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The History Press blog

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    Richard P. de Kerbrech talks about life working in the belly of the Titanic... 

    Much has been written and documented about the Titanic disaster, but this work (publication) seeks to concentrate on the actual world and workplace of the Titanic’s ‘Black Gang’. In doing so there will be an opportunity to take a journey and have a detailed look at some of the major elements of machinery that one might also have encountered in the engine and boiler rooms of the RMS Titanic and her sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic. This work does not deal with the engine room personnel as individual cases but rather from the human and social factor, with generic descriptions of their jobs and life in the stokehold. This to some may seem somewhat stereotypical. It also deals in some small part with the heroic efforts of the engine room personnel who tried in vain to save the ship following its collision with the iceberg.

    As strange as it may seem no known photographs of the engine and boiler rooms, with machinery in place, of the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic (Yard Nos 400,401 and 433) exist. None even of firemen/stokers at work in their boiler rooms and stokeholds. This seems somewhat ironical when one considers that the Olympic was not converted to oil-burning until 1919–20!

    In an attempt to help compensate for this, any images are from coal-burning vessels contemporaneous with the ‘Olympic’-class ships, such as French Line’s France of 1912 and Cunard’s Aquitania of 1914. The United States Naval Historical Centre have preserved boiler room images of the US Navy’s troopships George Washington, Leviathan, Mount Vernon and Troy. All were built during the Edwardian era and just before the First World War. Three were commandeered German liners, The George Washington completed in 1908 was formerly owned by North German Lloyd, and the Mount Vernon had been the same company’s Kronprinzessen Cecilie completed in 1906. The Leviathan had been Hamburg America Line’s Vaterland, completed in 1914. They were more than likely manned by US Navy conscripts (US: ‘draftees’). Other scenes are from merchant vessels of the coal-burning era, and with one exception show the stokeholds with fire tube, cylindrical or ‘Scotch’ boilers. Most of these engine room photographs may have been posed for the time exposure of film used in its day. Hopefully they may help show the harsh conditions of extreme heat, dimly lit, dirty, and back-breaking environment in which the ‘Black Gang’ toiled. Indeed some are even somewhat ‘Gothic’ in appearance. Originally the ‘Black Gang’, also known as the ‘Black Feet Brigade’, were the firemen/stokers and trimmers who worked in the stokeholds and boiler rooms of coal-burning steamships like the Titanic. Their name derived from their black appearance due to the coating of coal dust on their faces, exposed skin and clothing, and the hot, coal-dust laden atmosphere in which they laboured. Along with coal miners, foundry workers and chimney sweeps, it was a dirty, filthy, grimy job, but unlike these two trades, firemen and trimmers also had to endure the searing heat from open furnaces. In time this would apply to anyone who worked down below among the ‘Black Gang’, like greasers, and also the engineers could be labelled by the same familiar (or perhaps derogatory) sobriquet.

     Richard P. de Kerbrech talks about life working in the belly of the Titanic...

    The title of Fireman or Stoker is interchangeable, as in time the actual distinction has become blurred, but essentially their work was the same. It is believed that the title stoker was a Royal Navy rating, while fireman applied to the same post in the Merchant Navy. It has been written in Commander (E) A. Funge Smith’s book Introduction to Marine Engineering that ‘there are no stokers in the Merchant Navy, the nearest approach to them being the firemen who attend to the fires of the boiler furnaces …’

    The Titanic had twenty-four double-ended boilers and five single-ended boilers. When all the double-enders were fully fired up and operational, they could consume approximately 850 tons of coal per day, or on average 35 tons per hour, and the Titanic had a total bunker capacity of 6,611 tons. It was the ‘Black Gang’s’ job to keep these boilers fed, which meant shovelling a ton of coal into the boiler furnaces every two minutes. Every boiler room was manned by ten firemen and four trimmers. Rarely seen or encountered by the passengers, the ‘Black Gang’ provided the manpower behind the horsepower.

    The stokehold and boiler rooms as terms were also interchangeable, but on the Titanic the boiler rooms were separated by watertight bulkheads, and the stokeholds were the transverse ‘alleys’ from the amidships line of the hull where the boiler fronts were worked.

     Richard P. de Kerbrech talks about life working in the belly of the Titanic...

    Where possible descriptions of the Titanic’s boilers and main engines are from the ship’s actual technical specifications. When these have not been available, technical details from Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture literature contemporaneous with the era of the Titanic (q.v.) are used. As the Titanic was the second of a class of three ships, her earlier sister the Olympic, has been referred to, and also to the last of the trio, the Britannic. Also illustrations and descriptions from those of her sister ships have been used.

    In a work of this nature which has a large amount of technical content it has be necessary to use a degree of technical terms and expressions. Regrettably this has been unavoidable and apologies are due to the general readership who may be from a non-technical background. In order to make the content a little more digestible, where possible the chapters have arranged in an alternate technical description and social history/human element fashion. All units are in Imperial quantities as befitting those used in shipyards of the day, the exception being electrical power which is quoted in watts (W) or kilowatts (kW).

    Where displacement tonnages have been referred to, and masses and weights of machinery and bunker coal, Imperial tons have been used (made up of 2,240lb) which are referred to in the United States as ‘long tons’.

    During the Edwardian era and indeed up until 1922, the Merchant Navy was known as the Mercantile Marine, Merchant Service or Merchant Marine. The British Board of Trade (BoT) was the government department chiefly concerned with safety at sea, the survey of ships in its hands and the examination of Mercantile Marine officers for their Certificates of Competency (‘tickets’).

     Richard P. de Kerbrech talks about life working in the belly of the Titanic...

    Extracted from Down Amongst the Black Gang by Richard P. de Kerbrech.

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    The Harefield Village History Daywill be held on Saturday 26th April 10am – 2pm at Harefield Library (in association with
    The Harefield History Society). 

    Commemorating the centenary of the First World War - they would like to see your memorabilia and listen to your stories.

    During the day they will have:

    • Ancestry Taster Sessions
    • Times Digital Archive
    • Local History Display
    • Representatives from West Middlesex Family History Society
    • Documenting of your photographs and artifacts
    • Dressing up and Refreshments!

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    Black & White


    Turn a radio on in the UK, prior to Easter 1964, searching for pop music and chances are you’d have been disappointed.  There were three radio choices, all provided by the BBC: The Home service, The Third Programme and the Light Programme, unless you were tuning in to the weekly Pick of the Pops programme, it was unlikely that you’d hear any song that was in the charts – unless you wanted a BBC house orchestra’s rendition of the latest Beatles hit.

    The number of recorded songs played by the BBC was strictly limited, by agreement with the Musicians Union and until the arrival of a radio ship moored off the East coast, this situation looked unlikely to change. The BBC itself was also unlikely to be challenged; a recent Government enquiry had found no need or desire for commercial radio. The establishment had radio sewn up.

    Radio Caroline turned radio upside down in Britain. Within days of her first broadcast, an audience of millions had tuned to this ‘pirate’ radio station – the press called them pirates, in truth, Caroline had just found a loophole in the law enabling  broadcasts of pop records and commercials  without the restrictions of ‘needle time’…and without a licence.

    Within months an armada of ‘offshore’ radio stations were bombarding the nation with a constant diet of music presented by disc jockeys, many of them on the brink of becoming household names, and nearly all with something not heard on the BBC – accents.

    The government was outraged; these radio stations and the disc jockeys that broadcast from them were becoming too popular, they had to be controlled, a belief enforced by the need to take action when a shooting resulted in the death of one radio station chief.

    On August 14th 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law, restrictions planned at making it impossible for the stations to continue – all of the radio stations closed down, except for Radio Caroline. The future for Caroline was fraught with danger, drama and dedication by those involved with the organisation and the many that became a part of the ‘Caroline Family’ in the years that followed.

    Fifty years later, a radio station called Caroline, a direct descendant of the original can still be heard, it’s programme legal and now online.  Many question if there’s a need or a future for the station, but 50 years on, Caroline continues.

    Radio Caroline

    Ray Clark once a Radio Caroline disc jockey himself, tells the captivating story of Radio Caroline: The True Story of the Boat that Rocked.

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  • 03/28/14--05:00: The Friday Digest 28/03/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features Victorian street view, the boat that rocked and a guide to pyjama dressing. 

    cover beowulf

     * Nearly 90 years after J R R Tolkien first translated Beowulf,  the Lord of the Rings author’s version is going to be published


    Image (c) Nicola Vaglia - Corriere della Sera


    * A museum in Milan is furious after a student tried to takes a selfie and broke the nineteenth-century Greek-Roman statue that he was sitting on.


    Lorem ipsum. Image from 


    Lorem ipsum has been translated by a Cambridge academic but it remains all Greek to me ...

    The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton


    Tova Mirvis asks if these are the 9 most dysfunctional marriages in literature?  

    The entrance to the "Harry" tunnel


    * Hundreds of people gathered in Zagan, Poland this week to remember the allied prisoners of war who died in The Great Escape of the Second World War.

    Caroline on her way to make history, 1964

    * The pirate that ruled the airwaves: Radio Caroline was the boat that rocked the music business.


    How many tradespeople did it take to dress an eighteenth-century lady?

    * How many tradespeople did it take to dress an eighteenth-century lady?

    Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

    * Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Mary Beard answers that 'stupid question' here.


    Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 13.13.00

    * The Museum Of London seeks help with Victorian street view.  


    * The 1893-96 Ordnance Survey map of London —recently released by the National Library of Scotland – has now been superimposed over a modern Google map.

    Racy back-baring 1930s beach pyjamas, found at "Curves, Patterns and Pins"


    *Beauty and the Beach: A guide to pyjama dressing

    * The official ranking of Jane Austen's 14 leading men, from Darcy to Mr. Collins.


    * Jane Austen and the art of letter writing.

    Photo copyright Walter Henritze


    * Polio may seem like an ancient disease but for many it is still within living memory. The 'iron lung' was the solution devised by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shawin 1927, and which John Emerson improved in 1931.

    Stride & Prejudice


    * Five bookish iPhone games you should be playing right now.

    Prison readingj



    * After it was announced that prisons would be banning books being sent to prisoners, there was outrage with many claiming that the idea is not just nasty but bizarre too. But what do you think about the ban? 

    Via Flickr: 8725928@N02 cc Cinderella flees the ball. (Arthur Rackham, 1919)


    * 15 breathtaking illustrations of fairy tales from the 1920s.

    Presley in Aloha from Hawaii, broadcast live via satellite on January 14, 1973. The singer himself came up with his famous outfit's eagle motif, as "something that would say 'America' to the world."


    * Was Elvis Presley destined to die early? The Channel 4 programme Dead Famous DNA analysed samples of hair said to have belonged to the singing legend and found genes linked to several medical conditions.

    Image: Nationalist troops arrive in Madrid, 1939. ©Teresa Avellanosa via Flickr


     * The Spanish Civil War 75 Years On: What are we commemorating?

    Tony Benn speaking at Levellers Day, Burford (2008) [Wikicommons]


    * As Tony Benn was buried on Thursday, Clare Griffiths shares her memories of this 'man of history'.


    Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Christina Keith's graduation photo

    I never knew Christina Keith, but she was my grandmother’s eldest sister. She died in 1963, just a  few months after my parents became engaged. In her will she made a gift to my father, her nephew, ‘to help him start off in his married life’. In our family home there was an exceptionally long bookcase, which caused problems to the removal men each time we moved house. That bookcase had belonged to Christina Keith, or ‘Auntie Tiny’ as she was known within the family. She was one among a host of legendary relatives whose names I knew, an intellectual who was somewhat eccentric and took her tins to the nearby hotel to be opened because she couldn’t use a tin opener.

    That was largely the extent of my awareness of Auntie Tiny until November 2011, when my father first showed me her manuscript memoir from 1918 to '19. In this short book Christina, using the pseudonym ‘A Fool in France’, recounts her experiences as a young lecturer to the troops in France at the end of the First World War. It is a story in two parts. In the first she recalls life at the base among men who were desperate to be allowed home, while the second part describes an astonishing journey which she and a female companion took across the devastated battlefields just four months after the Armistice. From the moment I read the memoir I was captivated. I wanted to know more about Christina, her life, her background and the scheme which had taken her to France. Here was a truly fresh insight into life in France as the First World War came to a close.

    I am glad that Christina wrote down her experiences. She disguised the identities of those about whom she wrote, which suggests that she always intended her story for wider circulation, and her brother appears to have tried to find a publisher for the book after her death, but without success. Yet now, a century later, Christina’s story is worth telling for a number of reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that the First World War is one of the most-discussed periods in recent history, Christina describes aspects of that time which have never been particularly widely known, saying herself, ‘I suppose we were one of the freak stunts of the War. You have probably never heard of us and would not have believed us true if you had.’

    She travelled to France as part of the army’s education scheme, which was implemented by the YMCA. Based in Dieppe, she observed at first hand the workings of the ‘Lines of Communication’, the immense logistical infrastructure which existed behind the front line during the four years of conflict. The fighting armies needed to be supplied with weaponry, clothing, food and equipment, which involved drivers, engineers, bakers and clerks among many others. The Remount Service supplied and cared for the horses which were still an intrinsic part of the army during this conflict. The tremendous feat of organisation involved in the Lines of Communication contributed hugely to the British Army’s ability to sustain and ultimately prevail in such a prolonged conflict, yet the role played by tens of thousands of men and women behind the lines has generally been overlooked in favour of the more dramatic, glorious and tragic stories from the front line.

    Christina set out for this world of base soldiers, rest camps and service huts in October 1918, just in time to participate in the newly launched education scheme. There had been educational provision for the men throughout the war, although not on the scale of this new scheme. The YMCA had played a significant role in caring for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the men since the outbreak of war. From officers’ rest clubs in French towns to huts in army camps where female volunteers served tea and provisions to the men, from reading rooms and organised sports to the provision of accommodation near hospitals for the relatives of wounded soldiers, the YMCA’s contribution to boosting morale touched men right across the army, and yet is little remembered today.

    We are familiar with accounts of the trenches, but Christina’s narrative sheds light on a parallel existence which was taking place only a few miles from the front line. Most soldiers moved between these two interdependent scenes, two parts of the same whole which made up the British soldier’s experience of northern France in the First World War. And yet Christina’s story is more than simply a picture of life behind the lines. In March 1919, with four days’ leave, she and a female companion (known only as ‘the Hut Lady’) managed to negotiate permission to travel by train into the War Zone. Her ambition was to ‘see where my brothers have been and all the things they’ve never told me of these weary years’. This remarkable journey of two British women across a devastated landscape provides a vivid and compelling eyewitness account of a world which can only have existed in that form for a very short time.

    The statue of the Virgin balanced on top of Albert Cathedral, before it was finally brought down by British shelling. ‘The Virgin has fallen, you see,’ said the officer soflty beside me.’

    The names of the places they visited – Arras, Vimy Ridge, Thiepval, Cambrai – are today still synonymous with slaughter. French refugees were living in abandoned army dugouts. Tanks, clothing and weaponry lay littered across the battlefield. The war graves were not grassy fields with neat white lines of stones, but groups of rough wooden crosses stuck in yellow mud and water. The sense is of a land which, now that the guns had fallen silent, was stunned by what had happened to it.

    Few women had reached these parts, a fact emphasised by the surprise and delight with which Christina and her friend were met by soldiers at every turn. They knew they were privileged to pass through the army zone before much of the debris had been cleaned up – ‘while it is like this and before the tourists come’, said the Hut Lady. Christina described those four days as ‘a dreamworld, where everything happened after the heart’s desire on a background of infinite horror’.

    Christina’s manuscript thus draws our attention to people, places and events which are half-forgotten, but what is even more remarkable is the perspective from which this narrative is written. There are many first-hand accounts of different facets of the First World War – the rise of general literacy levels ensured that this conflict was documented on a personal level to an extent that had never happened before. However the majority of diaries, letters and memoirs are, naturally, by men. There are several vivid accounts by nurses working in clearing stations and base hospitals, but Christina was a very different woman to these – and would probably have made a terrible nurse! Christina was an intellectual, a high-flying academic from a generation which was breaking down barriers in women’s education. She had spent most of her adult life in the cloistered, middle-class environment of academia, living in all-female residences, and was accustomed to teaching university-level students. In 1918 she found herself in the male-dominated world of the army, meeting, working with and teaching men of all abilities and all classes, with a keen eye to observe all that went on around her. Hers is a truly fresh perspective on the events of the period. Christina’s perspective and her frankness give us an insight into the attitudes held by those of her background at that time, and some of those attitudes can surprise us and even make us feel rather uncomfortable today. Christina came from a class and a generation which were still strongly tied to the Victorian values of the era into which she had been born. Thus, although she was a woman who clearly had no intention of letting her gender limit her academic potential, she was not a feminist as we might see it today. She took a pride in not conforming to what might be expected of a woman, referring to herself as ‘a bluestocking who had never cooked a dinner in her life’, yet she still expected men to treat her in a particular way, and was offended when they did not – as for example with the American soldiers who did not move their belongings to make more space for her on the train. She was perfectly willing to adopt the persona of a helpless female if she felt it would help her get her way.

    War graves by a railway line. ‘May the earth lie light – be light – under the wooden crosses'

    Early twentieth-century society was very clearly divided along class lines, and perhaps nowhere was that emphasised more explicitly than in the army, with the division between officers and other ranks. Throughout her narrative Christina wrote with warmth and respect about the ordinary British soldier, and there is no doubting the admiration she had for the men she met – but equally there is no missing the paternalistic tone, and the breadth of the chasm which existed between her own world and the lower classes. At a time when the Russian Revolution was frighteningly recent and the military powers were constantly watchful for signs of mutiny in the ranks, those in authority were expected to reinforce social hierarchies, and Christina’s colleague who dared to give secret lectures on socialism was quickly removed. Christina’s narrative reveals much about prevailing attitudes to gender, to class and also to race. With regard to her own nationality Christina was a passionate Scot, missing no opportunity to identify with other Scots and to praise her own people and traditions. Perhaps influenced by Sir Walter Scott, of whom she would later write a biography, the more tartan and Highland the better! And yet in an apparent contradiction she frequently referred to herself as an Englishwoman. It seems that in the days before nationalism had become a significant political force in Scotland, Christina was using ‘English’ interchangeably with ‘British’. And there was absolutely no doubt in her mind that the British were the greatest race on earth.

    In the immediate aftermath of the war it is perhaps not surprising that her attitude to Germany was scornful and even offensive. Once again this reflects the widely held mood of the nation, reinforced by the press. What is perhaps more surprising is that this scorn was not merely reserved for the enemy but also for Britain’s allies. The Germans are referred to throughout as ‘the Boche’, the Chinese labourers as ‘Chinks’. The French are careless and cruel to animals, the Portuguese are ‘the worst-behaved of all the Allies’, and the Americans are dismissed as selfish and unreliable. Only the Australians and the Canadians – notably both loyal members of the British Empire – seem worthy of her respect.

    British imperialistic superiority was alive and well. As she came up alongside men and women of different social backgrounds and from different nationalities, Christina was candid in her opinions and thus reveals to us much about attitudes which were commonplace in the early twentieth century.

    But alongside all the interesting historical information we can glean from her writing, Christina’s narrative is worthy of a wide readership because of the simple humanity of her story. Here is a woman who lived through the war, whose brothers served in the fighting and who lost people dear to her, but who says little of her own experiences. Yet despite the sorrow and tragedy which exist as a quiet undertone, here too is a woman eager to grasp the opportunities which this war gave to her. And therein lies the contradiction, for Christina as for many others. In the midst of conflict there was opportunity. In the midst of horror there was comradeship. The cost of this war was unprecedented and appalling, but there were those for whom it opened doors – to new places, to new friendships, to new skills, or simply to a new way of looking at the world. For Christina Keith, these six months in Dieppe were a window of freedom in a life restricted by the boundaries of convention. She revelled in meeting new people, encountering new viewpoints, welcoming a wealth of new experiences and even in having her preconceptions challenged. The enchantment of it all lay as much in the fact that she and those around her knew that this world they inhabited was a fleeting one, that they would be required to return to the restrictions and realities of British routine. They could not yet know that the magnitude of what they had lived through meant that British society would never again be the same. 


    War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front

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    They Did not Grow Old


    TiTim Lynch will be at Upton Library on Tuesday 15th April talking about his book, They Did Not Grow Old: Teenage Conscripts on the Western Front, 1918

    Looking beyond the war as portrayed by poets and playwrights, Tim Lynch tells the story of Britain’s true Unknown Soldiers – the teenage conscripts who won the war only to be forgotten by history. These were not the naïve recruits of 1914 who believed it would all be over by Christmas, but young men who had grown up in wartime – men who knew about the trenches, the gas and the industrialised slaughter, but who, when their time came, answered their country’s call anyway. For the first time, following the experiences of a typical reinforcement draft, this book explores what turned men so often dismissed as ‘shirkers’ into a motivated, efficient and professional army, but it also reminds us that in the cemeteries of France and Flanders, behind every headstone is a personal story. 

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    They Did not Grow Old


    TiTim Lynch will be at Sheffield Library on Tuesday 8th April talking about his book, They Did Not Grow Old: Teenage Conscripts on the Western Front, 1918

    Looking beyond the war as portrayed by poets and playwrights, Tim Lynch tells the story of Britain’s true Unknown Soldiers – the teenage conscripts who won the war only to be forgotten by history. These were not the naïve recruits of 1914 who believed it would all be over by Christmas, but young men who had grown up in wartime – men who knew about the trenches, the gas and the industrialised slaughter, but who, when their time came, answered their country’s call anyway. For the first time, following the experiences of a typical reinforcement draft, this book explores what turned men so often dismissed as ‘shirkers’ into a motivated, efficient and professional army, but it also reminds us that in the cemeteries of France and Flanders, behind every headstone is a personal story. 

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    Scottish Independence: Yes or No


    Alan Cochrane and George Kerevan at SNP Party Conference, Aberdeen on 11th and 12th of April signing copies of their new book, Scottish Independence: Yes or No

    In September 2014, a referendum will be held in Scotland to decide whether or not Scotland should become independent and cease to be part of the United Kingdom. In this book, two of the nation’s leading political commentators will address both sides of this historic debate. George Kerevan will put forward the case for voting Yes, and Alan Cochrane will make the case for voting No. In this volume, the first title in this Great Debate series, the authors will present the distinctive arguments for both sides, fully preparing you to make up your own mind on a decision that will shape the future of Scotland and of Great Britain. 

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    Royal Marriage Secrets


    John Ashdown-Hill will be at Lincoln Cathedral on 26th April giving a lecture. He will also be signing copies of his book, Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts & Concubines, Bigamists & Bastards

    With a new royal baby we witness fundamental changes in the succession laws, but then rules governing the royal weddings and the succession to the throne have always been shifting. So what is MARRIAGE and who decides? What special rules govern ROYAL MARRIAGE and when did they come into force? How have royal marriages affected history? Were the ‘Princes in the Tower’ illegitimate? Did Henry VIII really have six wives? Was Queen Victoria ‘Mrs Brown’? how were royal consorts chosen in the past? Did some use witchcraft to win the Crown? History has handled debateable royal marriages in various ways, but had the same rules been applied consistently, the order of succession would have been completely different. Here, all controversial English and British royal marriages are reassessed together for the first time to explore how different cases can shed light on one another. Surveying the whole phenomenon of disputed royal marriage, the author offer some intriguing new evidence, while highlighting common features and points of contrast. 

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    The Fallen


    John Garfield will be at Waterstones, West Quay Southampton on 12th April signing copies of his book, The Fallen: A Photographic Journey Through the War Cemeteries and Memorials of the Great War 1914-18

    The years since the Armistice in 1918 have undoubtedly proved that the cemeteries of the First World War have admirably fulfilled their tragic and sombre purpose. John Garfield captures the poignancy of those cemeteries in Flanders, Marne, Aisne, Artois, Ypres Salient, Gallipoli, Verdun, The Somme, Italy and Macedonia with exceptional photographs. Each is complemented with a short description of the campaigns and with quotations from the contemporary war literature. In a final chapter, 'The Aftermath'€™, John Garfield examines the memorials to the dead and murdered from the battlefields, cities and concentration camps of the Second World War, and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

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    Ceredigion Folk Tales


    Peter Stevenson will be at Awen Teifi on Sunday 20th March from 12pm, storytelling and signing copies of his new book, Ceredigion Folk Tales

    Ceredigion is a land shaped by mythology, where mermaids and magic mix with humans and where ordinary people achieve extraordinary things. This is a captivating collection of traditional and modern stories, including the submerged city of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the ‘Welsh Atlantis’, how the Devil came to build a bridge over the Rheidol, the elephant that died in Tregaron, and how the Holy Grail came to Nanteos. All the while the tylwyth teg (the Welsh fairies) and changelings run riot through the countryside. Storyteller and illustrator Peter Stevenson takes us on a tour of a county steeped in legend, encountering ghosts, witches and heroes at every turn. 

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    St Ives Then & Now


    St. Ives Archive will be at Carbis Bay Memorial Hall on Saturday 25th April launching their new book, St Ives Then & Now

    With its award-winning beaches and restaurants, St Ives is today a popular holiday destination. In past times, however, the Downlong Streets were just as busy, bustling with large families filling tiny cottages, spilling out onto the cobbled streets to chat and gossip, play, and mend nets. The town itself has changed little but its economy has transformed; the seine nets, luggers, fishermen, quarries and mines have been replaced by pleasure craft, bathers, crowded beaches and busy streets. Volunteers at the St Ives Trust Archive have combined forty -five beautiful and carefully selected old images with forty -five modern photos to illustrate the dramatic changes in St Ives. Residents and visitors alike will be fascinated by this new book which will appeal to all who know and love this delightful part of Cornwall. 

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    New information suggests Henry VIII only had five wives...  

    Which of Henry VIII's wives was the odd one out?

    The fact that Henry VIII had six wives is one of the few historical ‘facts’ that nearly everyone knows.

    However, new research by historian Dr Eurt Ton from the Swedish University of Historical Research shows that Henry never actually married wife number four, Anne of Cleeves. Their ‘union’ was blessed during a ceremony in the chapel at Hampton Court, but the marriage service itself was postponed indefinitely.

    Legal documents setting out Anne’s rights to English land and an income from Parliament clearly state that the wedding would only take place “at such a time as lady Anne shall deem her rights and lands in England settled to the satisfaction of her Lord King Henry and the Duke and Duchess of Cleves”.

    New information suggests Henry VIII only had five wives...  

    Famously dubbed ‘The Mare of Flanders’ by Henry, Anne was actually the luckiest of all the King’s female companions. She met Henry socially on regular occasions, and was dubbed by him “The King’s Beloved Sister”. She was given swathes of land including Richmond Palace, Hever Castle and a large chunk of Sussex. Narrowly avoiding marrying Henry when his fifth (or fourth) wife Catherine Howard was beheaded, Anne outlived the King’s final wife and widow Catherine Parr by nine years.

    Dr Eurt Ton will be releasing a full transcription of the document containing details of the marriage-that-never-was later this week. Meanwhile, several thousand history books will need rewriting...

    Admittedly, this isn't entirely true. Anne of Cleeves did marry Henry VIII but was never actually confirmed as the Queen Consort. Anne was certainly from the correct lineage to be queen. She claimed King Edward I as an ancestor... as did Henry's first two wives, and also the three that followed Anne. And although she was never actually Queen, Anne certainly seems to have been welcomed by everyone within the wide circle of Henry’s Court. The former servants of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn (wife number two) received her gladly as their mistress at Anne’s estates in Norfolk; as did Catherine Parr’s staff (wife number six… or five), when Anne of Cleeves moved into the  former Queen’s Chelsea palace towards the end of her life. She was also a great friend of Henry’s daughters and queens-to-be, Mary and Elizabeth. Mary, ascending the throne as Mary I in 1553, asked Anne to reconvert to Catholicism, which she willingly agreed to. Had she not died before Elizabeth’s reign, Anne would surely have agreed to convert back to the Anglican faith too.

    Odd One Out - Paul Sullivan

    For more fascinating snippets of little-known history please check out Odd One Out: The Devilish Quiz for History Lovers by Paul Sullivan. Happy April Fool's...

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    The visible remnants of our social and business history are all around us – in the form of faded signs and adverts – sometimes known as ghostsigns. These are particularly prevalent in towns and cities with industrial pasts, including mining towns, factory-orientated areas and dockside communities such as Gloucester.

    Gloucester has a surprising number of these historic signs, including those for unique local businesses, well-known brands such as Nestlé and Hovis, and the many warehouses and merchants that operated from the docks. These signs offer revealing glimpses into the past that give clues about the buying habits, business models and design styles of the last two hundred years.

     Lea & Co were well-established house furnishers and antique dealers, whose premises once took up practically the entire length of St. Aldate Street

    (Lea & Co were well-established house furnishers and antique dealers, whose premises once took up practically the entire length of St. Aldate Street

    The contentious issue facing such signs today is whether to protect and maintain them or leave them to gradually disappear. Some receive protection from being adorned to listed buildings, but for the most part, their preservation is down to a mixture of good fortune and the discretion of building owners. I tend to lean towards protecting them where sensible to do so, whereas others argue that their coming and going is an inevitable bi-product of urban evolution and the somewhat fleeting nature of business. It is, of course, true that it would be impractical to protect every sign that a business leaves behind, and many signs are not missed, however, I think it is important to recognise that signs of a certain age are valuable pieces of history, and the fortuity with which they have survived up until now should be celebrated by preserving them further. Although the timespans are vastly different you could compare it to an archaeologist preserving fossils because they recognise their historical significance. The question is how one decides what is worthy of preservation, is it a matter of age, of local importance, or of aesthetic taste?

    Talbot's Bottlers (Gloucester) Ltd, Wholesale Beer Bottlers - The company proudly claimed the 'richest award' at the Great International Health Exhibition in London

    (Talbot's Bottlers (Gloucester) Ltd, Wholesale Beer Bottlers - The company proudly claimed the 'richest award' at the Great International Health Exhibition in London)

    Regardless of whether these signs are protected or not, one thing we can do to record their existence is to photograph them. In Fading Ads of Gloucester I have done just this. I have documented as many of the city's old signs and adverts as possible, and offer some fascinating insights into Gloucester's history as a result. It is definitely worth stopping to look around sometimes – you never know what you might spot.

    Fading Ads of Gloucester by Chris West

    Find out more about Gloucester's hidden history before it fades away, with Fading Ads of Gloucester by Chris West.

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    The Poltergeist Prince of London


    James Clark and Shirley Hitchings will be at The Vaults Basement Bar, London from 8pm giving a talk about their book, The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist.  

    Hosted by the London Fortean Club
    8pm Thursday 24 April 2014
    £3 / £2 concessions
    The Vaults Basement Bar, Dirty Dicks, 202 Bishopsgate, City of London EC2M 4NR
    Nearest station is Liverpool Street.
    For full details click here

    Battersea, 1956: A poltergeist outbreak is fantastical enough, but a poltergeist that learns to communicate details of an apparent previous life? And a life that begins to sound like that of the Lost Dauphin of Revolutionary France? Studying the poltergeist’s claims researcher Harold Chibbett was forced to wonder: could ‘Donald’ really be the spirit of the Louis-Charles, tragic son of Marie Antoinette?

    Shirley Hitchings, the centre of these events and co-author of ‘The Poltergeist Prince of London’ with James Clark, discusses her experiences with Alan Murdie, Chairman of the Ghost Club and regular Fortean Times contributor on ghosts.

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  • 04/04/14--04:00: The Friday Digest 04/04/14
  • THP Friday digest 

    This week's update features the skeletons of victims of the Black Death, a First World War project that really builds up a picture of individuals serving during the war, and the best thrillers and crime writting by women. 

    Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate. Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

    Skeleton from a victim of the Black Death (Source:


    * Facilitator Jessica Haldeman discusses one of the aims of a session on Georgian Women, which drew parallels between the constructions of ideal femininity in this period and today. 


    * According to Reddit user Alxmog1, students at Xavier High School in New York wrote to their favorite authors as part of an assignment. Vonnegut was the only one to respond, and while he said he would not be able to make a visit, his inspiring letter made up for it with with wit and charm.



    * Take a look at the lives of the First World War database. This ambitious idea, being led by the IWM, is one of the flagship projects of the centenary. It will allow users to build up a picture of those who served during the war from official sources and user-submitted information and pictures, contributing to a permanent digital memorial.



    *  Crime, thrillers, and mysteries are generally thought of as genres written by and for men, most likely because they’re so violent. You might think of the Stephen King novel you had to hide under the covers as a kid, or the James Patterson books that fly off the shelves at the airport, or the sadistic trilogies from Scandinavian authors whose names you inevitably pronounce incorrectly. But in fact, some research shows that female readers are more drawn to non-fiction crime books than male readers are. Elle Magazine take a look at the 10 best thrillers and crime writting by women


    A recent lawsuit brought before the U.S. District Court in New York offers readers a glimpse into a battle raging behind the scenes in traditional publishing. The dispute, between authors and publishers, has been going on for several years and there are times it affects which titles you're able to get as e-books.



    * Hope for greater book coverage dwindle as the BBC axe the Review Show, asked in last week's Radio Times if she would like to see more "programmes that cater for bookworms", Kirsty Wark replied: "I have to be diplomatic because there's going to be a big announcement about BBC Arts".


    * Lisa Campbell Foyles' new flagship "bookshop for the 21st century" will open its doors in June with a three-week Grand Opening Festival. The Foyles flagship is moving to 107 Charing Cross Road from its former home down the road at 113-117, oh we do love a good new bookshop! 


    * The stand-off in Ukraine has revived memories of the Cold War, but for many under the age of 40 the events of that conflict now seem far off. The US, UK and France were allied with the communist Soviet Union during World War Two, but as it became clear victory in the war was approaching new battle lines started to be drawn. Take a look at the six key moments of the cold war relived


    What are the great sentences in genre fiction? What makes a world-class literary sentence, and can genre writers ever compete with stylists such as Jane Austen or James Joyce? Literary editor, Claire Armitstead, takes a look. 

    * There are a great many Victorian domestic dangers, perhaps the most unsual is repoted in an artical titled 'Death from falling into a tub of scalding beer'. With clippings and articles from the Victorian age, the is ceratinly an interesting read.

    * For most of us, the 'slang' that we use today is thought to be a rather modern concept. Perhaps due to researches aim to record these new adaptations of the English language to update such things as the Oxford Dictionary. As Jonathon Green set out to compile a dictionary of contemporary slang, he has found that we are not quite as modern as we think; phrases thought to be used only in recent decades have in fact been found in books dating from 1705! So just when did we pick up this ‘slang’ that we use today? 


     Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    A map of the subordinate plans of Operation Bodyguard, the 1944 deception in support of the Allied invasion of Normandy (D-Day). Image from

    Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Hesketh was a member of General Eisenhower’s deception unit, Ops B, and was a key figure in Operation Fortitude, the great Allied deception carried out against the Germans to support the Normandy campaign. After the war, Hesketh wrote a book on Fortitude, and in it he asked the question: of all the elements employed to deceive the enemy, from the fake runways and aircraft, to the dummy airborne troops, and the double agents feeding disinformation, which one had the greatest effect? Which part of Fortitude had actually fooled the Germans?

    On examining the German records after the war, and interviewing their commanders, one key piece stood out over all the others: MI5’s Spanish double agent ‘Garbo’ and his message of 9th June 1944 to German intelligence in which he warned that the Normandy landings were a trap meant to divert the best Germans troops away from the Pas-de-Calais. Other factors had helped, Hesketh concluded, not least the other double agents feeding the Germans the story of a fictional build-up of Allied troops around Dover. But it was Garbo’s D+3 message that made Hitler himself give the counter order that stopped the powerful German reserves in France and Belgium from attacking the Allied soldiers struggling to get a toe-hold on the Normandy coastline.

    Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of German high command, said as much himself. When shown the text of Garbo’s message after the war he agreed that it had been the reason why the Führer ordered his crack reserves to stay close to the narrowest part of the Channel.

    ‘There you have your answer,’ he said. ‘If I were writing a history I would say, with ninety-nine per cent certainty, that that message provided the reason for the change of plan.’

    No other double agent or factor within the deception set up had such a dramatic and powerful effect. Garbo - an ordinary-looking yet highly imaginative and complex Spaniard called Juan Pujol - was the single most important part of the success of Fortitude.

    ‘Taking the evidence a a whole,’ Hesketh concluded, ‘the reader will probably agree that GARBO’s report decided the issue.’

    Other double agents working for MI5 played important roles in the success of Fortitude - notably ‘Brutus’ (Roman Czerniawski) and ‘Tricycle’ (Dušan Popov). But Brutus’ loyalties were always first and foremost to Poland, while Tricycle had effectively been taken off Fortitude in the months before D-Day owing to doubts over his cover. Those who were involved at the time were in no doubt that Garbo was the truly indispensable member of the double cross team.

    ‘Garbo was the man who developed into our real star,’ wrote Ewen Montagu, ‘probably out-doing even Tricycle.’

    John Masterman, who ran the XX Committee overseeing the double cross system, agreed. A fan of cricketing analogies, Masterman described Garbo in these terms, comparing him with one of the earlier - and ultimately disappointing - double agents, ‘Snow’: ‘If in the double cross world SNOW was the W.G. Grace of the early period, then GARBO was certainly the Bradman of the later years.’ International cricket was suspended during the war, but Australia’s Donald Bradman was the leading batsman of the day. Today, he is not only regarded as the finest cricketer ever, but possibly the greatest athlete of any sport. Masterman was describing his double agent in the most flattering terms he could think of. The Garbo case, he concluded, was nothing short of ‘the most highly developed example’ of the art of deception.

    And would the invasion of Normandy have succeeded without the deception plan? Could all those thousands of soldiers have managed to fight their way off the beaches and deep into France had Fortitude not been set up to protect them from the best German troops then available in Western Europe?

    Some historians prefer to downplay the importance of Fortitude, yet Allied commanders at the time were convinced that it was pivotal. It was the reason why the deception was carried out in the first place.

    Considering the numbers of German troops available in France and Belgium, and the speed with which the Allies could get men and equipment on shore, the success of Fortitude was not a mere bonus that would help keep casualty rates down, it was crucial to the success of the invasion itself. Deception planners in London had already envisaged a scenario where no deception was carried out, estimating a timetable showing how quickly the Germans would pour men into the invasion area once the assault started. If the enemy correctly assumed that Normandy was it - that there was no second invasion coming in the Pas-de-Calais - and as a result sent the bulk of its forces in to repel the invaders, then by D+25 they would have some thirty-one divisions in Normandy, including nine Panzer divisions. That scale of build-up, Eisenhower and the other Allied commanders knew, was impossible to match. They had the floating Mulberry harbours, which they could use to ship supplies and men into France at a rapid rate. But even with these it would not be enough to bring in enough soldiers and armour to combat such imposing numbers.

    ‘In short,’ historian Stephen Ambrose concluded, ‘if Fortitude did not work, if the Germans pulled their Fifteenth Army away from the Pas-de-Calais and hurled it against Normandy, Overlord would fail.’

    In a conflict involving so many millions of people, in which so many died, it seems frivolous, perhaps, to boil it all down to one or two men, a mere handful whose words and decisions changed the course of history. Other factors could also have had a decisive effect on the success of D-Day - the weather in the Channel over those crucial few days in early June, for example. And others also played their part - not least the soldiers who landed on the beaches, risking their lives to begin the slow process of liberating Europe from the Nazis. And yet the importance not only of the deception operation, but of Garbo’s role in it, seems incontrovertible, as Eisenhower himself later acknowledged to Pujol’s case officer, Tomás Harris.

    ‘You know,’ he told Harris after the war, ‘your work with Mr Pujol most probably amounts to the equivalent of a whole army division. You have saved a lot of lives.’



    Jason Webster is the author of The Spy With 29 Names, published by Chatto & Windus.  For more information visit

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    File:King Henry V from NPG.jpg

    On this day, 9 April, 599 years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. It snowed heavily in London that day. Writing a few years later, but before the king died in 1422, Thomas Walsingham, the resident chronicler at St Albans Abbey, recalled two interpretations of this unseasonable weather. Some thought it portended that the king would be cold hearted and rule his subjects harshly; others took it as an omen that vice would be frozen and new virtues would flourish in the coming spring.    Both were correct.  Walsingham may even have introduced the rival interpretations of the omen to make a veiled criticism of the king.  Yes, he had brought a new beginning, a restoration of law and order and a revival of military success.  But as the reign had progressed, he had become increasingly arbitrary in his actions and rapacious in his demands. How would it all end? 

    And in a similar way over the centuries historians have continued to disagree about Henry.  On one side he has been characterised as the greatest man who ever ruled England; a national hero; the exemplification of the chivalric ideal; the man who came closer than any other to embodying the contemporary ideal of the just king; a ruler who possessed all the characteristics expected of a medieval monarch and more - a charismatic leader, a brilliant soldier, and a gifted administrator. On the other hand, he has been described as a fanatic, cruel, sadistic, sanctimonious, priggish, a hypocrite and a warmonger. 

    As we approach the six hundredth anniversary of his famous victory at Agincourt how should we remember him: as a conquering hero who helped put the great into Great Britain; or a warmonger who led his country into a futile war of foreign conquest?  Should we celebrate him as one of our greatest kings, or should we remember him as a ruler who led his kingdom astray in the vain pursuit of power and glory?  Six hundred years ago England was a little country on the edge of the continent that punched above its weight in European affairs. Does Henry V’s brief and spectacular reign hold any lessons for Britain’s role in Europe today?

     A. J. Pollard

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     Isambard Kingdom Brunel

    Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth and lived in London for almost all his life. Yet it is Bristol, a city where he never had any permanent residence, which jealously regards him as its own. Brunel gave the city its trademark Clifton Suspension Bridge and built its peerless rail link to London. In Bristol’s harbour, his mighty iron steamship, SS Great Britain, arguably the forerunner of all modern ships, is one of England’s leading heritage attractions.

    It was not always like this. Many of his Bristolian contemporaries took a rather dim view of him. To John Latimer, Bristol’s great Victorian journalist and historian, Brunel was ‘an inexperienced theorist, enamoured of novelty, prone to seek for difficulties rather than to evade them, and utterly indifferent as to the outlay which his recklessness entailed upon his employers’. Too often, said Latimer, Brunel was allowed to ‘indulge his passion for experiments and novelties’ when what was needed was hard-headed common sense. Brunel, he went on, had done nothing to prevent Bristol’s relative commercial decline as a port, and may even have hastened it. When a new railway station was built at Temple Meads, it was to replace Brunel’s original building which was widely derided by Bristolians.

     Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge

    In 1930, a painting by Ernest Board entitled Some Who Have Made Bristol Famous was presented to Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery. This is a fanciful group portrait of figures from different eras in the city’s past. It requires an expert knowledge of Bristol’s history to name even a few of the thirty-nine local worthies in this immense daub, and hardly any will be known to a visitor from elsewhere. Several members of the Wills tobacco dynasty merit inclusion (one of them probably commissioned the painting); but of Brunel there is no trace. By 1930 he had been written out of Bristol’s history and, by and large, out of the nation’s history too. You will find scant mention of him, for instance, in children’s books on significant figures in national or engineering history before the 1980s.

     Brunel's SS Great Britain

    It is very different nowadays. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics featured Sir Kenneth Branagh as Brunel, choreographing and conducting the Industrial Revolution. Brunel, we were given to understand, was not just a key figure in British history, but one of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world.

    Brunel’s rehabilitation took many years, but had been complete ten years or more before the Olympiad. In a series of programmes in 2002, the BBC asked the public to vote on who they thought were the greatest Britons of all time, with a succession of celebrities, historians and media pundits advocating their own favourites. The case for Brunel was made forcefully by Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson: ‘Brunel built modern Britain and Britain built the world, which means Brunel built the world’. In the national poll, by telephone and internet, Winston Churchill took first place with 410,000 votes and Brunel came second with 350,000.

     PocketGIANTS: Brunel

    PocketGiants: Brunel is available from The History Press today...

    Journalist, author and researcher Eugene Byrne was born in Ireland, grew up in Somerset and studied history at Lancaster before moving to Bristol in 1981, where he has lived ever since. As a journalist he has contributed hard news and history/heritage stories to innumerable publications, including most national newspapers. He has also written a number of science fiction novels and short stories. 

    His first love remains history, and he contributes articles about history and heritage to a range of publications, including BBC History Magazine. He is also currently editor of the ‘Bristol Times’ local history section of the Bristol Post newspaper. In recent years he has worked with artist Simon Gurr to produce three history books in graphic form – a history of Bristol and biographies of Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His latest book is Unbuilt Bristol (Redcliffe Press, 2013), about some of the various unrealised building projects proposed for the city at one time or another. He is currently working with local military historian Clive Burlton on a book about Bristol’s part in the First World war, to be published for the 2014 centenary of the War’s outbreak.

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     G. J. Cooper on the RMS Titanic's Captain Smith

    Shortly after 5a.m., on Wednesday 10 April 1912, dawn broke over Southampton with the promise of calm weather. At the docks, the Titanic, securely warped into White Star’s berth number 44, showed a little more activity aboard her than there had been over the last six days. The ship-keeping crew, headed by Chief Officer Henry Wilde, were up early getting the vessel ready for the busy day ahead.

    At ‘Woodhead’, their home in Winn Road, Ted and Eleanor Smith were also up early that morning perhaps taking breakfast together before he set off for work. The chances are that the couple were alone in the house apart from the cook and the maid, Melville may have been away at boarding school and so perhaps missed seeing her father before he set off aboard the Titanic.

     G. J. Cooper on the RMS Titanic's Captain Smith

    Breakfast over, Smith then spent a little time in his study that morning, packing his bag and sorting whatever documents he needed for the voyage and it was here in ‘the sacred room of his’4, as Eleanor herself recalled, that the couple said their farewells. Then, at a little before 7a.m., Smith donned his overcoat and bowler hat before setting off as usual.

    It was spring and outside, as a reporter later noted, the early flowers were coming into bloom in the captain’s garden. As he made his way down the path, Smith spotted the paper lad, eleven-year-old Albert ‘Ben’ Benham, coming out of next door’s garden, so he paused at the gate. ‘All right son,’ said Smith when the boy noticed him standing there, ‘I’ll take my paper.’

    Ben handed the paper over then moved on to finish his round. It had hardly been the most dramatic moment in history, but young Benham would remember that brief meeting for the rest of his life.

    Smith had probably ordered a taxi to take him down to the docks as Winn Road was some distance from the noisy bustling harbour front and his route would have taken him through the centre of Southampton before turning down the hill towards the sea. From here there was a clear view down to the waterfront and the Titanic’s four funnels would have been easily visible, towering over the neighbouring ships and buildings.

     G. J. Cooper on the RMS Titanic's Captain Smith

    Alighting at the docks, Captain Smith boarded the Titanic at 7.30a.m., and made his way to the bridge where he received the day’s sailing report from Chief Officer Wilde, then made his way to his quarters. As on the Olympic, these were situated just behind the bridge on the starboard side of the boat deck and could be reached by cutting through the wheelhouse and chart room, thus providing him with quick and easy access to the bridge should any problems occur. His quarters consisted of a sitting room, bedroom and a private lavatory complete with a bath. The latter was an elaborate affair fitted with four taps, two for hot or cold fresh water, two for hot or cold salt water, a luxury only usually afforded to first-class passengers.

     G. J. Cooper on the RMS Titanic's Captain Smith

    Extract taken from Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith - available now from The History Press.

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