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  • Now That's What I Call Preston by Keith Johnson

    My latest book 'Now That's What I Call Preston' covers the period from the dawn of the 1960s to the dawn of 1990, a time that helped to shape the Preston of today.

    Bus stops and shelters dotted around town were the order of the day before the central bus station was built. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a period that began in the midst of redevelopment with slum clearance and home building well underway. Social attitudes were changing and great strides were being taken in industry, commerce, education, and the retail trade. It is book of pictures and paragraphs reflecting life in an ever growing town enabling the reader to cherish the memories and moments of those decades.

    To some this nostalgic journey might begin with a recollection of a stroll down Stoneygate as they built high rise apartments upon Avenham, or when the bulldozers moved in to finally demolish the old Town Hall, or perhaps when your mum took you to town to buy vegetables on the covered market, or to visit the butchers' shops on a busy, bustling Orchard Street.

    Tall cranes stand out on the skyline as the Avenham high-rise apartments take shape. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Others might clearly remember those rainy days on the old Ribble Bus station with its leaky corrugated roof, or recall the opening days of the new Central Bus Station on Tithebarn Street that became an award winning monument to Brutalist architecture. Whilst for some the cherished moments might have been on the dance floor of the Top Rank, or the Piper night club. Others may yearn for the days of the steam engines when a smokey, grimy scene greeted you on Preston railway station where trainspotters gathered during school holidays.

    It is true to say that when 1960 dawned it was a time for transformation with old buildings bulldozed into oblivion and new structures soon standing tall. The Victorian Town Hall, the old Ribble bus station, an old church or two, old ale houses, old cinemas and theatres, many a corner shop and endless rows of cobbled streets being swept away in the name of progress.

    Words of the planners talking of high rise apartment, office blocks and sprawling shopping centres filled the air, and then they became a reality. A period when traffic free zones, ring roads and motorways were planned and came to fruition. Whilst the transportation of people and goods came on in leaps and bounds on road and rail.

    Diesel locomotive Class 40 No. 40192 stands on platform 6 next to Butler Street in 1981. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the 'swinging sixties' Preston was striving towards a glorious Guild celebration that would reflect the attitude of the positive, proud people of Preston. That event kept the ancient traditions alive with pomp, pageantry and processions and provided a fair share of fun and frolics. Many of us proud to parade the streets in procession, or to just stand and stare.

    The increase in leisure time made the pursuit of pleasure more intense. For some the discotheque took preference over the dance hall and public houses could no longer provide just beer and skittles. Some old and familiar places of entertainment were disappearing, whilst other emerged to fill the void. The sporting scene was changing too, with many inclined to participate rather than merely spectate, and consequently the leisure centre and running track became fashionable. The old cold outdoor baths replaced by heated indoor swimming pools and the plimsolls making way for running shoes.

    Stanier-design steam engine No. 44680, known as a Black 5 and built in 1950 at Horwich. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Taking a peep at the endeavours of the Eighties gives us a chance to recall the transport and the traffic, the markets and their merchandise, the carnivals and the concerts, the road runners and Red Rose radio, cinemas and bingo halls, public houses and pub lunches, and the people on our streets. All helping to create a patchwork quilt of pictorial memories within the pages of the book.

    Perhaps you lived on the umpteenth floor of Moor Lane flats loving the central heating and the panoramic views, or were delighted when you could catch the high speed train to London; or maybe your girlfriend set the trend wearing a mini skirt or maxi coat, or perhaps your flared trousers and moustache were the height of fashion. Did you rush to Bradys to get the latest cassette tapes feeling it was the height of technology, or maybe you spent your working days in one of the many engineering workshops, or found yourself a job in one of the supermarkets that were emerging fast, or perhaps you studied at Preston's very own Polytechnic.

    You maybe thought that the E H Booths cafe was too posh for you with its linen cloths and got your refreshments from a Wimpey Bar, or discovered that the best burgers were at the real McCoy on Church Street and that a bag of chips wrapped in old newspapers was your idea of a tasty treat after a couple of pints of beer.

    No Preston Guild would be complete without the traditional brass bands and they turn out in force. (Now That's What I Call Preston, Amberley Publishing)

    Yes, those were the days when the Lancashire Evening Post prospered on Friargate and queues would form for the hot off the press Final Edition, or on Saturday you might have eagerly waited for the 'Last Football' to appear with the final scores and match reports, barely an hour after the final whistle had blown. How proud were so many Preston folk when North End journeyed to Wembley for an FA Cup Final, and not so proud as they later plunged the depth of the Football League. Whilst others may have lingering memories of playing on the plastic pitch that replaced the grass as PNE strived to survive, or of playing football on Preston parks in ankle deep mud.

    In conclusion, reflecting on Preston during those thirty years, it was a place populated with people full of pride who left a rich legacy for future generations. A place that learnt lessons from the past to make a brighter future. A place that expanded rapidly yet still retained its parks and places of pleasure, a place that embraced the evolution in industry, retail and education ensuring employment for many. Its people held on to great traditions and saw Preston prosper, remain rightly proud and cherished by its inhabitants young and old alike.

    They say every picture tells a story, if that's the case I hope that along with the script it gives a reflection of life not so long ago and gives a glimpse at the Preston of yesteryear for the generations that followed.

    Keith Johnson's new book Now That's What I Call Preston is available for purchase now.

  • Wolverhampton Through Time by Alec Brew

    It was a single image which inspired me to write this book, a friend’s photograph of a solitary Austin Seven under the railway bridge at Compton sometime in the 1930s. I knew that a modern photograph taken from the same spot at any time, day or night, would show a whole stream of traffic in both directions. Even the bridge is no longer a railway bridge but carries the words Smestow Valley LNR, which does not stand for Long Neglected Railway as you might think, but means Linear Nature Reserve.

    St. Peter's Church from the Marketplace. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    In the end I never actually used this photograph, but chose from my own huge library of images of the City, collected over 30 years of writing about Wolverhampton’s history. What could be easier, I thought, than strolling round with a camera and learning if things had changed over the last century as much as I imagined they had changed? The very first photograph revealed a problem I had not envisaged.

    I decided to start with St. Peter’s Church, the focal point of the City atop the ridge on which it stands, with no high rise buildings allowed to block its dominance. I had an image from 1902 taken from just the other side of Lichfield Street, so I made my way to the same spot, and I couldn’t see the Church! There were too many trees in the way. Have trees recently been allowed to mature in urban churchyards to a degree they never were before?

    Nowadays, as seen above, trees have grown to obscure much of it and the Civic Centre encroaches on the right. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    A photograph featuring just trees did not seem too interesting, despite what it might reveal about ecclesiastical fashion. In the end I found another image of St. Peter’s from the other side, where there were fewer trees. This was a problem I had to resolve many times, and any Wulfrunian to whom I mentioned how annoyingly verdant the City had become, was just as surprised as I had been.

    I had expected to find the changes in the cityscape wrought by the 1960s planners, and their preferred medium of change, brutalist concrete. The beautiful Central Arcade and Queens Arcade replaced by the concrete tunnels of the Mander Shopping Centre. The Victorian High Level Station replaced by what looks like a huge public convenience. The Victorian Retail and Wholesale Markets swept away to make room for the Civic Centre, looking like a huge bunker from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

    A Tilling Stevens TS6 trolleybus turns down Broad Street on its way to Wednesfield. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, I knew about the destruction wrought by the Ring Road, that wide noose thrown round the centre of Wolverhampton, which had flattened so much of it, and strangled the rest. In many cases it was hard to relate a photograph taken even as late as 1970 with what is there today. Where once there were communities, now there is just traffic.

    The other major change is the disappearance of those huge companies which dominated each area of the City; Goodyears, ECC, Bayliss Jones and Bayliss, The Sunbeam, GWR’s Stafford Road Works, and others. Where once workers walked from their terraced house just round the corner to the factory where their father and grand-father had worked, now there are new semi-detached houses, or offices, or acres of rubble, overgrown with buddleia.

    Broad Street - single-deckers had to be used on this route until the road under the railway bridge was lowered. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite being of an age when I view the World through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, it was not all doom and gloom, I was often pleasantly surprised by what I came to photograph. As I have related the trees were a big revelation, but often old buildings had found new, agreeable uses. Sunbeamland becoming apartments, the Queen’s Building once more becoming the focal point of the City’s transport hub, the Molineux Hotel becoming the City’s Archives, or Butler’s Brewery becoming the University’s Faculty of Architecture, though putting students in a brewery would seem fateful.

    Actually the biggest positive impact on the City has been the monumental growth of the University. When a Polytechnic had followed the fashions of Wolverhampton’s planners and built in fifty shades of hideous.  How ironic that the College of Art had been the ugliest building in the City, and how amusing, now that it has become the Faculty of Art, that the forest of phone aerials on the roof looks so much like a modern art installation. Now the University of Wolverhampton, its new buildings seem in keeping with their surroundings, and thankfully it has found new ways of using old buildings like the Criterion Hotel or the Fox Public House, which has saved them.

    I am sure that anyone who undertakes a similar exercise in depicting their town ‘Through Time’ will have similar takes to tell. While expecting to find ‘change and decay in all around I see’, sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised.

    Alec Brew's new book Wolverhampton Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 by Stephen Dowle

    This book first appeared in September 2016 in a large format edition which enjoyed a brisk sale. It is now re-issued in a more compact size and enlarged by the inclusion of extra photographs, bringing the total to nearly 150. I have tried to supply chatty captions giving personal observations and recollections: accordingly there is quite a strong "authorial voice" which, I hope, provides a more entertaining read than a mere recital of facts.

    The granary and flour mill at Buchanan's Wharf, built in 1884, was converted to flats in 1988. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    The photographs were taken between 1970 and 1982, when I was between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. Most of my contemporaries were either at the stage known as "sowing your wild oats", or had embarked upon its customary sequel, "settling down". The former mode of living struck me, even at that age, as a waste of one's precious time on Earth, whereas marriage, child-raising and mortgage-repaying were, in my case, to be deferred for some years. Taking photographs was one of my favourite pastimes, at first using a primitive pre-war camera my father had passed on to me when I was about twelve. Once I'd left school and could afford film and processing I began to travel around taking photos of the rapidly disappearing industrial townscapes of the Midlands and Lancashire. Those few who knew of it clearly regarded this as an eccentric occupation and I learned to be evasive about it. The photographs, in the form of 5X3½-inch "enprints" processed through my local branch of Hodders, the chemists, were mostly pretty dreadful. Nevertheless some of my favourite shots were taken in those early days with that first camera, and in recent times, with the aid of a flatbed negative scanner, it has been possible to improve greatly on the originals.

    Britol's pre-war shopping district. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    In the book's Introduction I relate how, in April 1970, I became a bus conductor and saw the newly flattened ruins of Bristol's Newtown district from the top deck of my bus. To me, still at an age when experience has a hormonally-fuelled intensity and over-heatedness, there was an uncanny beauty in the scene. I had been powerfully subject to nostalgia from an age when, logically speaking, I had not yet anything to be nostalgic about. I can only state that this was so: my surroundings were dear to me and any changes in them, even something as trivial as the felling of a tree or the realignment of a kerb, had the power to distress me. Within days of first seeing Newtown I went back with my camera to roam wretchedly among the weed-choked foundations and shattered pavements, filled with hopeless longing for what had gone and could never again be seen. I had sufficient self-awareness, however, to realise that in this experience pain was intermingled, more or less equally, with a morbid pleasure.

    Although I must have passed by often without taking any notice, I could not remember Newtown when it had been standing. I reached back into my memory but could never quite grasp hold. The most fascinating historical period is always that just beyond the reach of one's own recollections. By this time we, of the post-war baby-boom generation, had become accustomed to the process called "redevelopment". Having limbered up with the rebuilding of areas devastated by wartime bombing, the local authority planning departments – whose principle motive, as with any bureaucracy, is self-perpetuation – turned their attention upon other areas that could be regarded as in need of renewal. All this coincided with a boom in the value of property, a growth in demand for office space and, of course, a great increase in road traffic. Georgian squares and Regency terraces disappeared to make way for roundabouts and dual-carriageways, as working class "inner city" areas were flattened wholesale and their residents rehoused in tower blocks or grim estates at the city's edge. Not only Newtown, but also neighbouring Easton had been razed in the late sixties, and now as the seventies opened the Council flattened all the lower part of Totterdown for a road scheme that was abandoned even as the final demolitions were taking place. There were a number of specific outrages: the University and Royal Infirmary, between them, were allowed to violate the picturesque slopes of Kingsdown; the bombed Castle Street shopping centre was rebuilt, not on the same site, but a few hundred yards to the north in the old streets around Broadmead, which had been largely untouched by the air raids; St James's Square was destroyed for the enlargement of a roundabout. A scheme to construct a shoebox-shaped hotel on the slope of the Avon Gorge just below the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was only narrowly averted.

    Clifton Suspension Bridge. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    By the time I'd started taking photographs around Bristol, the early redevelopment frenzy had begun to run out of steam and attract public disfavour. It finally ground to a halt quite abruptly around 1975. This left many parts of Bristol in a kind of limbo: large areas had been cleared but not rebuilt; condemned buildings were reprieved and left empty awaiting a decision on their future; whole districts, such as the older, architecturally distinguished part of St Paul's around Brunswick Square, were left to rot – one suspected until such time as further deterioration would leave them beyond saving. Much though I deplored these things I would concede that they were interesting from a photographic point-of-view; there was no shortage of scenes for my camera to record. Many who read the original edition of the book remarked how shabby Bristol looked at the time. It was not my intention to emphasise this squalid aspect of the city: like most people I have a great affection for my native place and would not wish to do it a disservice. It was in the nature of the times and subject-matter that the book should paint a rather unflattering portrait.

    The preparation of the original book fell during an eleven-year exile in East Anglia, when it was difficult for me to keep abreast of developments in Bristol. I have since moved to South Wales and it has become easier to revisit my old haunts, which I now see as if with fresh eyes. My main impression is of a kind of visual sterility. Much that was distinctive about the city has given way to an even spread of ICLEI-sponsored sustainable development, dockside micro-apartments, low-rise Lego-brick offices, fake street furniture, sanitised “heritage” showpieces, pedestrianised shopping centres, bus lanes, wheelchair ramps, fraudulent retro paving, Veolia wheelie-bins, Caffè Nero outlets that were once post offices or police stations, nonsensical "installations" and rubbish sculpture and, everywhere, surveillance cameras. A worrying point is that every British city looks like this now. Everywhere looks like everywhere else. Local, and even national distinctions, become fewer and fewer. The whole world is becoming as bland and homogeneous as a blancmange, one place fairly indistinguishable from any other unless, here and there, by climate or terrain. Eventually there will be nothing to which anyone will feel any particular connection or allegiance. This, I suspect, is the intention.

    Stephen Dowle's new format paperback of Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Lancashire by Robert Nicholls

    Although I was raised in Yorkshire – and traditionally there is no love lost between the two counties – I have grown to love Lancashire. My latest book ‘50 Gems of Lancashire’ celebrates this remarkable county and all it has to offer those who like to explore its treasures, especially those off the beaten track. And contrary to popular belief, Lancashire has far more areas of beautiful countryside that its traditional industrial image would suggest.

    Sambo’s Grave, Sunderland Point. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    The ‘gems’ is this book are either buildings, structures, locations or landforms that are either rare or unusual architecturally, or associated with a fascinating story which helps bring history vividly to life.

    One such story is that of Sambo, a young slave boy. The site where he is buried at Sunderland Point a few miles away from Lancaster is my favourite spot in the county. I did ponder whether to include this gem in the book. After all, the word ‘Sambo’ has some derogatory associations, despite the fact that the original book portrayed its characters favourably and set the book in India, not Africa. To settle the matter, I consulted some Afro-Caribbean friends, who responded: ‘It is his name, so who has the right to deny him his name or his little place in history?’, and ‘That’s part of my history, it has got to go in the book’. So I see this gem as honouring Sambo and those like him.

    Sambo was a black boy who died in 1736. Sunderland Point was a port for Lancaster, one of the stopping places in the 'triangular trade' whereby goods were taken from Britain to West Africa and traded for slaves, who were then transported to the Caribbean. Ships then returned to Britain carrying goods like cotton and tobacco, and a few slaves such as Sambo. Sadly he died here, reputedly of a broken heart when his Master went off on another trip. More likely he caught one of the diseases of the western world against which he would have had little natural immunity.

     

    The detailed inscription on Sambo’s Grave placed here in 1796. (50 Gems of Lancashire, Amberley Publishing)

    Sambo died in the building now called Upsteps Cottage, and was buried here, in the corner of a field next to a salt marsh, in unconsecrated ground. The grave remained unmarked until 1796 when a local schoolmaster raised some money for the metal memorial that contains his poetic epitaph.

    Another attraction for me about this particular gem is that it is so isolated and it takes some planning and determination to get there. If you are going there by car, you have to be aware that the access road to Sunderland Point is submerged by water twice a day. After that there is still a walk to find the grave, but once there you will be rewarded.

    Nowadays, one of the most enchanting elements is that the grave contains many mementos left in tribute by local school children. So young Sambo, who was once forgotten after his death, is now remembered by the young, and his story inspires them – and us – to more deeply reflect on these aspects of black history.

    Robert Nicholls' new book 50 Gems of Lancashire is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Stratford-upon-Avon by Will Adams

    I was delighted to have the chance to contribute a Stratford-upon-Avon volume to Amberley’s ‘A-Z’ series, as the town and I go back a long way.

    ‘Swans of Avon’: the river and its swans and other waterfowl are central to Stratford and the iconography of Shakespeare. (A-Z of Stratford-upon-Avon, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m a ‘Coventry kid’, having lived in that city for the first 19 years of my life, so Stratford was only just down the road. My sister and I were lucky in that our parents were theatre-lovers, and we made frequent visits to the Memorial Theatre during the 1960s. In those days the theatre had a small apron stage, and on either side of the stage projection were a couple of very short rows of diagonally positioned seats, right under the edge of the apron. Because of their unconventional position, I guess they were relatively inexpensive; whatever, my parents, who didn’t have a lot of money to throw around, booked us into these seats, which meant that we were often really in the thick of the action! You had to crane your head up to see, and only got a sort of sideways view, but in battle scenes we were likely to have a cannon or a corpse rolled in front of us, and we were also in the direct line of fire of any of the ‘spitty’ actors of the day.

    Talking of the actors, my mother, then in her late thirties, was quite stage-struck, so she and I often found ourselves part of the gaggle of autograph hunters at the stage door after the performance. One actor we saw frequently, though nameless now, was a regular extra – third spear-carrier from the right and so on – and always went home on a bicycle; he became known to us as ‘the bloke on the bike’. At the other end of the acting scale, I see from my autograph book, which I still have, that in the mid-1960s I obtained signatures from such greats a Judi Dench, Marius Goring, Tony Britton, Diana Rigg, Ian Holm, Eric Porter and David Warner, all appearing with the RSC.

    Attending other events in the town – poetry readings and the like – I see that I also have the autographs of John Betjeman and Donald Pleasence.

    The Birthplace today, heavily restored in 1858 to what it looked like in a drawing of 1769. The 1960s Shakespeare Centre can be seen beyond. (A-Z of Stratford-upon-Avon, Amberley Publishing)

    We travelled to Stratford from Coventry in Dad’s Ford ‘Pop’, and generally managed to get a street parking place in Chapel Street, not far from the theatre – very unlikely these days, I would imagine. The car had no heater, so on the journey home my sister and I in the back had our knees covered by a tartan blanket, and were frequently called upon by Dad to ‘wipe the back window’ with a duster to remove the condensation – no heated rear screen either! The journey was traditionally broken by the purchase of four bags of chips from a fish and chip shop in Warwick – a welcome treat on a cold night!

    Another memory of Stratford in those days was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964, when a large exhibition was mounted on the meadows beside the river. As a souvenir I bought a small china tray bearing the famous portrait of the playwright together with his signature. It’s still on display at home today, some 55 years later – thanks to the application of some glue…

     

     

    The chancel and spire of Holy Trinity Church viewed from the east bank of the Avon. (A-Z of Stratford-upon-Avon, Amberley Publishing)

    In later years, having moved away from Coventry, my wife and I would often have a day out with Mum and Dad in Stratford, enjoying its variety of shops – and tearooms. Sadly, as my parents became less mobile, so these occasional excursions inevitably became less frequent, so it was a great pleasure to have the excuse to re-acquaint myself with the town by researching the book – especially the non-Shakespeare-related aspects. For example, I didn’t know that John Profumo was the town’s MP at the time of the notorious 1963 scandal. The contributions to ‘Bardolotry’ by eccentric romantic novelist Marie Corelli, eminent actor David Garrick and the Flower brewing family produced fascinating insights. I also didn’t know that Stratford had a listed telephone kiosk, and was home to the Royal Label Factory, which produced many of the cast road signs and signposts that were so familiar in the 1960s.

    My wife and I spent a very enjoyable long weekend in June 2018, at the height of that summer’s heat wave, taking photographs for the book and exploring some of the town’s less familiar corners. While the whole placed is steeped in Shakespeare, it is worth bearing in mind that he spent much of his working career in London, and essentially very little is known about him, his life and death, and his family – which is perhaps what makes him so endlessly fascinating to theatre-goers and scholars alike. What is certain (unless you subscribe to the ‘they-were-all-written-by-someone-else’ conspiracy theory school!) is that when he died in 1616 he had written some 37 plays and 150 sonnets – and he was only 52 years old. Quite an output!

    Will Adams' new book A-Z of Stratford-upon-Avon is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of The Black Country by Andrew Homer

    The Workers’ Institute from Cradley Heath, locally known as the ‘Stute’, and now preserved at the Black Country Living Museum is remarkable not just for its Arts and Crafts style architecture but also for the people and stories associated with the building. Two such people are Mary Reid Macarthur and Thomas Sitch.

    The Cradley Heath lockout

    The Cradley Heath Workers' Institute. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    The Workers’ Institute is closely associated with the history of women’s trade unionism and in particular Mary Reid Macarthur. Mary was the daughter of a Glasgow draper and after leaving school worked for her father as a bookkeeper in the family business. She had ambitions to be a journalist and would attend local meetings and write them up for the local paper. One of these meetings was the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union. Once Mary had become exposed to the ideas of trade unionism, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. After becoming secretary of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union Mary was invited by Margaret Bondfield (who would later become the first woman Cabinet minister) and Gertrude Tuckwell, President of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), to become the Secretary of the WTUL. In 1906 Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) which was a general national union for women.

    Emblem of the National Federation of Women Workers. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    The emblem of the National Federation of Women Workers, which appeared on both enamel badges and marching banners, symbolised very effectively the aims of the NFWW.

    The clasped hands are a common trade union motif and here the hand on the right clearly belongs to a woman with a lace sleeve representing the aim of unity between female and male trade unionists. This aim was eventually achieved in 1921 when the NFWW merged with the National Union of General Workers. The bundle of sticks running down the centre of the emblem has its origins in the Roman ‘fasces’, a symbol of power. However, Mary Macarthur often used the analogy of the bundle of sticks to represent the strength of the union. Writing in ‘The Woman Worker’ in 1907 she stated that:

    A trade union is like a bundle of sticks. The workers are bound together and have the strength of unity. No employer can do as he likes with them. They have the power of resistance. They can ask for an advance without fear. A worker who is not in a union is like a single stick. She can easily be broken or bent to the will of her employer. She has not the power to resist a reduction in wages. If she is fined she must pay without complaint. She dare not ask for a ‘rise’. If she does, she will be told, ‘Your place is outside the gate: there are plenty to take your place.’ An employer can do without one worker. He cannot do without all his workers.

    The bundle of sticks symbol can be seen displayed on the front of the Workers’ Institute building itself. The motto ‘To fight, to struggle, to right the wrong is taken from Tennyson’s poem ‘Wages’ and represents not just the fight for fair wages but also the poet’s stance on equality for men and women. The ‘wrong’ may also be a reference to sweated labour which frequently involved women such as the ladies engaged in domestic chain making in and around the Cradley Heath area of the Black Country.

    The ‘bundle of sticks’ motif displayed on The Workers' Institute building. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    In the same year Mary Macarthur was instrumental in helping to set up the National Anti-Sweating League along with George Cadbury, J. J. Mallon and others. This organisation put pressure on the Liberal government to do something about the so-called sweated industries. These industries were typified by very low pay, poor working conditions and long hours. Four trade boards were set up to cover chain making, box making, clothing and lace making, the first of which was the Chain Board. President of the Board of Trade at the time of creation was Winston Churchill who had introduced the Trades Boards Act in 1909. In 1910 this was successful in bringing in a minimum wage of 212d an hour for chainmakers who were mainly working from home in small chain shops and were being paid on piecework rates of approximately a 114d an hour. Chainmakers working in the factories were already above this minimum wage but not so the many women chainmakers working up to 55 hours a week from home earning between 4 and 5 shillings.

    The women chainmakers worked at forges either in small chain shops behind the squalid homes in which they lived or else would share a shed with other women from ‘across the blue paved yard’ or ‘fode’. Their homes were often overcrowded, damp and lacking even basic amenities. The rent on these homes would be approximately 4 shillings a week. As well as making chain for up to fifty-five hours per week, producing approximately 5000 links, the women would be looking after babies and younger children who would generally play amongst the sparks and constant noise of hammering in the chain shops. They would be making small link chain, sometimes called ‘hand hammered’ or ‘country work’ chain which was often used in agriculture, mining and by the army. They were at the mercy of an intermediary called the ‘fogger’ who delivered the lengths of iron and then paid for the completed chain. The women had little choice but to accept what little the fogger offered in payment for their hard work.

    Women chainmakers in a Cradley Heath domestic workshop. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    A handful of Black Country chain making companies paid the minimum wage immediately, but most made use of a clause that delayed payment until 17 August 1910. An unfortunate loophole in the law allowed companies to further delay payment for six months if the workers themselves opted out of the minimum wage. This loophole was exploited by the Chain Manufacturers’ Association (CMA), some 30 companies and 150 non-CMA middlemen. The employers came up with a complex worded document which the women were coerced into signing. Many could not read or write and simply did not comprehend what they were doing. Others who refused were threatened with no more work. In the meantime, companies stockpiled chain against the time they could no longer avoid paying the minimum wage. One of the intentions of this was to directly challenge the Trades Boards Act and the authority of the Chain Board to impose a minimum wage.

    The new rate was due to be paid from August 17 but in the event few employers complied with the Chain Board minimum wage. The situation escalated quickly. A meeting of 400 women at Grainger’s Lane School on 21 August effectively marked the start of what was to be a nearly ten-week lockout when they all agreed not to sign the opting out document. Things came to head on the 23 August 1910 when the NFWW insisted through a new agreement that the minimum wage should be paid straight away. This resulted in the chain making companies withdrawing raw materials and effectively putting the women out of work. Strike was now inevitable. The strike was called a lockout but it should be noted that as the women were working from home they were not actually locked out of anywhere. The women chainmakers were not just fighting for the minimum wage either as Mary Macarthur was well aware. The authority of the Trade Boards to address the plight of workers in the sweated industries was also now to be tested on a national stage.

    Mary Macarthur addressing the crowd at Cradley Heath in 1910. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    It was an incredibly brave thing for these women to down tools and go on strike. Although they didn’t earn very much the money was still essential to help put food on the table for their families. Secondly, having put down their hammers there was every chance they would never work again. The one thing that made it possible for so many to down tools, around 800 at the height of the strike, was the provision of a strike fund, the success of which was mainly down to the phenomenal publicity campaign orchestrated by Mary Macarthur. Whilst Mary concentrated mainly on national campaigning equally enthusiastic local organisation was provided by Julia Varley of the NFWW, Thomas Sitch who was General Secretary of the Chainmakers’ and Strikers’ Association and his son Charles Sitch who was the secretary of the hand-hammered chain branch of the NFWW.

    The publicity campaign mounted by Mary Macarthur was truly remarkable. She made use of all the available media at the time to publicise the plight of the women chainmakers. She had a group of the oldest lady chainmakers photographed with some of them wearing chains around their necks. The oldest was Patience Round who was 79 in 1910 and still a full time chainmaker who incredibly lived to be 103. Patience liked to talk about her life and her story appeared in the newspapers of the day. Pictures such as these appeared in the press including The Times together with headlines such as ‘Fetters of Fate’ and ‘Women Slaves of the Forge’. This was a clever move to deliberately make a connection between these women and slavery. However, this was not the first time such a connection had been made. Writing in 1897, Robert Sherard described the appalling conditions the sweated chainmakers of Cradley Heath endured in his book, The White Slaves of England.

    It was in 1910 that French filmmaker Charles Pathé came to England to introduce his Pathé Newsreel service to British cinema audiences. Mary convinced him to come and film a march in Cradley Heath. Not only that, the film included the conditions the women were working and living in. Although silent the manager of Pathé estimated that it could have been seen by up to 10 million people throughout the country. Mary undertook a national lecture tour to expose the chain making companies not paying the minimum wage as supporters of sweated labour. Locally there were regular rallies, marches and meetings to keep the impetus of the strike going.

    Mary Reid Macarthur. (Author's collection, A-Z of The Black Country, Amberley Publishing)

    The result of all these publicity efforts was that money poured in to the strike fund. There were collections on street corners and in factories. Poorer people contributed pennies and halfpennies and even the aristocracy and leading business families got involved. Amongst many others, the Countess of Warwick sent £25 with the promise of more if needed and Arthur Chaimberlain, of the influential Birmingham based Chamberlain family, contributed 50 guineas. Also in Birmingham, George Cadbury of the Bournville Quaker Cadbury family, made regular contributions of £10 on a weekly basis. Over the ten weeks of the strike it was hoped to raise £1000. In the event, nearly £4000 was raised, a very considerable amount of.

    A number of factors contributed to ending the strike in the women’s favour. The government, who of course had brought in the minimum wage through the Chain Board, agreed not to place any more contracts for chain with companies not paying the minimum wage. This was a serious issue for the CMA as such contracts, particularly for the army and navy, could be very lucrative. On the 2 September CMA member companies added their names to a list maintained by the Chain Board. This was known as the ‘White List’ and contained the names of companies paying the legal minimum wage. This was the turning point and gradually the names on the White List increased until the strike was finally over on the 22 October after the last remaining company had signed. The chain making women of Cradley Heath had won their minimum wage of 212d per hour, thanks mainly to Mary Macarthur and her unwavering belief in the justice of the cause.

    The strike fund had nearly £1500 pounds left in it when the strike ended. Mary Macarthur could have put that money in NFWW coffers but she didn’t. Instead, Mary proposed that the money be used for the construction of a Workers’ Institute. Not just for chainmakers but for all workers and families of Cradley Heath. It was to be both ‘a centre of social and industrial activity in the district’. Originally built on some wasteland where strike meetings had taken place it is now preserved at the Black Country Living Museum. It was opened in Cradley Heath by the Countess of Dudley on June 10, 1912. A lasting monument to the bravery of the chainmaking women who downed their hammers in 1910 and to Mary Reid Macarthur, their charismatic leader.

    Andrew Homer's new book A-Z of The Black Country is available for purchase now.

  • London's Sightseeing Buses by Malcolm Batten

    In 1972 London Transport 'tested the waters' for an open-top tourist service by hiring five 1951 Park Royal-bodied Guy Arab IIIs from East Kent from 17 June. (London's Sightseeing Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    As the capital of the United Kingdom, and with a history going back to the Roman times, London has obvious potential for tourism. As long ago as 1851, long before London Transport had come into existence, London hosted the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. In 1951 a new exhibition entitled the Festival of Britain was held on the South Bank of the Thames, between Waterloo Bridge and County Hall to mark one hundred years since the original. Described as ‘A Tonic to the Nation’ and running for six months, the Festival of Britain was a great success, a time for rejoicing after the rigours of war (although rationing was still in force). Over 8 million visitors attended this and also the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea, and almost all used public transport. From 11 May four London Transport RT buses, which had toured Europe the previous year to publicise the event, inaugurated the Circular Tour of London. The fare was 2s6d (12.5p) and the conductor used a public address system.

     

    In 1990 ten of the RCLs were converted to have removeable centre sections on their roofs. RCL2243 passes the Law Courts in Aldwych on 7 July 1991. (London's Sightseeing Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    Tourism again blossomed with the Coronation in 1953. But after this the tourist market was not a priority, although the sightseeing tour continued each year. In 1967 a ‘London Sightseeing Round Tour’ 20 mile, 2 hour tour was being offered with six journeys a day starting from Victoria. It ran from Good Friday until October at a fare of five shillings (25p) for adults, half price for children. In 1968 this became the more logically sounding ‘Round London Sightseeing Tour’ and the fare had increased to six shillings (30p).

    In 1970 the Round London Sightseeing Tour carried 325,000 passengers. In 1971 the tour operated on a daily basis (except Christmas Day). From 3 April tours ran every hour from 10.00am to 9.00pm, for the first time from two departure points – Piccadilly Circus and Victoria. It was not pre-booked but on a turn up and go basis and the fare was now 50p for adults, 30p for children. Services were operated by Samuelson New Transport Co. Ltd. on behalf of LT.

    Advertising the Round London Sightseeing Tour. (London's Sightseeing Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1972 Britain joined the European Communities (European Union from 1993), eventually enabling visa less travel from other member countries. It was also in 1972 that London Transport ‘tested the water’ for an open-top tourist service by hiring five 1951 Guy Arab IIIs from East Kent. East Kent provided the drivers and LT the conductors. Also in 1972 London Transport hired Obsolete Fleet’s preserved former Tilling 1930 AEC Regent ST922 on a daily 45 minute circular route 100 from Horse Guards Parade. This was crewed by LT and sponsored by Johnnie Walker whisky, whose adverts it carried. Both operations were obviously deemed a success, for in 1975 Obsolete Fleet supplied seven open-top former Midland Red D9s to London Transport, painted LT red. These vehicles supplemented LT’s own Daimler Fleetlines, used on the Round London Sightseeing Tour since 1973. In 1974 more than 600,000 passengers were carried.

    In 1978 the D9s were replaced by a batch of seven convertible Daimler Fleetlines bought by London Transport from Bournemouth Corporation, the DMO class. The 1970s and early 1980s were a difficult time for bus operators with supply problems and poor industrial relations within the manufacturing industry. The Sightseeing Tour was not top priority so vehicles were hired from a number of sources to run this, supplementing their own vehicles. The hired vehicles were painted in LT red, but some had no indication of the ownership or function other than a paper ‘on hire to London Transport’ notice.

    Deregulation of coach and express services in 1980 allowed other operators to openly compete with London Transport on sightseeing services, unlike bus routes where LT had a monopoly. These competitors not only directly copied the pattern of tour that LT operated, they also introduced a number of new innovations, including ‘Hop-on, Hop-off’ tours and multilingual taped commentaries. Even so, by 1982, the RLST was generating some £60m to LT’s income.

    Advertising for resturant Planet Hollywood has been applied to RCL2250, seen rounding Marble Arch on 29 March 1996. (London's Sightseeing Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    From June 1984 London Regional Transport took over London Transport from the GLC. Then from 1 April 1985 a new wholly owned subsidiary, London Buses Ltd took on the operation of buses.

    In 1986 there was a rethink on sightseeing operations. As tourists regarded the Routemaster as the iconic London bus it was decided that these should be used on the sightseeing tour rather than the latest vehicles or hired buses. Fifty Routemasters were overhauled at Aldenham Works to replace the Metrobuses and hired vehicles on the RLST. They were given original style livery with cream band and gold underlined fleetname. Twenty RMs were converted to open-top, while nineteen retained their roofs for use in winter or inclement weather. The other eleven were RCLs which retained their roofs and regained doors. The route was rebranded as ‘The Original London Transport Sightseeing Tour’ (TOLST), and adult tickets now cost £5.  It was still a non-stop tour, but starting points were now at Victoria, Haymarket, Baker Street and Marble Arch.

    Brigit's Afternoon Tea Bus Tours. (London's Sightseeing Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    Also in 1986 London Buses made their first attempt at a Hop-on, Hop-off service with Touristlink route T2. Starting on 7 June this was a circular route taking in most of the tourist sites including the Tower of London, British Museum, Madame Tussauds, Kensington and Hyde Park, with an all-day flat fare of £2 (children £1) and a short hop fare of 50p (children 25p).

    In April 1989 London Buses was split into regional operating units, plus London Coaches who ran the sightseeing operation. This was in preparation for eventual privatisation in the 1990s.

    When Privatisation took place, the London Coaches unit was sold in May 1992 to a management buy-out. However the company has changed owner twice since then.

    Of the many companies that joined in the competition from the 1980s, some were to be short-lived, being absorbed by other competitors, while others stayed the course to become major players. In more recent times, new companies have entered the market with varying success. Some of these have created new niche markets such as tours of haunted London or tours with afternoon tea served en-route. A mix of new and second-hand vehicles continue to provide the tours – even some Routemasters can still be found on tour work.

    Malcolm Batten's new book London's Sightseeing Buses is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Rutland by Daniel J. Codd

    The Development of ‘Secret Rutland’

    The idea for Secret Rutland may be said to have developed from two basic concepts.

    View of Hambleton from Rutland Water. The submerged hamlets of Nether and Middle Hambleton lie to the left. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    From a personal perspective, I have always been fascinated by Rutland Water as a feat of human engineering, although I accept that had I been born a generation or so earlier I might have had quite a different opinion on its at-the-time controversial development. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by a particular story that I heard on a number of occasions while walking the water’s edge: that, when the conditions were right, the bells of a church could be heard tolling beneath the waterline. This was because while developing Rutland Water ‘they had to flood some villages’. Only the latter part of this anecdote is partially true, but I was intrigued by the way that an old folkloric theme – that of the bells of submerged churches still tolling underwater – had become reinvented to fit a modern damming project like Rutland Water.

    The second concept concerned an observation that Rutland as a county warranted books about itself only infrequently. In fact, Rutland in literature seemed to suffer from a predisposition to be included within books on Leicestershire, almost as an afterthought. This seemed a little unfair, although somewhat understandable because between the 1970s and 1990s it was amalgamated into that neighbouring county. Although a small part of England, Rutland appeared so deserving of a book of its own that the idea for Secret Rutland was proposed. The outcome was by no means guaranteed – after all, there are UK towns with larger populations than the whole of Rutland put together! But with so much untapped history and local lore, the opportunity to devote a work wholly to Rutland proved to be viable one.

    Martinsthorpe - deserted scenic, possibly haunted, and somehow symbolic of Rutland. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    County folk proved very forthcoming with snippets of data for the work. One of the great joys of preparing the book was that it provided the opportunity to explore every corner and aspect of England’s smallest county. I had already made a resolution that I would visit every single parish church, large or small, since these are traditionally where a phenomenal amount of local knowledge can be gathered. But particularly enjoyable were the necessary excursions into Rutland’s beautiful open countryside. I was continually amazed how, even in Rutland, one could still find that they were out in the ‘middle of nowhere’.

    As an example, one exploratory walk the reader may find extremely rewarding proved to be the one from Manton to Martinsthorpe. Martinsthorpe is a deserted village so loftily positioned that it provides commanding views of the surrounding countryside, with church spires distantly visible in each direction, and Rutland Water shining like a giant mirror away to the east. Medieval earthworks surround the one remaining house at the spot, the post-medieval Old Hall farm. This is currently deserted, and the explorer will find no company out here apart from the sheep – and possibly the ghost of a civil-war era messenger said to haunt this windswept site. The point is that I found this spot to be classic Rutland – reminiscent of a beautifully tranquil, slightly removed time capsule that might be a metaphor for the county as a whole. This was just one of many rewarding and inspirational jaunts into the heart of Rutland.

    Barrowden's cryptic stone. (Author's collection, Secret Rutland, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, as is always the case, not everything made it into the final work. Many are the poignant memorials to the sons of Rutland lost in the Great War, particularly inside Uppingham’s school and church. In the end just a small handful of these were observed in the finished publication to reflect the county’s sacrifice. But other sombre memorials can today be found within and without all of Rutland’s churches (except Teigh), including for instance the poppy-decorated cross at Market Overton dedicated to Lieutenant Vincent Wing, killed in 1917. The roses in the churchyard here were planted in his honour. Even if it were not the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, these would still be sites worth seeking out, as are the modern stained glass windows at Edith Weston and South Luffenham reflecting Second World War activity in the county. Another story omitted from the finished book concerned the deeds of the Parliamentarian soldier and independent thinker Robert Overton, who died while under house arrest at Seaton in 1678. A brass plaque to his memory can be found at Seaton’s church. And elsewhere in the county, near to the village pond at Barrowden, one cottage has an older stone block incorporated into its wall, which bears a cryptic inscription. This appears to be for the attention of anyone gazing upon coffins being taken into the church, for it tells them that they will themselves inevitably die! These places of interest are reminders that Rutland has yet other secrets not included in Secret Rutland!

    They are also reminders that every parish in Rutland has its own story to tell, naturally, and Secret Rutland could have evolved into an explanation of each village’s development, focusing on halls that no longer stand, the sites of village ponds and wells that have been filled in, who owned the local blacksmith in 1927, where the sheep-washes could be located, and so on. This would undoubtedly also have been an interesting project, although such a then-and-now approach to Rutland had already been touched upon in Amberley’s Through Time series. Nonetheless, to a certain extent, snippets of parish development have been mentioned incidentally throughout the finished publication. Also included in Secret Rutland are many ‘secret’ stories from Rutland’s past that have until now been hidden in the archives, as well as a smattering of local colour in the form of folk-lore. But the main objective of the book is hopefully to highlight to the reader, be they Raddle-folk or tourists, the hidden items of interest that may yet be sought out and observed … that is to say, the evidences of Rutland’s fascinating story which are still there to be seen, even if they take some finding!

    Daniel J. Codd's new book Secret Rutland is available for purchase now.

  • Great Railway Journeys: The Chiltern Line to Birmingham by Roger Mason

    My recently-published book is not a technical study of the Chiltern Line from Marylebone Station in London to Snow Hill Station in Birmingham. It features thirty-eight fascinating buildings, monuments, historical sites etc that can be seen from the window of a train making the journey. Although the book is not long out some interesting things have since happened.

    Wembley Stadium. (Great Railway Journeys: The Chiltern Line to Birmingham, Amberley Publishing)

    Wembley Stadium

    Wembley Stadium may be termed the jewel in the Football Association’s crown, and there have been advanced plans for it to be sold to Mr Shahid Khan who is the owner of Fulham Football Club. The proposed sale was strongly resisted by some and it was even termed scandalous. Partly due to the controversy and ill-feeling Mr Khan has withdrawn his offer.  The stadium will continue to be owned by the Football Association.

    The stadium has tightened its procedures on checking bags that are brought inside. All items carried by ticket holders and staff will be tightly checked and there may be personal wanding or pat down. Spectators will only be permitted to bring in one bag which must not be bigger than A4 size. Match day purchases will be supplied in sealed plastic bags. They may be brought into the stadium so long as the seal is not broken. The extra security measures are probably necessary but it is very sad.

    The state of Wembley’s pitch has been very heavily criticised in the late autumn of 2018. In fact it has been termed awful. The reason is that it has been over-used. There have been the usual England international football matches, and in addition Tottenham Hotspur have played all their home games there. This is because their new stadium at White Hart Lane is not ready and probably will not be ready before the end of the 2018/19 season. There have been three NFL American Football games in quick succession, and it has been the venue for Anthony Joshua’s successful world heavyweight title boxing defence against Alexander Povetkin. The groundsmen have had and are having a tough job.

    A red Kite. (Great Railway Journeys: The Chiltern Line to Birmingham, Amberley Publishing)

    Red Kites

    Chapter 15 tells the story of these magnificent birds. They are large, having a length slightly more than two feet, and they frequently twist and turn in soaring flight. Their tails are deeply forked, which helps identify them. By 1879 there were none left in England and Scotland, but a handful clung on in mid Wales.

    A joint project by RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) reintroduced them in several areas. The venture succeeded, especially in the Chilterns and breeding pairs have spread out from their places of introduction. A particularly good point to see them is close to the railway line mid way between High Wycombe and Princes Risborough. This is the position featured in the book.

    For obvious reasons it is not possible to count the birds, but when the book was written RSPB’s latest estimate for England was 1,860 breeding pairs, plus further juvenile and non-breeding ones. I suspect that this is an under-estimate. I recently drove past the area mentioned and I counted seven soaring overhead. I was on my way to watch Wycombe Wanderers play at Adams Park on the western edge of High Wycombe. There were two more red kites circling the stadium.

    Chapter 12 in the book is about High Wycombe and this includes something about Wycombe Wanderers and Adams Park. In case you are interested Wycombe beat Shrewsbury 3-2 and they have an outside chance of promotion from Division 1 into the Championship.

    Chesterton Windmill. (Great Railway Journeys: The Chiltern Line to Birmingham, Amberley Publishing)

    Chesterton Windmill

    Had I been able to consult Jane Austen she might well have told me that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a book such as this must be in want of a good windmill.  Chesterton Windmill is a particularly fine example and it is located on a bleak hillside three miles short of Leamington Spa.

    During my visit I was puzzled to see that two bunches of flowers had been laid at the foot of the structure. They were fresh and wrapped in cellophane, but there were no cards or other indications of their purpose. They reminded me of the sad tributes sometimes laid at the scene of a fatal road accident. I reconciled myself to not ever knowing the reason why they were there.

    I now feel that I do know the reason and it is a very sad one. A friend who lives a few miles away told me that some years ago there was a murder and that the body was found a short distance from the windmill. It happened in the winter at about the time of year that I made my visit. This must surely be the explanation.

    Roger Mason's new book Great Railway Journeys: The Chiltern Line to Birmingham is available for purchase now.

  • Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide by Jan-Andrew Henderson

    For much of Edinburgh’s long existence, there was only the Old Town. Perched on a high basalt ridge, it slowly turned from a collection of rude cottages with a fort at the top and arable slopes on either side, to a collection of towering tenements clinging to the ridge.

    The original New Town. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This was the perfect defensive site. Scotland’s history was a turbulent one, so the Old Town never really expanded. It just got more and more crowded. Surrounded by a fortified wall, the greenery disappeared under a rash of tenements, which grew so high they were the tallest in Europe, reaching fifteen stories in some spots. People lived in underground cellars and tunnels, sanitation was non-existent, and the dwellings were rickety fire hazards and living conditions utterly deplorable. By the time the New Town came along, The Royal Mile’s glory days were fading. A huge number of Edinburgh aristocrats and ambitious, well educated innovators had taken off for London, were no longer willing to live in such a dirty, smelly, violent place.

    North of the city, however, were vast swathes of pastoral land. Separated from the Royal Mile only by the pungent expanse of the sewage filled Nor’ Loch, it was too tempting a prize to ignore. Along with Glasgow, Edinburgh was the focal point of the Scottish Enlightenment and still teeming with men of learning. Though the crowded conditions in the Old Town had actually been a perfect cauldron for brilliant ideas and innovation, better living conditions were deemed essential if all those geniuses were to be persuaded to stay. In 1752 a pamphlet called Proposals by Sir Gilbert Minto (1693-1766) argued that a nice new northern development was just the ticket to stop a potential brain drain and bring the cream of Edinburgh society back.

    Princes Street Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This required more than a new area to inhabit. It called for something to equal, or even surpass, the finest suburbs of London. Nothing parochial. British rather than Scottish, to give a cosmopolitan and classical feel. After all, you couldn’t beat the Greeks and Romans at this sort of thing.

    The man who got the ball rolling properly was Lord Provost George Drummond (1688-1766). His tentative first step was to build a gateway between the Royal Mile and the flat, open lands ripe for development – the North Bridge. Next, Drummond needed a builder with a grand plan. So, in 1766, the city launched a competition to design a New Town for Edinburgh.

    The winner was a little-known architect named James Craig (1739-1795), only 26 at the time. His layout wasn’t exactly earth shattering, merely a simple grid structure of three parallel main streets with a large square at either end. But it was loaded with allegory, (very) roughly mimicking the Union Jack, symbolizing the union of Scotland and England under the reigning king George III (1738-1820).

    Walter Scott Monument. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    But the New Town was also symbolic of the Scottish Enlightenment and its beliefs – that society and its environment could be improved by logical and pragmatic thinking. Though grand in scale, the layout was deliberately functional and uncomplicated, rather than the organic, messy development of most cities.

    A natural reluctance by Edinburgh’s citizens to embrace change meant that it took almost fifty years to finish the first New Town. But the result was stunning and the influx slow and steady.  Ironically, the aristocrats Scotland hoped to entice back avoided the place, since they couldn’t plonk some stately home with a mile long driveway in the middle of such a carefully regulated area. This was no great loss, for it was the wealthy and cultured middle class who were most enthused by the ideals and aspirations of the Scottish Enlightenment. And they loved the place.

    This, to me, is the great irony of the New Town. In my opinion, the truly innovative ideas of the Enlightenment came out of the Old Town. Carried to the New World, they found a receptive audience in the thousand of Scots Irish and Scottish Presbyterians who had relocated there. This irrevocably shaped the ethos and national character of what would become the most powerful country in the world – the USA.

    Naturally, the occupants of the New Town were less radical, happy to keep up the momentum that had started on the Royal Mile. The ‘Scottish School’ of thought argued that we were ultimately creatures of our environment – and what an environment the residents now had. But they had no intention of resting on their laurels. They acquired knowledge like sponges. Considered bettering themselves a necessity. Exuded an unshakeable self confidence that their English counterparts now lacked and their predecessors in the Old Town, brilliant though they might be, had never really known. Along with Glasgow’s more free-wheeling counterparts, they altered the face of the globe by becoming the practical and intellectual backbone of an even greater force than the USA. The British Empire.

    Albert Memorial, Charlotte Square Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    The city of Edinburgh finally had a civilized veneer and projected itself as ‘the Athens of the North’, despite the Old Town being a total cesspit. And that’s the sad part, in a way. For the first time, true public division had arrived. Instead of the rich and poor living cheek by jowl, complimenting each other in the generation of innovative ideas, the haves and have-nots were suddenly segregated by distance and class. Civilization had arrived and Edinburgh embraced the fact that it wasn’t just riding the coat tails of Britain’s bid to take over the globe. It was leading the charge.

    The New Town isn’t simply an architectural masterpiece but a monument to the body of men (and a few convention defying women) who changed the entire world.

    Jan-Andrew Henderson's new book Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide is available for purchase now.

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