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

    The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

  • The Countess 'Frances Villiers' by Tim Clarke

    The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey

    I did not really mean to write the biography of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821).

    At school I had enjoyed history. So when I went to university to study law with a view to becoming a lawyer, I promised myself that I would retire early from the law and once more become a historian. I even identified the lady whose biography I would write.

    Unfortunately, some years before I could achieve my ambition, someone else wrote that biography – and there was no room for another.

    Frances, Countess of Jersey, mezzotint by Thomas Watson, after Daniel Gardner, (1774). (c. National Portrait Gallery, London, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    But in fact I was lucky. Somehow I lighted instead on Lady Jersey, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life, a leader of Society in the late 18th century. Writing her biography, the first one ever, was a wonderful journey of discovery which took me to some marvellous places, including the bowels of Chatsworth, the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian and the private side at Castle Howard. From these and other collections I used, in writing the book, some 500 printed sources dating back to the 18th century, many hundred contemporary press reports and thousands of original manuscripts.

    My research showed that the Countess was the victim of history. Mention her name and everyone thinks ‘Ah yes, the mistress of King George IV when he was Prince of Wales – the one who behaved so badly’. She was, they say, the woman who amongst her many other sins spiked Princess Caroline’s drinks to get her drunk, put Epsom salts in the Princess’s food to make her sick, tormented her by curtailing her liberty and in jealous pique at her dismissal by the Prince hounded him for years in revenge. In short, she is seen as a disreputable footnote to history with no more to be said.

    Based on that research my biography, whilst telling the untold story of her life, demolishes the pantheon of mythology which surrounds the Countess, even in the highest academic circles. Disreputable she was indeed. But she was also beautiful, witty, the epitome of style, and charming beyond belief. Indeed the press of her day christened her ‘the Enchantress’ – she could bend others to her will even against their better judgment. And I show that many of the specific stories which surround her to this today are false. In some cases they are just made up – for example she is accused of humiliating Princess Caroline by making her dress in white, a colour which did not suit her. In fact, Caroline’s mother, the Duchess of Brunswick, had recommended that she dress in white for the very reason that that colour did suit her. In other cases the acts of another Countess of Jersey are wrongly attributed to Frances. So it was not Frances Jersey who waltzed with the Emperor of Russia to annoy the Prince of Wales, it was her daughter-in-law, Sally, Countess of Jersey who did that. Wrong-doing was attributed to the lady with the reputation.

    George IV as Prince of Wales, by John Hoppner. (c. Trustees of the Wallace Collection, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    Still, there is no denying that she was disreputable. She lived in the fast set of Society. Her children had at least four different fathers and she had a continuous stream of lovers over 40 years. One was the Earl of Carlisle and another was his son, 30 years Frances’ junior. Another she discarded so he could marry one of her daughters. The most famous lover, when Frances 18 years his senior and was already a grandmother, was the Prince of Wales and this was where her reputation really suffered.

    Whilst mistress of the Prince, she became the most hated woman in the land, burned in effigy, her carriage pelted by the mob and ostracized by Society. Her actions whilst his mistress, and the Prince’s behaviour at her behest, destroyed forever the reputation of an already unpopular Prince, leading to the Times describing his death as King in 1830 as unregretted by his subjects. Indeed, his reputation, as a result of the Countess’s actions, was so bad that one future Prime Minister, Robert Peel, feared that the monarchy itself might fall.

    Frances Jersey, though, was not all bad. She was not, in a lot of respects, much worse than many of her contemporaries, just less discreet – even if some described her as Satan’s Representative on Earth. She was brave to the point of foolishness. She lived for the moment, and for herself. She fought for her children and she helped both the poor and her (rich) friends when they were in trouble. Her life had many ups and downs, and many dramatic twists, but she did what she thought was right, even if she was wrong – or Society thought she was wrong.

    History has been unkind to the Countess, she was vilified on her death and in the 200 years since no one has challenged the myths which surround her. Whilst another prime minister, Lord Melbourne, did indeed say to Queen Victoria when comparing the Countess to her contemporary beauties ‘she was a handsomer but a wickeder woman… little with large black eyes… very handsome’, for the first time since her death my biography of the Countess puts the record straight and tells the true story of a remarkable woman and a remarkable life.

    Tim Clarke's new book The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey is available in a new paperback format now.

  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Die-cast Aircraft by Paul Brent Adams

    German aircraft of the First World War often carried very elaborate personal markings, such as those on this Model Power Fokker D.VII fighter. The artwork is different on each side of the fuselage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    My interest in aviation began in the early 1970s with the 'Biggles' books by Captain W.E. Johns, himself a pilot in the First World War. I soon began building kits of the various aircraft mentioned in the stories. Then came my first efforts at writing, mostly about model aircraft. Once I began collecting diecasts in the 1990s, a few diecast aeroplanes also joined my miniature air fleet.

    People who collect real aircraft have a problem (other than the cost of real aeroplanes) which model enthusiasts do not have to worry about: even a small fighter plane is not going to fit into a normal-sized house. Model aircraft, being much smaller, are far more practical.

    This RAF Hawker Tempest of the Second World War is a partwork model. The code letters on the fuselage side identify the squadron flying the aircraft. The model has a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Model aircraft generally come in two forms: build-it-yourself kits; or complete models, in a variety of materials, including die-cast metal. Die-casts have been made for over a hundred years. Initially, they were mainly all-metal, but since the 1950s plastic has often been used for the smaller details. Plastic is in no way an inferior material to metal: it has allowed models to be given clear canopies and windows, previously these had often been depicted with silver paint.

    Most of the companies making die-cast models have concentrated on road vehicles, but several have also had extensive model aircraft ranges. Early models were all made as toys for children, but in recent years more highly detailed, and therefore expensive, models aimed at adult collectors have been produced by several specialist firms. There have also been several ranges of partwork models, which offer high quality models at very reasonable prices, along with a magazine giving background information on the real aircraft. Models aimed at collectors tend to be made to a limited number of well established scales; while toys are often made to fit inside a standard-sized box, so the scales can vary considerably.

    Corgi Showcase model of a Hawk jet trainer belonging to the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team. The canopy is black, and there is no interior detail. All Showcase models come with a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    There are two ways to look at these models. Aviation enthusiasts are likely to collect examples that show the history and development of the aircraft the models are based on. Others might be more interested in the design of the toys themselves, and the ingenuity of the toy makers. Each company tended to have its own style of model making, which developed over the years.

    Among the British companies, Dinky issued their first aircraft models in 1934, with their last new releases appearing in 1975. In the years just after the Second World War, there were a number of small companies producing die-casts, including aircraft, but most would eventually disappear, unable to compete with the quality of Dinky. Corgi produced a model of the supersonic Concorde in 1969, and a few helicopters in the 1970s, but did not get serious about aircraft models until 1998 when the Aviation Archive series was launched. Matchbox began producing the Skybusters line in 1973, and these are still being produced today. More recently Oxford Diecast have made a growing range of aircraft models. Most European countries have had at least one or two makers of die-casts, and many of these have also produced model aircraft; as have various American firms. There are now a number of companies in the Far East making aircraft. This means that there is a vast range of both new and vintage models to be collected.

    The Douglas DC-3 airliner of the 1930s, from the Corgi Showcase range. All the windows are printed. Larger versions of the DC-3 and its military counterparts are included in the Aviation Archive series. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the easiest ranges to find today are the Matchbox Skybusters, and the Corgi Showcase line. Neither series is expensive, and is a good starting point for a collection. As the models are fairly small, they do not take up a lot of space. These two lines also show the difference between toys, made to be played with; and models, which are intended more for display. Current releases can be found in toy and model shops, while older models can be picked up at collectors' fairs. Unlike the internet, fairs give you a chance to actually examine the models before buying.

    Dating from the 1970s, the Skybusters range comprised a mix of military and civil aircraft, from the Second World War onwards. There were also a few fantasy designs, and these now dominate the range, but a number of more realistic models are still available. The Skybusters are intended as toys, and scales vary. All have a fixed undercarriage, usually with rather over-sized wheels. Propeller driven aircraft and helicopters have revolving propellers or rotors, but there are usually no other working features. The models can be a little chunky, as they need to be sturdy, but every aircraft is recognizable. The colour schemes range from reasonably accurate, to completely fictitious.

    The Matchbox Skybusters series includes both civil and military aircraft. The twin-engined Cessna 402 is on a 1970s style card, while the General Dynamics F-16A fighter is on a 1980s card. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    The Corgi Showcase series includes both vehicles and aircraft, made to a variety of scales. All the aircraft have a display stand, but no undercarriage (unless the real aircraft had a fixed undercarriage). There are no working features, other than the usual revolving propellers and rotors. Canopies and windows are often painted blue, black, or silver, just like in the old days before clear plastic. Colours and markings are highly accurate, and detailed. These are much finer models than the Matchbox Skybusters, but are more delicate. They are display models rather than toys to be played with. Showcase models are smaller than their Aviation Archive counterparts - some aircraft types are available in both ranges so collectors have a choice.

    Over the years both Skybusters and Showcase models have been issued in boxes, usually with a clear plastic window so you can see the contents; or in clear plastic blisters glued to a backing card. Some of the models have also been released in sets.

    Paul Brent Adams' new book Die-cast Aircraft is available for purchase now.

  • Road Rollers by Anthony Coulls

    The classic shape of an Aveling & Porter steam roller evolved in the 1870s; here’s an advert for one from the Land Agents’ Record of March 1896. (Road Rollers, Amberley Publishing)

    It takes a certain kind of madness to preserve a road roller, either steam, diesel or petrol powered. All are heavy and awkward and the amount of time, effort and money expended upon restoration or repairs is not reflected in the value of the machine at the end of the work. Yet it’s still fun, and the roller folk are a particularly sociable type. In recent years, road making demonstrations have taken off and become popular, with all manner of supporting equipment from living vans to tar boilers, lamps and road repair signs. Working demonstrations such as these are immensely popular and as good as any working museum when done well.

    There can be no better depiction of the variety of Aveling rollers over the decades in terms of size and appearance than this picture of a quartet of rollers on the National Traction Engine Trust’s sixtieth anniversary road run from September 2014, led by Dick Blenkinsop’s Aveling-Barford of 1937. (Road Rollers, Amberley Publishing)

    Restoring a road roller is my blood. In 1966, my father and his friends Trevor Daw, Doug Kempton and Gus Palmer all clubbed together to buy a derelict Ruston & Hornsby steam roller which had worked for Herefordshire County Council. They paid £100 for the compound engine which was lying at the Bransford Bear public house in Worcestershire. It had been bought as a plaything but the idea came to nothing and so it was moved on to the four friends, who called themselves the Arden Steam Group. The Group had connections with the Hockley Heath Steam Association and the Warwickshire Steam Engine Society, so the plan was made to take it home to their county – under its own steam. Over a period of 12 months, the roller was retubed with no power tools and fettled to make it roadworthy to travel to Hockley Heath and in March 1967, the Ruston set sail under its own steam. The journey was filmed by the BBC, sadly the footage no longer exists. The Arden Steam Group continued to work on the engine and painted it grey, probably because that was the cheapest paint that Dad could come by from his employers at the time! Unfortunately as time progressed, the lives of the Group changed too, and so in 1971, three of the partners sold out their shares to Trevor Daw, who then went on to own Ruston 114059 for another 40 years, carrying out a heavy overhaul throughout the 1970s and then rallying it extensively throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The roller is now cared for by the Vickery family in Hertfordshire, joining the other Ruston steam roller in their collection. A regular on the steam rally scene, it will always have a special place in the heart of our family.

    The Advance was the successful later roller made by Wallis & Steevens with a twin cylinder engine for quick reversing. The picture shows the very first of its type at the Onslow Park Rally near Shrewsbury in August 2007. (Road Rollers, Amberley Publishing)

    It was therefore inevitable that I would get involved with rollers, despite there not having been on in the family in my lifetime. The first one came in 1996 when a 1944 Wallis & Steevens diesel roller was rescued from Victoria Park in Leamington Spa, my home town. There had also been an Aveling steam roller in the playground there, but this had been sold in 1993 whilst I was at university. I found a home for the Wallis with a school friend’s farmer father in South Warwickshire, and after a number of days work with my friend Ken Milns, we got it going again over the Easter weekend in 1998. Around ten years later, the roller was borrowed by Trevor Daw, our family friend from the 1960s and he completely rebuilt it in his workshop. The finished article now lives on loan at Beamish Museum in County Durham, but not before we took it back to the park in Leamington in 2013. We had a lot of work to get it going again and also had to apply via the DVLA to get the roller’s original registration number back, a process helped very much by the Road Roller Association. Likewise, drawings, manuals and archives were also sourced via the RRA and the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University where the Wallis and Steevens records are kept.

    Isaac Ball of Wharles ran a fleet of steam rollers, all equipped with the full-length roof as seen here, and mostly made by Burrells. They also built their own living vans, such as the one behind the roller. The road train, including the water cart, was part of the Ball reunion event held in June 2017. (Road Rollers, Amberley Publishing)

    The diesel and experience gained from its rehabilitation led to a steam roller, and the 15 ton Aveling roller 3315 of 1894 joined the fleet in the summer of 2003. Firstly being stored in West Yorkshire and then finding its way to County Durham where we had made our home. Having stood idle since being taken out of service in the 1950s, it had lost a number of parts, but the boiler was in essence good, and friends assured us that the rest of the machine could be repaired or replaced where fittings were missing – and thus the die was set for a ten year rebuild – or recommissioning as I liked to call it. Skills were learned such as riveting, welding, gas cutting and tubing the boiler. New friends were made in the process and much research undertaken on the engine and others like it as we looked for new parts, spares or information on how it might all fit together. As with any restoration, there were set backs and side roads followed, but with steady fundraising, progress was made. In 2012, the roller lived again, taking its first moves at a party to celebrate the restoration and support given by so many. That said, in 2013, further defects were found in the roller’s transmission and gears. At the time of writing, further long and expensive repairs are being undertaken on the roller with a view to it continuing in steam on the road well past its 125th birthday in 2019. The whole family love it however and the fun and friendship it has brought to us all.

    My Road Rollers book examines the background to these wonderful machines during their working lives and then goes further into the popular appeal and how to get involved. Who knows, you may get smitten as I was?!

    Anthony Coulls's new book Road Rollers as part of our Britain's Heritage Series is available for purchase now.

  • The British Seaside by Stuart Hylton

    I didn’t always like to be beside the seaside

    The beach at Cromer - undated, but the presence of bathing machines further up the beach suggests it may be early twentieth century. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    For most of us, our stock of childhood memories include visits to the seaside. Hopefully, most of these memories will be happy ones, but the sea was not always the welcoming haunt of the holidaymaker. Going back to Old Testament times, the sea could be seen as the bringer of death and disaster (think Noah), or the home of mysterious gigantic creatures, ready to devour the unwary (as Jonah found out). People would generally only venture away from dry land if driven by the imperatives of earning a living or military conquest.

    The change began around about the eighteenth century, when near-miraculous powers of rejuvenation started to be claimed for the seaside and sea water (and for its cousin, the inland mineral water spring). Before too long, well-to-do people were flocking in considerable numbers to the seaside, to drink and bathe in its water. The cure, as it came to be known, could last for a considerable time and there was only so much sea bathing or brine drinking that even the most assiduous patient could take. Other, hopefully less objectionable, diversions had to be found to fill the time, and it was from these that the seaside resort evolved.

    Bikini girls c. 4 BC - part of a Roman mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    But it was with the coming of the steam ship and, more particularly, the railways, that the seaside began to change from the preserve of the leisured and rich to the holiday haunt of all but the poorest members of society. My book The British Seaside: an illustrated history tells the story of the transformation of the British coastal resort from a number of points of view.

    One sometimes heated debate that has run for centuries has been the appropriate dress (or rather undress) code for sea bathing. Every school of thought has been represented in it, from those who favoured shapeless head to foot canvas garments, to variations on the next to nothing theme (culminating in nothing whatsoever). There was even the bathing machine, a species of garden shed on wheels in which the bather could be rolled into the sea, their modesty intact.

    Given that it is a book about the British seaside, it could not ignore what happens when the weather rules out the beach. Seaside resorts have made several distinctive forms of architecture their own. Notably there was the pier, which started life as a purely functional means of getting arrivals by boat onto land with dry feet, before evolving into an all-singing and dancing palace of varieties.

    A rare photograph of a lady emerging from her bathing machine in about 1893. (Wikimedia Commons, The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    Some individual seaside entertainments also had colourful histories. The “what the butler saw” machine had its origins in a scandalous Victorian society divorce case, in which the key witness was the butler, who apparently observed his employer’s dalliances through the keyhole of the dining room. The roller coaster had its origins in eighteenth century Russia and the first ones did not even have wheels – they were giant sledges, sliding down man-made ice hills to entertain visitors to Czar Catherine II at the Oranienbaum Palace, near St Petersburg.

    Dodgem cars should correctly be referred to as bumper cars (Dodgem being a brand name for one make of them, patented in America in 1920). Some of the early ones were apparently very rickety indeed, liable to fall apart at the gentlest of impacts and with steering that bore only the vaguest relationship to the direction in which you were going.

    Punch and Judy is a much earlier entertainment, appearing as it does in Samuel Pepys’ diary and with links back to Roman times and the Lord of Misrule. It gradually went from being an adult entertainment to one for children, and was softened in the process. The modern health and safety conscious Mister Punch is much less likely to murder the baby or feed it through the sausage machine, or to leave parents to explain his relationship to his mistress, Pretty Polly, to their children.

    But one of the most striking seaside rides was developed in 1904 by Sir Hiram Maxim (inventor of the machine gun). This steam-powered ride (the Captive Flying Machine) was originally intended to give customers the sensation of operating a flying machine (Maxim had recently made a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to construct the real thing). Perhaps wisely, the health and safety authorities of the day rejected some of Maxim’s more adventurous features, leaving him, as he saw it, with a toothless “glorified merry-go-round”. A version of this may still be seen at Blackpool.

    The Palace Pier, Brighton in about 1914. It was built in 1899 to replace the 1827 Chain Pier, destroyed in a storm in 1896. Today it is known just as Brighton Pier. (The British Seaside, Amberley Publishing)

    The Second World War bought an end to the seaside holiday, as many of the nation’s beaches were barred to the public, mined and covered in tank traps. Instead local authorities were encouraged to make worthy (if not universally successful) efforts to create holidays at home, turning parks, rivers or whatever amenities a town had to offer into makeshift “seaside” resorts. Even Punch and Judy got conscripted, with Hitler replacing the character of the hangman (whom Mister Punch invariably tricked into hanging himself).

    But most of all this is an illustrated history of the seaside, and researching it has been a splendid excuse for visiting many of the country’s resorts, and collecting illustrations – ancient and modern - of their development over more than a hundred years. These pictures, and the thumbnail histories of the resorts that accompany them, form the second half of my book.

    Stuart Hylton's new book The British Seaside: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • Star Wars Memorabilia by Paul Berry

    Boba Fett's Slave 1 came with a model of Han Solo in Carbonite. This was different to the version that was later released individually. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    Writing a book about Star Wars collectables was a daunting task. The sheer amount of product released since 1977 is overwhelming. In fact were a complete guide ever to be published it would require numerous volumes and within months would be hopelessly out of date. My new book STAR WARS MEMORABILIA doesn’t attempt to be a complete guide.  Narrowing down 40 years of history into 96 pages, it is more of a concise pocket guide to the history of Star Wars collectables. I hope it will appeal to the new collector as well as old died in the wool fans.

    30th Anniversary Collection Darth Revan. (Hasbro, 2007, Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    I make no apologies for the fact that the book is a nostalgia trip, taking a particular focus on the items produced during the 1970's and 1980's. While many of the other Star Wars collectable books in the past concentrate almost solely on the action figures, my book looks at the wider world of Star Wars collecting including many UK produced items which are often overlooked.

    My own association with Star Wars goes back nearly forty years, I was slightly too young to remember the first film coming out, but when the Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 I first became aware of Star Wars and the toys. As a child of that period it was impossible to escape Star Wars, it was the in thing and nearly every kid had at least one of the action figures.

    Jabba the Hutt playset. (Kenner, 1983, Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    I saw Empire at the cinema, and got to see the original film a year or two later in a double bill, but that was it until Return of the Jedi came out. It is easy to forget now that in the early eighties, the films weren't available on video and hadn't yet been shown on TV so in a sense being into Star Wars back then was far more about the toys and the merchandise than it was about the films.

    I was entranced by the Star Wars figures, I can’t quite put into words how exciting it would be to walk into a store and see characters you had never seen before. Everything was a surprise back then as without any internet or information you would have no idea when new figures would appear. The Star Wars displays in those days were vast with rows and rows of figures and boxed items piled to the ceiling. Stores would occasionally get visits from some of the characters, I particularly remember seeing Boba Fett and Darth Vader in my home town of Grimsby.

    The Uliq Qel Droma and Exar Kun comic pack set is the rarest modern Star Wars release. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    When Return of the Jedi brought the Star Wars saga to a close in 1983, I don’t remember it being a big deal because the toys still kept going. Little did I know that 1985 would mark the last new figures I would acquire for some time. The following year I was faced with the realisation that there were no new figures and as bargain shops became choked with Star Wars toys at discount prices it became clear that this era of Star Wars was over. Like many I gradually forgot about Star Wars and turned to other things. My old toys were packed away where they remained untouched for the best part of a decade.

    While the Vintage Collection if often seen as the pinnacle of the modern Star Wars range, follow on collector-orientated lines failed to ignite the same interest. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    The 1990's marked a slow return of Star Wars to the public consciousness and it was towards the middle of that decade that my own interest began to be aroused. Like many I was caught up in a rush of nostalgia and this just happened to coincide with new figures coming out. As a child, purchases had been limited to pocket money, birthdays and Christmas and those occasions where parents had been nagged into submission, but now in my early twenties and with a disposable income it was like being let loose in a candy store. Despite initially only intending to buy select figures I soon got reeled in hook line and sinker and started getting every one. Little did I realise I'd still be collecting Star Wars 22 years later. Collecting Star Wars it would be fair to say is a slippery slope and can be very addictive. One thing tends to lead to another and the initial intention to just collect the action figures, then turned into getting the 12 inch figures as well, this led to trading cards and then comics and busts, the list goes on. Before you know it you've spawned a monster that quickly outstrips all available space. With the new crop of films from Disney it is fair to say there is no end point to a Star Wars collection, for all we know items will continue to be produced long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil. The answer to this conundrum of course is to try and have some focus and boil down the thousands of products to an area that is both attainable and affordable. This is a problem I have struggled with over the years as my own collection grew into a behemoth but in recent years I have become much more focused on particular areas. Certainly with rising prices and an ever increasing amount of product, it is harder than ever now to keep up with everything than it has been in the past.

    Various Decipher CCG cards. (Star Wars Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    Who knows what Star Wars items will be collectable in the future. Awareness of the collectability of Star Wars has been around since the 1990's and the result is that few of the items produced over the last twenty years have seen such increases in price as those produced during the early days. Many items from the 1990's can still be found easily and cheaply purely because so many stashed extras away thinking they would be an investment. When collecting anything the rule is to buy what you like and gives you enjoyment and if it does turn out to have any investment value then that is a bonus.

    With the multitude of new films on the horizon I remain excited about the future of Star Wars and currently have no intention of stopping collecting. Whether I will continue collecting Star Wars into old age who knows, but given I have been at it for nearly forty years already I see no reason why not.

    Paul Berry's new book Star Wars Memorabilia: An Unofficial Guide to Star Wars Collectables is available for purchase now.

  • The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

    Lionel on show in Germany aged 17. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    The Lion Boy was Stephan Bibrowski, born near Warsaw in 1891, with his entire body covered with fine, soft hair about an inch long. His parents and six sisters had no abnormity of the hair whatsoever. As a four-year-old child, Stephan entered the world of show business at a German amusement arcade, the Panoptikum in Berlin, under the artist’s name Lionel the Lion Boy. A certain Professor Minakow examined him in Moscow at the age of five. His face and body were covered with fine blond hair, up to 8 in long on his face and 2-3 in long all over the rest of his body. His dentition consisted of a solitary canine tooth in the lower jaw. It was clear to the professor that this was a genetic disease, namely hypertrichosis congenita lanuginosa [inherited excessive hairiness with lanugo hair]. In 1901, the 10-year-old Lionel was taken to the United States, to join Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. His mother had probably never even seen a lion, but the exhibition posters claimed that the boy’s father had been torn to pieces by an escaped circus lion before her very eyes; this horrid sight had of course ‘marked’ her unborn child in this sinister way. In 1904, Lionel toured large parts of the world with the circus, before returning to Berlin.

    The Fat Boy and his father in 1909. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1923, he returned to the United States, having received a good offer from the Coney Island amusement park: the authorities there had agreed to pay him $500 a week for taking up permanent residence at the park during the summer seasons. Lionel spoke five languages, was a well-read and intelligent man, and quite an entertainer. He was something of a body-builder, and sometimes gave demonstrations of his gymnastic and athletic skills during the shows. One ribald newspaper account tells us that he was also something of a ladies’ man: in spite, or perhaps rather because, of his extraordinary hairy face and body, he never had any difficulty getting admirers among the female visitors. After his successful stay in the United States, Lionel went back to Germany; he died from pneumonia at a hospital in Berlin in 1931, being spared the experience of Hitler’s rise to power with a narrow margin.

    The Fat Boy of Peckham flourished from 1902 until 1912, being exhibited for money all over Britain, and even touring Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His name was Johnny Trunley, and at the age of just five, he was 4 ft tall and weighed 10 stone; he could lift his father, who acted as his manager, off the ground. The London School Board decided that even this monstrous child should be provided with an education, and made sure that a king-sized desk and chair were constructed for him, but the hulking Fat Boy preferred his idle life as a sideshow freak. He also valued his night’s sleep, and more than once there were deplorable scenes as the howling Johnny was dragged out of his terraced Peckham home by a troop of school policemen, only half dressed.

    A French postcard showing Kobelkoff and his family. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    The Daily Mail suggested that the London County Council should construct a special tram line to carry the Fat Boy to school, since no motor omnibus would surely hold him. But Johnny’s father took him on tour to the West Country with a travelling sideshow; if the local bumpkins made fun of him, he asked them how much they earned per week. In each town he entered, he was measured for a suit by the local tailor; this was considered as funny the twentieth time as it had been the first. At the height of his career as an Edwardian mega-star of corpulence, Johnny Trunley appeared at Fred Karno’s music hall in London, where he met Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He turned the scales at 33 stone and was officially proclaimed the heaviest living person in Britain. There was nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with him, just primary obesity that had spiralled out of control.

    In 1912, old Mr Trunley died unexpectedly, and Johnny was without his father and manager. During the Great War, his weight plummeted dramatically, since there was never enough food, and he was very fearful of the air raids and the sinister ‘Zeps’. Johnny Trunley, once the celebrated Fat Boy of Peckham, had become just an ordinary man. He started work as a clockmaker, married and had a son, and lived on until 1944; it is likely that he has descendants alive today.

    Violet and Daisy Hilton as young girls. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book of amazing oddities, the successor to my popular Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and The Two-Headed Boy, I explore various strange, surprising and bizarre aspects of the history of medicine: Does people’s hair go white after a sudden fright; can the image of the killer be seen in the eyes of a murdered person; does the severed head of a guillotined person maintain some degree of consciousness; did Thomas Parr, the Shropshire Methuselah, really attain the great age of 152 years? Giants, dwarfs and medical freaks are paraded in front of the reader, to say nothing of Nikolai Kobelkoff, the Russian armless and legless wonder, the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Hans Langseth who boasted a 17½-ft beard. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, combines a historian’s research skills with a physician’s diagnostic flair, as I explore our timeless fascination with the freakish and bizarre people and events in the colourful history of medicine.

    Jan Bondeson's new book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities is available for purchase now.

  • Narrow Boats by Tom Chaplin

    The horse tows away a Joey boat with load of rubbish into Farmer's Bridge Top Lock. Note the simple towing mast and crude shape of the boat. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    As my wife and I approach our golden wedding anniversary, we have been reminiscing about our early life, when especially in winter, working narrow boats outnumbered pleasure narrowboats. These wonderful craft, with their floating population, brought their own culture and atmosphere to the canals. Unfortunately, the last of the family-operated long distance vessels stopped trading in 1970.

    The story of the narrow boat goes back to Georgian times when Britain had an agrarian economy and boats were pulled by horses. That soon changed: a horse could just as easily pull a canal boat loaded with 25 tons as a 1-ton cart on roads that often amounted to little more than muddy lanes. Narrow boats were soon moving raw materials and finished goods around the country and the industrial revolution became possible. In time, the horse gave way to steam, then diesel and boats operating in pairs were able to double the tonnage.

    Top cloths are positioned over the planks and side cloths to protect the coal. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Virtually all of the modern steel narrowboats afloat today were built after the end of trading and both their shape and decorations have become increasingly remote from the traditional working boat. Narrow Boats traces how these historic craft evolved, and explores why different companies developed their own design. In those days, boats travelled as far in a working week as pleasure cruisers did in a month. At the centre of these staggering levels of efficiency were the boatman and his family, on whom the reliable, fast deliveries depended. This book gives the background to life aboard these marvellous vessels and the very cramped quarters that formed a permanent home.

    This engraving, first published in 1873, shows a typical horse boat replete with the familiar form of decoration that changed little during the next century. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Victorian reformers campaigned for better conditions and secured acts of parliament to improve matters. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to peer into a mock up boatman’s cabin at a museum and react with horror to the prospect of this being home to a family. In reality of course, some had bow cabins which held an extra bed, and once fitted with engines, the boats usually worked in pairs and this meant two cabins, which doubled the living accommodation. In large families, children sometimes worked and lived aboard a childless or less fecund relative or friend’s boat. During the 19th century, many urban families shared damp, insanitary basements with several others and in this context the narrow boat cabin probably seemed a pretty good option.

    Restored boats, with their stunning painting, are now highly valued and many of today’s pleasure-boats and house-boats attempt (with mixed success!) to reproduce the effect. Narrow Boats takes the reader on a close look at how the boats were painted and has many colour photographs of work by the best, well-known professional painters.

    The lock gates are being opened using the boatman's rope trick. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    During the twentieth century, as industrial processes changed, many of the core cargoes, like coal, were no longer widely required. London docks closed and the end of carrying, which had been predicted for some time, in the event happened quite quickly. Even before this, the boatman’s way of life had become an anachronism and as more and more families moved ashore, it had become difficult to maintain staff levels and recruit new people. Perhaps it is surprising that despite the coming of the motorways, the narrow boat survived so far into the 20th century.

    The castle is an original, painted in 1950. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Fortunately, in the 1960s, even the smallest load was enough to prevent the Government from shutting a canal on which there was a right of navigation and we have to be thankful to a few dedicated carriers, who despite obstructive authorities, persisted and successfully saved some of our favourite waterways. Unfortunately, the idea persists that our waterways are inappropriate for modern commercial traffic. Yet a boat will reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to lorries. Heavy loads, like aggregates or building materials, could avoid motorway gridlocks and delays, while their removal from our roads would reduce accidents. However, it seems unlikely that the heavy investment needed for this will be forthcoming.

    A recent programme in the current BBC series, Britain Afloat featured narrow boats: this book will help to answer the many questions raised in the film.

    Tom Chaplin's new book Narrow Boats is available for purchase now.

  • Vintage Signs of America by Debra Jane Seltzer

    The Personal Journey Behind the Book

    Vintage Signs of America 1 This sign in Los Angeles, California is an electric sign from 1924 with bulbs and backlit glass letters. Just as this book went to print, this animated sign was restored. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

    For more than 15 years, I have been obsessively documenting buildings, signs, and statues for my website, www.RoadsideArchitecture.com. During this quest, I have driven more than 400,000 miles throughout the United States with my pack of crazy Terriers. While my website has grown astronomically over the years to more than 2,400 pages and over 60,000 photos, I am far from done. I still have long lists of things left to shoot. Many things have also changed dramatically, for better or worse, and need to be photographed again.

    Vintage Signs of America 2 This supermarket sign in Okemos, Michigan was built in 1958. Soon after the store closed in the late 1980s, the sign was updated for a Barnes & Noble bookstore. The groceries in the shopping cart were replaced with books. The animated sign continues to be lit at night. The wheels appear to spin and the woman’s legs are lit separately to give the appearance of walking. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

    My first love was buildings: Streamline Modern buildings, gas stations, diners, Mid-century Modern architecture, fast food chain restaurants, theatres, bus stations, and buildings shaped like things. This quickly segued into my fascination with fiberglass statues and neon signs. I began taking pictures of these things and organizing them online solely for my own compulsive amusement. Search engines either did not exist yet or I was naively unaware that other people could see what I was doing. Once I realized that people were accessing my pages, I became exceedingly anxious to add more places and information.

    In these early years, I wondered just how many neon signs could be left around the country. Maybe a couple hundred? It couldn’t be that hard to shoot them all. Little did I know that there were thousands of signs and buildings from the 1920s through the 1970s that were worthy of shooting and researching. Despite calloused fingers from countless hours of internet searching, not a day goes by that I don’t find something to add to my to-shoot lists.

    Vintage Signs of America 3 This Dairy Queen sign is located in Hibbing, Minnesota. These five-foot-tall “Little Miss” rooftop signs were developed in 1961. While hundreds of them were made, there are only about seven left on public display. Plastic signs are more vulnerable to weather (hail, wind, and fading from the sun) than neon signs. Many have become brittle over time and fall apart during removal. Plastic signs do not have the status of older neon signs. Therefore, they often disappear not long after a business closes. Most of these Dairy Queen and other fast food signs have been replaced with updated signs with ever-changing logo rebranding. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

    My passion for signs was magnified in 2007 when I was tagged to write the features about signs for the Society for Commercial Archeology Journal. I boned up on sign history and leaned heavily on Tod Swormstedt, the founder of the American Sign Museum, for information and clarification. I was surprised to learn how much had NOT been written about signs. Most of the designers of vintage signs had either retired or passed on. Sign shops, when they still existed, had either lost or destroyed their old records. Often, city records and library files have turned up nothing that helps date the signs or credit their manufacturers. However, with enough digging and prodding, sometimes some of the puzzle pieces can be put together.

    For each of the subjects in this book, I exhausted all sources for information. Speaking with owners, former owners, city agencies, and sign shops, sometimes leading to interesting or heart-warming anecdotes. At other times, I was left with nothing more than an educated guess as to when a sign was built.

    Like most people, I was initially attracted to neon signs for their color, animation, unique cute imagery, and variety of font styles. However, over the years, I have become increasingly obsessed with the older electric signs due to their simplicity and rarity. Most of these signs were destroyed when businesses replaced them with neon signs to keep up with the Joneses.

    Vintage Signs of America 4 This 30 foot tall sign in Portland, Oregon was built in 1946. The sign is lit with 754 feet of neon tubing. The Water Heater King’s dancing feet are animated. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

    The past 15 years of documentation have been filled with joy and heartbreak. Many buildings were restored or miraculously saved and moved. A good number of signs have been lovingly and faithfully restored to their original condition. However, hundreds of incredible buildings, signs, and statues have been demolished. Sometimes, these signs have disappeared in the dead of the night leaving sign-lovers wondering if they went to the scrap heap or to a good home. Many signs have been disfigured beyond recognition for the new tenant of the space.

    These signs are just beginning to be recognized as works of art and craftsmanship. They are both beautiful and fun. They are important connections to one’s personal history. They are community landmarks and tourist attractions. However, we continue to lose dozens of them every year. The final chapters of this book discuss the various threats that these vintage signs face and what can be done to preserve them. In your haste to see these signs before they disappear, don’t underestimate the importance of praising the shop owner for keeping the sign in place. That small gesture goes a long way.

    9781445669489

    Debra Jane Seltzer's new book Vintage Signs of America is available for purchase now.

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