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Tag Archives: Stuart Hylton

  • 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.

  • A-Z of Reading by Stuart Hylton

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

    9781445670362

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

  • Steam railways and a new generation by Stuart Hylton

    Not long ago, I was on the platform at Oxford station when an express train, drawn by a steam locomotive, came through at speed. For a moment, all activity on the platform stopped – it was as if we had all been transported back in time. Another moment and it was gone, and all that was left were wisps of steam and the happy smiles on the faces of the travelling public. Surely no piece of our industrial heritage has a warmer place in the nation’s affections than the steam railway engine.

    For no other piece of machinery comes closer to having the attributes of a living, sentient creature. One of the first people to witness a primitive prototype of a railway locomotive was Thomas Grey in 1812, and he certainly saw the kinship between these early ‘walking horses’ and their flesh and blood counterparts:

    The superabundant steam is emitted at each stroke with a noise something similar to the hard breathing or snorting of a horse – the escaping steam representing the breath of his nostrils and the deception altogether aided by the regular motion of the beam.

    Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 1 A safety valve, doing its job. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    Small wonder too that another pioneer, Richard Trevithick, the unacknowledged father of the steam locomotive, found the best advertisement for his engine Catch me who can was to offer a speed trial against the finest race horse Newmarket had to offer.

    I belong to a generation whose childhood memories include a railway that was almost entirely driven by steam. The sights, sounds and smells of it are still fresh in my mind and for me a steam engine evokes a whole host of memories. From standing on another platform and enjoying a little childhood frisson of fear, as a Great Western express thundered through on its way to the West Country or Wales, to being my own master of the universe as I created my own little railway world on the sitting room carpet, courtesy of Messrs Hornby and Triang.

    But my generation is growing old and those that follow will not have the same store of memories, on which an attachment to steam can be built. How will they view steam locomotion? Will it just be another historical curiosity, as far removed from their direct experience as the stagecoach or the penny-farthing bicycle? Will they even be remotely interested? Perhaps more to the point, how many of them will be interested enough to put themselves through the lengthy and demanding process of learning to drive or fire a steam locomotive?

     

    Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 2 No. 31806. This U class locomotive started life as something rather different - a K Class tank engine. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    Since retiring from my day job I have devoted part of my time to being part of the education team at the Didcot Railway Centre, home of the Great Western Society. Our main activity is introducing parties of up to a hundred or more school children to the world that the steam railways helped to create. One of the things this brings home to myself and my fellow guides is how far the world has changed in our own lifetimes. We find ourselves having to explain what coal is and, for many of our car-centred young visitors, the very idea of travelling anywhere by rail is a novelty.

    Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 3 Gladstone, the first in a class of thirty-six locomotives built for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway from 1882. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    But one thing I have learned from my experience is that heritage railways offer a rich potential for engaging young people’s interest and a way into a variety of areas of the school curriculum. For history, there is the story of the industrial revolution, which could not have happened in the way it did without the railways. It gives an insight into the lives of all classes of the Victorians, from the Royal family to the poorest travellers, enduring the harsh conditions of early third-class journeys. For all of them, the railways changed their lives in a way that no other development, before or since, has done. For more modern history, a staged ‘evacuation’, with the children being assigned to new ‘foster carers’ at the end of the journey, can provide the basis for a wide range of teaching about the home front during the Second World War.

    For the sciences, we have the physics and mechanics of how steam engines work and the dramatic development of that technology, which meant that the main operating principles of the steam locomotive for the next hundred years had been worked out within about a decade of the opening of the first modern railway, in 1830. Then there are the engineering feats of the giants of railway building such as Brunel and the Stephenson’s, which redefined the boundaries of the possible in railway building.

    For those of us who care about the future of steam locomotion, one of our priorities must surely be to help educators to make the most of this rich history, and use it to fire the enthusiasm of a new generation of steam railwaymen.

    9781445656687

    Stuart Hylton's book Steam Engines and Steam Railways: A Young Person's Guide is available for purchase now.

  • Reading 1800 to the Present Day by Stuart Hylton

    As you may gather from a book whose first chapter deals with the relationship between the town and the motor car, this is not a conventional local history. Most local histories start by taking you back to the earliest origins of a community (in Reading’s case, somewhere around 600AD). Either that or they are rooted in a particular (and often atypical) period of the communities’ history, such as one or other of the world wars or the Civil War.

    Reading 1800 to the Present Day pic 1 Queen Victoria in about 1893, shortly after her installation as a traffic hazard outside the Town Hall. (c. Reading 1800 to the Present Day, Amberley Publishing)

    Interesting and valid as both approaches are, what Edward I said to the towns guild in 1301, or how the community reacted to wartime rationing, does not necessarily add a lot (at least directly) to our understanding of the place in which we live, work and spend our leisure today.

    Over recent years, Reading’s mainstream local history has become ever more fully documented, through the efforts of myself and others, I was looking for a new way of telling the story – ideally one that might be relevant to a wider audience. What I came up with was more of a companion to modern Reading. Explaining how the town as we know it today came about; the institutions, the services, local landmarks, different means of transport, the economy, the shopping centre; in short, anything that characterises the modern town.

    I then looked in reverse at the history of these institutions to try and establish the point at which they took on a recognisably modern form. Anything preceding that is kept to a brief introductory context. The 1800 date in the title tended to be honoured in the breach – after all, the first hundred years of the motor car in the town since 1800 would have made for rather thin reading. (I had wanted to call the book The making of modern Reading, but the publishers wanted a more “does what it says on the tin” type of title).

    Reading 1800 to the Present Day pic 2 Queen Victoria in 2015, safely pedestrianised. (c. Reading 1800 to the Present Day, Amberley Publishing)

    This approach meant focusing on matters that might not normally be given a great deal of attention in a local history. Hence it goes into some detail about the tortured process by which the M4 motorway was planned and built, what became of the M31, the motorway that never was, and why the town centre roads are overloaded. The origins of the Reading Rock Festival, the towns major claim to international fame. How the town transformed itself from a manufacturing to an office-based economy and some of the architectural horrors that were committed along the way. To the evolution of the university, the police force and the welfare state in Reading, and the post-war transformation of the shopping centre.

    I have tried in each chapter to add a little to the readers’ understanding of why the modern town that they know is as it is – for better or worse. As other towns also find their mainstream local history increasingly well documented, this might be a new direction for inveterate scribblers on the subject, like myself, to pursue.

    9781445648316

    Stuart Hylton's book Reading 1800 to the Present Day is available for purchase now.

  • Reading in 50 Buildings by Stuart Hylton

    reading-in-50-buildings-1 Christ Church (Reading in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    It was only after I had agreed to write the Reading edition of Amberley’s ‘…in fifty buildings’ series that I started to have misgivings. I remembered John Betjeman’s words, that “no town in the south of England hides its attractions more successfully from the visitor”. That was in 1949 and the town had since undergone a further two-thirds of a century of rapid growth and change. Reading is at the heart of the most economically dynamic part of the country, and one of the prices that towns tend to pay for success is the destruction of all traces of the past.

    Never was this more true than in the past sixty years. For a start, we have seen the disappearance of the Victorian town’s three staple industries – beer, biscuits and bulbs – that for more than a century had been Reading’s economic life’s blood. The value of the sites they occupied was one factor in their decision to relocate and, sure enough, developers soon swallowed up their land, sweeping away almost all the built evidence that Simond’s beer, Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits or Sutton’s seeds had ever been produced here.

    reading-in-50-buildings-2 The ruins of Reading Abbey today (Reading in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    But development can add to our store of history, as well as take it away. In 1987, as developers were building the Reading Business Park, they started unearthing Bronze Age artefacts. It turned out to be the largest Bronze Age settlement in the south of England, taking our knowledge of the town’s history back to around 1000 B.C. As for more recent evidence of the town’s history, I need not have worried. A gratifying (and surprising) amount of built reminders of the town’s past have survived for us to enjoy - if you know where to look.

    But by now other questions were starting to preoccupy me, such as ‘what criteria should I use to assemble my short list?’ and ‘what is a building’? As for the first question, I ruled out the idea of some sort of beauty contest, of choosing Reading’s fifty most attractive buildings, or of trying to decide which fifty were the most important. Instead, I simply went for fifty that told part of the story of the town, be they architectural gems or eyesores, massive landmarks or humble almshouses. As for ‘what constitutes a building?’, I took it to mean anything that man had built. So, beside the houses, factories, offices, churches and railway stations that you would expect to find in the book, there are canal locks and a pioneering cemetery. One further confession – I cheated a bit on the fifty, as you will find when you reach the final entry.

    reading-in-50-buildings-3 One of the almshouses prior to their development (Reading in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    No built evidence of Roman settlement remains, unless you count the nearby ruins of Silchester, so our story begins in the year 979 – and what a story that one entry tells. It starts with a royal murder, with Edward, would-be future King of England murdered by his stepmother. Penance for this act led to the founding of St. Mary’s Minster Church. Prior even to this King Alfred fought the invading Danes for possession of the land on which it stands. The church was used as a lookout for the incoming Dutch forces during the misnamed ‘bloodless revolution’ of 1688, when William of Orange dispossessed James II of the throne. The revolution was misnamed ‘bloodless’ because a decidedly bloody battle was fought around the church and in the streets of Reading to drive out Irish troops loyal to James. Later the church became one of the first buildings in the world (along with several other Reading landmarks) to be immortalised by pioneer photographer William Henry Fox-Talbot, who based his fledgling business in the town.

    Violence seems to be associated with many of the town’s churches. Both St Peter’s in Caversham and St Giles in Southampton Street were partly destroyed by artillery fire, after being used as gun emplacements during the Civil War siege of the town. As for St Laurence’s in Friar Street, it survived the Civil War, only to have its western front blown out by a World War Two German bomber, which nearly killed the creator of Paddington Bear in the process. Greyfriars church saw a different kind of violence. After the reformation under Henry VIII, it was stripped of any useful building materials and the ruins turned into a particularly degrading and brutal prison.

    reading-in-50-buildings-4 Caversham Park (Reading in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The story of local stately home Caversham Park is like a history of England in miniature. Before 1066 it was the property of the elder brother of King Harold. In the centuries after that, it passed through the hands of many of the most powerful men in Britain (a surprising number of whom seemed to meet sticky ends). Kings and Queens visited the house and, for a short period in the thirteenth century, the whole of England was ruled from the Caversham Park estate. There have been several stately homes on the site over a period of about a thousand years, the latest of them designed by the architect better known for London’s Tower Bridge.

    And so the story goes on – a thousand years of history captured in fifty buildings. I have not even got space in this blog to talk about one of the greatest religious centres in the land, with a church the size of Westminster Abbey; a Victorian prison by one of the century’s greatest architects, modelled on the mediaeval Warwick Castle; the school where Jane Austen got part of her education, right through to a brand-new space age railway station costing £895 millions at last count. Far from worrying about finding fifty buildings to include, my challenge turned out to be knowing what to leave out.

    9781445659343

    Stuart Hylton's new book Reading in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

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