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The History Press blog

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  • 05/08/15--00:00: VE Day: the people's story
  • L: The Daily Mail announcement on 8 May 1945 R: St Paul’s Cathedral, floodlit during the victory celebrations in London

    It is a cherished legend in my family, at least cherished by me, that on the night of VE Day my mother was brought home from the pub in a wheelbarrow. I was only six at the time (well, six and three-quarters), so took no part in the celebrations, but I was thrilled beyond belief when, the following morning, I heard what had occurred. Nothing so risqué, so, so … scandalous, had ever happened in the family to my knowledge and I kept pressing various aunts and uncles for more information. Did my mother willingly get into the wheelbarrow? Why? Where did it come from? Who pushed it? Did anyone see?

    The ending of the war in Europe meant little to a six-year-old; but his mother coming home from the pub in a wheelbarrow made a deep impression. I suppose in the end I realized that my Mum had been ‘tipsy’ (the rather charming euphemism then in use for being completely plastered) and that probably everyone else had been tipsy, too. I knew my Dad went out for pint in the local on a Saturday night and my Mum liked a Guinness—she believed the advertising that it was good for her—but I had never seen or heard of either of them having too much to drink, even at Christmas or family parties. It never crossed my mind that my quiet and very conventional parents, who cared a great deal about keeping up appearances, would ever risk getting drunk. So it was the thought of them merrily weaving home from the pub, with my Dad pushing my Mum in a wheelbarrow, that brought home to me the realization that something truly significant had happened.

    If further confirmation was needed that historic events were taking place it came shortly afterwards when I arrived home from school to find a glass bowl in the middle of the dining table containing three curious curved yellow tubes. My older sister, who knew about such things, announced that they were bananas. That evening my mother peeled one of the exotic tubes and my sister and I shared the literal fruits of victory. I declared it to be delicious, although actually I was a bit disappointed.

    Two days after VE Day, there was a party on our street. We lived in a working-class neighbourhood on the east side of London, but my Dad was a white-collar clerk and we aspired to middle-class values. Consequently I was the only boy present wearing a tie. I know this because I have still got the black and white group picture of our scruffy little group. There I am, sitting cross-legged in the front row, still apparently unable to grasp the victory concept. All the other kids are giving the victory sign in the approved Churchillian fashion; I, alone, have got it the wrong way round and appear to be making a very rude gesture at the photographer.

    The author (front, third from right) at a street party, demonstrating an original version of the victory salute

    Years later, whenever the family got together, my mother, whose name was Queenie, would be teased about VE night: ‘I don’t suppose you remember much about that night, do you, Queen? You know, that night they brought you home in a wheelbarrow.’ My mother would blush and pretend to be cross, but I always had the feeling she was secretly rather proud that she had celebrated the end of the war in Europe with such ostentatious and uncharacteristic abandon.

    Interviewing people for this book reminded me very forcibly of how different times were then, how curiously innocent life was. Everyone knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that we were involved in a just war. The issues were clear: we were fighting on the side of good against the forces of evil, therefore we must, in the end, win. Whatever the price that had to be paid, whatever sacrifices it required, it was worth it. No war has ever been fought so unequivocally.

    If anyone did harbour any doubts about the Allied cause, or the necessity for war, they were surely swept away when, in April 1945, the first reports began filtering back to Britain of the discovery of the concentration camps. Most people knew about the existence of the camps, and something of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but until the advancing Allies had overrun places like Belsen and Dachau and Nordhausen, no one appreciated the sheer scale of the horror. Here, alone, was justification for the war.

    A few days later came news of the death of Hitler. By then everyone guessed the end was near and that it was only a question of time before the war in Europe would conclude in victory for the Allies. There was still the war against Japan to be won, but peace in Europe was the first priority. The days of waiting were tense but, like the times, strangely disciplined. Even though we knew the Germans had surrendered on Lüneburg Heath, we waited patiently for the official declaration of VE Day and for permission to celebrate.

    When it came there was an outpouring of rejoicing and relief and patriotism, the like of which the world will never see again. In these depressing days of social decay and drugs and violence, when large public gatherings frequently end in pitched battles with the police, it is hard to imagine that thousands and thousands of people jammed the streets of London well into the night on 8 May 1945 and those who were there, in that swirling mass of humanity, remember it as an unforgettable experience, one of the happiest days of their lives.

    The most common crime of the night was to knock a policeman’s helmet off; the most frequent act of vandalism was to climb a lamp post. Total strangers linked arms in the comradeship of their happiness, kissing and hugging was the order of the night, there was dancing on the streets whenever and wherever space could be found, when the crowd was not singing it was cheering, when it was not cheering it was laughing. The pubs ran dry, but who cared? This was a celebration driven by communal joy; no other stimulants were needed.

    There were similar scenes in other cities around the world, in Paris, New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen … In rural areas, village communities lit huge bonfires and danced around the flames … And everywhere people drew back their curtains and let their lights blaze out into the night to mark the end of the blackout.

    No, there will never be another day like it.

    VE Day: the people's story

    Russell Miller is the author of VE Day: The People's StoryThis inspiring book draws from first-hand interviews, diaries and memoirs of those involved in the VE Day celebrations in 1945. It paints an enthralling picture of a day that marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of a new era. VE Day affected millions of people in countless ways. This book records a sample of those views, from both Britain and abroad, from civilians and service men and women, from the famous and the not-so-famous, in order to provide a moving story and a valuable social picture of the times. Mixed with humour as well as tragedy, rejoicing as well as sadness, regrets of the past and hopes for the future, VE Day: the People's Story is an inspiring record of one of the great turning points in history. - See more at:

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  • 05/08/15--04:30: The Friday Digest 08/05/15
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features the sinking of RMS Lusitania, Napoleon's last journey and the pre-war cars found in a Texas barn. 


    The great crime of the First World War?

    * RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in eighteen minutes. This eyewitness account of the sinking is heartbreaking and the civilian toll was extrememly high but who was to blame for the deaths of 1,201 people?

    Was the WW1 U-boat a death trap?


    * Was the First World War U-boat a death trap?

    The Houses of Parliament, seen across Westminster Bridge. Adrian Pingstone


    * Thirteen things you didn't know about the history of British democracy.

    'The Westminster canvass' 1784. Charles James Fox as Guy Fawkes. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


    * Nine general election curiosities through history.

    Election montage

    * Every number one, ever, on polling day

    Survivor: Eberhard Wendler, left, a British farm worker and two other POWs in 1945


    The day that Deutschland died: retracing the fate of captured Axis soldiers at the end of the Second World War

    Hana Katz in Israel after the war


    * Tracing the children of the Holocaust

    Russian rivals: Sergei Kirov (centre), flanked by Anastas Mikoyan and Joseph Stalin, October 11th, 1932.

    Killings and the Kremlin

     | © Eugene_Antonov


    Could a woman become a knight in medieval times?  


    A review of Archery in medieval England.  


    Before and after images of the mosaics


    * The Roman mosaics 'ruined' in a botched restoration in Turkey

    Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

    * The passion of Ajax

    c50 BC, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, the last and most famous of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    * Six things you (probably) didn’t know about Cleopatra

    The world’s oldest complete copy of the Ten Commandments, written on one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscript will be displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photograph: Dan Balilty/AP


    * The Ten Commandments Dead Sea Scroll is to go on display for the first time in Israel

    Eco Comics Cerne Giant character


    * The Cerne Abbas chalk hill giant has been censored for a comic because some outlets had refused to release it.  

    John Parker and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy


    * Mr Darcy and the sex scandal: the real-life aristocrat who inspired Jane Austen

    Cunard's Three Queens sail in formation from Southampton


    * The 'three queens' ships marked the start of Cunard's 175th anniversary celebrations.

    Napoleon on St Helena

    * Napoleon's last journey

    Two ruined boxes

    * The yard for red phone boxes that ring no more

    Transparent graphic overlay in this image shows the dimensions and placement of the first Jamestown colony church, based on archaeological findings. Still screenshot from Youtube video, Experimental archaeology: bringing Jamestown's early church to life, by Jamestown Rediscovery.


    * Archaeologists rebuild the 1608 church where Pocahontas was married.  

    The 1932 Cadillac 370B V-12 Convertible found in the barn (pictured) could fetch $350,000 at auction


    * Five perfectly preserved pre-war cars worth $700k have been found inside a Texas barn

    They love it boss! It's a smash. Image from Girl in Dior Photo: Courtesy of NBM Publishing

    * The story of Dior, now in comic-book form ...



    * Something’s afoot: investigating the names for shoes



    * These dreamlike autochrome portraits from 1913 are among the earliest colour photographs.


    The New Yorker writer who didn't publish for 30 years

    * The New Yorker writer who didn't publish anything for thirty years.  


    'I know what it is like to be picked on'

    * Ten times J.K. Rowling has inspired Harry Potter fans


    Citizen Kane

    * Is Citizen Kane more than just a great movie

    John Doughterty


    * Copyright: it's a piece of cake, right

    Ruth Rendell


    * The book trade has paid tribute to the 'insightful' Ruth Rendell who died on Saturday 2 May


    * Macmillan partners with BitLit on ebook bundling but what are your thoughts?  

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    After a complex programme of departures and arrivals between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, Margaret Thatcher (with me right behind her) arrives at No 10 for the first time as prime minister. She was also the first woman ever to do so. (Author’s collection/Financial Times)


    Normally kept well clear of the media and public, the Downing Street machine – the Private Office, Press Office and Garden Room Girls’ Secretariat – are always at work in the background. The machinery of government continues to tick over without the daily intervention of the prime minister, under the surveillance of the Cabinet Office and the Whitehall administrative establishment. There is much to be done before election day: the small print of manifestos is scrutinised in detail and a draft parliamentary programme is prepared, taking into account the governmental intentions of whichever party wins. During the hustings, many of the services normally provided for the prime minister are stood down and the rules for this are based on precedent and protocol, ancient and modern, which form the basis of much of our democratic system of government.

    Political party headquarters takes on responsibility for the outgoing prime minister’s agenda, travel and accommodation. In this way, the establishment will not be seen to be aiding and abetting the incumbent prime minister’s campaign to the disadvantage of rival parties. Limousine transport and Scotland Yard’s close protection team remain actively in position for security purposes and they share with the prime minister the exhausting programme which his party considers necessary for him to retain power.

    No matter how carefully is it planned, there is always the risk of unexpected problems. For example, of Sir Alec Douglas Home’s departure in Whitehall after collecting his P45 from the queen in the mid-60s, when he was to discover that his official transport had been withdrawn with the loss of office and he set out on foot for Westminster, accompanied by his personal protection officer. Later, rules were agreed between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath that, henceforth, a government car would be provided for the loser.

    A logjam also reportedly took place when Edward Heath lost the 1974 election and the civil service was faced with the additional task of removing his valued grand piano. It is said that the careful deployment of a cherry picker was finally called upon to circumvent the narrow doorways in No. 10, which, I suppose, must have created equal logistical difficulty when he gained power.

    At my final election in 1979, James Callaghan’s attempt to maintain a struggling Labour government – will be popularly recalled – failed when he was handsomely beaten by Mrs Margaret Thatcher who thus became Britain’s first woman prime minister. However, Mrs Thatcher had to wait a short while before Mr Callaghan’s exit could be carried out systematically and with dignity.

    I was to witness and then take part in the devoted and skilful handover arrangements in this year. The focus was, of course, Her Majesty the queen but it is understood that she tended to give the nod to the programme arranged by the two essential activists, her principal private secretary and Kenneth Stowe, head of the Downing Street machine.

    Once at the palace, where James Callaghan was taken in the official car, he reappeared after his farewell from the queen to find that his driver had moved to a less dignified government car, in which he was rapidly driven away. He once said to me, ‘John, just because I’m smiling, don’t think I’m happy,’ and there were few smiles from him that day, although he performed bravely for the cameras as he left for the last time.

    Mrs Thatcher, meanwhile, arrived soon after his departure in a privately owned car and disappeared to the anteroom for the ‘kissing of hands’ ceremony. By the time she emerged, her preferred government driver had transferred into the official car, in which I, too, was waiting, and we left for her first entry into Downing Street.

    It will be recalled that she elected to walk the last 100 yards through the excited crowds and the men and women of the media, looking fresh with exuberance at the sheer excitement and magnitude of the occasion. For me, I remember that, although she must have been exhausted, I was the one who looked elderly and incipiently haggard.

    By now her spouse had arrived and, after her recitation of the excerpt from St Francis of Assisi, they disappeared through the famous No.10 front door where, after initial celebrations, she was thoroughly indoctrinated with the real world into which she had entered – a world of reality and massive responsibility.


    An Outsider Inside No 10: Protecting the Prime Ministers, 1974-79

    In An Outsider Inside No 10: Protecting the Prime Ministers, 1974-79, Former Special Branch officer John Warwicker gives the inside story of the six years he spent in charge of security at 10 Downing Street, tracking one of the most turbulent periods in modern British politics. From 1974–79, when the threat of the Cold War and the IRA was ever present, the ‘targets’ who Warwicker protected daily, both at home and overseas, were Prime Ministers Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher.  More than thirty years on since Warwicker left his post, his insightful memoir, based not only on personal memories and experience, but often also from contemporaneous notes, includes a fascinating and frank insight into the day-to-day operations at Downing Street and Chequers and the eccentric cast of characters within. 

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  • 05/10/15--03:00: Waterloo: the Great War
  • The charge of the Life Guards, the most senior mounted regiment in the British Army, dating back to the restoration of King Charles II in 1674. As a result of fighting during d’Erlon’s advance and subsequently against the massed French cavalry attacks, the Life Guards suffered severe losses: of the 490 officers and other ranks of the two regiments, 244 were killed and wounded, representing a staggering loss of 50 per cent. (Author’s collection)

    I have been studying Waterloo, the final battle of the Great War, in great detail for some forty years. This opening statement will cause some bewilderment to many who have grown up with the appellation of the Great War firmly applied to the 1914–18 First World War. But to anyone living before 1918, the title of the Great War was applied to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in which Britain fought France almost continuously for twenty-two years from 1793 to 1815.

    The Battle of Waterloo, fought in Belgium on 18 June 1815, exactly two hundred years ago, was completely decisive, ending Napoleon’s hopes for ever. Nine hours of bitter fighting set the course of Europe and indeed the entire world for a century. However, it must be understood that the battle does not stand alone, it was the culmination of a rapid campaign in Belgium but the allies still had to march to Paris to end Napoleon’s reign again.

    Despite such cataclysmic results, few people now know much about this short campaign. I have met many who thought that the battle occurred in London, assuming that the train station stands on the battle site; or they have assumed it was fought in France because they remember that Napoleon was defeated there, possibly basing their knowledge on the famous Abba song of that name. Few will know the generals who opposed him, although arguably Britain’s greatest ever general fought here, and they will almost certainly know nothing of the men of other countries who fought and died there: the Prussians, the Dutch, Belgians, Brunswickers, Nassauers and Poles, and even a couple of Americans.

    History as taught in our schools has for many decades hopped straight from the Stuarts to the Industrial and Agrarian Revolutions and then again to the First and Second World Wars. This shameful negation of the entire Georgian period is deliberate, this allows for the avoidance of any reference to the rise of the British Empire, which we are now expected to feel only shame for. But we ignore the lessons of any period of history at our peril and the empire, both good and bad, very much formed this country we now live in, without an understanding of that, we can understand nothing of our past.

    The Battle of Waterloo was both a fascinating and a terrible thing. War is never glorious or pretty and certainly never comes without great pain and loss for all sides engaged. But sometimes war is unavoidable and necessary as the lesser of evils, and it can change the course of history. Such was Waterloo.

    Because of its significance, everybody sought to own a memento from the battlefield or a commemorative piece commissioned in its aftermath. This has meant that a huge mass of this material is still to be seen in museums and private collections across the globe; indeed, many families still lovingly treasure items relating to their forebears who fought in this momentous campaign. 

    A brief understanding of the reasons why Waterloo occurred is perhaps necessary for those unacquainted with the history. The French Revolution had seen the guillotining of King Louis XVI of France in 1793 and the monarchies of Europe turning on France to avoid the revolutionary spirit spreading and threatening their own thrones. Fortunes see-sawed until one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, took his chance to make his name and captured northern Italy and then Egypt for France. Once he had the army on his side, he duly organised a military takeover, becoming First Consul and within a few years Emperor of France. He transformed the war against the European monarchies, defeating the three great continental military powers, Austria, Prussia and Russia, in succession. At its height the French Empire reached from Oporto to Warsaw. Britain remained his only constant foe; Britain ruled by sea, Napoleon by land. However, in 1812 he overstretched himself and his army of half a million men reached Moscow, but died almost to a man in the snows of a Russian winter. By 1814 France was overwhelmed and Paris fell; Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba.

    However, Napoleon continued to plot from his mini kingdom, and when he judged the time right he sailed with only one thousand men and landed in France on 1 March 1815. As his small force marched on Paris, the Royalist armies sent against him, simply switched allegiance and Napoleon was swept into Paris on a tide of adulation.

    The great powers of Europe were still in congress at Vienna deciding how to produce a balance of power in Europe after the break- up of the French Empire' when Napoleon returned, and they unanimously declared war against him, not France. Realising that he stood no chance against the combined armies of Europe, Napoleon hastily formed his army and launched a surprise attack on Belgium, aiming to destroy the armies of Britain and the Netherlands (Holland and Belgium being one kingdom) under the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Field Marshal Blücher, before the Austrians, Russians and Spanish could enter the war. If he could destroy these armies and effectively knock those countries out of the war, he hoped the others might be brought to the peace table.

    At Waterloo, over 180,000 men with over 40,000 horses fought on a battlefield no wider than three square miles, and by the end over 50,000 men and 20,000 horses were killed or severely maimed. Wellington, supported by the arrival of the Prussians, destroyed the French Army, and Napoleon’s dreams of a renewed French Empire were quashed forever. Napoleon was forced to abdicate once again and was exiled to the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died; Britain effectively turned its back on Europe and used its domination of the seas to further expand its empire, whilst Europe looked for a new way forward to try to avoid these seemingly interminable wars. The Age of Congress was born and at every crisis all the heads of Europe would meet to debate and attempt to find a peaceful solution. War was not avoided completely, but local wars were prevented from escalating into pan-European conflict for one hundred years, until the Germans refused to attend a congress in 1914.

    This is the compelling drama that was Waterloo.

    Waterloo in 100 Objects

    Gareth Glover is a fifty four year old ex Royal Navy officer who has studied the Waterloo campaign for nearly forty years. He is now acknowledged as the foremost authority on Waterloo material held within the British archives and has published over forty books of previously unpublished or very rare soldiers’ memoirs. He has recently published his critically acclaimed revised history of the Waterloo campaign, entitled Waterloo, Myth and Reality and The History Press will publish his sumptuously illustrated book Waterloo in 100 Objects in April 2015.

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    Short Story Dagger book signing 2012

    At the start of the millennium, seven crime writers banded together to form Murder Squad. The idea was born out of Margaret Murphy’s frustration with a lack of marketing and publicity for her novels, and she knew she was not alone. Seven novelists, all from the north of England, took direct action – a form of marketing vigilantism, if you will, and the Squad has since inspired many imitators. This was the era before social media, but we knew how to write good copy – and working together meant we had a pool of skills we could draw on. We set up a website, produced a brochure, and agreed on a variety of events we could offer.

    Our publishers were enthusiastic: here was a low-cost option that would promote the writing of seven respected and (glory be!) self-financing authors. They liked the idea of authors from different publishers working together in this way, and agreed immediately to help distribute the brochure to booksellers, reviewers, and trade magazines. The response was astounding: requests for articles from both trade and local press, booksellers interested in the novelty of having a Murder Squad in-store, libraries and festivals who saw the attraction of being able to mix and match writers with a range of writing styles and personalities.

    Fifteen years on, Squaddies have appeared at hundreds of events and festivals. Notable Murder Squad successes are Ann Cleeves, who has won multiple awards for her books and currently has adaptations of her Vera and Shetland series on TV. Similarly, Cath Staincliffe’s Blue Murder TV series ran for five seasons. Meanwhile, Martin Edwards has become Series Consultant to the British Library’s wildly popular Crime Classics series. Inevitably, some members have moved on, but we are pleased to have been joined by Kate Ellis and Chris Simms.

    From the beginning, the Squad has always been looking for new opportunities – and one of the most rewarding has been the chance to publish anthologies of our short stories. In short fiction we can experiment, take risks, try out fresh styles, discover different characters and produce work that might be quite unlike our novelistic style. There is a freedom – a liberation – that is exhilarating and challenging in a form in which every word counts.  Murder Squad has published two anthologies, both edited by Martin Edwards, and a third will hit the bookshops in September. The first anthology saw Ann Cleeves’s story shortlisted for the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Short Story Dagger award, and in 2012 two stories from the second collection, Best Eaten Cold, were also shortlisted. So, Margaret Murphy and Cath Staincliffe, the shortlistees, dusted off their best frocks and set off for London, elated to be included on a shortlist that featured crime writing greats Mickey Spillane and New York Times bestseller William Kent Krueger.

    When Ayo Onatade, chair of the judges, took the stage she described a panel in deadlock. They had rated two entries on the shortlist of equal merit and couldn’t agree on an outright winner. They consulted with the CWA: was there anything in the rules that prevented joint winners sharing the prize? The committee was uneasy: it had never been done before – could the judges take more time to deliberate? The panel reconvened, but it was no good – they couldn’t choose between the two. So, in a break with CWA tradition, two winners were selected. The tension among the publishers and authors in the room was palpable – except for the two Squaddies, relaxed and smiling, ready to applaud the two big names on the list. When Ayo announced Margaret Murphy, for The Message, and Cath Staincliffe for Laptop, they could not have been more delighted or astonished, and winning together made it even more special.

    Best Eaten Cold and other Stories

    Murder Squad are the authors of the award-winning Best Eaten Cold and other StoriesFor updates, offers and news, sign up for Murder Squad’s mailing list at:

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    Lancet owned by Edward Jenner. Wellcome Library, London

    Lancet owned by Edward Jenner. Wellcome Library, London

    How does a medical innovation come to be accepted and adopted as a common practice? Historians of medicine have long-since recognised that the force of an idea alone is insufficient to change paradigmatic practices that are reinforced by the power and inertia of institutions. To make a success of something new depends, amongst other things, on the power – social weight, personal prestige, institutional placement – of the innovator. For the would-be medical pioneer, connections and reputations smooth the path from experimentation to acceptance.

    We are living through a renewal of controversies about the safety and efficacy of vaccinations of all different kinds. Much of the public discourse is determined not by medical knowledge or expertise, but by the weight of influence that public commentators bring to bear. There are echoes of the original vaccination controversy, that came with Edward Jenner’s pioneering work in protecting people from the ravages of small pox by inoculating them with cow pox. Though by no means secure as a practice by the time of Jenner’s death in 1823, at least not in England, Jenner had made tremendous headway in persuading the institutions of medicine that vaccination was the greatest humanitarian boon ever conceived. While the public remained sceptical in certain quarters, the ultimate success of the campaign against small pox seemed to have been secured by the acquisition of the backing of the medical establishment. This backing was acquired despite not knowing how vaccination worked, how long it lasted, what side effects it might have, or why it sometimes didn’t seem to work at all. A great deal of faith was put in the power of vaccination. With some modifications, that faith would transpire to have been well placed. But in the early days of the practice, that faith depended on the power of Jenner’s personality.

    The life of a gentleman in the early nineteenth century depended on the reputation that preceded him. Honour was everything. Jenner’s peripheral presence in the medical establishment made him all the more guarded about his good name, even though he had no desire to be at the centre of things. Cranks and quacks were an irritation, but disrespect from within the respectable establishment could not be tolerated. The man who brought the worst out in Jenner, was George Pearson. Pearson had attempted to steal Jenner’s glory by being the first to establish an institution for vaccination in London. Pearson suggested some token role for Jenner, who saw only a transparent attempt to remove him to the sidelines. He responded by mocking the supposed ‘honour’ Pearson offered, and reminded him that if the ‘vaccine inoculation, from unguarded conduct, should sink into disrepute (and you must admit, Sir, that in more than one instance has its reputation suffered) I alone must bear the odium’. The practice of vaccination and the reputation of its discoverer were intertwined.

    Sparked into action by fear of defamation, Jenner set about planning his own institution, which would prepare the way for the establishment of the Royal Jennerian Society in 1803. Working with the advantages of personal connections, he persuaded such luminaries as the Duke of York to withdraw patronage from Pearson’s scheme. The faintest whiff of dishonour on Pearson’s part had the medical establishment flocking to Jenner’s cause. If there were to be an institution at all, it would be by Jenner’s design. The Royal Jennerian proved to be short-lived, in part because Jenner oversaw it like a prima donna. Inter-personal squabbling caused a loss of focus, and Jenner spared nobody who dared challenge the orthodoxy of his knowledge and methods concerning vaccination. When deviations threatened, Jenner could rally MPs, peers, bishops and other clergy to his side. He effectively acquired, through his own institution, the connections and the means to attempt to control the vaccination narrative, and to shut down opponents.

    Everywhere, Jenner saw his opponents endeavouring ‘to ruin [his] private character’. Anti-vaccination rhetoric had become deeply personal. The success of vaccination was therefore bound up with the publicly unimpeachable character of Jenner himself. Two petitions to Parliament, for which Jenner did much of the agitating, ensured that Jenner was handsomely rewarded from the public purse for his discoveries. To the chagrin of his enemies, such endorsement from on high was the guarantor of his good name. Even though his own institution collapsed in disarray, the National Vaccine Establishment that followed it continued to work according to Jenner’s practices and to celebrate his achievement. The weight of reputation, honour, and institutional support ensured the success of vaccination. Knowledge about how and why it worked would only come much later.

    Today, immunological knowledge is secure. But as we are seeing, knowledge alone is not sufficient to withstand fearmongering when it is generated by people of influence, whose (non-medical) reputations precede them. 


    Rob Boddice is an historian of science, medicine and the emotions, based in Berlin and Montreal. Educated in York, he has published books on the history of human-animal relations, anthropocentrism, and pain. His book, Edward Jenner: pocket GIANT, will be published by The History Press later this year. 

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    A cutting from the Sunday Herald on 25th June 1916, reporting on a death sentence against conscientious objectors

    Henry Firth had been in prison for nine months when he was transferred to the  Dartmoor Work Centre. As a conscientious objector who had agreed to do 'alternative service', he was set to work breaking stones. Before long, he went to the camp doctor and said he was ill. The doctor told him there was nothing wrong with him. The next time, the doctor said he was selfish.

    Firth collapsed several times while working in the quarry over the next two months. On 30 January 1918, he was admitted to the camp hospital. On 6 February, Firth's friends asked for permission to send a telegram to his wife about his condition. Permission was refused. A few hours later, Henry Firth was dead. He was 21.

    He was one of more than 6,000 British people who were imprisoned for their opposition to the First World War. Most were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from joining the army or who refused to accept the conditions for partial exemption. Others were imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act, rushed through Parliament after the outbreak of war and extended over the following years before reaching its most extreme form in 1918.

    In the early months of that year, the government introduced tighter censorship rules and the police raided pacifist organisations. Three leading Quakers were imprisoned almost immediately for publishing a pamphlet without submitting it to the censor.

    Another Quaker, Violet Tillard, was locked up for 61 days for refusing to tell the authorities where anti-war publications were being printed. The philosopher Bertrand Russell was given six months on the pretext that he had harmed relations with an ally of the UK by criticising the US army. Leading Scottish activist John McLean was sentenced to five years for 'sedition'. A year earlier, peace campaigner Alice Wheeldon had been convicted on fabricated evidence of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister.

    Until recently, opponents of the war appeared in histories of the conflict as a footnote at best. More recently, historians such as Cyril Pearce and Adam Hochschild have suggested that opposition to the war was stronger than is often thought. Despite this, Britain's political prisoners are rarely mentioned. They are repeatedly overlooked by those who speak of Britain's traditions of free speech.

    Henry Firth was one of seventy-three conscientious objectors who died in prison, work centres or military detention. Of course, the number is very low compared to the unimaginable thousands killed in the war that the peace campaigners wanted to stop. It's important to remember that stopping the war was their aim. Pacifism is not passive; it seeks to change society. That's why British pacifists made links with anti-war campaigners in Germany and several travelled to the Netherlands in 1915 for the International Women's Peace Conference.

    Many people today  – Michael Gove aside – look back on the First World War as an avoidable and outrageous waste of millions of lives. Isn't it time to pay more attention to those who said so at the time?

    Take Harry Stanton, a conscientious objector who experienced imprisonment, torture and a death sentence – all before his twenty-second birthday. Shortly after the sentence was commuted to ten years in prison, he was feeling proud and joyful to be 'one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world had not yet grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance'.

    Whether you love peace activists or loathe them, you can't tell the story of the First World War without them. 

    Symon Hill is a Christian pacifist writer and campaigner. He is teaching a course on the peace movement in the First World War for the Workers' Educational Association. He edited the White Feather Diaries, an online storytelling project exploring the lives of pacifists in the First World War.

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  • 05/15/15--04:15: The Friday Digest 15/05/15
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features witch bottles, men and women in Ancient Greek art and the birth of the crash helmet.


    Flagging enthusiasm: young Londoners do their best to join in the celebrations despite the destruction of their homes in Battersea, south London

    * Friday 8 May marked the seventieth anniversary of VE Day and the end of war in Europe, but how did ordinary Britons celebrate

    George St, returning prisoners of war in hospital uniform Drawing: Desmond Knox-Leet Photograph: N0tice-static

    * Sketches of VE Day from seventy years ago.

    George "Johnny" Johnson VE Day: The last British Dambuster

    * VE Day: the last British Dambuster

    Colour video reveals Berlin life after the fall of Hitler's Germany


    * The colour video that reveals life in Berlin after the fall of Hitler's Germany.

    German newspaper of the time advertising the tour by the "gentlemen von Worcestershire"

    * The English cricket team that toured Nazi Germany.

    Gröning was visibly moved by proceedings on Tuesday (EPA)


    * A former Auschwitz guard charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder was reduced to tears by the testimony of survivors at the resumption of his trial in Germany.


    Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole: nursing's bitter rivalry

    * Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole: nursing's bitter rivalry

    How Florence Nightingale saved lives with statistics

    * How Florence Nightingale saved lives with statistics ...


    Fresh perspective? Making the BBC Three drama Our World War. BBC Photo Library

    * A muddy vision of the First World War

    Witch bottle 

    * A suspected 'witch bottle' has been unearthed by archaeologists during a dig in Nottinghamshire. Researchers believe that the green bottle, which is about 15cm tall, was probably used in the 1700s to ward off evil spells cast by witches.

    New Google Cultural Institute exhibit focuses on the island where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner

    * Google has a new exhibit, produced in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation as well as the Robben Island Museum, which consists of seven interactive exhibits focusing on the trial that led to Mandela's imprisonment, Mandela's life at Robben Island, quotes from various political prisoners held there, a prison tour, and more which you can see here

    Colston Arms, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. The Colston Arms in Bristol refused to accept that black and white soldiers should not be served together


    Bristol's little-known role in the US civil rights movement

    Greta Garbo (c) Rex

    * Ten icons who redefined beauty over the past 100 years


    Picasso painting The Women of Algiers

    * Picasso's Women of Algiers has become the most expensive painting to sell at auction, going for $160m (£102.6m) at Christie's in New York. 

    When cartography meets pop art, wonderful maps occur


    When cartography meets pop art, wonderful maps occur.

    The use of the saber in the army of Napoleon: Part I


    The use of the sabre in the army of Napoleon

    An embroidery of the image of a 1297 copy of Magna Carta that appears on its Wikipedia page. The work was stitched by Cathy Johnson from the Embroiderers’ Guild. Photograph: British Library

    * The hand-stitched Magna Carta Wikipedia page which explores the fabric of democracy

    Pope Clement IV. After his death in 1268 it took the cardinals nearly three years to elect a new pope. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

    * Eight things you (probably) didn’t know about medieval elections

    Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (1646–1713)

    * Politics as a religious experience

    Alfred in a 13th-century manuscript - British Library

    * Alfred the Great: do we overplay the king's 'greatness'?  

    Office building

    * Painless Parker: part dentist, part showman, all American ... 

    * Fantastic news from the Imperial War Museum after they announced that they wont be introducing charges for researchers.




    * 'Can drinking tea turn you into a whore?'  

    Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

    * Let’s talk about sex: men and women in Greek art


    A naked youth reclines, one of the Parthenon marbles housed at the British Museum in London. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters


    * The Parthenon marbles are miracles of sculpture symbolic of Greek nationhood, do you agree?  

    3D print of Venus de Milo Spinning Thread, left, and computer re


    * What were the Venus de Milo’s arms doing? 3D printing the ancient sculpture

    TE lawrence (c) Alamy

    * Lawrence of Arabia and the birth of the crash helmet

    After trying to kill President Reagan, John W Hinckley Jr was taken away by authorities


    * Life after shooting a US President

    The Sound of Music: The hills are alive in Salzburg


    * Which film locations do you know

    The Evolution of TV Advertising

    * The evolution of TV advertising.

    For Vigorous Health – Sunkist Recipes for Everyday. Undated pamphlet from the Margaret B. Wilson food pamphlet collection, The New York Academy of Medicine

    * Mad Men-era ads

    Jane busy straightening up before launching into some heavy cleaning with dust mop and carpet sweeper. IMAGE: WILLIAM C. SHROUT/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

    * Inside the demanding life of an American mother in 1941


    Little Women
    * Seven literary mothers that everybody can learn from ... 

    Maria Bronte

    * A look at Maria Bronte, mother of the most famous sisters in literature

    A woodland den under glorious construction in the wild woods. Photograph: The Guardian

    * Secret hideouts: the best dens in children’s books

    "Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake. c.1786" by William Blake - Tate Britain Image. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Titania_and_Puck_with_Fairies_Dancing._William_Blake._c.1786.jpg#/media/File:Oberon,_Titania_and_Puck_with_Fairies_Dancing._William_Blake._c.1786.jpg


    Which female Shakespeare character are you

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the PEN World Voices Festival, 5/10/15


    * Beautifully illustrated author quotes.  

    Amazon Kindle. Image (c) Daz Smith from


    * What we learned from ebooks in 2014

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    'A Delicate Affair' on the Western Front


    Terrence Finnegan will be at the World War One Historical Association, Recology, San Francisco on Saturday, 13th June at 10:00 AM. He will be speaking about his book, A Delicate Affair on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches.


    Could the newly arrived American troops be trusted? They were greenhorns, having seen practically no action. The surprise attack at Seicheprey on April 20 was spearheaded by the elite German stormtroopers (Stosstruppen) supported by aircraft, trench mortars and heavy artillery and was designed as a propaganda coup against the ‘weak’ newcomers. On the edge of the well-named Forêt de Mort Homme, the Connecticut boys of the 102nd regiment bore the brunt. The Americans fell back in disarray in a hell of hand-to-hand fighting; one US cook killed two Germans with his meat cleaver. ‘An affair’ is an actual label applied by one US command report after the battle – and it was an affair with significance beyond its outcome, as the first engagement between US and German forces. As anyone who has read Terry Finnegan’s unsurpassable Shooting the Front will know, his research is of another order. Relying entirely on primary sources throughout, Terry uses the battle as a jumping-off point to describe how all battles developed in the war, through intelligence (or lack of it) and minute-by-minute command decisions. 

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  • 05/18/15--02:00: Cars we loved in the 1950s
  • Jaguar’s XK sports cars evolved during the 1950s to keep them desirable; this is the XK150 Roadster

    The classic British sports car has its roots firmly planted in the 1950s. This was the decade when MGs, Triumphs, Austin-Healeys and Jaguars were the global yardsticks of open-topped, two-seater excitement. Within a very short time there were roadsters to suit every pocket – from the cheap-and-nippy Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite to the Jaguar XK150 with its thrilling performance and Le Mans-winning pedigree.

    Mind you, not very many of these gorgeous machines would be available to British buyers. At the beginning of the 1950s, the name of the car-making game was exports. And the vast majority of the country’s sports car output had the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side and was destined for America’s sunshine states.

    Quite apart from the crushing austerity that lingered from the post-war 1940s, and the chronic shortage of petrol for the average motorist, absolutely any brand new car was difficult to come by. If you were a doctor, or other vital worker, then you went to the top of the waiting list; everyone else had to join the bottom of it, and remain there for many years until the call from the local showroom came.

    Biding your time, though, was perhaps the best thing to do anyway. Away from sports cars, the average small family car had been – for almost all of the late 1940s – merely a warmed-up version of what had been around in 1939. Only as the 1950s got into its stride did peppy and attractive new models come on stream. And some true motoring legends certainly did come to life.

    The Traveller estate, introduced in 1953, was a masterpiece of craftsmanship, as the wooden frame supported the steel panels.

    One of the best-loved was the Morris Minor which, while no ball of fire, handled and steered sweetly and provided faithful, roomy service to all who chose it. Following on in 1951 came the Austin A30, the spiritual successor to the legendary Austin Seven. Like its famous forebear, this was a real car ‘in miniature’, but it featured an excellent combined body-chassis unit that made it an uncommonly strong little car.

    Two years later, in 1953, Ford joined the modern world. The ancient ‘sit up and beg’ looks of the Anglia and Prefect were swept away with sleek new lines and independent front suspension, yet the cars remained frugal to maintain and easy to fix – a vital element at a time when many drivers routinely did their own servicing.

    For, mechanically simple as 1950s family cars undoubtedly were, they needed a lot of regular care. Getting the oilcan out every 1000 miles was a routine business…and adding mysterious substances to the mediocre, Government-rationed petrol was often required to prevent permanent engine damage.

    The motorway era was to really begin in the 1960s. Which was just as well, because even quite large 1950s family cars were none too well suited to sustained driving at constant high speed. Wheel bearing failures or a boiled-over radiator were likely outcomes.

    Yet trips by car were still something special – proper occasions with the pent-up anticipation of seeing new parts of the country, maybe even venturing abroad on a new roll-on/roll-off ferry. Driving was fun, and the cars of the 1950s – from the most mundane of Vauxhalls to the most exotic of Aston Martins – simply fuelled the promise of freedom and mobility. 

     Cars We Loved in the 1950s


    Giles Chapman is the author of Cars We Loved in the 1950s. After the Second World War, cars in Britain were very hard to come by. Most new models had to go for export or were reserved for those drivers who needed them the most, such as doctors. Petrol was still rationed, roads inadequate and modern technology lacking. With the arrival of the 1950s, things slowly began to change: Morris, Austin and Ford put increasing numbers of British families on the road, new sports cars from MG, Jaguar, Triumph and Austin-Healey promised a thrilling drive, and innovative motors such as the Land Rover and the bubble car emerged. By 1958, new car buying was leading a consumer boom, and Britain’s manufacturers still had the market to themselves. Giles Chapman investigates the fascinating motoring history of the 1950s.

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    Andover C(PR)1 XS596 succeeded the photo-Pembrokes but by then the operation was all but over. A short while later the aircraft left 60 Squadron to become the UK’s ‘Open Skies’ platform and here is seen flying over southern England soon after taking on its new role. (Photo: via Kevin Wright)


    30 September 2015 sees the twenty-fifth anniversary of the cessation of the clandestine aerial reconnaissance campaigns conducted by Britain, France and the United States (US) in the Berlin Air Corridors and Control Zone (BCZ) during the Cold War.

    In 1945, the Russians established two air corridors over the Soviet Occupied Zone, later to become the German Democratic Republic (GDR), to facilitate the safe passage of the British and American delegations to the Potsdam Conference. After the Conference, the Soviets made it plain that they considered the Corridors to be a permanent fixture and negotiations then followed to establish three 20-mile wide corridors connecting Berlin with Hamburg, Hannover and Frankfurt-am-Main as well as the 20-mile radius BCZ, whose centre point was a pillar in the cellar of the Allied Control Commission building in the Kleistpark, in December 1945. Initially there were no restrictions on their height or the types of military aircraft belonging to the four wartime allies that were allowed to use the Corridors and BCZ. In 1953, the Soviets unilaterally imposed restrictions on their heights and confined their use to unarmed military transport and training aircraft and civilian airliners of the four powers. Traffic in the Corridors and BCZ was regulated and managed by the Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC), one of the two four-power establishments that operated throughout the Cold War. In late-1990, the Corridors and BCZ ceased to exist when airspace control was handed over to the re-unified German authorities.

    Relationships between the Soviets and the Western Allies deteriorated and an urgent need to assess the burgeoning threat posed by the Soviet and East German forces to NATO arose, especially in West Germany. The Corridors and BCZ covered some 20% of GDR territory with about 40% of Soviet and East German military installations lying either directly beneath them or within 20 miles of their boundaries. This presented the Western Allies with a heaven sent opportunity to mount relatively low risk intelligence collection flights to photograph these installations from the safety of internationally agreed airspace to which they had a legitimate right of access. The Corridor photographic flight programmes were slow to start because the Western Allies’ photographic priorities were to update obsolete mapping and assess the reconstruction needs in their Zones. As priorities changed the flights’ tempo increased until they were an almost daily occurrence. The effort expended by the Western Allies was considerable. The US flew over 10,000 Corridor missions between 1946 and 1990. The British effort was more modest, starting at once per fortnight in the 1950s but growing to 85 flights per year by the mid-1980s. The French focussed on electronic, rather than photographic, collection but their flights were irregular.

    In the mid-1950s light aircraft of the Western Allies based in Berlin were used to photograph military targets in the BCZ. Photographs from these flights were particularly useful for examining new equipment in detail because they featured the overhead view not often seen by ground observers. The US flew about twice per week; the British on five days per fortnight and the French about two days per week.

    The Corridor flights by all three nations stopped in September 1990 as did the British and US flights in the BCZ. However, the French continued their BCZ flights until 1994 when Soviet forces finally withdrew from Germany.

    Until the mid-1960s when high quality imagery from reconnaissance satellites became available, these flights provided the west’s only regular surveillance of Soviet and East German forces and their importance to the intelligence community was invaluable. They provided intelligence on warning of possible hostile intentions, changes to unit locations and organisations, new equipment and re-equipment programmes, the deployment of new capabilities, the state of readiness and training cycles and the logistic chains and infrastructure that supported them.

    The spotlight naturally falls on the aircrews who flew the missions because they were the people most visible to the wider community. But in the background there were a myriad of technicians and intelligence personnel without whom the operations would not have been as successful as they were. Their contribution deserves this belated recognition.

    Peter Jefferies in front of Pembroke at Coventry (Photo by Kevin Wright)

    Peter Jefferies joined the Intelligence Corps in 1962 and qualified as a Photographic Interpreter in 1969. He spent more than nine years of his career exploiting and analysing the imagery produced by the Berlin Corridor operations and disseminating the results to the Allied intelligence community. After leaving the army he joined the UK Ministry of Defence. He is co-author of Looking Down the Corridors: Allied Aerial Espionage over East Germany and Berlin, 1945-1990. Dr Kevin Wright was a lecturer in International Security Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Essex for twelve years. He has published on post-Cold War arms controls, BRIXMIS, Treaty on Open Skies, Japanese Air Self Defence Forces and the Polish military.

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    So short of men were the British in 1940 that a new corps - the Auxiliary Pioneer Corps - was founded. Intended to act as a labour force far from the fighting, some of these men would soon be facing Germany's crack Panzer Divisions.

    Donald Q. Coster, an American volunteer ambulance driver captured by the Germans in the city of Amiens, was exhausted after a chaotic night at his makeshift hospital.  Early that morning he was taken by his captors to a field a few miles out of town. ‘Under a hot, cloudless sky lay a wide field of high grass, simply covered with the English dead and wounded, and wounded and dead cattle. The British boys had been massacred by the tanks, as they had no artillery, only a few light machine guns to supplement their rifles - about as effective against a tank’s armour as a pea-shooter. Their only hope had been to score a lucky hit through a gun slit ... Out of possibly 300 British, we picked up maybe 25 or 30. The rest had all been killed. Many of the wounded had been run down by tanks, their bodies flattened like pancakes. Others, caught by the cross machine-gun fire of the encircling tanks, had been almost cut in two before they fell. Every fourth or fifth bullet from these guns is a tracer which burns through the body like a white-hot poker. It was hard to locate all the wounded in the high grass; the hot sun was overhead when we got the last of them up, and I don’t have to remind you what that means in a battlefield.’ It was Tuesday 21 May 1940.  Lying before him was the British Expeditionary Force’s last hope to avoid becoming trapped by the German blitzkrieg. On this hot, sunny day the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was doomed.

    Twenty four hours earlier, these men of the Royal Sussex Regiment had been aboard a train hurrying north to link up with the BEF when their journey had been cut short by a German air strike. Unable to carry on, with no orders to go back, their Commanding Officer had decided to stay put and wait for instructions. Assured by the local French commander that the Germans were being held eighty miles away at the Meuse river, the CO had threatened disciplinary action against any man claiming to have seen any sign of the enemy to prevent panic amongst his men. By the end of the day, he was a prisoner aboard a German tank, touring the battlefield to call on isolated pockets of his men to surrender. Of the 701 men who had boarded the train, just 70 were marched into captivity that night.

    Across northern France, the stunned survivors of battalions who had never expected to fight counted the cost of the day’s slaughter. Fifty, eighty, even ninety per cent casualties were reported by some units.  It was a day the Germans came to call ‘the massacre of the innocents’.

    When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, it was in no state to fight. In 1918 it had boasted the largest, most experienced and best equipped army it had ever known along with the world’s foremost navy and a powerful new Royal Air Force. Twenty years of cutbacks had reduced its armed forces to the point where General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division was held up for days by Transport Officers who refused to believe that a spearhead unit of the British Regular Army would really need quite so many laundry vans. In fact, these requisitioned civilian vehicles, hastily painted green, were all that was available to move his men and he complained bitterly that their progress through France could be traced by the trail of broken down wrecks littering the roads, writing that the army of 1939 was ‘totally unfit to fight a first class war on the continent of Europe ... Indeed, the Regular Army was unfit to take part in a realistic exercise.’ It was a view shared by others. Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, was horrified to find men of his 42nd Division eating with their hands from corrugated iron tables because there were no plates, cutlery or mugs available whilst Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, commanding the BEF’s  II Corps, inspected one of his machine gun battalion and described it as ‘unfit for war in every respect ... It would be sheer massacre to commit it to action in its present state’. Yet this was Britain’s front line.

    Territorial troops - 'untrained and virtually unarmed' according to one of their officers - were sent out from the UK to help with unskilled tasks at the dockyards, building railways and airfields and guarding base camps

    If things were bad for the Regular Army, they were far worse for units like the Royal Sussex, designated as part of the second line Territorial Army (TA) still forming in Britain. Hastily formed in 1939 in response to a call to double the size of the TA, the second line units were the lowest priority for stores and equipment. The decision to send a number of first line TA units to join the Norwegian expedition not only diverted supplies from the BEF, it also pushed their colleagues even further down the list and further drained them of their few experienced soldiers. The men of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, for example, designated as the specialist machine gun battalion of the 23rd Division, had to train on just two Germans guns salvaged from the regimental museum. Elsewhere mortar training was only possible after a local carpenter built a wooden model.

    Eager volunteers of Recruit Company, 1st Tyneside Scottish. Within weeks most would be dead or prisoners of war.

    Despite the poor state of the second line units, demands from France for a greater British contribution and from the BEF for more men to work on its long and complicated lines of communication forced a decision. Three infantry divisions - the 12th, 23rd and 46th - would be stripped of their artillery and heavy equipment and sent over to act as a labour force. Their training would be completed in any spare time they might have.

    In late April, the three divisions had arrived and were put to work with the 12th Division busy building railway sidings around Abbeville, the 23rd constructing airfields on the Franco-Belgian border and the 46th unloading ships in Brittany. For the troops, many fresh from similar work in their civilian jobs, life in the war zone was little different to that at home but now with sunshine and cheap wine. ‘Life, after all’ wrote one war diarist, 'was pretty good'.

    Suddenly, everything changed. On 10 May, German forces began smashing their way across the Belgian border. Smoothly, the British and French armies moved forward - straight into a carefully planned ambush. As the Allies left their carefully prepared positions, the real German attack smashed through the Ardennes and into northern France. If they could reach the sea, they would cut the Allied supply lines, trap the BEF in Belgium and destroy it at their leisure. Nothing stood in their way - except the men of the digging divisions.

    In desperation, the British HQ at Arras ignored the promise that the labour troops would not be sent into action and ordered 23rd Division to take up a defence line along the Canal du Nord. Typical of the state of readiness of the digging divisions, among the 2000 men in the division’s 70 Brigade, 1400 had never fired a Bren gun and as many as one in five had not even had full training on the rifles they carried. Some had never fired a shot. They would, they thought, have plenty of time over the coming summer to put things right. They were wrong. It was clear they were being sent to their deaths but every second they could delay the enemy would buy time for the rest of the army to react ...

    Along the Canal du Nord, the division took up their positions. They averaged one Bren per platoon and one anti-tank rifle per company with one 3 inch mortar between them. They were provided with artillery, but the guns could only fire over open sights at targets they could see and there were no anti-tank guns at all. Military doctrine held that a fully armed and supported division could be expected to hold no more than about 4 miles of front. 23rd Division was being asked to cover 17 miles.

    British and French planners expected a re-run of the First World War and dug miles of trenches along the Franco-Belgian border, only to abandon them in order to try to fight the Germans in Belgium.

    The ‘canal’ turned out to be an empty ditch which, according to reports, in places a car could cross with ease and a decision was made to withdraw the forward battalions to a better location.  At 7am on the 20 May the first trucks full of men of the Tyneside Scottish began to withdraw towards Neuville-Vitasse across open terrain with few defensive features so when, at about 8.30, a force of around 20 tanks of the 8th Panzer Division caught them in a pincer movement, there was little anyone could do. Crowded into lorries and without anti-tank weapons, the Tynesiders and their Durham Light Infantry colleagues took on the tanks with whatever was to hand - Provost Sergeant Chambers of the Tynesiders was last seen trying to prise open the hatch of a tank with his bayonet to get at the crew inside  - but it was a one sided and vicious fight and the outcome inevitable. Around 130 men of the Tynesiders eventually made it back to Britain and their sister battalion, the 11th Durham Light Infantry, were equally decimated. When the brigade mustered at the planned rendezvous later that morning just 233 all ranks could be accounted for. 

    Alongside the 23rd on the canal line were the 6th Royal West Kents and the 5th Buffs of 36 Brigade of 12 Division. The brigade’s other battalion, the 7th West Kents, had been hurriedly detached, given trucks and redesignated as a mobile column and were now heading for Amiens, leaving the brigade with just two battalions to cover a front of twelve miles. That morning, as disaster struck the 23rd Division, French troops fled back through 36 Brigade’s positions and the town of Doullens behind them was heavily bombed. Around noon, German tanks and infantry appeared in extended line opposite the Buffs. Having left their signals support in Britain, the only contact companies had with each other was by runner and messages were not getting through. Any semblance of command quickly broke down and section and platoon began to fight its own battle. It was later shown that isolated pockets of the Buffs had held out for up to two hours and that the anti-tank rifles (spread out to one every two miles) had  stopped at least two tanks before being overrun but keeping the Germans out of Doullens until late afternoon by which time the admin transport had left and an officer had gone around with a box of matches to  torch the many petrol dumps in the area.

    By then, the surviving Buffs had fallen back to join brigade HQ in the village of Lucheux where Brigadier Roupell, a VC from the first war, sat in the chateau listening to the battle drawing closer. A breathless officer ran in to report tanks approaching,  but Roupell, trying to maintain control, calmly replied ‘never mind the Germans. I’m going to finish my cup of tea.’ At about 6.30pm, the sentry on the gate opened fire on a German column and managed to get it to pull back whilst Roupell and his staff escaped through the back door and through the surrounding woods. By then, he knew his brigade was lost. Seventy five men of the 6th RWK got back to Britain, 503 were listed as missing. Eighty of the 605 Buffs got back.

    The brigade’s other battalion, the 7th RWK, in their role as mobile column, were sent north to fill the massive void left near Clery and arrived on the evening of the 18th. That night a probing attack by panzers was beaten back -but only by luck when the Boys anti-tank rifles provided a spectacular, if ineffective, display. Each round bounced harmlessly off the German armour as the firers realised they had been issued half-charged training ammunition. Their position untenable, they were redirected to Albert with orders to turn it into an anti-tank locality.

    On the way, they collected four field guns from the gunnery school and arrived in Albert’s town square at about 6am on the 20th but even as they climbed out of the trucks, German tanks could be heard approaching. By 7am tanks of the 1st Panzer Division had appeared in side streets all around them. As the battalion tried to redeploy, two companies were caught crowded into lorries and wiped out by tank and machinegun fire. By 9am, despite what the Germans called tough and brave fighting, Albert was overrun.  After the battle, the Germans assumed they had stumbled across a unit on exercise - why else would the guns be loaded with training ammunition?

    Meanwhile, the 35th Brigade of 12th Division  - all battalions of the Queen’s Regiment - had received orders to move to Abbeville by train and arrived to find confusing orders to ‘Proceed to Lens’. After contacting GHQ over a very poor connection, the brigade set out on the sixty mile journey, arriving during an air raid that cost several casualties only to find no-one seemed to know what to do with them. After a few frantic calls, their real orders were discovered - ‘Proceed Doullens’. Instead, the brigade pulled back towards Abbeville. Where, at about 2pm, the bombing began.

    Exhausted men of the Beauman Division finally leave France two weeks after the BEF left Dunkirk.

    35 Brigade had been sent to Abbeville to form a reserve, not to defend it. Between them they had three Bren guns and five anti-tank rifles per battalion. Each anti-tank rifle had seven rounds of ammunition.  As streams of refugees poured out of the town, it was clear that the brigade could no longer be reached by road and about 5pm the decision was taken not to leave them isolated and unsupported but to withdraw south across the Somme.  By now, though, panzers had already appeared between the 2/7th and the 2/6th battalion positions.

    With their anti-tank rounds soon gone, the battalions could do nothing as the German tanks stood spraying their positions with machine gun fire and the CO of the 2/7th gave orders to withdraw.  Seeing his two forward companies fall back, he left to find a route across the river for his men. In fact, only one company had received the order. What he had seen were men falling back to what seemed better positions in the village of Vauchelles. Standing off the main road, the village was simply by-passed, leaving two and a half companies to be rounded up by German infantry the next day. Of the whole battalion, the CO managed to extricate about a hundred men across the debris of a blown bridge.

    The 2/6th, to the north, sat tight as the Germans passed them by and later that night made its own way back across the river. The 2/5th, meanwhile, had been ordered to set up astride the Amiens road and cover the retreat of the other two battalions. At about 8pm, when it was obvious they others weren’t coming, they were ordered back but by then it was too late. Four companies were cornered at the village of Bellancourt from where about 100 men in five groups managed to break out. One platoon attempted to escape in trucks but ran into a panzer group and were mown down. Others swam the river and set up a rope of rifle slings to help others across but many drowned in the attempt. It would be another three days before the last stragglers reached Rouen. In a day, a brigade of 2,400 men had been reduced to 1,234.

    Dunkirk after the evacuation.

    The 1st Panzer, leaving troops to mop up Albert, then set out for Amiens. They reached it by late morning meeting only the strays of the 7th Royal Sussex on the way. They, along with their sister battalion, the 6th,  had been on their way to Abbeville but were redirected towards Amiens and told they were being sent to Lens.  At Amiens, Colonel Gethen, CO of the 7th, was told in all confidence by French officers that there were no Germans within eighty miles. They were wrong. Almost immediately an air raid hit the train near St Roche and the officers’ coach was among those hit. There were around eighty casualties from the attack and the battalion dashed into defensive positions nearby. The 6th, unharmed, almost reached Lens but were turned back because of track damage and eventually  were shunted into a siding fifteen miles south of the Somme where they sat two days trying to find out what was happening.

    Colonel Gethen was stuck. His orders were to go to Lens. He couldn’t. He had no orders to go back. So he decided to stay put. By noon on the 20th, German recce planes had spotted their positions. Soon after artillery and air strikes began, then the tanks came. The 7th held out until about 8pm in a battle the regimental history called ‘brief and suicidal’.  When they were finally overrun, the battalion 2i/c refused to raise his hands and was shot out of hand.  A German officer, impressed by the defiant defence, offered Lieutenant Jackson, who’d been wounded four times, a lift in his own car. Despite his pain, Jackson refused to leave his men.

    The digging divisions had never been expected to fight. In a single day theye had suffered casualties not seen since the horrors of Passchendaele in 1917. By comparison, the entire BEF had suffered around 500 casualties in total over the past ten days. 

    Gazing across the field of dead near Amiens, a German soldier turned to Coster and sadly shook his head. Coster recalled that he seemed awed that men armed only with a rifle and bayonet would try to charge panzers because they were asked to. In the chaos of the fall of France, many thousands of men were rescued to fight on to defend Britain. The legend of Dunkirk remains a centrepiece of British mythology about the war but largely forgotten now are the untrained men who bought time to save an army. Survivors of the labour divisions were left behind to fight on for another two weeks in improvised units in a retreat across Normandy and battlefields that would only gain fame four years later as some of the same men returned. Seventy-five years on, it’s time to remember those who paid the price for the 'miracle' of Dunkirk.

    Dunkirk 1940 'Whereabouts Unknown'

    Tim Lynch is the author of Dunkirk 1940 'Whereabouts Unknown'- How Untrained Troops of the Labour Division were Sacrificed to Save an Army. They called it ‘the slaughter of the innocents’. The barely trained and poorly equipped men of the Labour Divisions were never meant to fight, but when the German blitzkreig sliced through the Allied armies they were all that stood in the way of the annihilation of the British Expeditionary Force. Paying with their lives they bought precious time as the army fell back towards Dunkirk, and long after the last of the little ships reached home, the men of the Labour Divisions fought on. Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown uses official reports, diaries and personal accounts to tell the story of the chaos, terror and heroism of the amateur soldiers of 137th Infantry Brigade during the fall of France. 

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  • 05/21/15--01:00: A visit to CrimeFest 2015
  • Paternoster author Kim Fleet with some of The Mystery Press team at CrimeFest15

    First organised in June 2008, CrimeFest is a convention for people who like to read an occasional crime novel as well as for die-hard fanatics. It has not only become one of the biggest crime fiction events in Europe, but is also one of the most popular dates in the international crime fiction calendar. The annual convention draws top crime novelists, readers, editors, publishers, agents and reviewers from around the world and gives delegates the opportunity to celebrate the genre in the friendly and informal atmosphere of the grand Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel.

    Held over four days (14-17 May), the eighth annual international crime fiction convention featured some forty author panels with more than a hundred participating authors – including guest authors Maj Sjöwall, Lee Child, Sophie Hannah and Mathew Prichard – a crime-writing workshop, and a pitch-an-agent strand. Attendees included our very own Mystery Press authors Linda Stratmann (author of the Frances Doughty mystery series) and Janet Laurence (former CWA Chair and author of the Ursula Grandison mysteries), speaking together in a morning panel on ‘The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Writing Historical Crime’ alongside Piu Eatwell, L.C. Tyler and Rhys Bowen.

    The panel naturally concentrated on the authors’ obsessive checking of facts and details to obtain historical accuracy (to avoid future complaints from eagle-eyed readers), as it is all too easy for mistakes to slip in. Rhys said, ‘You can get anything wrong in your books apart from guns and trains!’ And all the panellists agreed on the importance of a series editor, to ensure that plotlines remain tight, as well as having someone to discuss characterisation, consistency and future titles with.

    Linda later gave in insightful talk on ‘Where I Get My Ideas From’ and Matilda was delighted to hear that one of her suggestions is now part of the next plotline in Linda’s thrilling Lady Detective series (sorry – no spoilers!). She is fortunate enough to never suffer from writers block, and enjoys spending time in archives, being immersed in the Victorian era.

    John Bayliss, Alan Carter, Leigh Russell and M.P. Wright delivered an informative panel entitled ‘Crafting Crime: The Art of Writing Crime Fiction’, while Nev Fountain, Peter Guttridge, Antonia Hodgson, Simon Toyne and Barry Forshaw discussed sex in crime fiction in an innuendo-fuelled and standing-room-only panel, ‘Strange Bedfellows’, in the afternoon.

    2015 highlights included the Gala Awards Dinner, the famous CrimeFest Pub Quiz (with crime writer and critic Peter Guttridge as quiz inquisitor), the eDunnit, Goldsboro Last Laugh and Sounds of Crime Award presentations, and an interview with the 2015 Diamond Dagger Award-winner recipient Catherine Aird. Friday was Crime Writing Day, designed to help aspiring crime authors to write a manuscript, find an agent and, hopefully, get published, while the Saturday saw Sophie Hannah in discussion with Mathew Prichard on ‘125 Years of Agatha Christie’.

    We were thrilled to mingle in the hotel’s elegant foyer with some of today’s most prestigious and successful crime authors (including Frances Brody speaking onThe Chief Constable Who Became Director-General of MI5’, and Manda Scott discussing Cyber Crime), and we highly recommend the convention to all fans of crime writing, be it noir, cosy mysteries, thrillers, true crime or, of course, historical crime fiction.

    With so many panels and spotlight talks to choose from and a fine selection of titles available to buy from Goldsboro Books we found that the day flew by, and all too soon it was time to leave with our goody bags and newly purchased T-shirts, but not before a meeting with Martin Edwards, editor of the new CWA anthology Truly Criminal, coffee with lovely literary agent Jane Conway-Gordon, and lunch with the delightful Kim Fleet, author of the Cheltenham-based time-slip novel Paternoster, having persuaded them all to send us more super submissions!

    Linda Stratmann described the convention as a saucepan of bubbling soup – nourishing – and she was right. We look forward to CrimeFest 2016: where the pen is bloodier than the sword!

    Don't forget to follow 
    The Mystery Press on Twitter for more articles, news, offers and competitions.

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  • 05/22/15--01:50: The Friday Digest 22/05/15
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features extraordinary objects from the Battle of Waterloo, shrinking swimsuits and cyber archaeology.

    News travels slow … T Fielding’s engraving of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Photograph: Hulton Getty

    The Battle of Waterloo, and not a single reporter in sight ... 

    A cannonball tore through cavalryman François Fauveau’s armour

    * Twenty-five extraordinary objects from the Battle of Waterloo



    * The tourists who rode tanks up the Alps as part of a secret First World War mission

    Did you know that in 1918 a pigeon, Cher Ami, managed to save 500 US soldiers? You might think twice before running away from them now! Photograph: Hulton Archive Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive

    * The top ten facts you didn't know about the First World War

     This is the Platonic image of Joan: a snug red sheath topped by her signature pen necklace.

    * The best looks from Mad Men’s entire run.

    Archive swimwear design by Oleg Cassini, for R and W H Symington

    * How male and female bathing suits got smaller and smaller ...


    Treasure hunter Rubén Collado stands in front of a model of the British 64-cannon ship Lord Clive in Colonia del Sacramento, 188km west of Montevideo. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

    * A British shipwreck off Uruguay coast could hold treasure worth millions. Salvage of Lord Clive, sunk by Spanish guns in the River Plate in 1763, is due to begin in the next few months. 

    A bushman from the Khomani San community strikes a traditional pose in the Southern Kalahari desert on 16 October 2009 in the Kalahari, South Africa

    * A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes men and women tend to hold equal standing and influence, suggesting that sexual equality was the norm for humans throughout most of our evolutionary history.  

    A mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex Photo: Alamy


    * The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, according to one historian, but do you agree?  

    Portrait of Mary I, 1554. Found in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

    * Mary I’s phantom pregnancy

    Ten days after arriving at the Cape we arrive at our final destination - Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe


    Following in the footsteps of Edgar Wallace, the creator of King Kong, across southern Africa ...

    Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte. Original Artwork: Painting by their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte, circa 1834


    A drama about the 'tragedy and passion' of the difficult lives of the Bronte family is planned to appear on BBC One.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, at Buckingham Palace on 15 May 1860


    The life of Queen Victoria is to be dramatised on ITV, starting with her ascension to the throne aged 18.


    'Cyber-archaeology' salvages lost Iraqi art 

    * 'Cyber-archaeology' salvages lost Iraqi art

    First-class in flight service equalled anything that could be found on the ground as jet aircraft were introduced to the fleet

    Air New Zealand's photo archive reveals golden age of travel as the airline celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary.  

    Audrey Hepburn after the liberation of Holland by an unknown photographer, 1946. Photograph: Family of Audrey Hepburn/NPG

    * Breakfast at Audrey's: the Hepburn family photo album unlocked

    Brain Surgery's Earliest Patients

    * A look at brain surgery's earliest patients

    Fracture of mandible (1886)


    * Seven horrifying workplace injuries that will make you glad that you're not Victorian. (WARNING: not for the faint-hearted) 

    Rome, Italy --- View of Roman Sculpture at the Centrale Montemartini Photograph: Massimo Listri/Corbis


    * Ten of the best museums in Europe that you’ve probably never heard of  ... 

    'True face of Shakespeare' appears in botany book


    * Does the 'true face of Shakespeare' appear in this botany book

    sutherland literature featured 2


    * 1922: the year that changed everything in literature ... 

    Roald Dahl | The Twits


    * How well do you know these Roald Dahl characters 


    * The gender gap has widened once again for children reading for pleasure

    books every woman

    * Twenty-one books from the last five years that every woman should read

    Jeff Eliassen/Getty Images


    * In a mother’s library, bound in spirit and in print

    * What's the most beautiful paragraph or sentence you've ever read


    * Minimalist graphic design posters depicting obscure, underused and complex words

    Stunning Disney Character Transformations from Concept Art to Final Frame


    * Stunning Disney character transformations, from concept art to final frame.  

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    Enfield mentioned on the Daily Mirror front page Saturday 10 September 1977 

    The evolution of supernatural drama out of paranormal reality is an unpredictable affair. Some cases give birth to fully formed entertainment almost immediately, while for others the gestation period is much longer. American writer Jay Anson’s controversial account of
    The Amityville Horror, published in September 1977, enjoyed big screen treatment less than two years after publication.  Conversely, as a student at Georgetown University in 1949, future screenwriter William Blatty was well aware of contemporary reports of strange happenings in a house in Prince George’s County, Maryland, but it was over twenty years before he took the case of the Cottage City Poltergeist and crafted from it his ground-breaking masterwork, The Exorcist (1971). A number of British cases have similar histories.

    Following major publicity by controversial ghost hunter Harry Price in the 1940s, Borley Rectory, famously cited as ‘the most haunted house in England’, was quickly optioned for post-war cinema in 1947, but a script prepared from Price’s books by author Upton Sinclair ultimately came to nothing. The ensuing years have been peppered with various Borley-related radio broadcasts and small screen docu-dramas, but it has taken an incredible seventy years for filmmaker’s to finally get their teeth into the rectory haunting: currently no less than three Borley films are in various stages of production – Borley Rectory (dir. Ashley Thorpe), The Haunting of Borley Rectory (dir. Anthony Hickox), and The Rectory (dir. Jonathan Chance) – proving that like the buses, following a long wait, the Borley ghosts all come at once.

    The entertainment value of two important British poltergeist hauntings has, until very recently, also escaped the attention of film and television writers and directors.

    The case of the Black Monk of Pontefract took place in an ordinary suburban house in West Yorkshire between September 1966 and May 1969, and was centred around two teenage children, initially fifteen-year-old Philip Pritchard and subsequently, and with far greater strength and menace, his twelve-year-old sister, Diane. During the course of several months, the Pritchard family bore the brunt of many inexplicable, violent and ultimately terrifying events: crockery and household ornaments were thrown and smashed, pools of water appeared on the kitchen floor, immense crashing noises shook the building, and a strange white dust drifted down from the ceiling covering the furniture. A tall unidentified apparition, dressed in black and with no discernible face, said to be the ghost of a long-dead sixteenth century monk from the nearby site of a now vanished Cluniac monastery, was seen inside the house, while Diane Pritchard was at one point physically dragged up the stairs as if by an invisible assailant.

    Like many poltergeist incidents, the curious and violent Pontefract haunting ceased as suddenly and mysteriously as it began. Recognition of the case and subsequent dramatisation has been slow in the making. In 1981, the late Colin Wilson carried out an extensive retrospective investigation, published as part of his book Poltergeist!, on which practically all subsequent accounts of the case have been based. It was not until 2012, thirty years after Wilson’s study, that the case of the Black Monk finally reached the big screen. When the Lights Went Out, a British supernatural drama directed by Pat Holden and based on the events at East Drive, Pontefract, premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January 2012 and was released to DVD the following year.

    Unlike the Black Monk of Pontefract, which received only small scale local newspaper coverage at the time, the Enfield Poltergeist, arguably the most well-known British paranormal case of modern times, made national headlines right from the very start, courtesy of reporters and a photographer from the Daily Mirror. Beginning on 30 August 1977, a fortnight after the death of rock and roll legend Elvis Presley, the home of the Hodgson family – Peggy Hodgson, a single parent and her four children, thirteen-year-old Rose, eleven-year-old Janet, Peter aged ten, and his seven-year-old brother Jimmy – became the centre of a year-long paranormal investigation featuring members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), a long established organisation whose origins date from the heyday of Victorian Spiritualism in the early 1880s. Maurice Grosse, a successful businessman and inventor, together with Guy Playfair, a freelance author and translator, spent many weeks at the house in Green Lane, Enfield. The results of their investigation, complete with lurid accounts of paranormal levitations, spontaneous fires, spirit possessions and smashed furniture, met with instant controversy when published by Playfair as This House is Haunted in 1980.

    Surprisingly it has taken thirty-five years for these events to receive suitably dramatic treatment, courtesy of writer Joshua St Johnston and director Kristoffer Nyholm, whose small screen adaptation The Enfield Haunting, awash with 70s nostalgia and starring Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadyen as Grosse and Playfair, is currently playing with much success on the Sky Living channel. Paranormal purists may question the accuracy of St Johnston’s script, but ultimately this, like any other ghostly drama, flourishes on the very nature of the paranormal which gave itself to exploitation even before Shakespeare’s times. It was after all the great Harry Price himself who said the public prefer ‘the bunk to the de-bunk’.

     Extreme Hauntings


    Paul Adams is one of the authors of Extreme Hauntings: Britain's Most Terrifying Ghosts, a unique and original compilation of spine-chilling true encounters both ancient and modern. Not for the faint of heart, this book contains over thirty compelling experiences that reveal a dark and disturbing reality to the realm of the paranormal – deadly curses and murderous ghosts, violent poltergeists, haunted relics and spirit possession – all unsettling insights into a frightening supernatural world. From the mysterious happenings at Hinton Ampner to the eerie Black Monk of Pontefract, the celebrated Enfield Poltergeist and the sinister power of the Hexham Heads, paranormal historian Paul Adams and writer and photographer Eddie Brazil have opened case files spanning over 250 years, from the eighteenth century to the present day, in order to carry out a detailed and chilling examination of the extreme hauntings of Britain.

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    Poppy, photo Mike Philpott

    Photo: Mark Philpott


    In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place: and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders' fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe;
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high,
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders' Fields.


    During the First World War (1914–1918) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe. Previously beautiful countryside was blasted, bombed and fought over, again and again. The landscape swiftly turned to fields of mud, bleak and barren scenes where little or nothing could grow.

    Bright red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) however, were delicate but resilient flowers and grew in their thousands, flourishing even in the middle of chaos and destruction. In the spring of 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle scared fields, to write a now famous poem called In Flanders Fields. After the First World War, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of Remembrance.

    Every year in the United Kingdom, in October and running into November, a distinctive accessory is attached to the clothing of millions of people. This accessory is unusual in that it isn’t about fashion, nor is it purely about fundraising (although this is a major part of the rationale behind its distribution). Instead, it is a very visible national act of commemoration.

    It is the Remembrance Poppy.

    John McCrae

    Both a solider and a doctor, John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and fought in the Boer War. When Britain declared war on Germany McCrae was appointed as a field-surgeon in the Canadian Artillery. He was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres, a period that saw some of the most brutal fighting on the Western front.

    Lt Alex Helmer, a close friend of McCrae's, was one of the casualties and it was his death that inspired the poem In Flanders Field. Written on 3 May 1915, McCrae submitted the poem to The Spectator, who declined it, and then to Punch, who published it in December 1915.

    McCrae’s poem in turn inspired an American academic, Moina Michael to make sell red silk poppies which were then brought to England by a French lady, Anna Guérin. The (Royal) British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of the poppies which were sold on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever 'Poppy Appeal' raised over £106,000, a considerable amount of money at the time, which was used to help WW1 veterans with employment, housing etc.

    The following year, Major George Howson who had received the Military Cross for his role in the First World War, set up the Poppy Factory to employ disabled ex-Servicemen and which today, together with the Legion's warehouse in Aylesford, produces millions of poppies each year.

    The demand for poppies in England was so high that few were reaching Scotland. Earl Haig's wife established the 'Lady Haig Poppy Factory' in Edinburgh in 1926 to produce poppies exclusively for Scotland. Over 5 million Scottish poppies (which have four petals and no leaf unlike poppies in the rest of the UK) are still made by hand by disabled ex-Servicemen at Lady Haig's Poppy Factory each year and distributed by our sister charity Poppyscotland.

    'This book will provide you with an understanding of the history of the Poppy and its significance as a unique and enduring symbol' - Vice Admiral Peter Wilkinson, CB, CVO, National President, The Royal British Legion. For more information please visit The Royal British Legion.

    The Book of the Poppy


    The History Press are celebrating the history of the poppy by supporting The Royal British Legion through the sale of The book of the Poppy.. £1 from the sale of this book and a minimum of 50p from the sale of this ebook will be paid to Royal British Legion Trading Limited (Company no. 4783730 registered in England and Wales) which gives its taxable profits to The Royal British Legion (Charity no. 219279)” and Poppy Scotland (Scottish Charity No. SC014096)

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    A Botswana based Tiger Moth, the type Gordon learned to fly in

    In a conflict that claimed the lives of more than half a million young servicemen from every corner of the commonwealth, very few individual deaths in the Second World War merited worldwide media coverage.

    The murders of Gordon Edwards and Walter Adamson created a press sensation in 1944. The two sergeant pilots were undergoing training as part of the Rhodesian Air Training Group when they disappeared on a routine cross-country sortie at the beginning of October 1943. When their abandoned aircraft was found intact and unharmed on a salt pan, hundreds of miles off course over the border in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the mystery deepened. Over the next few months the bizarre tale of their gruesome fate at the hands of a hunting party of Bushmen slowly emerged – leading to a trial that captured the imagination of the world’s newspapers and, over time, a thick file in the national archives both in Botswana and the UK.

    Given the exposure at the time it is slightly surprising that the story has largely been forgotten, even in Botswana. The seventieth anniversary of the end of the war in Europe is, perhaps, a good time not only to tell the full story of the murders but also the roles that Rhodesia and Bechuanaland played in conflict.

    Despite being one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Empire, Bechuanaland supplied ten thousand troops to the British Army out of a population of just over a quarter of a million. These soldiers served throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean as drivers, mechanics, gunners, and smoke makers. Today, it is hard to imagine the effect on these young men of the transition from life on the edge of the Kalahari to being part of one of the most technological advanced forces the world had seen.  Yet when they returned home the majority of the Batswana volunteers slipped back into village life and were largely forgotten. Only recently have their contributions received the recognition deserved, with the British High Commission now hosting Remembrance Day dinners for the surviving veterans.

    Left: Botswana veterans at Remembrance Day 2014. Right: Gordon Edwards

    The exploits of Rhodesian and South African soldiers and airmen are much better recognised. However, the impact these countries made as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme is less well known. In Rhodesia alone more than ten thousand pilots gained their ‘wings’ during the war. While the training syllabus was the same as that used in the UK, the cloud free skies and un-rationed food made the experience a much more enjoyable one. The only shadow was the relationship between the black and white communities, one reason the Batswana volunteers refused to serve with the South African forces.

    The Kalahari Killings looks at the above contributions in some detail, but it also follows the life of Gordon Edwards, who before being posted for flying training had an interesting career in the RAF. The highlight of this was being a founding member of 151 Wing, the unit formed under direct orders from Churchill to provide RAF fighters to Russia in the Murmansk region. Here he taught his Russian counterparts everything he knew about servicing the Hurricanes that they would hand over to their new allies. From there, postings took him to Northern Ireland and Egypt before he got his wish to learn to fly in Bulawayo. Gordon was still only twenty-two when he took off on his final flight.

    Although the tale of the murders is a (hopefully!) riveting story, with its elements of mystery, magic, and dismemberment, The Kalahari Killings should also give the reader a better understanding of life in Bechuanaland in the middle of the last century. The issues described and many of the characters involved went on to influence the development of Botswana when it gained independence in 1966. Botswana went on to be a very successful sea of tranquillity in a region that would be dominated by racial politics for several more decades, yet the issue of how to deal with the ‘Bushmen’ has never been fully solved.

    Jonathan Laverick is the author of The Kalahari Killings. He is a Director at Botswana’s leading school, Maru-a-Pula and has lived in Botswana for 15 years. His father was in the RAF, leading to a lifelong passion for aviation. This is currently expressed through his painting. Research for his paintings has led to several articles being published, such as one on Operation Pontifex, the RAF’s mapping of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia in the 1960s.

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    When doing any type of genealogy it is important to put your ancestors life’s into context for example by looking at the politics and social issues of the times.  The first major changes in the twentieth century were the Liberal reforms that began in 1906, under the guidance of Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman as well as his successor after his death in 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith. Their main aim was to address the issue of poverty which had been made apparent after two poverty studies conducted by Charles Booth in London and Seebohm Rowntree in York. Astonishingly, both studies concluded a third of the population were living below the poverty line.

    These changes would have had a big impact on your family; for poorer families it may have helped them survive, whereas rich families disagreed with the reforms and will have lost money in the higher taxation.


    1906 Free School Meals Act

    * Not all local authorities took part in the act – it was a permissive act.

    * Over 180,000 ‘needy’ children were provided with free school meals to help their concentration levels and to help them learn more effectively.

    * In 1914, over 14 million free school meals were being provided despite only ½ of the local authorities providing the meals.


    1907 School Medical Inspections Act

    Set up the School Medical Service.

    Established the medical department in the Board of Education

    Made health checks compulsory for children at school

    * In 1914, three out of four LEAs were providing the checks and two out of three children were given treatment.

    Not everyone was given treatment, mainly due to the prohibitive cost.

    1908 Children's Act (or Charter)

    Made parental neglect illegal, by making them responsible for the child's welfare.

    Set up borstals and juvenile courts for young offenders.

    Made it illegal for children to be sold alcohol or tobacco.

    Most of the legislation was already in place - the bulk of it was simply re-written.

    The reform ensured at least a minimum standard for children's care and a
    llowed adults and children to be treated differently

    1908 Old Age Pensions Act

    Provided a pension of 5 shillings a week for singles and 7s and 6d a week for married couples.

    Full payment was approximately £21-£31 a week.

    Paid out of general taxation, not by recipient contributions.

    Provided a regular income for those who qualified – examples of conditions were being over 70 and ‘of good character’.

    * There were approximately 1 million people qualifying by 1915 with m
    ore women eligible than men

    1909 Trade Boards Act

    Boards were set up to improve the working lives of employers and employees by introducing fixed minimum wages and setting minimum working conditions

    Initially covered 200,000 mostly women workers in trades such as tailoring and lace-making where there were long hours, low wages and no trade unions

    By 1913, this was extended to 6 trades and included coal miners

    The reform was continued in a second act where further trade boards were set up

    1909 Labour Exchanges Act

    * Set up places where workers could look for a job and meet employers and vice versa

    By 1914, over 2 million workers had registered and 430 exchanges were finding over 3,000 jobs a day

    It was estimated that for every worker who found a job, 3 didn’t

    Also didn't cure the unemployment problem and merely made the market easier to operate

    1911 National Insurance (Unemployment) Act

    Workers and employers in certain trades gave a weekly contribution to a national insurance fund which was topped-up by taxation

    Enabled workers to receive a weekly benefit if they became unemployed

    It covered 2.25 million workers and gave a weekly benefit of 7 shillings a week for 15 weeks giving families a regular income to avoid destitution

    Only applied to ‘insured trades’ where there was regular or seasonal unemployment i.e. shipbuilding

    Most workers were also not covered and had to rely on their own savings

    1911 National Insurance (Sickness) Act

    Workers and employers gave a weekly contribution to a national fund which was topped-up by taxation

    Covered 13 million people

    Paid out a weekly benefit of 10 shillings a week for 13 weeks followed by 5 shillings a week for a further 13 weeks

    No more benefit could be claimed after the 26 week/6 month period

    Also available: maternity grants, a disability benefit and free medical treatment with an approved doctor available.

    Only covered workers earning below £160 pa and only covered people aged 16-60, leaving a gap of 10 years before the old age pension could be claimed

    It also only covered the contributor and not the whole family

    1911 Shops Act

    Provided a weekly half-day holiday for workers and introduced a maximum working week, limited to 60 hours

    Washing facilities in shops were also introduced

    However, employers could make up the ‘lost time’ with longer hours on other days

    1908 & 1911 Coal Mines Acts

    Fixed the length of a working day underground to 8 hours

    Improved safety regulations but still a dangerous occupation with long hours and low pay

    Also didn’t take into account the time it would take to get to the mines


    For more information on how history and genealogy are linked and are fun go to our new website, Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @FamilyHis4Begin

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  • 05/28/15--02:00: Lusitania remembered
  • The History Press author Chris Frame recently sailed aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria as a keynote speaker during a very special anniversary for the RMS Lusitania. 

     Cunard's Queen Victoria

    7 May 2015 was a significant date in the history of shipping. 100 years ago that day the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk off the Irish coast. Struck by a German torpedo the Cunard ship, which was carrying passengers, founded in eighteen minutes. The disaster forever changed the face of modern warfare and had serious and lasting ramifications on both sides of the First World War.

    To commemorate this tragedy, Cunard’s Queen Victoria called at Cobh, Ireland. It was here that one of the rescue parties went out to save the survivors of the disaster. I sailed aboard this voyage as a maritime speaker and presented two talks about Cunard and the Lusitania. There were many other Lusitania experts aboard (including fellow author Eric Sauder). The ship also carried many relatives of those who had died aboard the Lusitania. It was very moving to meet these people and hear their stories. It added to the significance of the event to have these family members present.

    On 7 May we awoke at 3:15am. At exactly 3:30am the ship sailed slowly and respectfully over the wreck of the LusitaniaQueen Victoria’s master, Commodore Christopher Rynd, made a touching speech at the ship’s rail; before relatives of those who perished threw wreaths and roses into the sea as a mark of respect. A video of this is available here 

    Several hours later, we were alongside in Cobh. A day of commemoration followed. At noon, President Higgins of Ireland met with Cunard’s Chairman and Commodore Christopher Rynd at the Lusitania memorial in the centre of Cobh.  

    The Lusitania Memorial

    President Higgins inspected the guard of honour before moving to the stage near the pier. At the podium, and with the full attention of thousands of attendees, he made an impassioned speech about the importance of peace in our world. Commodore Rynd later recited a letter from a survivor of the Lusitania disaster - it brought to life the horrors those aboard faced. 

    At exactly 2:10pm - the time the torpedo struck the ship - Queen Victoria's whistle sounded. Eighteen minutes later, to mark the moment the ship founded - it sounded again. It struck me, and all in the audience how quickly eighteen minutes had passed. In that time, one of the greatest and largest ships the world has ever known was gone, and the lives of all those aboard were changed forever.

    White Star Cunard flag

    After the ceremony, President Higgins along with ambassadors from Britain, America and Germany laid wreaths at the memorial as a sign of respect to the victims of the Lusitania. Later that evening, Queen Victoria's passengers witnessed a touching light parade aboard a flotilla of local boats. We then set sail for Dublin.  

    'Lusitania Remembered' was a touching and significant event in the history of Cunard, and one that all of us aboard will not soon forget. Learn more about Lusitania here:


    Lost to a German torpedo on 7 May 1915, Cunard’s RMS Lusitania captured the world’s imagination when she entered service in 1907. Not only was she was the largest ship in the world, but she was also revolutionary in design as well as being a record breaker. Lusitania is now sadly remembered for her tragic destruction, sinking in eighteen minutes with the loss of around 1200 souls.

    Chris Frame, along with Rachelle Cross, is the author of  175 Years of Cunard and many other titles on classic liners.

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  • 05/29/15--03:00: The Friday Digest 29/05/15
  • THP Friday digest

    This week's update features five hundred new fairytales, an unexploded 110lb Second World War bomb and eighteen charming British villages you must see before you die ... 


    Anita Dobson as Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC's Armada. ‘Streaked with white and red makeup, Anita Dobson resembled nothing so much as Heath Ledger’s Joker.’ Photograph: Mark Edger/BBC


    Why is Elizabeth I, the most powerful woman in our history, always depicted as a grotesque?

    The Spanish Armada, 1588. © North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy

    * Ten things you (probably) didn’t know about the Spanish Armada ... 


    Elizabeth Woodville (1437–1492) in 1463. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)


    Eight surprising facts about the Woodville family


     'After 500 years, the statute of sycophantic limitations is up on Henry VIII.' Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall. Photograph: Giles Keyte/BBC/Company Productions Ltd

    Why do television writers fawn over royalty?  

    Revealed: 20 great Manchester women on shortlist to be immortalised as city centre statue


    * Twenty great Manchester women are on a shortlist to be immortalised as a city centre statue but who will you vote for?  

    Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales. Flickr: pagel / Creative Commons

    * Eighteen charming British villages you must see before you die ... 

    An army bomb disposal expert inspects an unexploded second world war bomb found in Wembley, north London. Photograph: Sergeant Rupert Frere/AP

    * An unexploded 110lb Second World War bomb found near Wembley Stadium by builders was described as 'a genuine risk to life' by the army. It has now been detonated safely by the army at a secret location

    Loss of the Unesco world heritage site would be ‘an enormous loss to humanity’, the UN’s cultural organisation has said


    * Stunning images of the ancient city of Palmyra before its capture by Islamic State

    How far did Frodo & Sam actually walk? Image by mattsawizard at

    * How far did Frodo and Sam actually walk?  

    Saddleback mountain on AT

    * The fugitive who hid in plain sight along the Appalachian trail

    John Nash and Russell Crowe

    Beautiful Mind mathematician John Nash was killed in a car crash this week

    Mozart and lock of his hair

    * A piece of Mozart's hair up for auction at Sotheby's is expected to fetch £10,000

    The Inn at Waterloo where Wellington had his headquarters the night before the Battle.

    * Wellington and the night before the Battle of Waterloo.

    The cast of Corporal John Shaw’s skull known as Wellington's favourite soldier 

    * A stuffed steed, the skull of Wellington's bravest soldier and Napoleon's breakfast plate  extraordinary objects from the Battle of Waterloo

    Baby Peggy in Carmen, 1923.

    * 'I spent most of my life as a nobody': the last of the silent movie stars

    The Best Movie Sets Ever Built, Ranked

    * A ranking of the best movie sets ever built.  

    speakerscorner 9c) Philip Wolmuth

    * Are the arts the new frontier for freedom of speech

    By 1838, humans had made their first appearance on film - an event followed by the first selfie, which was the work of American photographer Robert Cornelius and taken in 1839


    * Amazing images reveal historic moments captured by cameras

    Marilyn Monroe

    * Prints from Marilyn Monroe's poignant final photoshoot are to be auctioned off in London

    Researchers believe, however, that the remains of King Henry I may indeed lie beneath a car park in Reading

    * Forget Richard III, we might have buried another king under a car park ... 

    Left: Botswana veterans at Remembrance Day 2014. Right: Gordon Edwards


    * The true story of a wartime double murder: the extraordinary case of two British pilots in Botswana, 1943.  

    King Golden Hair, one of the newly-discovered fairytales PR

    * Five hundred new fairytales have been discovered in Germany. The collection, gathered by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, had been locked away in an archive in Regensburg for over 150 years

    Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson get passionate in Sense and Sensibility. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures


    Secret Regency snogs: a guide to furtive love (and other naughty bits) in Jane Austen.

    Margaret Atwood

    * Margaret Atwood has become the first of 100 authors to submit work to a project called the 'Future Library'. The project will see one work of fiction from a different writer being added to a collection each year, until they are all published in 2114.

    Emily and Felicity Blunt share their favourite books


    Which book would you give to a woman you love?

    Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith), Stephanie Merritt (SJ Parris)

    What's in a name? The power of the anonymous author


    * Twenty-nine breathtaking tattoos inspired by books

    The most beautiful lines ever written

    * The most beautiful lines ever written ... 


    Penguin books

    Penguin Random House are said to be in a contract dispute with Amazon

    Amazon package

    Amazon is changing the way it records sales in a move that could see it paying more tax.

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