a work that we feel is very well balanced and takes into account all of the major themes of the past – times of this popular resort.  We hope that the people who buy the book enjoy reading about and discovering the history of Barry Island as much as the authors have enjoyed writing this book.

    9781445671918

    Mark and Jonathan Lambert's new book Secret Barry Island is available for purchase now.

  • More Somerset Tales by Jack William Sweet

    In the Introduction to my latest book More Somerset Tales - Shocking and Surprising, I have quoted from Somerset Ways - a guide book published by The Great Western Railway Company over a century ago, which declares that:

    'Somerset is Home.

    For it is here in Somerset that the longest journeys end, and the greatest wanderers come to rest at last.  The land of peace and stillness.

    There is no call of homing like that which comes from the land 'twixt Mendip and the Western Sea. For this country, above all others, has kept the spirit men call homeliness, the spirit of warmth and welcoming.  Not a cottage in the whole of the great span but invites the wanderer in, nor a rick nor hedge for the roofless ones but seems kindlier than the shelters of other lands.

    Three things one finds here: an oldness, a kindness, and a wisdom: things in part of the countryside, in part in the dwellers in it. Things most plain to see in the slow West Country courtesy, the natural gentleness which seems a heritage of all those born in sight of Glastons Tor. Kind folk they are, with the kindest accent of any of our race. One feels that the folk here do not change; to-day they are the same at heart as when they, of all England gave Alfred shelter, not because he was King, though they were loyal people, but because he was homeless and alone.'

    More Somerset Tales 1 Beneath this peaceful Somerset scene lurked shocking, surprising and strange events. (More Somerset Tales, Amberley Publishing)

    However, there is another Somerset to be found beneath this idyllic description, and More Somerset Tales, which follows Somerset Tales - Shocking and Surprising - published by Amberley in 2011 – brings to life true events, often shocking, doubtless surprising, and occasionally downright strange.

    For example, there is the brutal, but unsolved murder of young Betty Trump (no relation to Donald T) in the remote Blackdown Hills village of Buckland St Mary in 1823, and the use of witchcraft to seek to prove the guilt of the suspected murderer.

    The vicious murder of an elderly shopkeeper, and the near death beating of his wife by two thugs, whose robbery only netted them a loaf of bread, some tobacco, and 8s. 6d., at the quiet village of Nempnett Thrubwell in 1851.

    A farmer is left for dead in a robbery near Wedmore, late on an April evening in 1845, and some 34 years later in 1879, two lads, seemingly acting out the roles of highway men, shoot a local businessman at Milborne Port, thankfully without causing serious injury.

    In the air, a novice balloonist flies across the Bristol Channel, panics, jumps out near Weston-super-Mare, and drowns. Late in 1945, four crew, and 22 military passengers on their way to India die when a converted Liberator bomber of RAF Transport Command crashes in the Blackdown Hills near Castle Neroche, but two soldiers who should have been on the plane escape death by arriving late and missing the flight.

    Gales, blizzards, and floods caused havoc and death, and people lose their lives in boating accidents off the Somerset coast, and drown in pleasant Somerset rivers.

    SONY DSC The ‘prodigious eel’ emerged from its lair in the River Yeo to eat the farmers’ hay. (More Somerset Tales, Amberley Publishing)

    A strange beast emerges from the River Yeo, near Yeovil, and the river becomes an open sewer in the 1870s.

    At Bedminster in 1827, a novice keeper enters a sleeping lion's cage to wake it up, and suffers the consequences - death, and is almost eaten.

    Following a nation-wide hunt in 1896, two dangerous London villains are traced to Bath, and, following a fight, are arrested for the robbery and murder of an elderly recluse in Muswell Hill. A two and a half hours 'bare-knuckle' prize fight for a golden sovereign near the Kennet and Avon Canal results in the death of one of the contestants.

    In 1835, two members of a notorious Bath criminal gang escape from the prison van taking them to Portsmouth for transportation to Australia, and are never recaptured.

    A train crash at Yeovil Pen Mill Station in 1913 is recalled with graphic contemporary photographs.

    These are some of the shocking, surprising and strange stories and events which have happened, and which I have brought to light, in this beautiful county – the Land of Summer between Mendip and the Western Sea.

    9781445664514

    Jack William Sweet's new book More Somerset Tales is available for purchase now.

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